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Q&A: Joe LaBracio, EVP of Alternative Programming at Condé Nast Entertainment

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Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) is Condé Nast’s six year-old production studio that develops film, TV, and digital series from articles published by Condé’s brands, among other sources of inspiration. The Idea chatted with Joe LaBracio, the executive behind CNE’s Last Chance U (Netflix) and Vanity Fair Confidential (Investigation Discovery), to learn more about his process of developing non-fiction programming from IP, how he collaborates with the newsroom, and how things have changed since he came to CNE four years ago.

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The Idea: Can you give us an overview of your role and team?
Joe LaBracio: I have been with Condé Nast Entertainment for four years. I was brought on to run the non-fiction and unscripted television operation.

I’m part of the traditional media team — there’s a scripted [television] executive, there’s a movie executive — but my direct purview is to develop documentary series and feature docs based off the IP [intellectual property] from our magazines, talent we have access to because of our brands, stories that come through the websites, and digital video that go viral and can be adapted to a longer-form television series.

For the first two years that I was here, we would solely develop and create projects based off of our IP. As we garnered success in doing that with projects like Last Chance U and Vanity Fair Confidential, we decided that the next step for growth for the company and my group specifically was to do physical production as well. So about two years ago we brought on Al Edgington, an Emmy Award-winning producer who scales our production when we go off and sell series. So we can physically produce everything that we do ourselves. We’ll still partner with outside production companies and talent, but by having our own production apparatus, we are way more nimble and can react to the changes in the marketplace and are not solely dependent on IP at this point; we can now use the calling cards we have from our existing series and develop original ideas as well. An example of that would be a series called Fastest Car that’s been on Netflix for a month and a half — that was an original idea that we had.

And I have a small team — it’s Al and a creative executive that we have — the three of us. And as we sell shows and scale our production we hire on a production team depending on what we’re producing and what kind of skills we need.

What is your process like of turning IP into unscripted programming? Do you work at all with the editorial departments of Condé Nast’s publishing brands?
To answer the first part of your question, it’s multifaceted at this point because we’re a production company as well. First and foremost we mine the articles, we mine talent who’s featured in our magazines and website, and we keep a close eye on what our digital team is producing.

If there’s an article that will let us into a world, we make a deal with the writers, who help us then get access to the person or business they wrote about. From there, it’s a pretty standard development process of making access agreements, putting together a creative pitch, sometimes putting together a sizzle tape, and then taking it out to the networks that would be interested.

For talent that we get access to, it’s a matter of building relationships. If there’s talent that’s coming through and being interviewed by one of the magazines, we have an opportunity to sit down with them and hear what they’re interested in doing in non-fiction television. We either feed them ideas and develop with them, or a lot of times when they realize we exist as a non-fiction production unit they have ideas and they want to be partnered with us to help them execute them.

And then with our digital videos, we obviously have tons of data on how they’re performing. If a video or series of videos does really well, we use that as inspiration to develop hour, half-hour formats. The best example would be Most Expensivest, which is currently a series on Viceland. It started as a digital series on GQ.com and it quickly scaled and became a huge performer for GQ and Condé Nast, so we turned it into a half-hour format that’s now going into its second season on Viceland.

As far as how we work with the editorial team, we’re obviously a separate unit but we work together in one company. We have periodic quarterly meetings with the editorial staff for them to get a sense of what we’re doing and the relationships that we have in television, and also to hear what they’re working on. We do see stories about a month before they hit the newsstands so we have a running head start from anyone else in town who would be looking at our articles. And often the editors, if they have ideas, will come to us when they’re working on a story and think it’s something we can develop into a feature doc, a limited series, or an ongoing format.

Can you give us more insight into the process of mining articles? Most Expensivist was born out of a digital series that was performing well — do you approach text in the same analytics and data-driven way?
Text articles, really, that just comes from if it’s a great story, a great place, a great person, a great business. To be clear, specifically what I’m doing is unscripted, which is character-driven and access-driven — if I know that there’s at least three networks that would be interested in the territory then we’ll go after it; I don’t ever look at the traffic that an article is getting.

