Media Groups Lead the Digital World, but They Just Want to Be in Pictures

By Cieply, Michael | International New York Times, March 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Media Groups Lead the Digital World, but They Just Want to Be in Pictures


Cieply, Michael, International New York Times


Some of the most aggressive contemporary purveyors of information are seeking growth from the feature-length motion picture.

CORRECTION APPENDED

When the digital wizards at a forward-leaning media company introduced their newest idea, an entertainment unit, last year, they couldn't resist an antique touch: "BuzzFeed Motion Pictures" arrived with a video logo modeled on images from a primitive movie projector called a zoopraxiscope, invented by one Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1879.

"We were looking back in time, and were sort of blown away" by the trappings of the early film industry, explains the BuzzFeed division's president, Ze Frank. "There was something almost otherworldly about them."

Old viewing habits die hard.

In a surprising turn, some of the most aggressive contemporary purveyors of information, journalistic and otherwise, are seeking future growth from what has not seemed novel since Edison's day: the feature-length motion picture.

In the last several years, BuzzFeed Media, Vice Media, CNN, Conde Nast and Newsweek have all built units or alliances aimed in part at creating long-form narrative or documentary films that will be seen in theaters. They will use time-tested promotional apparatus -- including festivals, awards and brightly lit marquees -- to draw viewers, many of whom will ultimately see the movies online or on television.

Most such film programs are still in start-up mode, as they contend with the extended lead-times, heavy capital requirements and maddening uncertainties -- Hollywood calls it "development hell" -- that come with the business of long-form visual storytelling. Goals and strategies differ, and whether new film units will produce profits is largely a question for the next decade, when all will have had time to find hits or fail.

Costs will range from the nearly microscopic cost of some documentaries, through the roughly $2 million per film that Fox is spending on films at Vice, to the tens of millions of dollars that may be invested by studios in films from, say, Newsweek or Conde Nast.

While they vary, the operations are all planted in the notion that classic movie formats have immense power to open cultural conversations, and to hold viewers who might otherwise be lost to a competitor with the next bold headline, or two-minute video.

"It is a magical moment in a marketing plan," said Eddy Moretti, the chief content officer of Vice. Mr. Moretti referred to the hoopla, and personal bonding, that may accompany the screening of even a small film like "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," his company's Persian-language drama, which was shown mostly on the festival circuit last year.

"It's fun, even if only 45 people show up," added Mr. Moretti.

Vice, known for alternative-minded, world-spanning digital productions, began experimenting with feature film almost nine years ago. A penchant for foreign language and settings has been a box- office hurdle; last year's "Fishing Without Nets," a drama shot in Somali, French and English, was barely seen in its brief theatrical release.

Mr. Moretti and company will focus mostly on English-language movies in their new venture, Vice Films, formed late last year in partnership with 20th Century Fox. The idea now, said Mr. Moretti, is to use Fox capital and marketing power to sell low-budget, Vice- style movies, perhaps two a year, as something much more than a come- on for the Vice digital channels.

Fox, noted Mr. Moretti, "knows how to get box office and to get the awards."

CNN Films, begun in 2012, was already deep into the Academy Awards game this year, though without much luck. Its documentary "Life Itself," about the film critic Roger Ebert, was snubbed in the Oscar nominations, as was its "Blackfish" the year before -- perhaps a sign that old-line voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lean away from movies that are meant to find the bulk of their viewers on television. …

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