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Fireside Chat with Ze Frank (President of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures) and Katie Couric (Global News Anchor, Yahoo)

Katie and Ze talk about the future of narrative media, the evolution of online video, the way content is shared and spread, fame, and more.

VidCon is a yearly convention for people who love online video! For more information, visit


Katie: Hi everyone. Good morning, nice to see you. Hi Ze.

Ze: Hello.

Katie: This is my first VidCon and I feel very old. And I'm going to go home and dye my hair blue. Did you notice everyone here has blue hair? And not the kind of blue hair we think of sometimes in other settings.

Ze: I've been to every single one of these and I feel old.

Katie: Well you're kind of considered the OG of this industry.

Ze: Did you just throw gang signs?

Katie: I did. Is that-

Ze: What is happening?

Katie: Come on, you know, Lil Wayne and I are like this, Wheezy. But anyway, so tell me-

Ze: I'm like the less hip person on this stage!

Katie: No, believe me you're not.

Ze: What happened?

Katie: Is that an accurate assessment though? Do you kind of feel like this is your baby?

Ze: Yeah, I was definitely, like, right place, right time. I mean, had I come of age five years earlier there would have been nothing. No internet, no real web presence for me to publish into, and five years later I just would have been like everybody else. There was a cluster of people that all sort of, you know, they were like "Oh my gosh, this is really interesting. Like, you can make things for the web and you can see how it works!" and all this sort of thing. And we had the fortitude to do it in relative poverty.

Katie: And when you started in 2001, as everybody knows, you did the how to dance properly birthday invitation.

Ze: These chairs are very leaned back.

Katie: Well, relax then. I guess you became one of the first viral sensations, right, Ze? I mean you were sort of Baby Cha Cha all grown up, in a way. And you say after that started happening and that exploded and you were getting emails from all over the world, I read that you said you became so obsessed with popularity. What was that period of your life like and how did it ignite what happened in the years that followed?

Ze: So it wasn't popularity in terms of creating personal fame, it was actually the mechanics of popularity. I was very aware that that shouldn't have happened. How To Dance Properly was not great content, right? And Jonah had a similar thing, that he was actually on your show and you interviewed him, with the Nike sweatshop email and all that kind of thing. And Jonah and I met that year and we sort of realized, we were like, oh my gosh, this new mechanic can make the wrong people famous. Like, we're the wrong people. We have to figure out how to do this. So I was really obsessed with the mechanics of it. And the other piece of it that I experienced during that email time, where I couldn't refresh the email fast enough, was the similarity of the comments, of the emails. They clustered around three or four or five major types of emails, often using the same words like, oh my gosh, why do you have so much time on your hands? These sort of clusters, and I was like, wow, everybody's kind of the same. And it was ushering in that phase that we now are very familiar with, which is you type something into Google, like, "Why is there a bump on my knee?" and it auto-completes before you're done and you're like, oh my gosh, there's other hypochondriacs just like me! And that movement towards humanity sort of re-falling in love with itself because we start realizing how similar we are in all these different ways. That was the real underlying obsession.

Katie: And did that plant the seed for the way you, in an interesting way you almost use psychoanalysis to kind of determine these buckets of what encourages people to share certain content. Talk about that and what you have zeroed in on, in terms of personal identity and all the different framework that you've noticed, and that you utilize to create content.

Ze: Right. So the first thing I would point out is that media itself is deeply psychological. Like, when you go to a movie you are experiencing something that is fascinating, which is that you're appropriating other people's feelings and lives and all that kind of stuff. So what I started to - well, or a group, broadly, and me as a really small part of it - we started to look at why people share media with each other and it became obvious that they weren't saying, here, I'm giving this for you to consume, they were rather saying this media is part of a conversation I'm having with you. And so one of the facets is that people use media to express who they are. So I share something with you and I'm using it as a way to let you know about who I am. Whether I'm left handed or all these different facets of who I am, and in the reverse I can also use media to signal that I appreciate a part of you. So if you like dachshunds I might share something with a dachshund in it. And everybody can easily look at this by just watching what you say when you share something. Oh my gosh, this is totally me, oh my gosh, this is totally you, never thought anyone thought this way before.

