Film push, HBO show part of content company's expansion plans

Vice Media is about to start production on a feature based on Cutter Hodierne’s Sundance award-winning short film “Fishing Without Nets,” the first in a series of Vice-produced pics. First feature comes as the Brooklyn company preps a news show for HBO and rolls out its Web presence around the globe.

Vice is among a new breed of content creators riding a wave of change in the entertainment biz by working across several mediums. Its strength lies in a combination of edgy, irreverent fare and sharp business acumen, say its backers, which include boutique merchant bank Raine Group, former Viacom CEO Tom Freston and British ad giant WPP. WPP chief Martin Sorrell installed a dedicated exec to connect Vice with major agencies for advertising and sponsorships.

Vice’s feature production “Fishing Without Nets,” about Somali pirates, will start shooting this month in East Africa. Vice presented docu “Reincarnated” with Snoop Dogg in Toronto this week and will soon announce several new film projects.

Vice’s HBO show, to be hosted by Vice CEO Shane Smith, may launch as a companion to “Real Time With Bill Maher” and then fill the void when Maher’s show goes on hiatus. “‘Real Time’ has a very devoted, passionate audience and we’ve dabbled in finding shows that feel complementary,” the net’s programming prexy Michael Lombardo told Variety. “There was something about (Vice’s) voice that felt incredibly fresh, a passion and an engagement that spoke to me.”

He was impressed by pieces on Korea, Liberia and a Palestinian hot-rodder “that had as much to say about Israeli-Palestinian relations as anything I’d ever seen. This felt like a show that was less about politics than looking at the insanity of modern life,” he said.

Some of Vice’s other business includes flagship video, music and fashion website Vice.com, music network Noisey, online magazine Motherboard, and the Creators Project, an arts and technology initiative in partnership with Intel.

Vice magazine, launched 18 years ago, was nominated for a National Magazine award this year. Taking the early days of MTV as its inspiration — CEO Smith calls former MTV steward Freston the company’s “guru” — Vice aims to become the new international youth brand.

Smith thinks the juxtaposition of the world becoming a tougher place for young people at the same time as they have more ways to connect provides a fertile business opportunity. “It’s the devolution of the status quo. Young people don’t have jobs, they are angry. CNN was made by the Gulf War and we will be made by Europe and the world evolution,” he said.

Freston emphasized that “the shows are produced on a scale fit for Web economics,” he said. That’s one reason why Vice is profitable unlike many other online ventures, its execs and backers say. Though it’s privately held, sources close to the company say revenues could hit $200 million this year.

“To make money in the space at all in rare,” said Raine co-founder Joseph Ravitch. “Most of the guys make lots of noise about uniques and traffic and how much video they serve, but they lose money. Vice is very nicely profitable.”

It’s also global, with offices around the world, close to 1,000 full-time staffers and about 35% of revenue from overseas.

Company execs are keenly aware that the HBO show will be a big test for the company’s ability to transfer its youthful ethos and cheeky tone to a broader audience.

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