MIPTV: How BuzzFeed Plans to Scale Video Development

Ze Frank - P 2015
AP Images/Invision

Ze Frank - P 2015

Hit videos "are great, but we're not dependent on our hits to get something moving, which means we have a lot of flexibility in testing out the future of distribution itself," BuzzFeed exec Ze Frank explained.

Social-sharing giant BuzzFeed doubled down on its film and video development division after a $50 million round of venture funding last year.

The company tapped YouTube creator Ze Frank to head up the division and brought in Oscar-nominated Erin Brockovich and Pulp Fiction producer Michael Shamberg to advise on projects. The two gave a keynote talk during MIPTV highlighting how they are taking on the Hollywood system.

Shamberg asserted that BuzzFeed's system of experimenting with shorts has created a default research and development team that no big studio can implement.

"The studios don't have the capacity to innovate at all because the amount of capital is so large and they move so slowly," he said, also noting that in the complex TV pilot system, one out of 100 scripts that go into development ultimately gets made.

"BuzzFeed is a big R&D lab. If you do a short-form video and the content's interesting, you do more on that content. If the character's interesting, you do more on that character. So we come into it from a content point of view, saying ‘What in the BuzzFeed universe of content is really engaging an audience and why? And how can you scale that out to 22 minutes for a television show or 100 minutes for a movie?'"

BuzzFeed can also tackle the distribution and marketing problems that face independent films, now. Shamberg noted that his film Freeheld, due out later this year and staring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Steve Carell, cost $7 million to make but will cost studio Lionsgate around $20 million to market.

"BuzzFeed has enormous reach. Is there some way with our content to add on, 'Hey, we're doing a movie!' And by the time we get to the starting line we already have an audience we can motivate to see the movie at a fraction of the cost, or maybe we release it partly online and partly in theaters. So it's a new way of generating content and a new cost structure," he said.

A new distribution model can mitigate the risk, Frank agreed, and the short-film-first model can help assess talent from actors to art directors before hiring them on for bigger projects.

"The great thing about our model is that we are able to scale our development business in a way that we don't need money. So hits are great, but we're not dependent on our hits to get something moving, which means we have a lot of flexibility in testing out the future of distribution itself. Everything is on the table," said Frank. 

"Stick around and we'll come up with something distinctive enough and you'll call it a hit, whatever that definition is," he said, predicting a future franchise or drama series.

Shamberg, also maintained that BFMP's projects will continue to be character — not data — driven.

"The unexplored categories of emotional content or identity-based content that have traditionally been underserved in media and represent a massive opportunity," said Frank. He noted videos on shyness, introversion and people who prefer to play Scrabble rather than party that have been particular hits.

"Identities have a lot of power to them, and we are using data to refine our lens on culture to identify topic buckets or genre buckets that can yield a lot of interest and affinity."

Added Shamberg: "Data is not quantitative, it's qualitative. If you know why people like something, that's more valuable than how many people like it."