How Veteran TV Exec Dawn Ostroff Is Taking Condé Nast Beyond Print

A dozen films at studios, more than 30 in development

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The century-old magazine giant Condé Nast made an eyebrow-raising announcement in October 2011. Faced with declining print revenue, the company said it was getting into the entertainment business. Even more surprising was the news that longtime network TV executive Dawn Ostroff would lead the newly formed Condé Nast Entertainment unit.

The publisher and others like it had waded into the murky waters of entertainment content before. Print brands like Condé’s Teen Vogue and Hearst’s Marie Claire had become fixtures on TV series like Lifetime’s Project Runway and MTV’s The Hills, while movies from Saturday Night Fever to Brokeback Mountain had famously been inspired by magazine articles. The marriage of publishing and Hollywood was sealed in 2000 with the gloriously splashy—and ultimately doomed—union of Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein, who, with Hearst, launched the glossy magazine Talk and dreamt of spinning moving pictures from wonderful print content.

CNE was also formed with the ambitious mission of becoming a creative force behind feature films, TV programs and digital video content. Only Condé’s venture, unlike others, has managed to get a whole constellation of projects up and running. And that accomplishment is due, by all accounts, to Ostroff.

“My reaction [when she first joined CNE] was that it was a bold move for both parties,” says Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “It gives Condé Nast a boost because Dawn has the connections, which I am sure Condé Nast really needed to make this initiative go forward. And she’s got an eye for talent and what’s going to work in that target audience.” Aside from that, “she’s a likeable person. She has a very strong track record. She is well-respected.”

To date, Condé Nast has a dozen projects set up at the movie studios and more than 30 in development. Among the confirmed projects are a film based on Josh Davis’ Wired story, John McAfee’s Last Stand, with Warner Bros.; The Old Man and the Gun, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, which currently has Robert Redford attached as a producer and star; and The Longest Night, from Sean Flynn’s 2008 GQ piece, which was sold to Paramount and will be directed by Back to the Future and The Sixth Sense producer Frank Marshall.

On the TV side, three series—Ovation’s The Fashion Fund, Investigation Discovery’s Vanity Fair Confidential and Syfy’s Geeks Who Drink—are already on air or will be shortly, while another 20 or so series are in development, including an HBO pilot based on a Vanity Fair story about a boarding school drug ring and CBS Studios’ The Real Deal, based on a Glamour article about female CIA agents, with Eva Longoria attached to produce and possibly star.

Last month, CNE pulled off its biggest TV coup to date, striking a first-look deal with 20th Century Fox Television. According to Ostroff, the deal—which was the end result of a bidding war among four companies—is indicative of the value of good source material. “It’s a huge advantage,” she says. “Especially in the TV world, you have such a limited amount of time to come up with an idea, write the script, shoot the pilot, and then you have to hope that that one pilot will be able to carry a five- or seven-year series. It’s why we did Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries from books [at the CW].”

It is that deep experience in television and Ostroff’s keen eye for talent that has allowed CNE to produce so much in such a relatively short time. Her career started with a stint as a reporter and producer at Miami’s CBS affiliate and eventually led to 20th Century Fox Television, where she worked as an assistant under future CBS chief Les Moonves. “Dawn, even back then, was unbelievably impressive,” Moonves recalls. “She has a great sense of media and content and what people want to see. She has great taste. She’s a really hard worker and she likes to win, which is important.”

From 1996 to 2002, Ostroff served as evp, entertainment at Lifetime Television, before being tapped by Moonves to head CBS subsidiary UPN. In 2006, when UPN merged with the WB to create the CW network, she was named president, a “clear choice,” Moonves says.

Ostroff positioned the CW as a network for young women, rolling out series like Gossip Girl, 90210 and The Vampire Diaries. While the CW created plenty of buzz (who could imagine the late aughts without the influence of Gossip Girl?), it struggled in the ratings—not because people weren’t watching, but because, in the days before DVR and online video measurement, the largely millennial audience wasn’t watching the shows live, or even on TV.

There’s a story Ostroff likes to tell that illustrates the moment she truly grasped this shift. Around 2010, the CW held focus groups to guide the decision around which nights Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries should be programmed. “The first focus group had 12 women. We went around the room, and woman after woman after woman literally said, ‘It doesn’t matter when you put it on because I don’t watch it live—I TiVo it, I DVR it, I watch it online.’ Only one woman in the three focus groups had an opinion about where we programmed the show because she had just had a baby and was home all day with the TV on,” recalls Ostroff. “I walked out of that room and I turned to my head of research, Eric Cardinal, and I said to him, ‘This is the moment you will remember for the rest of your career.’”

Ostroff also made it her mission to support certain programs, even when the ratings didn’t live up to the hype. “Early on, when [Gossip Girl] first premiered, we didn’t come out of the gate ratings-wise like everybody had hoped,” says the show’s creator, Josh Schwartz. “Dawn never lost confidence in the show or dismissed it out of hand just because it didn’t have the traditional Nielsen ratings. She really understood that people were starting to watch television differently.”

Fast-forward to 2011. For 18 months, Ostroff’s husband, Mark Ostroff, then an executive at Lazard Wealth Management, had been commuting every week between his job in New York and the Ostroffs’ home in Los Angeles. Eventually, the family decided to relocate permanently to the East Coast, which meant Ostroff would have to step down from the CW. She had been in talks with several cable networks, but was wary of joining one that didn’t show real promise in the digital video space, which had become a major focus of hers after watching the CW’s viewers migrate to online viewing. At the same time, Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg was planning a group to oversee digital video, movies and TV deals based on the company’s wealth of editorial content. “Distributors like Netflix and Amazon were growing, but there wasn’t a lot of high-quality content,” he says. “I looked at the marketplace and said, ‘Boy, this is a real opportunity.’” 

