For using its creative cachet to evolve an entire industry. The premium cable mainstay has become as buzzy as its shows, having announced that it will make its streaming service, HBO Go, available without a cable subscription in 2015. Still not ready to sign up? No problem, says HBO: It’s signing deals to make its content available elsewhere, like on Amazon Prime, where HBO has sold part of its library. (Game of Thrones isn’t included, though. For that, viewers will need to go to the source.) Moves like this mean that the company’s impressive $4.9 billion in revenue isn’t going away anytime soon. And meanwhile, HBO continues to lead the way in pedigreed, must-see programming, with new shows like True Detective and Silicon Valley beefing up its already stellar lineup. As usual, the company crushed it at last year’s Emmy’s with 99 nominations and 19 wins. And its subscriber growth last year was the best in 17 years.
For a data-driven approach to the unexpected. The entertainment company is routinely delighting devoted fan bases—by, say, green-lighting the production of a kung-fu sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, and four new Adam Sandler films. But this isn’t charity for geeks. Netflix is using its trove of data and analytics about international viewing habits to create and buy programming that transcends cultural and language barriers. How? Adam Sandler is a good example: Despite his unimpressive U.S. box-office track record lately, Netflix’s research shows that his films are popular in areas like Latin America—which means that in creating four new Sandler films, it just green-lighted four safe bets to capture an important market.
For approaching blockbuster properties with creative audacity and unconventionality. The old comic-book company knows how to please die-hard fans and mainstream audiences alike. To wit: the 10 films that Marvel has released since 2008’s Iron Man have collectively earned more than $6.4 billion at the worldwide box office. Its Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest hit of the summer, grossing more than $770 million worldwide so far. (And before that, in April, Captain America: The Winter Soldier earned $714 million worldwide.) Guardians is a study in Marvel’s unorthodox strategy: cast an unlikely lead (Chris Pratt) in a relatively unknown property (Guardians ain’t no Batman), and hand it over to an untested director (James Gunn). More unconventionality is on the horizon: the upcoming Thor will have a female lead, and the next Captain America will be black. Marvel admirably maintains its creative integrity while under the umbrella of its corporate parent, Disney, whose multiple pipelines—video games, online video, merchandise, and more—have helped Marvel grow into one of Hollywood’s most valuable brands.
For creating critically acclaimed TV as it embraces a digital future. Cable’s premiere provider of funny has been lauded for hits like Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, and also its new iOS app that allows viewers to catch up on its late-night shows and preview new series. Comedy Central even promotes watching next week’s episode of Nathan for You on the app, right after airing this week’s episode on TV. Meanwhile, the what-just-happened-on-the-Internet review show @midnight has proven to be the first successful interactive TV show, and has been taking on late-night titans The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show in the ratings race. Internally, too, the company is leaning into the future: In the fall of 2013 Comedy Central dismantled its digital department and reorganized itself so that marketers treat online and linear media as one and the same. “Our fans don’t use the word ‘digital’ to talk about content and now, neither do we,” Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless has said.
For reimagining the cinema experience as it becomes a multimedia empire. The Austin-based cinema chain’s intense focus on quality and the customer experience—there is a strict no-talking and no-texting policy, and beer and food are delivered to people’s seats—has made Alamo a darling among film lovers. Now founder and CEO Tim League is leveraging that success by expanding into new locations (eight cinemas opened in the past two years, with a goal of 50 by 2017) and businesses, such as distribution (Drafthouse Films), posters (Mondo), a film festival (Fantastic Fest), and website (Badass Digest). League applies the same selective approach to distribution that he does to programming. “Too often in the industry, I hear people say, ‘Oh, yeah, we bought that, it’s a piece of crap, but it’ll make money,’” League has said. “But those are words we’re never going to utter because what we’re trying to do is build up credibility in our brand.” So far the bet is paying off. Even as industry-wide box office revenue was down in 2014 compared to the year before last, Alamo’s revenue is up by nearly 3%.
