Producer Michael Shamberg Wants to "Invent the Future" With BuzzFeed Motion Pictures

Michael Shamberg Headshot - P 2014
AP Images

Michael Shamberg Headshot - P 2014

The 'Pulp Fiction' producer says "opportunity and risk go hand-in-hand"

How do GIFs and cat videos translate into feature-length films?

Michael Shamberg has joined BuzzFeed to figure that out. The viral content publisher has tapped the Pulp Fiction producer to advise its newly created BuzzFeed Motion Pictures on projects that could eventually make their way to a television or big screen.

In an exclusive sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter, Shamberg explains that it’s the ability to test new kinds of content that has him excited about the role. “You work in film and TV and the business model is chiseled in stone,” he adds. “Here, it’s all an experiment to find out what the future is. And what’s more exiting than feeling like you actually have a chance to invent the future?”

BFMP is part of a larger experiment at New York-based BuzzFeed to expand beyond its listicles into a media powerhouse worth $850 million, according to a report in The New York Times. Spurred on by a $50 million cash infusion, CEO Jonah Peretti announced Aug. 11 that he would not only ramp up BuzzFeed’s video operations but also grow its editorial team, branded content division and international presence.

BFMP will consist of three divisions: BuzzFeed Video for short-form content, BuzzFeed Live Development for mid-length serialized projects and Future of Fiction for developing long-form film, television and transmedia efforts. The company plans to use its short- and mid-length videos to create characters, develop plots and test casting with online audiences. Projects with potential could move into full-length series or films.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a Hollywood R&D model like we have here,” says Shamberg, who has been spending about two days a week at BuzzFeed’s 100-plus-person Hollywood campus.

BFMP is hiring in-house writers and building a soundstage with fixed sets to keep development costs down. But the studio also plans to invest in projects with established Hollywood players. “That’s where Michael comes in,” notes BFMP president Ze Frank.

But Shamberg will be more involved than just acting as a liaison to Hollywood. “We sit on opposite sides of the business, but it immediately became apparent that the way that Michael thinks about media overall is very experimental,” says Frank, adding that Shamberg “has so much depth and insight into the traditional business but is also really interested in the ways that both development and distribution are changing right now.”

Shamberg, whose credits include Django Unchained and Erin Brockovich, and Frank, a vlogging pioneer who joined BuzzFeed in 2012, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter on Monday to discuss the opportunity they see in digital video and explain why Hollywood is more risky than a startup.

Where did the idea for BuzzFeed Motion Pictures come from?

Frank: BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is a pretty multifaceted entity. I think the best way to explain it is that the motion picture business is consumed differently than other web content, so it made sense to encapsulate that business. Michael has taken a very forward role, both in the conceptualization of this and its execution. As we start to use what we’ve learned in this content ecosystem, it really makes sense for us to collaborate with the very best people. That’s where Michael comes in. He can broker relationships to people that have really perfected the craft of dialogue and character development, who spend their entire life thinking about genre and its implication.

Shamberg: When we develop stuff here, then we can upstream it to movies and TV. It’s a real opportunity for talent and it’s a real opportunity to complement the studio system.

Why would a creator take a project to BuzzFeed?

Shamberg: Talent is always looking to express themselves. The most successful writers, for example, maybe 5 percent of their scripts get produced. We’re not going to be hearing pitches and saying “yes” or “no.” Anybody who comes in, they’ll get to try something. Right now, if you’re writing scripts or you’re looking at TV shows, yes you can make a living off of that. But for a fraction of your time, you can come in and experiment and have fun and discover new ways of doing stuff. And if that stuff becomes worth something, then you share it with us, you don’t get down below somebody else’s profit definition. You can have a director who’s always had an idea come in and we can try it out. I don’t think there’s ever been a Hollywood R&D model like we have here.

What excites you creatively about the online video space?

Shamberg: I’ve had the most success in my career where something was both fresh and commercial. Here I think we can aim for both. We’re going to do stuff that nobody has done before, but it’s also going to be commercial.

The BuzzFeed Motion Pictures campus in Hollywood

What’s the appeal for BuzzFeed about going long-form?

