The first stars to emerge from BuzzFeed's new Hollywood
studio got their big break when Kim Kardashian bared her behind on the cover of
Paper magazine. Immediately after seeing the picture, the "Try Guys"
— four up-for-anything millennials — thought it would be a good idea to drink
two bottles of wine and video themselves imitating the famous photograph while
covered in baby oil and not much else. The clip known as "Guys Recreate
Kim Kardashian's Butt Photo" has garnered nearly 14 million views on
YouTube since its release in November, putting the "Try Guys"
franchise on the digital map.
Launched last year, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is the video
arm of the New York digital media company famous for its bite-sized listicles
and quizzes. Low unit costs plus huge page views could add up to a rich stream
of advertising revenue. That — and the company's direct route into the
millennial demographic — is one reason NBCUniversal is in talks to acquire a
piece of the fast-growing private company. BuzzFeed, which is also investing in
foreign reporting and investigative journalism, has already evolved into one of
the top video producers on the Internet with a staggering 1.5 billion monthly
More remarkable is how they're doing it. The upstart West
Coast studio is acting like no other Hollywood system before it — emphasizing
an experimental, quick-hit approach to filmmaking with a heavy assist from data
science to spread its content across the Web. BuzzFeed's video unit is now
whipping out up to 75 original clips a week from a 4-acre lot near Sunset and
Vine where a Big Lots store and a yoga studio used to sit.
BuzzFeed is cheap and fast, Frank said, because his staff
can write, shoot, edit, produce and even star in their own creations. Videos,
start to finish, tend to take less than a week to make. The result: viral hits
such as "If Disney Princes Were Real," with 38 million views and
counting on YouTube, and "14 Sex Facts You Won't Believe Are True,"
viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube.
Experimentation is BuzzFeed Motion Pictures' core principle.
By applying rapid data analytics to performance, producers get instant feedback
on which videos go viral and which fall flat — and why. The company is backed
by $100 million in venture capital. The studio's 263 full-time employees test
new formats in rapid fashion, be it with scripted and unscripted content or
toying with framing videos vertically to better fit cellphone screens (BuzzFeed
gets twice as many views on mobile devices as desktop computers).
A lot of stuff doesn't work, but unpredictable patterns of
popularity emerge from the chaos. One example: post-literate videos, clips that
don't require dialogue. That's aimed at capturing a larger non-English-speaking
audience and overcoming the difficulty of hearing videos in public,
specifically on cellphones.
Employees are largely free to produce content as they see
fit, but they're also guided by ever-changing editorial missions such as
exploring beauty and body image issues or testing whether animal videos can
help people relate or communicate — also based on data feedback. It's all about
finding subjects that resonate. But the masters of viral say success isn't
An estimated $7.8 billion will be spent on digital video
advertising this year in the U.S., double the amount from two years ago,
according to EMarketer. Digital publishers, including Vice, Vox and Mashable,
are also investing heavily in the popular medium, rushing to fill unmet demand
BuzzFeed pays the bills by syndicating its content and
leaning on preview ads, sponsorships and a side business creating commercials
such as Purina's "Puppyhood" video, which has totaled 65 million
views. The commercials, known as native advertising or branded content, are
inspired by BuzzFeed's library of nearly 5,000 videos created since 2012.
Ad executives say BuzzFeed's established brand gives it an
advantage over rivals for native advertising, including Maker Studio and
Fullscreen. Rather than sounding like a hard pitch, they say, BuzzFeed's
commercials typically channel the same quirky and sentimental tone that's
become a hallmark of its editorial content.
At a recent brainstorm session, BuzzFeed producers, editors
and designers examined older posts for new ideas. Conversations veered toward
the plight of left-handed people and "right-handed privilege," the
power of mascara and the trick to taking the perfect picture (exhale so you
look relaxed). All of it could be fodder for the next viral splash, said Eugene
Lee Yang, one of the "Try Guys," who sat in on the meeting. The
thrilling part of the job, however, is producing a video and watching
viewership climb to nearly 40 million.
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