If you’re still making weak jokes about BuzzFeed being just about kittens, listicles and quizzes, you haven’t been paying close attention. Yes, all that shareable stuff remains to the fore on the popular culture website, but it’s also making ambitious moves into video with its BuzzFeed Motion Pictures division.
President Ze Frank and (Oscar-nominated) production advisor Michael Shamberg took to the MIPTV stage this afternoon to talk about their strategy, and the industry trends that are fuelling it – and challenging the established broadcasters and studios. They were interviewed by Jocelyn Johnson, founder of VideoInk, whose opening question about BuzzFeed graduating from shortform jokey content to longer, more serious work drew a polite rebuke from Frank.
“I don’t really believe in this notion of graduation: it’s not like the shortform business exists to graduate to something else,” said Frank. “The reality of what we do is we make lots of content: we’ve made over 3,000 videos in the last two years, we make over 50 a week right now and we do a billion views a month… The reality is that when you’re in a time that is dominated by social distribution, the stuff that spreads to you is the stuff that you’re going to define the brand by. If your friends are sharing a lot of silly stuff with you that’s how you’re gonna think of BuzzFeed’s content.”
He added that there’s a constant aspect of modern production: “Your brand has many different definitions depending on what the consumption habits are,” said Frank. “We recognise, especially being in Hollywood, that here is an entire craft base that isnt really about social distribution… we think a lot about how to make content specifically for the social streams… but on the other side, and this is the world that Michael has been a major force in, it has to do more with this affinity to character and stories and losing yourself in the stories. That kind of psychological engagement which is outside of social conversations and things like that.”
Hence Shamberg’s role helpig BuzzFeed figure out how to make traditional story-based or character-based content. “The great thing about BuzzFeed is: theres no R&D system in Hollywood: no studio makes a movie to see if they want to make a better movie,” he said. “The studios don’t have the capacity to innovate at all, because the amount of capital is so large, and they move so slowly.”
“BuzzFeed is a big R&D lab,” he said, noting that if a two-minute video proves popular, it makes more of them, and iterates. “How could you scale that out to a narrative that’s say 22 minutes for a television show or 100 minutes for a movie?” He also talked about the role of emotions. “Ultimately we’re all selling feelings… And the genius of the BuzzFeed system is it’s all based on feeling. It’s almost an anomaly. People think the internet is all about digital data, but BuzzFeed is all about feeling: why do you wanna share something, what’s the emotional gift?.. It’s a whole fresh way to approach the system in terms of coming up with content.”
Shamberg talked about a film he has coming out in the autumn, and the risks involved in finding it an audience. “The movie cost $7m, the studio will have to spend at least $20m to market it,” he said. But he sees BuzzFeed as a new distribution system with hundreds of million of users. “Is there some way with our content we can lean in to doing a litle short: ‘hey we’re doing a movie’ and then by the time we’re hitting the starting line, we already have an audience.”
Frank talked stats: “The 200m unique visitors is for BuzzFeed.com, and BuzzFeed Motion Pictures has a billion views a month in addiction to that: there isn’t much overlap,” he said. “We have about 200 people in the studio, and we can do shorts to test casting: can they handle dialogue, can they handle arguments?.. And our scripting lab is constantly thinking about that in a character-first way, in terms of developing this stuff.”
Frank also talked about distribution: “There are three things that can come back: one is money, one is data and one is strategic relationships. And ideally we want all three,” he said. “We’re not dependent on hits to get this moving, so we have a lot of flexibility in testing out the future of distribution itself. Everything is on the table from the idea of free to the idea of windowed exclusive to giving it to the box office and lettign them keep 100% of receipts, and treating it as marketing!”
Frank added that shortform and longform content can co-exist: BuzzFeed doesn’t have to “educate” its viewers in the merits of longer videos. “I don’t think theres any education that needs to happen. they serve very different purposes, but they can also be mutually beneficial to each other,” he said.
“We really want to lean in to where the people are. Putting things behind paywalls and making it hard to access and stuff.. there are some cases to be made for looking at that as a business model, but the way shortform content can move in such a frictionless way around the web, that’s a fantastic way to build affinity with shows and characters. And that affinity will translate over to larger stuff.”
Shamberg also pooh-poohed the idea that longform requires re-educating viewers with short attention spans. “Everyone’s watching longform: it’s called Netflix, it’s called Hulu,” said Shamberg. “Longform narrative is already part of the DNA of the digital experience… Look at what Netflix did with House of Cards, which essentially branded Netflix… Everything is already here now, and we’re going to migrate from what BuzzFeed does to the system that’s already there. We just need to bring something fresh to it.”
Frank added that BuzzFeed doesn’t use data as “command and control” to dictate decisions. “We create data environments so all of our producers and creative people can constantly look at their work and ask questions about why it’s failing or why it’s succeeding,” he said, adding that the strategy is also about “using data to refine a lens on culture to identify new topic buckets or genre buckets that can yield a lot of interest and affinity.”
“Data’s not quantitative it’s qualitative. If you know why people like something, that’s more valuable than how many people like it,” chipped in Shamberg.
The conversation turned to the way new talent is evolving in Hollywood. “They’re young, they’re used to publishing a lot of content, getting feedback.. they’re generalists, they know how to do audio, how to do video, how to set lights, how to write,” said Frank.
But the session finished with a polite and happily-public disagreement over whether scripted content is about story first and foremost. “I don’t think that the fundamental route of scripted is the story. I think it is the moment, and maybe the character,” said Frank. But Shamberg said characters invariably come hand-in-hand with a great story: “When you get characters, you wanna know what happens next. They’re contiguous ideas, they’re not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Frank said that this is the key difference to the world of video created for social sharing that BuzzFeed started in, and the narrative led craft of Shamberg and other filmmakers. As BuzzFeed continues to experiment between those two worlds, the results will be fascinating.