Katie: You called that something like identity...

Ze: Yeah, identity is one of the vectors for how we use media to converse with one another.

Katie: And then there are other ways too.

Ze: There's many other ways. In fact, this is very rough-hewn. These categories are not very scientific. We use data and sciencey sort of things to help us refine the questions, but ultimately people are very savvy about emotion and why we love each other, and why we apologize to each other and things like that. That's not something science needs to help you on.

Katie: So is the goal, then, to have the broadest audience? If you want something shared by the most number of people, like you, I know, have mentioned weird things couples fight about, right? And has that been so shared because so many people relate to it? I know you said that they use it as a way to have conversations.

Ze: So, the reason that it was shared so much is that so many people use it to relate to each other, not relate to it. So the point being that, so, the weird arguments that couples have is part of a really interesting framework. It's almost like a triangulation framework, where the media sets up the person who you would share it with, right? Couples, significant others. And then it sets up a pattern of interactions that are normal to that relationship all over the world, which is you get in arguments. But necessarily, if you have ten argument examples you're going to leave out the ones that are significant in that personal relationship. And so the share is like, hey honey, check this out, they missed the one when the dog poops on the carpet and we fight about who has to clean it up. So in that sense it's not the perfect video about relationships, it's the perfect opportunity to talk about yours. And so I would just say that the breadth of the audience really depends on the impact that you're trying to make. If you're trying to make people smile, yeah, you want giant, giant paths, like, it has to travel everywhere. Jordan Peele who's an advisor to us, he said that when you're doing comedy or things that are laughter based or smile based, when ten people laugh it's better than if one person laughs. However, if your impact is for example a statement like "I want to serve people who have been underserved by media". And I just mean that the way that media's been created tends to cast big wide nets, and we tend to regress to a mean because we're trying to keep audiences, and we have now a modern opportunity to let people recognize a version of themselves in media that have been left out.

Katie: Like?

Ze: And that means body types, it means more racial diversity, sexual orientation, culture of origin. It can also be personality types. We've cast the introvert for years as a nerd that wants to be an extrovert secretly, well guess what? There's a lot of people who like being introverts, who get a lot of power in being alone, all those kind of things.

Katie: Scrabble players who'd rather... right?

Ze: Yeah, absolutely. I mean even the notion of a party. In television and film we've been, you know, this idea of a party with red cups and a jock over there doing something crazy, and a woman who is shy and would look better with her glasses off. We just know that party, we've seen it over and over again. Yet there's many people whose idea of a great night with their friends is drinking a soft drink and playing board games. And there's power there.

Katie: So how does that translate to content creation? So you're looking at all these different groups and niche audiences as well as broader audiences. How does that inform the kind of content that you're creating?

Ze: In every way possible. The first thing is it allows us to lean in to the diversity of our own talent, our own stuff. And we say, make stuff around your own identity, around identities that matter to you, and don't worry if it seems like it's niche. Because chances are for almost everything there's a huge group of people out there that have had a very similar experience or have a similar kind of background that are waiting for a piece of media to come along that they can really directly relate to. So Signs You've Been Raised by Korean Immigrant Parents should not be a hit, but it is. So it directly influences it, at all layers.

Katie: Lets talk about BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, because we don't have that much time and there's so much to talk about. You became the president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. First of all, why did you call it motion pictures, because that's such an interesting, sort of retro term, and I know it incorporates, Ze, everything that you do video-wise. So why not just call it BuzzFeed Video?

Ze: I mean, motion pictures sounds a lot cooler.

Katie: Well it does sound kind of retro though, would you agree?

