BuzzFeed goes into feature film-making and television show production

The studios of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which are being built in the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, on Oct 10, 2017.
The studios of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which are being built in the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, on Oct 10, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HOLLYWOOD (NYTimes) - On an October morning, Matthew Henick, the head of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, maneuvered his black Lexus SUV through thick Los Angeles traffic from his home in Silver Lake toward BuzzFeed's new campus, still under construction, in Hollywood.

"This is actually the first time I'm driving to the new building from my house, so we're really testing my commute," he said.

Eighteen months after BuzzFeed blew up a watermelon on Facebook Live before 800,000 viewers, the company has leased buildings on a quiet block west of Highland Avenue as it prepares to focus on creating full-length movies and television series.

With his shoulder-length, Troy Polamalu-esque hair still damp from a morning shower, Henick, 34, strode through a maze of soundstages and editing suites. It wasn't quite the Paramount lot, but neither did it look like a space for some digital startup intent on creating viral videos on the cheap.

"It's a much better place, especially for my team," Henick said. "It feels a little bit more like a grown-up office, for lack of a better term."

BuzzFeed started its motion picture arm in 2014. Initially, the division specialised in creating clickable video content, racking up an estimated 3 billion views a month. But over the past year BuzzFeed Motion Pictures has expanded its purview.

These days Henick and his team of 42 people concentrate their energies on mining BuzzFeed articles, lists and video shorts for ideas that may be spun into feature-length movies or television series.

 

One of Henick's first big deals was with Warner Bros. to make a movie out of a series of posts by BuzzFeed staff member Matt Stopera on his travels through China in search of his lost iPhone. With the working title Brother Orange, it may go into production in China next year, Henick said, around the time when he and his wife, Alaina Killoch, 35, are expecting their first child.

 

"I'll have to go out there for a good chunk of time if the movie gets made, which may not time well with the baby," Henick said.

Jim Parsons, a star of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, has signed on to play the lead. Su Liang, a screenwriter of the 2015 Chinese action-comedy blockbuster Lost In Hong Kong, is at work on the script.

Henick's team is also working with Smokehouse Pictures, a production company run by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, to develop a movie based on a BuzzFeed News investigation into assassinations that may be linked to the Kremlin.

Other projects include a series for the NBCUniversal cable network Oxygen that is based on an article about the gruesome death of Jessica Chambers, a teenager who was burned alive in Mississippi, and an adaptation of the online cooking show Mom Vs. Chef for USA, another NBC cable network.

Henick grew up in Great Neck, New York, and spent his childhood riding forklifts around his father's floor-covering business at a warehouse in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood that has since been converted into an apartment building. His interest in media and technology began early.

When he was 14, he and his best friend created an MP3 website that drew a cease-and-desist letter from the Recording Industry Association of America because it hosted the Titanic soundtrack.

Several years later, Henick and his friend started one of the first ringtone sites in the United States. They bought the domain name NokiaUSA.net in the hope that Nokia customers would stumble on their site. Nokia was not pleased - it served the teenagers a cease-and-desist letter in the halls of their high school, after which they changed the company's name to MobileSmarts. The business, Henick said, made a lot of money, although he wouldn't specify how much.

"He's an entrepreneur who knows how to build new things and new companies," Jonah Peretti, the founder and chief executive of BuzzFeed, said in an interview. "I'm always amazed at the way he's able to switch between these different models in his head and see the same things through a totally different lens." Henick's experience as a teenage ringtone magnate gave him the idea to go west for college. "I was sort of already on that trajectory of wanting to head at least somewhere close to Silicon Valley, to figure out what was going on there," he said.

He enrolled at Stanford, where he wrote for the campus humor magazine and played bass in a band called North of Cuba with his Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers.

After graduating with a degree in science, technology and society, he stayed at Stanford another year, earning a master's in digital media studies, which he now calls "completely useless." "The professor would want to talk to us about LiveJournal and Myspace to a certain extent, and the students in the class would raise their hand and say, 'Well, what do you think about Facebook?'" Henick said. "And they didn't even know about it."

From there, Henick studied producing at the University of Southern California's film school in Los Angeles. During summer break, he attended a talk at the Skirball Cultural Center by the comedy producer Judd Apatow.

"I just went up to him and told him as much of my story as I could," Henick said. "We were both from Long Island, both went to USC, and I was looking for a gig." Apatow brought him on as an intern before hiring him as an assistant, so Henick spent his second year at USC balancing classes with reading scripts and checking out sets. After graduation, he worked on movies like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Step Brothers" before going out on his own as a writer, script doctor and startup consultant.

Along the way, he and Killoch, who met at USC, started a clothing company. They also got married.

"I clearly get bored very easily, because I do too many things," Henick said. "I was literally sitting in my apartment writing movies, doing all right - that's sort of the dream for some people - and I was like, 'What else can I be doing?'" Before Henick started at BuzzFeed, he was worried that he might end up restless yet again. But so far, he said, "I haven't been bored once."

When Henick joined BuzzFeed three years ago, Tasty, the site's popular food division, did not exist, and the company had yet to secure funding from NBCUniversal, which has since plowed in US$400 million.

During Henick's tenure, many digital media companies that once raked in millions of investment dollars found themselves struggling. A pivot to video - a term sometimes used to cover layoffs of text-oriented staff members - swept the industry. Increasingly wary of the outsize influence of Facebook and Google - and hoping to siphon away some of the billions of advertising dollars still devoted to television - new media companies rediscovered old media, setting off a race into TV and film.

Cue Henick.

His mission is to help diversify BuzzFeed's revenue stream: Executives expect that partnerships with production studios may bring in a third of the company's revenue in the coming years.

Since it was founded in 2006, BuzzFeed, which is now valued at about US$1.7 billion, has anticipated trends in the media business. Its move into the entertainment industry could be viewed as prescient - but the company is also said to be pursuing an initial public offering of stock, and associating itself with a glamorous business may have the side benefit of attracting investors and bolstering valuations.

"I don't think we do anything specifically for that reason, but it's always a byproduct," Henick said. "If our business is stronger and it's growing exponentially because we keep finding brand-new businesses to get into, it's going to allow us to hopefully go public or invest in a lot more stuff elsewhere in the company."