Van Toffler Says Life in Digital After MTV Is "Scary as Hell"

Getty Images
Van Toffler

The Gunpowder & Sky co-founder sees big parallels between MTV's early music video years and today's unfolding digital media landscape.

Van Toffler in 2015 surprised the industry when he left MTV after a legendary 28-year run before last year co-founding the digital studio Gunpowder & Sky with former Endemol exec Floris Bauer.

But now that he's back making edgy content with young, savvy creators, Toffler says today's emerging digital media business in many ways mirrors MTV's early music video years. "We just felt, let's make programming and the audience will follow and the knowledge will follow, and there's a parallel to what's happening with digital as well," Toffler on Friday said of his early MTV years during a keynote address to the Prime Time conference in Ottawa.

"It's scary as hell," the Gunpowder & Sky CEO added about running a digital studio that targets cord-cutting millennials after introducing the world to Jersey Shore and Beavis & Butthead. But digital does have advantages.

Unlike MTV's musical roots when early Nielsen ratings never allowed you to drill down to your target audience, today you know who's watching what, and where, online. "When you make a show for Facebook, YouTube or Netflix, you have data on how to customize for those audiences," Toffler said.

His digital studio is backed by The Chernin Group's and AT&T's Otter Media, and in the last year has launched projects like Draw & Recorded for Spotify, while also acquiring sales and distribution company FilmBuff and more recently the digital studio Supergravity Pictures.

Toffler said he left Viacom because, like MTV in its early days, he sees in digital "limitless opportunity." And big media companies, less comfortable with an unclear path to profitability, have good reason to be wary.

"With Viacom and other big companies, I understand on a logical level that I was asking them to invest in new brands on new platforms, and for big media companies, it potentially jeopardized the billions of dollars they got from cable operators, from Comcast and others," Toffler explained.

Now at Gunpowder & Sky, Toffler focuses on shortform, scalable content that can be launched online, on Snapchat or Facebook, and that then can possibly become 30-, 60- and 90-minute versions for distribution elsewhere.

"These are early days, and we're, I believe, an early mover, and we're learning. The more time we spend with YouTube, and Amazon and AT&T and Verizon, we learn what works for them and we can start to develop against some of their needs," Toffler said.

And he's keen on Snapchat as the ephemeral messaging app plans an IPO, not least because it's far more forgiving than TV. "You can screw up and it disappears. Your blemishes don't exist forever. You can't really make much money on it, but you can put stuff out there for young people and it's a great backdoor for pilots," he said.