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NewFronts: Kristen Stewart, Gabourey Sidibe, America Ferrera Join Refinery29’s New Programming Slate

Female-focused media company launching two dedicated YouTube channels, RIOT and Brawlers, and virtual-reality studio

Refinery29 has inked pacts with Kristen Stewart, Gabourey Sidibe and America Ferrera to produce original programming as part of the women-focused digital media company’s new content slate.

The company announced the partnerships and unveiled more than a dozen original series at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation Monday evening. Refinery29 also announced the launch of VR29 Studios, a virtual-reality production studio, along with two dedicated YouTube channels — comedy channel RIOT and Brawlers, covering women in sports — as well as programming queued up for Facebook Live and Instagram.

Actresses Kristen Stewart (“Twilight” movies) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) will make their directorial debuts with short films for Refinery29’s ShatterBox Anthology; Stewart’s is currently titled “Water” and Sidibe’s is “A Tale of Four Women.”

The company’s ShatterBox Anthology is a series of 12 short-form original scripted films created by female directors, writers and animators, launched with creative support from Women at Sundance, as well as advisory support from Killer Films’ founders Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler.

In addition to running monthly on Refinery29 starting this summer, a selection of ShatterBox Anthology films also will be distributed through Comcast’s Watchable, the company announced. Other filmmakers in the series include: Jessica Sanders, Meera Menon, Tiffany Shlain, Courtney Hoffman, Jessica Dimmock, Robin Cloud, Roja Gashtili, Julia Lerman and Anu Valia. The first film backed by the ShatterBox Anthology — “Kitty,” Chloe Sevigny’s directorial debut — will premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) is teaming with Refinery29 as executive producer on two projects: “Behind the Headlines,” a multimedia experience comprising video, text and images dedicated to “humanizing the conversations around the issues that matter to women”; and “Only Girl,” a docu-series investigating what it means to be a female in a male-dominated field, ranging from baseball players to airplane pilots.

“We are proud to be collaborating with award-winning talent to create a slate of female-focused content that showcases what it is to be powerful in a nontraditional way,” said Amy Emmerich, chief content officer at Refinery29.

Since launching original programming in April 2015, Refinery29 says its audience has watched over 4.2 million hours of video on Facebook and YouTube. The company noted that one of its original series, “The Skinny” — a dark comedy about bulimia starring, written and directed by Jessie Kahnweiler and executive produced by Jill Soloway, Andrea Sperling and Rebecca Odes — premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Refinery29’s two new YouTube channels are slated to debut later this month. Brawlers will launch with series including “Game of Life,” a profile series featuring women in sports such as 12-time Paralympic Games gold medalist Jessica Long and WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. RIOT – billed as the “female-first comedy YouTube channel” dedicated to scripted and unscripted video series – will launch with eight original series from female comedy writers, directors and performers including Phoebe Robinson, Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla, Laura Willcox, Shannon Coffey, and Jacqueline Novak, with guest appearances from Lena Dunham, Jessica Williams, Julie Klausner and digital star Awkwafina.

Meanwhile, Refinery29’s VR29 Studios, with a dedicated staff of eight, is slated to launch one VR/360-degree video per week for the remainder of 2016 starting in June. The content will explore a range of subjects including music, fashion, theater, sports and travel.

Shows in Refinery29’s 2016 programming slate include:

  • “Champions of the Universe”: Part of the new Brawlers channel, the docuseries features five-time world record holder in hula-hooping, Marawa the Amazing, as she travels the world in search of fellow record breakers who are raising the bar of human achievement.
  • “Chasing Daylight”: This Facebook Live series will broadcast daily conversations with global tastemakers and influencers. From Sydney to Bangkok, the show’s hosts will live-stream one hour of their day, creating a dialogue around beauty, style and culture.
  • “Bend It Like Beka”: Instructional video series with yoga expert Beka Halls on Brawlers.
  • “Knock Out”: Docu-series on Brawlers about the world of female boxers that includes three-time Golden Glove winner Alicia Napoleon.
  • “Naked Truths”: A weekly YouTube series in which social influencers will be invited to join a cultural conversation about beauty norms, starting by removing their makeup on camera.
  • “#R29StyleStalking”: An Instagram-based fashion video series showing street style in motion, based on best-selling book by Refinery29 cofounders Christene Barberich and Piera Gelardi.
  • “Sex Ed”: Four-part scripted series, marking Refinery29’s second collaboration with Planned Parenthood, covers sexual education through the lens of what women “actually need and want to know.”
  • “Short Cuts”: Dedicated Facebook channel with daily beauty tips will feature YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous and other influencers from Refinery29’s talent collective Here and Now, alongside women from the company’s staff and other collaborators.
  • “Sound Off”: Docu-series about emerging musicians around the globe, profiling artists including Sunflower Beam, Princess Nokia and Karol Conka, set to include a VR/360 companion series.
  • “Strangers”: Long-form scripted comedy from producer Beachside Productions, writer-director Mia Lidofsky and exec producer Jesse Peretz (co-executive producer and director of HBO’s “Girls”). The show is about a young woman, Isobel Song (played by Zoe Chao), navigating the most emotionally complicated time in her life while dealing with a revolving door of new guests staying in her house’s spare room.
  • “What We Teach Girls”: Docu-series from Disney’s Maker Studios executive producers Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick of Warrior Poets exploring the lessons and values girls are taught throughout their lives in their respective communities. Each episode features juxtaposing stories of two very different girls from vastly different subcultures.

In addition, Refinery29 announced a partnership with the Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab to form the Empathy Lab, a program to explore how power is represented in conversations online and digital content and aims to establish tools for young people to enact change. The company said the Empathy Lab will inform its programming strategy and support its goal to build a more “creative, supportive and sustainable” industry for women in entertainment.

Refinery29 says it reaches more than 175 million unique monthly viewers across multiple platforms and 25 million on the web, and serves up more than 100 million video views per month.

Refinery29 has raised about $80 million to date from investors including Scripps Networks Interactive, WPP, Stripes Group, Floodgate, Lead Edge Capital, First Round Capital, Lerer Ventures and Hearst. The company has grown to more than 400 employees at its New York headquarters and offices in Los Angeles and London.

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