In April, BuzzFeed signed development deals with some of its most notable video stars in order to prevent them from getting lured away by higher-paying Hollywood entities. “When you look at the way we designed this program,” CEO Jonah Peretti said, “we were thinking about how to have a system where they can learn and get better, and they’re not having a difficult time making something and reaching an audience.” Peretti’s spoken frequently about the fact that his long-term vision for BuzzFeed is more along the lines of a golden-age movie studio rather than a newspaper or cable channel — an enormous media company with the power, creativity, and production values of Hollywood, leveraging the distribution mechanisms of Silicon Valley.
Of course, there are a few reasons Hollywood’s old studio system no longer exists. One is the existence of powerful unions that protect actors, writers, directors, and other entertainment-industry workers from being pressured or forced into disadvantageous contracts that relinquish power and control to the studios themselves. It’s hard not to hear echoes of this when Peretti says stuff like, “The thing that was surprising to me was when I started to interface with the entertainment industry is … there was this entire system set up to say no to people that want to make things.” Or when you read this internal memo, published on the company’s website Monday, indirectly addressing the abrupt dismissal last week of two well-known video stars from BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.
The employees had been fired for working on another series that wasn’t produced by BuzzFeed, and BFMP boss Ze Frank must have felt the need to explain to his extremely young workforce exactly how their contracts work. “This model requires different ways of thinking about employment and the creative process,” Frank wrote. “More concretely, it requires BuzzFeed to invest heavily in its producers and in the things that make them successful: the space and equipment you need to experiment, training processes and classes to help you develop.” (This benevolence on BuzzFeed’s part helps bolster the fastest-growing sector of a media company whose valuation was around $1.5 billion last year.)
In exchange for all of this support, Frank says, the company only requires two things: that BuzzFeed retains ownership of anything its employees develop and that they work for BuzzFeed exclusively. These are not outrageous requests in tech and media circles — in fact, they’re pretty standard. But film-industry workers tend to divide their time working on shorter-term projects and, depending on the project and contract, often retain significant rights over the end product. At BuzzFeed, stars who leave have found that the terms of the contract prevent them from controlling, for example, the public Facebook accounts set up in their names by BuzzFeed.
The mere fact that BuzzFeed has to spell out the terms of its employment agreements signals a couple of things, perhaps chief among them that BuzzFeed’s effort to focus on hiring a young workforce straight out of college can have its downsides.
But it also shows the difficult road BFMP will have to travel if it really wants to compete against (and eventually replace) the established studios, labor groups, and business practices that dominate the movie business. BuzzFeed videos don’t have credits in the video or in their YouTube description, by design. In a way, it’s less like the Hollywood studios it wants to subsume and more like comics-industry juggernauts DC and Marvel, who often cut individual creators out of deals or minimize their effort, in exchange for a work environment that is by most other accounts fun and supportive.
But the comics business — while by no means perfect — is a well-established industry with clear paths to success. The future of film is less sure, and it’s not clear what will happen to Buzzfeed’s stable of stars as they attempt to leverage YouTube stardom into long-term careers. It may just be that BuzzFeed’s blanket treatment of intellectual property, covering technical innovation and new creative franchises, isn’t going to work. Silicon Valley coders and engineers may generally accept that their work belongs to the company, but young actors, writers, and directors are much less likely to accept contract terms that their peers outside of BuzzFeed aren’t obligated to.
Of course, Los Angeles has always had businesses that rely on the rich dreams and poor contract-reading skills of young new arrivals. But as the first generation of BFMP YouTube stars start looking for the next step, it seems clear that BuzzFeed is going to have to figure out how to address their concerns.