Vice’s Shane Smith Raises Game for HBO While Pursuing Digital Forays

Shane Smith knows he’s living dangerously, and he doesn’t give a damn. In his role as a producer and host of the “Vice” TV series on HBO, he is committed to “irreverence and unorthodoxy,” and he won wide praise recently for a startling piece about breakthrough cancer cures. In his role as a corporate CEO of Vice Media, meanwhile, he is pledged to orthodoxy — making money. And he is fast becoming a media folk hero for aggressively leading a print company into the frenzy of the digital and mobile universe.

The 45-year-old Smith knows that adulation in the press can quickly turn to rancor, especially when careers take off as dramatically as his. He presents the image of a swaggering and somewhat eccentric Canadian dealmaker — definitely a fun guy, yet one who also runs a company that projects itself to be worth $5 billion by year’s end, with 1,500 employees (per the Wall Street Journal) busily creating content formillennials and hipsters in
36 countries.

Starting life as punk magazine Voice of Montreal, co-founded by Smith in 1994, Vice has a corporate lexicon today that includes Noisey (geared to music), Munchies (food), Thump (electronic dance music), Motherboard (technology) and other digital adventures. Ask him whether he regards himself as a journalist or a CEO, and he responds, “I guess I’m a founder. I like to create shows. I also like to close deals.”

The deals are abundant — Vice has a sprawling network of digital channels, plus pacts with mobile carriers, and a movie production agreement with Fox. There are news networks in Italy and France, a fashion magazine (i-D) in London, and even an advertising agency called Virtue (I’m not sure why it’s called that or, for that matter, why the whole company is called Vice). Smith also wants to start a female-oriented digital channel. And he is involved in sporadic negotiations with A&E to launch a linear network.

He acknowledges that the HBO association “has forced us to raise our game.” What was once a somewhat erratic show (one episode depicted Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea) is now settling into a tough-minded investigative news program. Its piece on cancer explored new methods of using viruses (some lethal) to destroy cancer cells.

Is there anything Smith doesn’t want? For one, he doesn’t want to lose. Always competitive, he was pleased that Vice was one of the first 10 channels selected to be part of Snapchat’s Discover platform. Every one of Vice’s diverse sectors is profitable, he insists. “The business plan is simple: We license content. We’d like to auction off every piece of content five or six times.”

He also wants to enjoy himself He has a wife and two kids, but also is a dedicated bon vivant. When he scored a huge payday playing blackjack in Las Vegas earlier this year, he promptly threw a $300,000 dinner for friends, ordering steaks and pricey wine.

If he registers occasional discomfort, it’s with his role as a TV host. “I’m not an actor, and I get frustrated with my performance,” he growls. “A friend told me the other day, ‘Stop talking to the g-dd-mn camera.’ He has a point.”

But he has no intention of stopping. The HBO show is doing well, like the rest of the Vice empire. And Smith clearly relishes having escaped the ever-shrinking confines of the print world.

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

  • Tom Hanks Mr Rogers A BEAUTIFUL

    Tom Hanks' Portrayal of Mister Rogers May Put Him Back in Oscar's 'Neighborhood'

    Sony recently hosted a SAG-AFTRA screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Marielle Heller-directed drama starring Matthew Rhys as a magazine writer who befriends Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. While the screening didn’t include a guild Q&A with cast or the film’s creative team, the audience was greeted with a video message from [...]

  • Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese,

    Martin Scorsese and 'The Irishman' Enter Oscar Race With World Premiere at NYFF

    Even with its three-hour run time and a short 28 days in theaters before it’s available on Netflix, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is likely to be a major contender at the Oscars. The 57th New York Film Festival opened on Friday night with the world premiere of the epic real-life mob drama. Scorsese and his [...]

  • Brad Pitt Once Upon a Time

    How Much Does Hitting the Awards Season Circuit Really Matter to Stars Like Brad Pitt?

    “Do you want an Oscar?” That’s the first question one top awards consultant asks any potential contender when they first start talking. Everyone is wondering how Brad Pitt would answer that question these days. He recently raised eyebrows and made headlines when he proclaimed that he would not be campaigning this awards season. “Oh, man. I’m [...]

  • Renee Zellweger'Judy' film premiere, Arrivals, Samuel

    'Judy's' L.A. Premiere: Renée Zellweger Takes Another Ruby Step Toward the Oscars

    Renée Zellweger continues to follow the yellow brick road to the Oscars. The Los Angeles premiere of Judy on Thursday night in Beverly Hills kept the Academy Award winner on track for a possible second win come February. “We’re just so happy we’re able to share it with you tonight,” Zellweger said to the crowd [...]

  • Barry Bill Hader

    Emmys 2019: Clear Favorites and Top Challengers for This Year's Winners (Column)

    If this felt like the longest, most expensive Emmy campaign in history, you might be right. For one thing, the 2019 Primetime Emmys will be held Sept. 22, which is the latest the ceremony has taken place since 2013. That also happened to be the last year of TV’s quaint, pre-streaming era, before outlets like [...]

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content