Ashton Kutcher didn’t go from sweeping cereal dust from the floors of a General Mills plant in his native Iowa to collecting A-list paychecks in Hollywood without dreaming big.
It’s not surprising then that the actor and social media entrepreneur would harbor grand ambitions for the latest venture from his production entity Katalyst, Dream Bigger, a new show that forms the centerpiece of the company’s original YouTube channel called Thrash Lab. “The way we see it, pop culture has popped,” says Kutcher of his Katalyst team, which includes co-founder Jason Goldberg and president Anthony Batt. “Thrash Lab will redefine culture, not by chasing what is cool, but by elevating the conversation and re-setting the barometer of what defines culture today.”
Premium original content on the web is still a budding business, but Katalyst has been working for years in the converging worlds of entertainment, brands and technology and so seems a natural addition to YouTube’s original channel lineup. Kutcher himself has played in those three areas as few other actors have–continuing to act in films (playing none other than Steve Jobs in the upcoming biopic Jobs ) TV (taking over from Charlie Sheen in Two And A Half Men) commercials (he’s been a long time Nikon spokesman; a more recent turn for Pop Chips has gone a little less smoothly), a tech backer and social media personality. Katalyst, founded in 2000 as a home for Kutcher’s projects for TV (Punk’d) and film (The Butterfly Effect, Killers), has, in recent years, branched out with a digital division that’s produced such past efforts as the animated web ‘toon Blah Girls and the workplace-parody series Katalyst HQ.
Kutcher and Batt spoke to Co.Create about their content ambitions for the channel and offered a behind-the-scenes look at the new series, Dream Bigger.
The seed for Katalyst’s premium video channel was planted last spring when the company partnered with Intel for the digital-media conference IdeaJam, which brought content creators together for 48 hours in Los Angeles to brainstorm ideas for, and then create, original content. “Ashton and I were like, that worked,” remembers Batt, the founder and former chief creative officer of BUZZMedia, who joined Katalyst as its president in 2011. “It took that kind of Silicon Valley energy and applied it to what you’d normally call entertainment.”
Eager to expand on the idea and provide both an outlet and potential springboard for content creators, Batt approached Google’s Robert Kyncl. The meeting proved auspicious as Google was already looking to get serious about TV on the web. When the company announced last October that it was investing in 100 new professionally produced YouTube channels, Thrash Lab was officially born. “We want digital media to become the medium of choice,” Batt says.
Like the cable companies that disrupted the broadcast networks in the ’80s, Thrash Lab’s targeting a specific audience. “The bullseye is someone who’s visually creative,” says Batt. “Our second audience is that aspirational creative who says, ‘I wanna be like those people. I’m gonna watch Thrash Lab and participate with it because it’s speaking to me.’ And then there will also be the audience who’s not necessarily creative but really appreciates creativity. It’s an audience that isn’t really well-served by any one media group, so we’re basically gonna own it.”
They plan to accomplish that through programming that’s primed to be shared via social media. The Factuary, a weekly series that launched in May, serves up cocktail party-ready factoids with an irreverent twist. Subculture Club explores social groups outside the mainstream, including California’s “Slab City,” an off-the-grid utopian community; and Rituals reveals the rites and customs of prominent creatives, including, it’s hoped, well-known entertainers.
“We wanna have a great channel for people to watch,” says Batt. “But we also wanna launch great creative people.”
And no Thrash Lab series reflects those goals more vividly than Dream Bigger, which premiered this week and will continue with fresh episodes each Monday and Tuesday of the month. The original docu-series chronicles the search for promising digital content creators in New York and L.A., who vie for the chance to make a pilot for a potential web series on Thrash Lab. Which makes for quite an opportunity, not only for the creators but also for the fledgling channel, which could conceivably wind up with several new series thanks to the process. With that in mind, “we encourage experimentation, pushing boundaries and rethinking the way we tell and consume great stories,” Kutcher says.
On the day that Co.Create was invited to observe production on the series in downtown L.A., it was hard to tell who was more excited: the creators hoping to impress with their pitches–which ranged from a sci-fi series about a single-mom cop who discovers she’s a robot to an anthology series in the vein of the film Paris, Je T’aime that would celebrate L.A.’s distinct neighborhoods–or Batt, who was serving as an on-camera mentor to the creators. (Kutcher also appears in the series, lending his expertise and star power to the proceedings as the pool of creators is whittled down.)
“Content creation is just gonna bloom,” Batt enthused on set. “When some of these shows actually get really big, the network people are gonna go, ‘Let’s get those people on TV.’ In an old-world way, it would be a validation. But I think it would be negative because then we’re saying our medium that reaches every mobile phone, every computer and eventually every TV, needs to go to an old technology called broadcast to be validated. We’ve gotta say, ‘No, digital media is where it’s at.’”
Katalyst’s commitment to the future of the medium extends beyond its own channel. According to Batt, if a Dream Bigger pitch has potential but is determined to be the wrong fit for Thrash Lab, “it doesn’t mean [we] won’t work with you to develop your idea and get it to a place with the right audience.”
It’s all part of Thrash Lab’s grander plan to cultivate the digital media community, not unlike the way Robert Redford fostered independent film through the establishment of a little thing called Sundance. “Thirty years ago, independent film was a nascent industry,” Batt says. “Robert Redford, being a wise man, was like why don’t we try to help these filmmakers? With Thrash Lab, [we’re] giving the digital media people a bear hug. Our ambition is to create something more substantial than a channel. We’re trying to develop a community that can have longevity and nurture itself into creating great stuff.”
Says Kutcher: “Thrash Lab will create intellectual conversations with the creative community, while inspiring people and providing the consumer with what they are demanding—a multi-platform experience they can actually engage in via social surfaces. Our hope is that our content will be copied and stolen. Have at it.”
Katalyst isn’t currently working with any brands on its first few series, though considering the original content Kutcher’s company has done in the past for leading brands like Levi’s and Mountain Dew, Batt expects that to change before long. “I think brands will like the upwardly mobile audience we’re going for,” he says. “Creative people are innovators, and innovators always inspire early adopters, so that’s a very sought-after audience. But we want to try and [work with brands] on terms that are smart for our audience. We don’t wanna go, ‘The way it worked in TV was we made content and then you guys interrupted the content to get your message across.’ It’s [more] ‘We’ll find a story your audience will love, and then say, ‘Audience, if it wasn’t for Brand X, you’d never see this content. Isn’t it cool?’”