Ze: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was a wink and a nod. There's a couple pieces that went into it and one was that Muybridge, the guy that did the horse, is thought of as the great grandfather of the film and things like that. If you look at that horse galloping, that's an animated GIF. He is the father of the animated GIF, not of the feature film, right? And this retro term Motion Picture is actually, it has now been appropriated to mean something very very specific, and almost arbitrarily specific. It's like a movie that lasts between this and this, that has theatrical release and blah blah blah. But really, motion picture, right now we are experiencing the greatest time in the history of media for images that move, and they start at animated GIFs and they go all the way out to that long form. So that was the reasoning, was kind of re-appropriating that word, taking it back. And then the bumper that we have is a little corgi that we shot in exactly the same style as Muybridge's horse, so that was like the little extra piece that we put on it.

Katie: So why did you want to go into this area and what's your ultimate goal here? I know that Jonah has said we don't want to -

Ze: Why did I want to go into television and film? So why did you want to go online? What happened?

Katie: (laughs) What happened, happened.

Ze: Yeah, I don't know! You're in online media now, and I'm looking at the mechanics of television and film, like, did we cross each other at some point?

Katie: I know, yeah. I think we might have.

Ze: We should have high fived as we walked by or something like that. What's your experience, what are your -

Katie: Ze and I said next year he can interview me because that would be interesting.

Ze: I didn't mean next year, I thought you said like -

Katie: No, I said next- but no, I mean I'll answer that. Obviously people are consuming things very differently and I had done pretty much everything that I could do in television news and I wanted the flexibility, the real estate, quite frankly, the lack of structure that digital media could give me. And so as a result I'm playing with all different formats, I'm doing 20 minute mini documentaries on Harper Lee's new book, I'm doing 45 minute interviews with the presidential candidates that you can't really see anywhere else, where we actually talk about the issues and I'm not trying to just get a sound bite or a headline. I'm talking to disruptors and so- Thank you, that one person who's been watching.

Ze: There you go. That's more like it!

Katie: So that's why it appealed to me.

Ze: I'll answer your question. The reason I asked that was because my hunch was that fundamentally there's a similarity there, and for me, my experience in online media kind of hit a threshold where it was apparent that the movement into the upmarket media space meant that I would have to - not just me, but all creative talent that grew up in this digital first environment - would have to sort of forgo or give up the work style that was natural to them.

Ze: So, what I mean is the people that are coming to LA right now to start a creative career, they have YouTube channels, they have Instagram accounts, they're used to looking at data, they're used to interacting with fans. And then they come and the traditional media cycle would have them write by themselves on a six month development deal for something that might be released two years from now, or drive across town over and over again to auditions. It's just not natural. So, the idea behind the studio was from a talent perspective to realign the production process around incubating talent in the way that they like to work, and then two: change the process. The way that media is created is still very industrial, it's like a big assembly line, you know, very specific roles that just do their thing. But the tools these days are cheap, you can learn them fast, more generalist, more fluid roles. So you can have people that are behind the camera, in front of the camera, and some of our incredible talent is here in the room and they're going to be speaking later. And some of them came in thinking they were going to be directors and now they're stars and they're incredible in front of the camera. And then the third piece is distribution. There's a modern mechanic for distribution, the costs associated with distribution have forced these models into sometimes very strained relationships with tax credits and states and set pieces and lumber costs to offset... So that was the idea, like you said, that there was a limit to the possibility space that we were in in the digital first world, and now we're in environments where we can try all these different things.

Katie: And you're so much more nimble, say, than Hollywood studios, so you can almost use this as R&D, and I know that that's what Michael Shamberg who's come in as an advisor, who produced Pulp Fiction, Garden State and Erin Brockovich, right?

Ze: A Fish Called Wanda too.

Katie: A Fish Called Wanda. OK, good. So is he sort of saying, you want to be the anti-studio studio in a way? And how are you using BuzzFeed and all the analytics and all the creative freedom that BuzzFeed affords as a testing ground for things that actually have potential to become, say, features or regular series? Tell us about that.

Ze: Well we're learning how to test and learn towards those goals. It's not totally clear that there's a linear progression between short form and features. But we produce so much content, I think 75 short form videos a week, 100 pieces of microcontent... So that in and of itself is an engine by which you can ask some questions. So for example, we can do casting in our short form, not as pilots, but rather we can just see how does the audience relate to these people? We can incubate and innovate in-house talent and they just get better at filming and they're asking all these different kind of questions about the things that they would make.