If a video does well and there’s tens of millions of views on it then that to me is a sign of there’s something more here to figure out.

You mentioned that you get advanced access to Condé Nast articles before they go live — are there writers within Condé Nast who are working with producers external to CNE to turn their work into a movie or TV show? In other words, is work published by Condé Nast’s brands not exclusive to CNE?
There’s a couple of tiers to it. There are staff writers and writers new to Condé Nast — generally we own the articles that they’re writing. Then there’s a layer of writers who are either contributing or freelance — there are deals in place with them where we have a limited window to option an article that they write. It could be five days, it could be 10 days, it could be 30 days, it could be a year. When those scenarios come up, we look at them immediately and immediately engage if we’re interested. Then there’s a level of writers who are incredibly established and own their own pieces and are represented elsewhere. In those scenarios, if we’re excited about it we’ll bid with the rest of the marketplace and go after them like anybody else would.

I would say, even in the scenario where we own the article, we’ll still make deals with the writer because they’ll continue to write for us and we want to make sure they’re taken care of; an outside production company wouldn’t think that way. If you’re writing an article about a business, as an unscripted producer you really just need that business — you don’t really need the article. But we don’t look at it that way. We want to take care of the writers, so we’ll make deals with them and have them come on as consultants if they want to be and not go around them.

CNE also produces feature films, scripted television, and digital video. Do you collaborate at all with your colleagues within CNE? How do you decide, particularly for IP, what format a story would work best as?
We absolutely do. For the traditional group — my colleagues in feature film and scripted television — we’re all in the same office in Los Angeles, each a door from each other, and we’re all constantly communicating about who’s interested in what article and what’s the best way of going about it. There are many times when all three of us are interested in an article for a feature, for a scripted series, and for a documentary series. Because each of those processes take different amounts of time — and usually unscripted is faster — we look at it as if I can get an unscripted series or documentary about it made, it only helps the life of the article for a feature and a scripted television show. We’re collaborative in that sense.

As far as with the digital team, there’s a pretty big footprint in the Los Angeles office, so we’re always hearing their brainstorming and videos they’re working on, and they’ll come to us with ideas as well. If they’re about to go shoot a video, they’ll tell us about it to see if it’s something we can adapt to a longer-form series. And also the operation out of New York and the research and data that we have there, they’ll constantly share with us things that are doing well so that we know what to focus on and what we might pay some attention to.

The other thing that we do sometimes is if my group has an idea and we’re going to shoot a sizzle and take it out to pitch to traditional buyers, if there’s a way to do it where we can put it up on one of our video channels to give it a life before we take it out, we explore that. I’d say that’s the exception to the rule, but it’s definitely something we try to experiment with every now and then.

A sizzle — is that just a proof of concept?
Yeah, two to three minute proof of concept. When we’re in the room pitching, instead of just [the buyer] listening to our voices, they can get a sense of the visual style, what the scope of the story is, and see it all in a short video.

In what situations will you publish a sizzle on a public-facing distribution channel?
It’s the exception to the rule mainly for speed reasons, because if I’m shooting a video that I want to take out and pitch, my group doesn’t determine what videos go up on the video channels and on YouTube and Facebook and all that. If the stars align and we can put a video up on Wired’s YouTube channel, for instance, and see if it can get some traction before we pitch it, we’ll give that a shot, but we do whatever is best for the project at the time. And we’ll use it also as a selling tool — if we can go in and show that it performed well just once on a YouTube channel, it helps with the pitch in the room.

