Swearing kids and boobie jokes may be the secret to the success of their videos, admitted Funny or Die's CEO Dick Glover and creative director Andrew Steele at SXSW this past weekend, but the smart business model behind them may hold a few secrets to the future of entertainment.
Originally launched as a "hot or not" video site for comedy in 2007, Funny or Die has grown into a multi-media, cross-platform comedy hub with a thriving Web portal and production company—the HBO series, Funny or Die Presents, debuted in February. The next stop is film, starting this summer when the comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of the cult Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! start production on their first feature.
In fact, there is no platform or joke that Funny or Die won't try, said Steele. There's just one rule: It has to be funny.
Thanks to its famous founders Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, that hasn't been a problem. Funny or Die's built-in orbit of talent spans from Zach Galifianakis to Lindsay Lohan to Buzz Aldrin (being directed by Snoop Dogg) to Henry Winkler who bring the site ideas. "It works because everyone wants to be there," said Steele, who came from a head writer position on Saturday Night Live. Besides the superstars, Funny or Die has an informal relationship with improv actors at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (which was co-founded by McKay) and connections to young directors, editors and cinematographers. These relationships work both ways, since Funny or Die is able to offer exposure and industry contacts to young, raw talent, even when the pay for projects is small.
The low production costs that only Web can provide—no union issues, for example; the staff that produces the HBO show is completely different—may even allow the company to become profitable this year. A staff of 19 people based in Los Angeles and investors like Sequoia Capital are part of a wider Web of informal relationships, which triangulate with tech folks in Silicon Valley, marketing whizzes in NYC and content producers in L.A. "We bring the same creative discipline to the marketing," said Steele. A recent deal with Boxee gave Funny or Die a featured slot on their new set-top box.
But Funny or Die is also wielding its Internet influence for good, branching into cause-related videos, like "Prop 8: The Musical," produced to help fight the anti-gay marriage ban in California, or the over-the-top hilarious eco-parody "Green Team." Funny or Die's writers used to produce videos like "The New F***ing Citibank" about issues that were important to them, and now they're having advocacy groups approach them to help them get the word out about other causes.
A recent video for the Main Street Brigade, a consumer finance protection group, featured a once-in-a-lifetime reunion of all the presidents portrayed on Saturday Night Live (with Jim Carrey doing an excellent Ronald Reagan stand-in for the late Phil Hartman). The spot was directed by Ron Howard in one day in Van Nuys, California and produced for around $5,000—essentially just the cost of airfare. It was an unprecedented gathering of so many SNL alums—from Chevy Chase to Dana Carvey—that not even SNL could have orchestrated, something Glover and Steele attributed to both Funny or Die's freeing Web-only environment but also the cause itself, which many of the stars felt strongly about. Another version stars Heidi Montag saying no to plastic (um, credit cards, that is).
With solid audience numbers—1.4 million followers on Twitter, over 70 million views for their very first video, "The Landlord," and let's not forget the continuous buzz from hundreds of user-generated videos being voted up or down—it's no surprise that companies are now coming to Funny or Die to pitch their products. The writers create branded entertainment, generating a new revenue stream for the site and an entire new genre for marketers: Viral ads that are actually good.
No product is off-limits, and Funny or Die promises to be transparent in its aims, working for any company as long as Funny or Die's writers can have total creative control. Any company? An audience member at the SXSW conference wondered what Funny or Die would do if, say, notoriously right-wing Ted Nugent came to them with a concept for a video that was diametrically opposed to the other political-themed videos they'd made.
"We would do funny and conservative," said Steele, thoughtfully. "As long as it was funny."