For radically shaking up the Hollywood distribution model. Most studios treat Video on Demand as a dumping ground for second-tier titles, but Radius, which is the Weinstein Company’s boutique label, sees VOD as a premier release platform. The strategy paid off this summer when Radius released Snowpiercer, a Korean-made sci-fi film based on a French graphic novel, to VOD just two weeks after its release, while the film was still in theaters. It managed to rack up $3.8 million in streaming its first two weeks—in addition to the $3.9 million the film made its first five weeks in theaters. Radius took a similar approach with The One I Love, the sci-fi-meets-rom-com Sundance hit starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, which was released on VOD two weeks prior to its theatrical release. “We used VOD as a decent revenue stream, but more importantly as a groundswell of word-of-mouth marketing,” said Charlie McDowell, the director of The One I Love.
For creating a first-of-its-kind company for the online video age. Otter Media is a marriage of a proven content creator (The Chernin Group) with one of the largest telecom companies in the country (AT&T). The result: It plans to invest over $500 million in acquisitions and programming, and has already bought a majority stake in Fullscreen, one of the largest YouTube networks, and acquired (it has a majority stake) Crunchyroll, an anime streaming site, and Creativebug, which specializes in how-to crafts videos. It is now building its own platform, which it plans on leveraging via AT&T’s massive base of cable, mobile, and broadband subscribers. All of this portends a viable alternative to YouTube, long the dominant online video service. “Combining our expertise in network infrastructure, mobile, broadband, and video, with the Chernin Group’s management and expertise in content, distribution, and monetization models in online video creates the opportunity for us to develop a compelling offering in the OTT space,” John Stankey, chief strategy officer at AT&T, has said.
For helping brands speak a young man’s language. The digital media company that began with BroBible has morphed into an all-dude online empire that reaches 85 million viewers a month. But rather than just gobble up popular guy sites such as BroTips and Guyism, Woven uses its reach to sell ads and create guy-friendly content for advertisers looking to connect with young males in an authentic way. Campaigns have included a series of video shorts for the video game Need For Speed, one of which featured a “professional” photobomber. Other advertisers include WalMart, Motorola, FX, and Spike TV. “Our average campaign size is now six to seven figures. And 80% of our campaigns are sold directly to premium brands,” CEO Scott Grimes has said, adding that Woven’s revenue has increased by triple digits in the last three years. The plan now is to expand into creating original content (TV, movies) for traditional media.
For finding innovative ways to expand the OWN brand. Just three years after being written off as a high-profile misfire, Oprah Winfrey, along with OWN partner Discovery, has completely refocused her company—building a solid lineup of uplifting series (the first round were deemed too “dour”) with modest budgets, including the network’s cornerstone show, The Haves and Have Nots From Tyler Perry. As a result, the first quarter of 2014 was OWN’s most-watched quarter in network history, with double-digit growth across all demographics. It is available in 85 million homes, has become the fastest-growing network for women ages 25 to 54, and is the No. 1 cable network on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for African-American women. As part of its aggressive digital push, OWN worked with the YouTube space in Los Angeles to create the web series Who Am I, which debuted in August, and completely relaunched Oprah.com.
For supporting risky, independent films with out-of-the-box marketing. How bold is A24 Films? It released Obvious Child, an “abortion comedy” that most companies wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole. A24 picked it up at Sundance and created a raunchy, funny, social media-based campaign that helped it gross more than $3 million—much more than its $500,000 production budget. A24 operates like a lean startup with just 21 employees crammed into a New York City loft, and not one of them has a formal title. The company blasted onto screens in 2013 with Spring Breakers (and a memorable campaign featuring James Franco in a Last Supper vignette with bikini-clad young women), and is now proving its staying power with a slate of provocative titles, including Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, Kevin Smith’s Tusk, and A Most Violent Year, starring Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks.