BuzzFeed Shake-Up: Entertainment Chief Ze Frank Gets New Role in Reorganization (Exclusive)

Macey J Foronda for BuzzFeed
Ze Frank

The executive will retool a development partner program as the digital publisher largely disbands the Entertainment Group it formed in summer 2016.

BuzzFeed is overhauling the structure of its entertainment group and shifting the division’s top executive into a more creative role, part of a larger company-wide reorganization that began late last year to diversify the digital publisher’s businesses.

Ze Frank, a longtime BuzzFeed executive who for the last year and a half has overseen nearly all non-news efforts as president of the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group, is moving to the newly created role of chief research and development officer where he will lead a 12-person team that experiments with new video formats and emerging platforms. Frank will also continue to work on branded content initiatives for the company.

CEO Jonah Peretti announced the change in a memo to staff Wednesday, explaining that Frank’s new role will give him the mandate to “draw on expertise from other teams across the company on a project-basis.”

Frank is moving roles as BuzzFeed largely disbands the Entertainment Group it formed in summer 2016 to serve as an umbrella for all entertainment content, from shortform videos to the listicles and quizzes that first put BuzzFeed on the map. Peretti hinted at these changes in a memo to staff late last November when he revealed that BuzzFeed Motion Pictures would rebrand as BuzzFeed Studios to focus on film and television output under leader Matthew Henick, while video brands like the food-centric Tasty would be spun into a new group, BuzzFeed Media Brands.

“Since its inception, BFEG has operated as a catch-all for a broad, diverse collection of creative work,” Peretti explained Wednesday, adding that the new structure will “provide employees with greater clarity and focus in their roles.”

BuzzFeed’s late November restructuring came amid a level-setting moment for the digital media industry. Once high-flying startups realized that they would not be able to grow at the same rate as competition for digital ad dollars increases. Both BuzzFeed and Vice Media were expected to miss revenue projections for 2017. (Reports suggested BuzzFeed could miss its target by as much as 20 percent.)

For Peretti, that meant rethinking BuzzFeed’s businesses. The reorganization, which resulted in about 100 layoffs and the departure of president Greg Coleman, was designed to help BuzzFeed diversify away from native advertising only and into new revenue-generating opportunities like commerce and video licensing and development. The goal, Peretti told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview, is to “build an organization that takes advantage of these different business disciplines and different brands that we’re able to build.”

Frank, an Internet vlogging pioneer, joined BuzzFeed in 2012 after selling his startup to the company. He built out BuzzFeed’s first video business and, after a string of viral hits, launched BuzzFeed Motion Pictures in 2014 to develop a range of projects — from short clips to feature films. He ran the Los Angeles-based group, which grew to some 300 people, until 2016 when he took on more oversight as president of the Entertainment Group.

BuzzFeed’s Hollywood efforts, which are now being run through Henick's 40-person Studios group, have moved slowly. Despite multiple projects in development, it has only announced one sale, a true-crime series for Oxygen. Meanwhile, it has yet to release a feature length film.

Where BuzzFeed's entertainment team had the most success is in developing a pool of young talent, from Whine About It host Matt Bellassai to the game-for-anything The Try Guys. In 2016, BuzzFeed announced that it would sign some of the most promising names to emerge from its videos — including The Try Guys and comedians Quinta Brunson and Ashly Perez — to two-year talent deals via a Development Partner Program. Frank’s first project in his new role has been to retool that program as the first batch of deals begin to expire.

“We looked at the Development Partners program as a pilot program,” Frank says. “What we’ve learned is that there are a lot of different avenues for working with talent across the organization.”

With the help of longtime BuzzFeed staffers Caitlin Cowie and Ella Mielniczenko, Frank is rolling out two new versions of the talent initiative. The first, dubbed the Creators Program, is designed to work with full-time BuzzFeed staff who have developed followings via their work for the company but also want to build out personal social channels. Talent from BuzzFeed channels Pero Like, Boldly and Ladylike have all signed on to the program.

In addition, BuzzFeed has introduced an Alumni Network program for talent who have left the company but want to continue to work on one-off projects. Brunson, whose two-year talent deal expired late last year, has signed onto the program to continue to work on projects she began with BuzzFeed, including web series Quinta vs. Everything. Perez, who has signed with 3Arts and WME as her contract nears its expiration, is also expected to transition into the Alumni Network. Some talent are also returning to the fold via this new program.

As BuzzFeed rethinks how it works with talent, Peretti is also evaluating the company’s overall video efforts. He told THR that BuzzFeed will experiment less with midform content that feels “stuck in the middle” of traditional-length projects and true, shortform social videos.

“These things keep changing and evolving,” he says. “The idea that Ze can have a team of people come in and collaborate and figure out how to build new formats and evolve for the future, it’s a really appealing resource across the company.”

10:04 a.m. PT Updated to clarify that Matt Bellassai is not joining BuzzFeed's Alumni Network.