Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Zype.
After two years in stealth mode, the curtains have finally parted at Stage 13, Warner Bros.’ home-grown digital production company offering an array of shows and creators decidedly different from its blockbuster franchises such as The Dark Knight, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and The Hangover.
The company gave me an exclusive behind-the-scenes look as it prepared to publicly launch its first slate of programming. It marks a notable experiment by a big media company, coming at a time when content is flooding consumers. The question will be whether its multicultural programming can resonate with the diverse audiences its shows are trying to reach.
“It was exciting to have a big media company say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to double down in this area,’” said Diana Mogollon, the site’s general manager and senior vice president. “It’s about Warner Bros. walking the walk.”
Stage 13 is named for a mythical structure that isn’t among Warner’s 30 cavernous numbered production facilities on its sprawling main Burbank lot. Instead, it occupies modest offices atop a three-story Tudor structure a mile north of the lot. The idea behind the name, Mogollon said, was to create a different kind of company, and content, that would take advantage of markets, shows and creators who needed a voice.
It’s a noble goal, especially coming from a multinational conglomerate trying to find its way through a rapidly changing media landscape.
But Mogollon’s small, notably diverse team faces the challenge of making the mythical Stage 13 into a digital reality in a crowded marketplace. This past year, more than 500 scripted “TV” shows were produced, as were programs on dozens of over-the-top digital-video networks, and near-countless hours of user-generated content on YouTube and elsewhere.
Stage 13 will create content for other outlets, and distribute its own material too, while marketing across an array of social platforms, from Facebook and YouTube to Snapchat and Musical.ly. Already, Mogollon said, it has produced 110 episodes and more than 20 hours of content.
Hacking a path to profits for that programming amidst the media jungle may be slightly easier for Stage 13, given that it’s part of a studio whose head, Kevin Tsujihara, got his job in part because of his comfort with new tech and distribution platforms.
But Stage 13 is debuting just as its corporate parent, Time Warner, is being bought by AT&T for about $85 billion. Making back that massive investment may bring heightened expectations from the new corporate overlords, presuming the deal goes through (perhaps by the end of the year).
In the meantime, Stage 13 debuted 11 “premium, high-quality, short-form, episodic” series from an even more diverse group of creators as part of the twice-a-year Television Critics Association gatherings, where traditional networks have long showcased their upcoming slates. It’s yet another mark of the industry’s shifts that both Stage 13 and YouTube were showing their upcoming slates to the critics on a Friday morning in Beverly Hills, 10 days after AT&T’s Audience Network held a splashy premiere party for its shows. The new kids are getting a chance to play too.
What’s less clear is their prospects. Mogollon and her right-hand executive Chris Mack may have some advantages in spinning up from nothing an entire slate of productions, with more in the pipeline.
Mack said, “there’s a bit of an R&D element to what we’re doing,” as the company explores “multidimensional” as well as multicultural stories that are likely to resonate with underserved audiences online. “We don’t have to flex to figure that out. It’s our frame of reference. We have to harness it.”
Mogollon spent nine years as a senior executive with Spanish-language network Telemundo, heading its Mun2 cable network for part of that time. Mack, an African-American former writer on E.R. and The Practice, has been with Warner Bros. more than a decade. For years, he managed its writers and directors workshops, intensive programs designed to diversify the pool of creators working in Warner’s huge TV production operations.
“Our studio president Peter Roth is a baseball fan, and we think of this as a farm team,” Mack said, referring to the kind of baseball minor league where talent gets a chance to hone skills and get ready for bigger opportunities. “We didn’t have a place for them to amplify their stories. We decided to tap into our talent” base from the workshops and similar outlets.“
For many successful creators, the Internet has been far more than a farm team, of course, but it’s also where talent such as Key & Peele, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Broad City), and Issa Rae (Insecure) all incubated online shows that eventually became mainstream TV hits.
Those creators are also good lodestars for the kinds of creators on the Stage 13 slate. One show, Snatchers, has already debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and, in late June, on Verizon’s Go90 mobile video service. Another got a strong reception at South By Southwest. Most of the rest of the series, both scripted and unscripted, including another Go90 exclusive, Two Sentence Horror Stories (created by a queer Chinese female), will arrive in October or later.
“Stuff came from all over,” Mack said. “It was essentially curated from outside the studio system.”
Marketing, that daunting new responsibility for production companies in the digital era, will vary depending on the project.
Reality show Lipstick Empire follows a set of beauty-industry creators who already have massive online followings. Accordingly, Stage 13 will rely on the show principals’ to help drive viewer interest. Produced by another Warner Bros. unit, unscripted specialist Shed Media (the Real Housewives franchise), Lipstick could develop into a franchise for the mother ship.
Other shows will rely on sponsorships and ad deals, the stock-in-trade of many big digital outlets. Marching Orders, a reality show about the marching band at a historically black college, is a natural for a college tour of the show, particularly among such schools across the country. But with two series already picked up by Go90, Mogollon said “We think our batting average has been pretty great for our first year out.”
With the curtains now pulled back, Stage 13 and Warner Bros. will soon find out whether they have some new hits on their hands.
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