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The 10 most innovative companies in media

LeBron James’s SpringHill Company, NBCUniversal, Substack, WIll Smith’s Westbrook, and Blumhouse are defining the future of the content we consume.

The 10 most innovative companies in media
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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As the media industry was rocked by the pandemic in 2020, companies were forced to quickly come up with creative ways to make and distribute content, as well as keep audiences united during a socially divisive time. These companies led the way on those fronts and more.

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1. SpringHill Company

For marrying entertainment with social justice through Hollywood content

LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s marketing and entertainment company has an unapologetic agenda: to make and distribute content that will give a voice to creators and consumers who have been pandered to, ignored, or underserved. Its commitment to this community hasn’t wavered as the company significantly scaled into a content creation powerhouse and raised $100 million in 2020. It was a producer of the Netflix limited series Self-Made, starring Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, the Black creator of an early-20th-century beauty empire; and the documentary series The Playbook about legendary coaches, also on Netflix. SpringHill Company also backed James’ More than a Vote initiative to boost voter turnout, and created animated shorts and other digital media to educate and inspire people to get involved in the Presidential election. More content is on the way thanks to a blizzard of new deals with Amazon, Disney, Universal, CNN, Sirius, and more.

2. NBCUniversal

For proactively moving its traditional businesses into the future

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In 2020, NBCUniversal made aggressive moves toward streaming as a theatrical distribution platform, taking on movie theater giant AMC to hammer out a deal in which Universal movies are released on streaming platforms just 17 days after they come out in theaters (as opposed to the traditional 90 days). A similar deal was reached with Cinemark, another significant theater chain. As theaters started shutting down in the midst of COVID-19, NBCU moved major times like Trolls: Worldwide and Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) platforms, coming up with new ways to compensate stars like Justin Timberlake. The year also saw the savvy launch of Peacock, NBCU’s free, ad-supported streaming service that in just five months racked up 26 million sign-ups, proving that a deep library of familiar content was just what audiences were craving during an incredibly turbulent year. That was before The Office moved from Netflix to Peacock in January. As NBCU chairman Jeff Shell put it, Peacock is “the opposite of Quibi.”

[Illustration: Jacob Pinson]

3. Substack

For giving writers a profitable refuge from the shipwreck of old and new media

As the traditional media industry continues to crumble, newsletter and podcasting platform Substack has exploded as the de facto destination for journalists to create their own businesses, giving them access not just to creative expression but revenue streams. Both more flexible and proactive than its competitors, Substack helps writers build up audiences through a mentorship program, allows them to team up and create a bundle, and recently launched a feature that helps them identify people they follow on Twitter who have a Substack newsletter. Features like these have helped the company attract an avalanche of top talent, including Anne Helen Peterson from BuzzFeed, Jemima Kiss from The Guardian, and author Glenn Greenwald, who in some cases earn six-figure salaries. As COVID-19 wreaked yet more havoc on ad-supported media channels, Substack’s subscription numbers spiked up to 250,000 paid subscribers.

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4. Westbrook

For keeping it real in 2020

When Red Table Talk—Jada Pinkett Smith and family’s Facebook Watch series—had Olivia Jade on to discuss her involvement in the Varsity Blues scandal last December, the show opened with a discussion about race and the optics surrounding a white, privileged young woman bringing her redemption story to three Black women. The discussion was classic Red Table Talk, which has become one of the most relevant media platforms for frank talk during a year seized by racial unrest and ever-more divisive partisanship. The numbers bear this out: The Emmy-nominated show is Facebook Watch’s most successful original program with over 1 billion views, and in 2020 it launched a spin-off series hosted by Gloria Estefan. The franchise is just one prong of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s multimedia company, Westbrook, that encompasses film, TV, and digital projects focused on promoting diversity. The projects are geared to meeting viewers where they actually watch, and show how the couple aren’t just celebrities dabbling in content creation but coming up with fun and creative experiments to engage their fans. When COVID-19 hit, Westbrook created a Snapchat series Will From Home, shot entirely at Smith’s house. Other projects include the upcoming Warner Bros. film King Richard, starring Smith as Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father, who coached his daughters into tennis phenoms on public courts in Compton, California; and the Netflix series Cobra Kai.

5. Blumhouse

For bringing yet more creative efficiency to Hollywood

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Producer Jason Blum’s model of making cost-effective, horror films and TV shows became even more relevant in 2020 as the entertainment industry was squeezed hard by the pandemic, and expensive, large-scale productions became risky from both a health and financial perspective. In October, the company launched Welcome to the Blumhouse, an anthology series of eight thriller films on Amazon Prime. The project was not only timely, giving audiences strapped to their couches more content to binge, but another example of Blumhouse‘s trademark efficiency, seeing as making the films as a package cut down significantly on production and marketing costs. Blumhouse hired underrepresented filmmakers who were of African, Indian, and Filipino descent to make the films, both to help correct Hollywood’s diversity problem and to better serve Blumhouse’s audience, half of whom are from Black or from ethnic minority backgrounds.