Katie: And then you test them, you say: do people find this appealing? Do they like these characters? Is this something that could be ongoing? Is this something that could be expanded?

Ze: Yeah, I mean, almost every single piece of content that you see is part of some line of questioning. There's almost no content that goes out that's just like, hey we want to make something that goes big and here's the secret sauce. No, it's questions like: wow, people are watching more and more media with the sound off, what is the post-literate future? What does media look like that...

Katie: And going back to silent movies, right?

Ze: It's crazy, we're going all the way back, yeah. Yeah.

Katie: And I know that you're talking about how to get things that are more shared internationally, I know that's something you're looking at. How is that influencing your choice and how you're putting together?

Ze: I would say that there's something hidden in some of the verbiage of these questions, which is: how does it affect the choices that I'm making about the studio? The really interesting thing is that we're we run a very distributed and autonomous group, so I'm not making these content decisions. I might ask broad stroke questions and have strategic visions about where we have to go, but really the producers are the ones that become fascinated with these things. So there's a lot of different attempts and it depends on whether we're talking about Mumbai or we're talking about Australia... But definitely international, I think the piece that is most exciting for me is that it represents the possibility for a much more interesting cultural exchange. We can really start speaking to each other through countries. In Mumbai, we have a few people there, and they recently did just a simple kind of, taste test of American snacks, or something like that. And blogs picked it up not because it was funny or because of the content itself, they just said: it's nice that Americans get to see what real Indian teenagers look like. And I agree. And there's something just in that movement that I'm really excited about in terms of our expansion.

Katie: Let's talk about the business model because you look at some place like Netflix, right, they have the subscription model. So they can afford to hire Kevin Spacey and David Fincher and have high production costs. So I guess the question is: If you expand to some of these more feature length films, or if you're going to be doing these series, how are you going to pay for them?

Ze: Well there's a great precedent of Hollywood to use other people's money.

Katie: When that runs out.

Ze: When other people's money? Well you get other friends. No, I mean, it is a great question. I think that film and television at the very top are really amazing things, they're feats of culture. And I do think that in the sort of middle tier of that finance bracket there's opportunities to do some tuning of the economic model, so that you're not spending as much on marketing. We have a giant footprint.

Katie: Well I was going to say, you have a built in marketing, promotional department with all your existing content, that you can say "Hey, we're making a movie", and start generating interest and excitement for that, right?

Ze: Yeah, that's right. Yep, yep. So to answer your question, there's lots of different business models that can exist. We're sort of interested in all of them.

Katie: Well what's the most interesting one to you?

Ze: Uh, the most interesting one...

Katie: Because when you look at the ad dollars, they're just still not there as much for television as they are for online content, right?

Ze: Yeah, I mean I still believe that there's a lot of work to be done in advertising and marketing. I think that we love brands as culture but we hate advertising, there's a disconnect there. And bringing brands into the story of creating content, adding consumers' expectation for the level of connectivity and quality of the content that brands are making, is exciting to me. I don't know, I'm excited about all of it. Syndicated television is fascinating to me. It feels sort of like a more honest business, like you go out there and you say: "Hey, you wanna buy this? Yeah? OK, great. I have a little bit more money to make more of them." The parts that I don't love are these futures markets and auctions, where you're floating so much risk and then something flops and a lot of people get hurt by it. That feels less interesting to me.

Katie: Well I think you're trying to put safeguards in place, right, where that doesn't happen. As much as you can, right?

Ze: Yeah, I would really love an economic environment where people when they're children said, "Hey mom, I want to be an actor" that you didn't sort of throw up in your mouth. Right? Because you were worried about your child because you knew that the industry is very, very hard and there's very, very little chances. I would love an industry where there's real careers, there's real places to incubate talent, where the expectations of crazy, crazy wealth aren't there as much as real great sustainable careers where you're focused on creativity and making things. That feels like a really great future to me.

Katie: Right, it does. But how do you mix that- well you got it, they're clapping.

