The lower Manhattan Refinery29 office in spring is the real-life equivalent of the lifestyle company’s website. It’s all whites and pastels, women everywhere in fashion-forward looks, a buzz in the air that makes a visitor want to be part of this world.
But don’t be fooled by the dreamy surroundings: There is hard work being done here. And if you look closer, that 52-inch plasma isn’t flashing models in jean-kinis–it’s a glowing Chartbeat grid showing how many users are on each site page at this moment. The overall message is clear: Aesthetics matter–and so does the mission. (That mission, according to the company’s site: “To be the #1 new-media brand for smart, creative and stylish women everywhere.”)
“I didn’t know that women cared if what they were watching was created by a woman or based on a true story,” says Refinery29’s executive vice president of programming, Amy Emmerich. “The answer is overwhelmingly that yes, they care. They just hadn’t been given the option.”
Today, Refinery29 gives some 25 million visitors per month that option. And starting soon, women–and men–will be given even more options with content created out of the Refinery29 machine. At the recent NewFronts, the company–primarily a site that’s grown from a fashion and lifestyle hub to an editorial playground for daring stories by and for women–announced it’s going bigger with scripted series and new short documentaries (while continuing its Webby Award-winning tutorials). How big? The new lineup features heavy-hitting Hollywood talent, and shows will be produced by Lisa Kudrow, Mamie Gummer, Mae Whitman, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Wifey.tv cofounders Jill Soloway and Rebecca Odes, Illeana Douglas, and Emily Ratajkowski for Planned Parenthood (more on that partnership soon).
“R29 Originals” is the new branded video creation and distribution arm of the company, going far beyond its lifestyle and beauty content to explore stories around politics, food, sex, health and wellness, and travel. And although, according to one study, it would take a person over 5 million years to watch the amount of video that will cross global IP networks each month in 2018, Refinery29 believes it knows how to grab eyeballs and keep them on its shows.
“Maybe I’m drinking the Kool-Aid,” says Emmerich, “but I really do believe we’re trying to cover the entire 360 degrees of a woman’s life. There are some topics that are a bit touchy and it’s nice to tell them through a scripted environment. Docs will always be near and dear to my heart, but [with this new scripted space] it’s a little edge meets optimism.”
That’s where the talent comes in. Jessie Kahnweiler, a female Louie CK operating in a Broad City world (and, full disclosure: a friend of mine), first turned heads with her short film Meet My Rapist. Her new series, The Skinny, is an autobiographical account of Kahnweiler’s struggle with bulimia. Executive produced by Odes and Soloway, the creative force behind Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning Transparent, it’s meant to be dark–and funny.
“Jessie’s voice is so powerful and singular,” says Odes in an email. “She goes to the twisted places that resonate with so many of us but are so rarely seen on the screen. This subject matter is bold and necessary. So many women go through this, and so few people talk about it openly.”
Soloway sees an important opportunity on a new platform. “We’re using the Internet to get voices like Jessie’s to the audiences that crave them, without having to argue for their validity to a room full of suits,” she says.
Speaking of suits, Refinery29 co-CEOs Justin Stefano and Philippe von Borries don’t appear interested in operating cautiously, a fact that’s underscored by the Planned Parenthood partnership.
“Justin and Philippe don’t think small,” says Emmerich. “It’s why I took this job. People get nervous when thinking about everything at the same time, but why can’t we be everywhere? When I first started, they asked me how I’d get them into Sundance and also how we were going to get the best tutorials and still win awards.”
Refinery29 grew out of Von Borries and Stefano’s kitchen launching in 2005 as a fashion blog that aimed to refine information in the world of style down to its essence–hence the name. After five years, they rounded up more funding and expanded to cover other major U.S. cities–TechCrunch has called it a cross between DailyCandy and Style.com. Originally the content was more gender neutral, but as they grew it became clear the site was resonating more with women. A decade later, they’re aiming to be a one-stop shop for millennial-minded women. To do so–and to help produce the new series–the company secured a $50 million injection from WPP Digital and Scripps Network Interactive (Emmerich’s former employer).
Part of that cash will be spent on the Planned Parenthood partnership, which came about when Emmerich attended a party at Sundance in January, soon after she took her Refinery29 post. Together, the two companies will produce Her Shorts, a scripted series about reproductive and sexual health issues. Again, comedy and drama will mingle closely.
“It’s basically giving the sales community a middle finger,” Emmerich says of the shared content. “In my experience, sales is not going to look at this as a [lucrative] opportunity. We’re putting a flag in the sand and saying we’re creating content that matters to women.”
