Ron Howard, Brian Grazer to Launch Digital Studio with Discovery Communications

Ron Howard Brian Glazer Digital Studio

Discovery Communications is teaming with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard to launch a digital studio, dubbed New Form.

True to its name, New Form will be focused on creating programming outside the traditional molds of TV and movies where Discovery and Imagine Entertainment, the shingle run by Grazer and Howard, have long excelled. Discovery plans to unveil New Form at its upfront presentation Thursday.

In a joint interview with Variety, Grazer, Howard and Discovery CEO David Zaslav spoke of wanting to reach out to a new generation of younger viewers who are gravitating to YouTube and beyond for innovative programming–particularly on the scripted side, which may be underserved.

“One of the things we saw is that great storytelling could work in the scripted arena but there wasn’t a lot of it,” said Zaslav. “So we sat down with two of the best scripted storytellers of our generation in Ron and Brian, looked at the space and saw a real opportunity.”

Also behind the venture are Imagine co-chairman Michael Rosenberg, attorney Craig Jacobson, former Tribune Broadcasting president Ed Wilson, former William Morris chief Jim Wiatt and CAA. Together with Discovery, Grazer and Howard, the total investment is less than $5 million over multiple years, according to sources, in keeping with the modest budgets of digital programming.

The Imagine duo were enticed to lend their creative expertise and financial support to New Form by the opportunity to stretch a little outside their wheelhouse. “I love making movies and TV but a byproduct of that is it provides you access to really creative and interesting people whose stories don’t always translate to a 30-minute TV show or a two-hour movie,” said Grazer, who declined to identify specific talent lined up citing deals still pending.

New Form, which will also produce unscripted content, expects to license content to a wide range of digital distributors and will not operate a standalone website. Discovery may take some projects for itself but will be counted on more for its expertise in ad sales, marketing and distribution. In addition to its global portfolio of TV networks, the company has already gotten its feet wet in digital programming with a robust portfolio that includes the 2012 acquisition of Revision3. Bought for $30 million, it was the first example of what has become a trend of traditional media companies snapping up MCNs, culminating in Disney’s $500 million-plus purchase of Maker Studios last week.

Leading the New Form team being assembled in Los Angeles will be chief creative officer Kathleen Grace, who was previously head of creative development for the YouTube Space LA. The Google-owned venue is a place where YouTube content creators are able to utilize a state-of-the-art facility to film content for the platform. Popular scripted content for YouTube including “Video Game High School” came out of YouTube Space LA.

While there are no shortage of digital content programmers out there, those that focus on scripted programming are in the minority. Existing properties would include Fox-owned Wigs and CW-owned CW Seed, as well as Michael Eisner-owned Vuguru.

Typically, scripted short-form programming can make some money through ad sales on portals, but really recoup their dollars when  they are stitched together into long-form episodes or films and distributed on home video or international networks. Another manner of exploiting this kind of content is to use digital platforms as an incubator for developing intellectual property that can then be migrated downstream to more traditional, lucrative TV, as has happened everywhere from Cartoon Network’s “Annoying Orange” to Nickelodeon’s “Fred.”

But those long-term strategies aren’t the focus of New Form, according to Zaslav. “This isn’t about how to figure out how a great short-form story can be a show on a long-form network,” said Zaslav. “It may happen from time to time, but the mission is to serve an audience with short-form on new media platforms.”

New Form isn’t the first time at the digital rodeo for Howard and Grazer. Way back in 1999, they were part of a dream team of Hollywood players including Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Paul Allen who attempted to launch Pop.com, a digital studio in the pre-broadband era that quickly fizzled. “We were a decade or two early,” joked Howard. “It was fascinating then and entirely exploratory, but it’s even more fascinating now.”