CNE also produces original series that are not based off of material from any of your brands. What is the process like of developing an original concept, like Mumbai Indians (CNE’s upcoming Netflix original docu-series following cricket team Mumbai Indians’ attempt to win the Indian Premier League, an annual cricket tournament, for the fourth time)?
The way that originated was we were already producing Last Chance U and Fastest Car and had a good working relationship with Netflix. It came out of a conversation with their executive who runs the unscripted division saying that India was going to be a priority territory for them because of the sheer mass of the country and the potential audience to dig into. My head of production Al and I had experience producing in India — I was the executive in charge of the Amazing Race at CBS for several years and Al was a country producer for the Amazing Race in India — he and I had a love of the country and the people and good relationships there, and we decided to explore what might be possible. Cricket is the second biggest sport in the world and Al is a huge fan of cricket, so some of our sources and relationships led us to the Mumbai Indians and it was sort of a no brainer to do it.

CNE has been around since 2011. It seems to have been ahead of the curve relative to other publishers in repurposing IP for film and TV in-house. What are some major learnings from the past four years since you’ve been at CNE?
[CNE president] Dawn Ostroff brought me in at a time when documentary television and the marketplace for documentary television was really starting to expand, mainly because of streamers — and I think it’s still growing now. Condé Nast is uniquely positioned in that the type of journalism we do and the quality of our storytelling lends itself toward premium and really deep all-access dives into people and businesses. I think the quality of our writers and the relationships they have with the people that they write about can really give us a leg up in getting access because so much of it is about building trust and feeling like your story is going to be told fairly and also look beautiful and elevated. So all of these things that Condé is about are what we tried to translate into our television production.

I was an agent for seven years, so my expertise before this was in packaging and knowing the marketplace. I think that coming in and being able to take advantage of all of the resources and the editors and writers and articles that we have here and package them with the right production companies and directors and make sure that our pitches were perfect and when we’re going in we’re delivering on what we said we were going to make — It really only takes one or two well-executed series that have some success and then you just build momentum from there.

How have things changed in the past four years, especially with regards to landscape and audience demand?
Specifically to what I do, I think streamers have definitely created way more opportunity for production companies — and especially with new production companies. In the first two years, even though we were Condé Nast Entertainment, we were an unknown entity as a production company and it was incredibly difficult to get networks to want to write big checks to produce shows for them if we had no track record of producing. I think the streamers took a bit more of a chance and gave people a little more creative freedom than other networks because they were less risk averse, so that created an opportunity for us for sure. And now four years in, now that we’re a bit more of an established production company, we can expand the number of places that we work with. Certainly the streamers are still very appealing because while the U.S. domestic audience is important to them, the global audience is important to them as well, and we’ve had success in telling stories internationally. But now I think they also see us as a valuable partner to be in business with because of the IP that we have access to and because we’re also a valuable collaborative partner when it comes to promoting and marketing a series that we’re a part of. We have such a strong reach across the magazines, the websites, our social platforms — in a world of oversaturation of content, the fact that we can add a little bit more to an awareness of a project certainly doesn’t hurt.

CNE is involved in the production side of at least some of its series, but do you still partner with external production companies on some projects? If so, in what cases?
We do. Again because of the series that we’ve done, now outside production companies and executive producers and talent will come to us with ideas to be their production partner. There are also scenarios where third-party production companies come to us because they want to be aligned with our brand and is there a way for us to be a creative partner with them and knowing that if the series goes forward we’ll be able to help support it with one of our editorial brands for promotion and marketing. So if someone comes in with a full idea already baked and they just want us to add our creative ideas to it, we’ll happily partner up if it makes sense for a given brand. And in those cases, we’ll talk to the editors saying we think there’s an opportunity, we think there’s an opportunity to sell it, we think it’s good for the brand to be associated with it, but it’s ultimately their choice — if they don’t want to put the brand name on it then we don’t do it.

Finally, here’s a question we like to ask all our Subscriber Spotlights: what’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen recently from a media company outside of Condé Nast?
I’m a huge fan of the documentary group over at Showtime. I think The Fourth Estate, just from an access point of view is fascinating — getting inside The New York Times and watching their reporting. The Trade is a really gritty amazing documentary series and The Circus I think too, definitely put them on the map.

This Q&A was originally published in the June 11th edition of The Idea. For more Q&As with media movers and shakers, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.

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