BuzzFeed moves into film and television

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 (California) • 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.

BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, started in 2014, initially specialised in creating clickable video content, drawing an estimated three billion views a month.

But over the past year, it has expanded its purview, with its head Matthew Henick and his team of 42 people mining BuzzFeed articles, lists and video shorts for ideas that may be spun into feature-length movies or TV series.

One of Mr 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, Mr Henick, 34, 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," he 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 working on the script.

Mr 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 burnt alive in Mississippi; and an adaptation of the online cooking show Mom Vs Chef for USA, another NBC cable network.

When Mr Henick 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, he and his friend started one of the first ringtone sites in the United States. They bought the domain name 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, Mr Henick said, made a lot of money, although he would not specify how much.

For college, he enrolled at Stanford and studied producing at the University of Southern California's film school in Los Angeles. During summer break, he attended a talk by comedy producer Judd Apatow.

Apatow brought him on as an intern before hiring him as an assistant, so Mr Henick spent his second year at the university balancing classes with reading scripts and checking out sets.

After graduation, he worked on movies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Step Brothers (2008) before going out on his own as a writer, script doctor and start-up consultant.

Since it was founded in 2006, BuzzFeed, which is now valued at about US$1.7 billion (S$2.3 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.

During a weekly check-in meeting at the old BuzzFeed lot on Sunset Boulevard, talk turned to a recent article about right-wing website Breitbart and one of its former star employees, the rabble-rouser Milo Yiannopoulos. Did anyone see a film opportunity there? Someone suggested Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Mr Henick's eyes sparkled.

"I would retire out on top," he said, "if we could get Sorkin to write it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'BuzzFeed moves into film and television'. Print Edition | Subscribe