Frank: The different forms of content, whether it be length or format or genre, imply different areas to learn and grow. It’s a different way of thinking about how you make that content and how you release it. We’ve grown to a size where there’s a lot of really amazing possibilities to really advance on some of these forms. In the beginning, focusing on short-form was great because it taught us so much, but it’s time to really look at the big picture.

What does a BuzzFeed movie or TV show look like?

Shamberg: There are a lot of things that you can incubate using this system. The stuff BuzzFeed’s doing now with these really relatable characters is based on traits that people relate to. But that’s a question you should be asking in three to six months.

Frank: We’re not saying that we’re going to reinvent the wheel in terms of the final end product. We’re definitely going to be making some serious advancements in the process by which those end products are made, but I think it can really be anything. That’s what I’m really excited about. We’re committed to this kind of fixed model — putting everything under one roof, having production space here, having people in-house that are talented in post-production, editing and writing. We’re going to have living sets. So some of the content is going to grow into that space and come out of that space. Some of it is going come out of the folks that we collaborate with and what their interests are.

What types of projects are you working on?

Frank: I don’t think that we’re really prepared to talk about it. I can tell you that we have already been doing a good amount of testing and learning in the short-form business, so a lot of the videos that people really love right now — including the ones around the Creep and moving back home with your parents — are part of a broader test. So we’re doing casting within those, we’re testing some initial premises, all in the service of fleshing out more complex series.

Shamberg: I’m now reaching out to filmmakers I’ve been lucky enough to work with and inviting them in and seeing what we can come up with. So that’s kind of my starting point. I know great stuff’s going to come in.

What’s your budget for these projects?

Frank: Well, the budgets are really determined by the business model. One of the things that’s shifting right now, and one of the areas that we’re really interested in working on, is that movies and television shows are almost like mini-startups at this point, and they usually have to manufacture most of their marketing in the opening launch. The development cycles are currently wasteful. We believe that we can help make some gains in bringing the overall cost down in development and in distribution, because obviously we have a big distribution. 

Shamberg: I think the cost structure will be pretty economical at the beginning, but with production value. And then if stuff’s working we’ll start to spend more for it. But the lower you keep the costs down, the more stuff you can try.

More than 100 employees work in the converted yoga studio

Venture-backed startups are risky businesses; are you worried this may not be a successful business in a year or two?

Shamberg: Every time I make a movie I believe it’s going to be a hit. I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong. But you go into it with the passion thinking it’s going to work.

Frank: I don’t think there’s a riskier venture-backed business than Hollywood. Hollywood puts us to shame. People’s careers live or die by a single decision. Michael’s been through the ringer.

Shamberg: Opportunity and risk go hand-in-hand. So if you’re not willing to take the risk, then you really have to forgo the opportunity. Frankly, at this point in my career it’s not even something I think about. I don’t like to lose money for studios. I love making money for them and myself, but you have to go into it feeling creatively that you’ve done your best.

How do you envision these Hollywood collaborations working?

Shamberg: We’d agree that we’re going to make some version [of what they write]. They wouldn’t be writing it on spec. I want to get out of the pitching/rejection model. At this point in our growth if we’re just rejecters we’re going to shut ourselves down. We’re willing to take chances. Anybody who wants to do an idea we’ve agreed upon, or they’ll bring us an idea, we’re pretty much saying we’ll do what you want.

Frank: In addition to that we’re going to be bringing a good amount of writers on staff. A lot of times experimentation can sound like it has a degree of randomness to it. But the way that we work here is that we really move down lines of assumption and keep testing it. The same thing has to be true as we start thinking about character development and genre development. That part of it is particularly exciting to me.

How does BuzzFeed Motion Pictures fit into the larger BuzzFeed organization?

Frank: BuzzFeed has a very robust data science development products team. The products that our producers use to understand the success of their video and what people are saying about their content, that’s all in very tight collaboration with our technology teams both here in the office but also in New York. I mentioned the outward-facing residency, but we also have an internal-facing residency. So our editors from lifestyle and entertainment and news come here and do residencies within our teams and we learn a ton from the existing company.

How much autonomy do you have?

Frank: It is pretty autonomous. We run these like startups. Jonah has been very committed early on to try to make sure that people can grow, grow quickly and can make decisions on their own and don’t get too mired in bureaucratic decision making.

Twitter: @NatJarv