For now, such work is still in the experimental stage. Emmerich has been leading Refinery29 for only five months, and has been building the video department from scratch. When all this fresh content hits the web and feedback comes in, she can begin asking the hard questions: Where do we want to distribute it? How do we want to market it? How does our audience want to consume it?
“We’ll be testing a lot out this year and revising based off the data,” Emmerich says. “This is the fun part.”
Refinery29 is, of course, not alone. We are in the midst of a massive surge in digital video production, so much so that Variety has identified a “View-niverse,” an expanding cosmos stuffed with storytelling. It’s no longer just the Hulus, Netflixes, and Amazons producing all these shows–now even retailers are part of the action, to say nothing of kids with the apps Vine or Meerkat or Periscope. But if anyone’s worried that market saturation might be a problem, Medialink senior vice president and analyst David Anderson is not among them–at least not yet.
“I don’t’ think there’s a bubble, per se,” says Anderson. “Ultimately these publishers and platforms–if you want to refer to them broadly–are responding to the consumer trend, and there seems to be an incredible appetite for online video that is consumed places other than just the television. When you look at Refinery29, the property has built up an amazing audience of millennial women, and that appetite for content is being met through articles, slideshows, and social platforms. I think bringing [what] appeals to them in sight, sound, and motion is really just a natural next step.”
In January 2012, when Emmerich left her job as a VP in production and development at the Travel Channel–having spent lots of time in the TV world with Oxygen, HBO, and MTV–and went to work at the then-fledgling Vice, people thought she was nuts to ditch the cushy confines of television. She saw it differently, feeling that the digital sandbox was a nicer place to play. Within network television, friends were in short supply–Emmerich was looking for a more collaborative spirit.
“It was this get-it-made scrappiness that made [creating digital content] fun,” she offers. “The reason [audiences are now] leaving cable is that the they’re not getting everything they need there. Here, there’s no censorship.”
So where does Refinery29 go next in this vast, seemingly limitless realm? That’s where it gets a little complicated. Tutorials on how to perfect the cat eye, after all, demand a different type of distribution than the scripted series do, and must allow for a longer online shelf life and SEO strategy. As for the new series, Emmerich’s goal is to align them with the right partner–Visionaire Media and New Form Digital are also in for upcoming shows–and to distribute them with an exclusive window.
“Three years ago, I would not have been making content specifically for platforms,” notes Emmerich. “I would have made digital content and rolled it out everywhere. Now you’re creating specifically for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.”
This brings up a couple tough questions for content producers: Who will ultimately fund all these creative endeavors? And where will they play, in order to make them cost-effective?
Emmerich sees sponsorship as one possible answer. This allows a brand with a connection to the content’s audience an elegant way to reach them–provided sponsors and creators make sense as partners.
“That’s so much more meaningful then some piece of preroll at the top of the screen that has no connection to the content,” Emmerich says. “Trying to get away from that is our goal. What good is an ad that you can skip in three seconds versus a meaningful conversation?”
For Refinery29, those conversations are originating with the likes of Kahnweiler and Soloway, and Dunham and Konner who are writing, directing, and producing original works for the Her Shorts series. The analyst Anderson sees a path similar to TV being taken in the digital content landscape.
“We had relatively few choices in the beginning [of TV] that were programmed in a very specific way,” he says. “Over time, like in the cable industry, these niche-oriented properties popped up. I think Refinery29 has carved out their own niche–a very specific audience of loyal women who are smart, who are tech savvy and highly engaged, and they’re creating content for them. There aren’t too many people programming in that space.”
And just as AwesomenessTV was swallowed up by DreamWorks and Maker Studios was acquired by Disney, industry consolidation is happening fast. “People grow these valuable media properties and perhaps find there’s a better home that’s part of a broader entity,” Anderson continues. “If you look at the trends and the activity at NewFronts, all of those presenters showed tremendous growth in viewership and engagement. As of today, I don’t see that waning. Like all markets, there will come some level of maturity. But I think with the combination of consumer consumption and the market demand for it, the marketplace has a ways to grow before there’s concern.”
Now Emmerich’s team of 25 is growing, and the company’s newly created Talent Desk is considering what content works best on which platforms and in what format. They are scanning Pinterest and Instagram searching for new talent. They’re thinking about how a series of short pieces might work as a half-hour show and how longer videos can be cut into more web-friendly installments.
“People are really excited about new tech,” says Emmerich, “but they’re also excited about telling new stories and figuring out how we convey them.”
She pauses to consider the latest tool for contemporary storytellers.
“People thought Snapchat wasn’t going to work–and obviously a generation has taught us differently.”