6. Cameo

For creating a personalized way for influencers and fans to connect

Cameo, the digital platform that allows users to purchase short, personalized “shout out” videos from celebrities like Snoop Dogg (for $1,200), Mia Hamm ($125), and even Roseanne Barr ($200), grew rapidly in 2020 as influencers suddenly found themselves stuck at home, unable to perform live or participate in sporting events. This created a new, sizable gig economy: Cameo, which takes a 25% cut of stars’ fees, brought in more than $100 million in bookings in 2020. The company has formulated a new spin on the relationship between celebrities and fans, one that is far more intimate than a Facebook post or Instagram story, as well as a clever marketing tool for media companies. The site breaks down influencers by categories, such as Netflix and The Office (Toby and Kevin are on!). In fact, actor Brian Baumgartner, who played the bumbling character Kevin Malone, was Cameo’s top earner in 2020, making more than $1 million.

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7. Wayfarer Studios

For making social justice a priority at every level of content creation

Created by Paylocity founder Steve Sarowitz and Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni, Wayfarer Studios is committed to producing impactful, message-driven content. This means projects like Clouds, a film based on the true story of Zach Sobiech, a teen who was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, which debuted on Disney Plus; as well as the upcoming adaptation of Colleen Hoover’s best-selling novel It Ends With Us, about an abusive relationship. The company applies the same social justice lens to how content gets made, and has been hiring executives, creators, and behind-the-scenes filmmakers who reflect the diverse world we live in. It has also extended opportunities to those who don’t typically have them. When COVID-19 hit, Wayfarer created the Six Feet Apart competition, in which aspiring filmmakers were selected and given $50,000 each to make their first movie at home. “We have a vision to disrupt for good,” says Baldoni.

8. Tastemade

For putting an egg on the pandemic

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“Put an egg on it” became a mantra on the Tastemade series Struggle Meals in 2020, as well as a wildly popular episode in which host Frankie Celenza demonstrated to the show’s 1 million cross-platform viewers how to turn virtually any food into a delicious, budget-friendly meal with the mere crack of an egg. The show epitomized how Tastemade, the digital cooking network for millennials, turned COVID-19 to its advantage, despite the fact that its test kitchens and sets were forced to shut down and chefs like Celenza were cooking and filming out of their home kitchens. In 2020, Tastemade also launched Tastemade India (its Diwali series on Snap attracted 750,000 viewers), as well as Tastemade en Espanol, its first-ever Spanish language streaming channel for TV. With more people stuck at home looking for creative ways to approach mealtime, the network grew the number of households that it reaches globally from 80 million to 130 million year over year.

9. FOS

For keeping sports fans from pulling out their hair in 2020

Sports fans deprived of live events during the pandemic found consolation in FOS (formerly Front Office Sports), a newsletter startup devoted to helping people working in—and just interested in—the $600 billion-plus sports biz understand what’s happening. Even without live sports for awhile, the business never stopped and FOS expanded in new and creative ways in order to satiate its homebound audience. The company aggressively ramped up its portfolio with a focus on talent-led brands geared to breed more community and engagement. For example, sportswriter Anthony Puccio’s NBA daily newsletter, The Association, debuted in December, adding to a portfolio that covers college sports and athletes and sports culture. A betting and fantasy sports newsletter is expected to launch before the end of the first quarter of 2021. This 360 approach to catering to audiences helped FOS’s revenue grow 50% year over year in 2020. Subscriber numbers, meanwhile, skyrocketed 867%. The company expects to hit 500,000 by midyear.

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10. Her Campus Media

For keeping undergraduates connected during the pandemic

As the college experience was upended thanks to COVID-19, Her Campus Media stepped up to keep female undergraduate communities connected through virtual events, such as I’m Still Graduating, which featured Class of 2020 student speakers and performers alongside celebrities like Eva Longoria and Andrew Yang. The livestreamed event drew more than 1 million people. The media and marketing company, which has a presence on over 1,500 college campuses and is completely female operated and owned, also worked to help students navigate their post-college lives by introducing Generation Hired, a virtual recruiting process that matches students with internships and entry-level jobs. The company offers more networking and résumé-building opportunities for students through an umbrella of niche digital communities devoted to areas like fashion (College Fashionista) and food (Spoon University).