Ze: OK, three people clapped at that concept, and that's the most that has happened for me all night. Thank you, that was you? I can't even identify- and two people.

Katie: That's great but you do have to marriage art and commerce, right? How data driven are you? I know that you kind of bristle at the notion of that.

Ze: I only bristle at it because I think that when people hear the word data, they think cold, stark, calculated decision making that has no humanity in it.

Katie: And your point is?

Ze: That's what I like to do. That's part of the future. I want a button that I press, and I want it to fart out some media. All the data in the world isn't going to tell you what to make, but it can help you when you have a couple different options in front of you. It can help you make choices. Media is about people, it's about emotions, it's about feelings, and that's what we're great at, that's what gut is. But data can help you start to see patterns and trends and start to revel certain things that are hidden. So that's how we use it.

Katie: And in fact you gave a very successful TED talk last year asking the question "Are You Human?"

Ze: Yeah.

Katie: And that was the point behind that, right?

Ze: Right.

Katie: Well that wasn't a very good question was it?

Ze: And scene.

Katie: So, when you look at the landscape ten years from now, you think about YouTube just celebrated-

Ze: Do we get as much time as we want? Is that the idea? We've been talking about twenty minutes.

Katie: I don't know, they told me there was a clock here, but I don't see a clock.

Ze: Yeah, I think we've literally been abandoned on the stage.

Katie: Yeah. Everyone said there was going to be a clock, I have no idea how much time we have. We can go on for maybe a few more minutes, is that OK? OK. When you look, Ze, at the landscape ten years from now, what do you think it's going to look like? Is television, is it all going to meet in the middle somehow? Is there such a thing as too much content, are we going to drown in a sea of content? How do you see it shaking out?

Ze: You know, I'm not totally sure. I know that as humans we're terrible at predicting the future. We're terrible about even predicting our own evolution tastes and how we're going to be. So I'm less trying to future-proof our organization, I'm more trying to understand what kinds of processes feel right, in terms of being able to adapt to change, and move quickly, and things like that. My guess is that one of the big shifts is that the middle is dropping out of the media creation market. So the bundle, selling a package deal around the one thing that everybody wants, that's kind of collapsing now. And that means that the economics for a lot of reality programming is going away. So a lot of these people that have been making the programming that was on these random cable channels and stuff like that, that actually got lots of usage in toto, that's going away. So what the content needs are escalating over time. So I think that the top of the market stays where it is, it's stable and I think we're going to have wonderful films and wonderful TV programming that looks like TV. But I think that middle is going to change quite a bit, and it's going to be occupied by a lot of big diverse swath of content. And then what's exciting to me is I think that the very bottom of the market, things like Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook are ushering in a whole wave of content that's quite short, that is not just about consumption, and we don't have arguments about quality and all this kind of stuff. But it serves as a way for people to fluidly talk to each other, and ends up being a big anchor to culture.

Katie: Do you think that things are changing, you know, the conventional wisdom is that people don't want to watch long form content online?

Ze: Well they don't want to watch it all the time. I do think that people are going to get more and more comfortable watching long form content in small screens, and that's just how it is. But I do think that there's going to be a big segmentation between media that you get lost in, and the goal is to lose oneself in thoroughly, like your identity is consumed by the media, and that's like Game of Thrones where you're just identifying in this world and space. There's going to be a difference between that kind of media and then media where the media and your social existence are exactly the same thing. And the way that I would describe this is this: if you're watching a show or something like that on your phone, and then you put it down, you're kind of like "Woah, what just happened?", like you're halfway in as you return to your world. And you lost yourself, you were in that world. But you have a similar kind of experience when you're twenty minutes on Facebook before you go to bed, you put it down, you're like "Woah", it was a whole media experience that took place in twenty minutes. But you weren't in someone else's world, you were in your world. You saw familiar faces, you learned a little bit about other people's tastes and passions, you read their comments. And those are two very, very different propositions in terms of the value of media. And I think that that second usage is going to be bigger and bigger and more and more people are going to choose to be in those spaces when they have thirty minutes.