Why Digital Publishers Like Vice and BuzzFeed Are Expanding From Small to Big Screens

Refinery29 will release its first film later this month

Refinery29's first theatrical release will be Assassination Nation later this month.
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Why settle for desktop and mobile screens when the silver screen is a possibility?

As digital publishers constantly look for new ways to distribute their content and reach untapped audiences—think Facebook Watch shows and experiential events—feature films remain a lucrative platform where publishers like Vice Media, BuzzFeed and, most recently, Refinery29 can engage their audiences and satisfy the ever-pressing need for myriad revenue streams.

“It makes sense from a business perspective to have diverse revenue streams,” said Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. “It particularly makes sense when you’re a publisher but don’t have complete control over your distribution.”

The medium also gives publishers a marketing advantage: Because they already have “their own publicity machine,” said Rebecca Lieb, co-founder and analyst at Kaleido Insights, they can promote the film through their own newsletters and websites.

“All of these publications are audio-visual as well as written word,” said Lieb. “So getting into video and, by extension, feature film is not much of a stretch.”

Vice has been in the movie business for about 11 years, with its most recent successes being Reincarnated, which starred Snoop Dogg and Diplo, and Jim & Andy, a documentary about Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman. Netflix acquired the rights to stream both films.

Vice “organically” got into the feature film business as it transitioned from a magazine into a digital publisher, said Danny Gabai, executive creative director at Vice Media, adding, “There was always this ambition early on to be able to live on all formats and all kinds of screens, and work with all sorts of creators.”

Knowing its audience, for Vice, means selecting films that might be a bit “provocative” and showcase a “really unique voice and perspective,” Gabai said. It associates the brand further with the “high-end” talent the company is able to secure for its projects.

It further expanded Vice Studios when it launched a movie-making joint venture with 20th Century Fox four years ago.

“We focus on hitting a wide audience and projects that really speak to a wide group of people,” Gabai said, later adding, “We really are trying to find projects that feel useful, speak to a millennial audience and have a real humanistic sensibility to them.”

In all, Vice has produced nearly two-dozen films and has racked up awards at Sundance, Cannes and received Emmy nominations. A privately held company, Vice declined to give specific revenue figures.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed Studios has a dozen feature film projects in varying stages of production, many of which are based on existing BuzzFeed content, said Hieu Ho, director of development. That includes a movie called Brother Orange, based on an article that BuzzFeed editor Matt Stopera wrote after his cellphone was stolen.

“It feels like a natural evolution for us to begin to leverage our own IP [intellectual property] and build to the future for the long term,” Ho said. “We produce so much content and so much IP that it’s a natural place for us to take that IP and adapt it ourselves.”

Refinery29 partnered with movie studio Neon for its first two films, including Little Woods.

Refinery29 is the most recent publisher to go Hollywood, partnering in July with Neon, the studio that produced I, Tonya and Ingrid Goes West, to purchase and co-distribute films. The two companies are planning theatrical releases for their first films together—Assassination Nation, which will debut later this month, and Little Woods.

From “Sundance to Snapchat,” it has always been Refinery29’s intention “to be on every screen that women are consuming,” said Amy Emmerich, chief content officer, Refinery29.

The company will be looking for films that reflect its audience. “It’s going to be a focus on young women and the way they’re depicted and represented,” Emmerich said. “That’s always going to be the priority. I don’t see that letting up until I see the numbers change.”

Publishers’ connection with their audience, and knowing what they read—and by extension might watch—gives them a real advantage, Lieb said. “Digital companies are bringing an awareness of audience to the film industry, and distribution is simply more native to them,” she said.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.