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Exclusive: Building BuzzFeed’s Next-Gen Movie Studio with Matthew Henick

Matthew Henick, who runs the Motion Pictures Group in BuzzFeed Entertainment, oversees a massively productive studio that, somewhat surprisingly, recapitulates in some ways the old-school vertical integration of, say, 1930s-era MGM at the height of its creative power and influence.

But less surprising is the young media company’s new-school reliance on data, investment in branded/sponsored programming and presence on a wide range of distribution platforms.

BuzzFeed Motion Picture Group Matthew Henick

Matthew Henick of BuzzFeed’s Motion Picture Group

In its transformation from meme machine to movie maker, BuzzFeed Entertainment as a whole has undergone a remarkable expansion.

Over the past few years, BuzzFeed has gone from 17 million video views per month to more than 3 billion, predominantly on mobile. That’s part of more than 7 billion monthly views of all kinds of Buzzfeed content, according to previous company statements.

The motion picture unit has “15 to 18” feature-length programs it’s developing with internal  resources, and another “15 to 20” it’s creating in partnership with brands, Henick said.

For a site that began as a text- and still-image-oriented, data-driven, relatively traditional site founded by Huffington Post co-creator Jonah Peretti, it’s a remarkable makeover even by Hollywood standards.

The company has repeatedly outgrown its production spaces, and now has a four-acre production lot in Hollywood, with an in-house crew of creators, writers, on-air talent and below-the-line technical personnel, working together pumping out that content. That kind of volume, Henick said, just wouldn’t be possible if he had to endlessly wrangle freelancers, in part because of tight content-creation timelines the company routinely meets. So the in-house approach becomes an efficient way to operate.

And BuzzFeed differs from traditional Hollywood in many other ways. There’s a much less rigid approach to content approval process, for instance.

“There’s not a formal green-lighting process here,” Henick said. “People have grown up through the system here, so they’re trustworthy.”

In fact, Henick jokes that it’s just as well he’s not signing off on every piece of content coming from his team.

“If I tried to green light it all, I probably would have been fired six months ago because I would have blocked 50 percent of what has (gone on to) become our most popular shows,” Henick said.

With undergrad and graduate degrees from Stanford in digital media and technology and a master’s from the vaunted Stark producing program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Henick certainly brings admirable chops to a high-volume role.

And he has plenty to keep busy, overseeing an operation with content on more than 20 platforms. More importantly, the company has had to learn what kinds of videos work on each platform. On YouTube, it might be more informational, how-to material, compared to Facebook, where videos about identity resonate more strongly. But always, it’s about getting content everywhere it can be.

“We thrive at scale,” Henick said. “Rarely do we do things that will restrict the amount of people who can see our shows.”

Those restrictions can include something big like creating exclusive content for sites with subscriber fees, or posting only on little-seen platforms.

“We want to be on the places where people are consuming video,” Henick said.

The biggest shift Henick is seeing now, one that affects much of his operation, is a major increase by consumers visiting digital outlets to watch specific shows, sometimes longer shows, or ones that appear at specific times or days.

“I think intentional watching is the next step,” Henick said. “People are now in social or digital (media) settings to consume content that requires more investment from them. That could mean they spend more time on a segment, or they tune in on a given day, or they’re willing to binge watch. There are lots of implications. We can quantify the audience and it starts to resemble TV. We can tell (advertisers) what consumption patterns we see. We can show it to Netflix” to help make deals there.

The notion of “intentionality” in online viewing has significant resonance for advertisers, particularly those struggling to justify bigger online investments.

“It definitely gets them excited,” Henick said of advertisers and that evolving consumer approach to online media. “It hits a familiar construct for them. Then they can make value comparisons. There’s a lot of excitement there.”

That’s because a viewer who has sought out a specific show online is more willing to watch accompanying ads. They understand it’s part of the cost of see content they know they enjoy. Studies have repeatedly suggested that consumers are more likely to embrace the supporting brands on such shows, especially if the ad content is pertinent and engaging also.

“Now we’re building out this original programming slate that’s starting to very much look like TV.” Henick said. “Where we’re playing now is very new. It’s still growing, but not a lot of people are operating in it now.”

The business for original content is indeed booming, from the hundreds of scripted shows produced for traditional television and the big digital players, to subscription content for OTT channels to the vast array of ad-supported inexpensive content created every month by BuzzFeed and its competitors. BuzzFeed alone releases as many as 100 YouTube videos and 500 Facebook videos per week.

“We don’t use the word ‘pilot’ for our programming because a constant stream of testing is going on,” Henick said. “We know what our customers like.”

It’s just another example of the transforming studio of the future, pulling traditions from the old, but driving content creation at massive scale, with deep data and wide reach. The 1930s MGM may have had “more stars than there are in the heavens,” but BuzzFeed’s modern-day take on the studio model has far more ways to make its many products pay off.