For pulling off one of the biggest comebacks in entertainment history. By unleashing celebrated original shows, Netflix has changed the way we find and consume great media. Buzz-generating series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have boosted Netflix’s subscriber base past HBO’s, and have transformed the company into a direct competitor with the prestigious cable channel when it comes to high-caliber content. Exclusive licensing deals with Disney, DreamWorks Animation, and Marvel burnished the company’s portfolio even more and caused its stock to nearly quadruple in 2013. Read more >>
For strategically redefining the talent agency. With star salaries on the decline (and the once-booming DVD business now ailing), agencies have been forced to rethink their core business. No one has been more aggressive about this than WME, which recently bought the sprawling sports, media, and talent agency IMG—a move that catapulted it past rival CAA as Hollywood’s biggest and most diverse talent house. Meanwhile, WME’s partnership with cutting-edge ad agency Droga5 allows the company to work with brands from the get-go, and from a more empowered position than has traditionally been done. The first collaboration: the wildly successful “Lazy Phone” ads for Motorola, featuring WME client T.J. Miller. Read more >>
For bringing the cutting-edge wit it cultivated online to TV and movie audiences. No longer just an online destination for funny videos from Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and friends, Funny or Die has parlayed its recognizable brand into a TV and movie production house, with popular shows like @midnight and Drunk History on Comedy Central; The Spoils of Babylon on IFC; and Sarah Silverman’s We Are Miracles on HBO. More Funny or Die movies are on the way as the company ramps up to produce two to three low-budget comedies a year. The company is even moving beyond humor with a sports-based documentary series for the Discovery Channel.
For setting the new standard for today’s media companies. In an industry where common wisdom calls for “more of what works,” Chernin Entertainment, founded in 2009 by former News Corp. president Peter Chernin, is swimming against the current. As a producer and investor in film, TV, and tech, he’s heralded in Hollywood for his unique strategy: invest his own money, rather than outside funds, so that there’s no mandate to exit the project. This allows his company to view projects—from the hit Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl to more-questionable endeavors such as @SummerBreak—as long-term opportunities.
For demonstrating to other YouTubers how to parlay viral stardom into independent success. Rather than moan about YouTube’s much-criticized rev-share model, YouTube sensation Freddie Wong and friends decided to take matters into their own hands. By establishing the independent website RocketJump.com, the studio gave fans another portal through which they could geek out on popular series like Video Game High School—and gained more control over how its videos are monetized. For the second season of VGHS, RocketJump raised $800,000 on Kickstarter and brought on Dodge as an advertising partner.
For establishing itself as the go-to brand for fanboy blockbusters. With hits like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and 300 under its belt, Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment is now making a play to become the next Marvel—i.e., a sprawling multimedia empire that produces TV shows, comic books, and digital properties. Rather than starting from scratch, it has strategically brought on like-minded brands and executives—such as Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films and former Warner Bros. TV head Bruce Rosenblum—to power its growth.
For embracing digital to make its content more available to eager viewers. Last year, the historic Hollywood movie studio made the unorthodox move of tapping its digital guru, Kevin Tsujihara, to oversee its marquee divisions: film and TV. It sent shockwaves across Hollywood, not just because Tsujihara had no hands-on experience in either field, but because Warner was making a big bet that its future was in digital (and not at the cineplex). Other forward-thinking moves include the acquisition of movie site and app Flixster, the decision to make its content available on iTunes and Xbox, and the close collaboration with writer Peter Jackson to make sure theaters were equipped to show The Hobbit in the industry-first 48-frames-per-second format.
For helping Hollywood’s biggest properties shine in the social age. In 1994, Gordon Paddison set up the first interactive division at a Hollywood movie studio, New Line, correctly betting that the future of movie marketing was in digital. Two decades and 200-plus movies later, Paddison’s independent shop is the go-to solution for studios in need of help with their online campaigns. Stradella Road was behind the promotion of such hits as Les Misérables and Django Unchained, and currently is working on the forthcoming Fifty Shades of Grey film. Stradella also worked with Lucasfilm to help soften the historically closed-off company to social media and establish an online dialogue with fans through sites like Tumblr and Pinterest.
For banging out Pixar-level hits on budgets far below the industry standard. Led by animation whiz and former Fox Animation head Chris Meledandri, Illumination has kept budgets in check by using cost-conscious animation techniques and adhering to a lean financial model. And because it’s an independent studio (it has an exclusive distribution deal with Universal), Meledandri is able to create a Pixar-like atelier work environment, free of meddling studio executives. Its latest blockbuster, Despicable Me 2, was lauded by critics and became the most profitable film ever released by Universal, grossing $954 million at the global box office.
For bringing diversity to screens by scouting movies from indie producers. Through its AMC Independent program, the nation’s second-largest theater chain devotes more than 60 of its screens to showing culturally and socially diverse independent films, such as the critically acclaimed Four. It also provides indie filmmakers with marketing resources and expertise, essentially coaching them in how to become distributors. As the major studios cut back on their slates and focus more on producing mainstream, big-budget “tentpole” movies, programs like AMCi are keeping the independent film movement alive.
[Image:Flickr user Brian]