Ostroff, who was first introduced to Sauerberg through Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, seemed like an ideal choice to run this new business. “We immediately hit it off,” remembers Sauerberg. Ostroff, for her part, was attracted to the opportunity to build CNE from the ground up and exploit Condé content across untapped platforms. “I knew that we could play a leadership role within the industry,” she says. “I wanted to be on it as early as I could.”

The announcement of CNE’s launch, and Ostroff’s hiring, got enormous media attention. But after that first shot of publicity, CNE went quiet for more than a year. “We’ve been a little low-key about everything,” Ostroff admits. “It may not be the best thing, but it’s what we do. I wanted to kind of lay low until we really had all of our ducks in a row.” Behind the scenes, though, the wheels were turning. Ostroff was making a series of high-profile hires and meeting with Condé’s notoriously independent editors (some of whom were initially wary of outside involvement from the new group), while her team combed through Condé’s archives of more than 80,000 articles.

Then, in March 2013, CNE made headlines again when it launched dedicated video channels for two of Condé’s biggest brands, Glamour and GQ. Soon after, it made its first Digital Content NewFronts presentation where video content from titles including Vogue, Wired and Vanity Fair was previewed. Now, CNE oversees 11 magazine-branded channels across 25 platforms and this year will launch three more—for Bon Appétit, The New Yorker and Lucky—as well as its own streaming platform, The Scene. Glamour’s Screw You Cancer documentary series won an American Society of Magazine Editors award, while GQ’s Casualties of the Gridiron, about former football players dealing with chronic injuries, was nominated for an Emmy. Last week, CNE’s videos reached a milestone 1 billion views.

Of course, Condé isn’t alone—digital video has become an essential investment for any publisher worth its weight in smartphones. But CNE’s entry into the film and TV business is on an entirely different scale. “A lot of other publishing organizations had tried to do the same thing, without very much success,” Moonves notes. Their downfall, he says, was the result of failing to bring in the right talent. “You have to have the right people who come from the world of television and who know how to exploit that, and I don’t think the other companies did that. But Dawn was part of this community for many, many years. As a result of that, when Dawn calls, you know you’re dealing with someone who knows how to do this, not somebody from the publishing world who’s trying to figure it out. That’s a big difference,” Moonves says.

“In all fairness,” counters Ostroff, “I couldn’t put together a magazine.”

Among Ostroff’s hires: Michael Klein, former head of programming and development at the Sundance Channel, who joined CNE as evp, alternative programming and now is evp, program and content strategy, digital channels; Jeremy Steckler, an alumnus of Imagine Entertainment and Fox Searchlight Pictures, who oversees film development; and Gina Marcheschi, who helped develop series like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and In Treatment, runs scripted TV for CNE. Sahar Elhabashi, formerly COO of Discovery Networks International, was tapped for the same role at CNE; Vevo gm Fred Santarpia was recruited as evp, chief digital officer; and Lisa Valentino, head of multimedia sales at ESPN, was brought over to be CRO.

Klein first met with Ostroff in 2011, shortly after she took the reins at CNE. “I had always tracked Dawn’s career and I always felt she was a force of nature, so when I read the announcement that she came to Condé Nast to launch CNE, I thought, wow, Condé Nast really means business,” he says. Klein had tried to develop projects with Condé while at various TV networks but could never get anything off the ground. “[Condé Nast] has best-in-class editors and storytellers, no question. But to shape that television series or that film or that video experience, you need to have people that are best-in-class on those platforms.”

For years, the standard operating procedure for turning a magazine article into a film had the writer working directly with an agent to sell the story to an interested buyer. If all went well, the writer would get a production credit and maybe a cut of the profits. All told, 36 pieces from Condé Nast titles—from Meet Me in St. Louis to The Bling Ring—have been turned into movies, but even as the writers behind the source material struck gold, the publisher got nothing.

One of the first things Ostroff did was to make sure the company did get a cut, carving out contracts with writers that gave Condé Nast exclusive rights for up to a year, negotiating specific terms with each writer. Under these pacts, if a studio were to pick up a project, the writers’ cut would be capped. The arrangement has attracted criticism from groups like the Authors Guild. “It doesn’t give authors the option or the alternative to go elsewhere for their movie and television rights, and therefore there’s no competition,” a Guild rep told The New York Times. Ostroff sees it differently. “We’ve been able to put a lot of money in writers’ pockets because we’re optioning all of these articles,” she says. “Many of them might never get noticed or optioned.” More than 3,600 writers have signed the contracts so far.

But CNE’s role is not limited to pitching—now, it has also become a go-to for studios looking for source material. As Ostroff explains, “We’ll get a call: ‘We’re really interested in doing a film about a female CIA agent. Do you have an article?’ Or, ‘We’re interested in doing a piece about New York in the ’30s. What kind of articles can you pull for us?’”

While Ostroff expects film and TV to become significant revenue generators, it’s the future of online video she seems most excited about. In fact, she’s just returned from Cannes, where, she says, “Every advertiser we met with only wanted to talk about digital video.” But she’s also begun thinking about how CNE can conquer yet another burgeoning category: e-commerce. “Imagine, as you’re watching digital video, being able to click and buy any kind of goods,” she enthuses, the gears already turning on her next big opportunity.

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.