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First Look Media’s Topic Plans to Launch Subscription VOD Service (EXCLUSIVE)

Can Topic execute a solid pivot into premium video? The digital storytelling outlet of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media thinks it can put together a niche Netflix-style subscription-video service curated to appeal to young “culture cravers.”

Topic plans to launch the subscription VOD service in the fourth quarter of 2019, stocked with hundreds of hours of licensed and original content, including scripted dramas and comedies, indie films and documentaries, general manager Ryan Chanatry told Variety. He declined to reveal the price of the service but said it would “fit within what’s in the market.”

The move into SVOD comes after First Look just shut down Topic magazine, laying off six staffers, after two years. The final edition of the digital Topic magazine was the July 2019 issue. The New York-based company also ended its funding for political-cartoon site The Nib.

“Video has always been the core of the plan,” said Chanatry, who worked at Netflix before joining First Look Media in 2016. “Our video is going to scale and look different as we build out the subscription direct-to-consumer offering.” He noted that the magazine incorporated one centerpiece video project each month, and “through that we started to learn what resonates with audiences, what creators and voices make sense for us to work with.”

Michael Bloom, CEO of First Look Media, emphasized that the SVOD strategy is to serve a niche audience hungry for a unique blend of entertaining and informative content. “At a time when people are often overwhelmed with choice, we’re not looking to be everything to everyone but instead we will go narrow and deep and program,” he said. The Topic SVOD service is for people “who want to both broaden their perspectives and be entertained with content that reflects their values and interests.”

Heading up development and video programming for Topic’s consumer platform is Gena Konstantinakos, formerly a producer at Vice Media’s Viceland cable channel. She leads a six-member team negotiating content-licensing deals and greenlighting projects for Topic’s SVOD service; some video will continue to be distributed for free.

“We want to build a subscription service that people are proud to be part of,” Chanatry said. Topic is aiming for an audience “deeply engaged in social, political and cultural issues of today. We see our place as a brand as serving that intersection of people who are looking for social currency and are culture-cravers, people who voraciously suck in all this stuff.”

On the originals front, shows coming to Topic’s streaming service are set to include: “Soul City,” from the directing duo of Coodie and Chike, a three-part thriller/horror anthology shot in New Orleans about the city’s folklore; a comedy series from Sharon Horgan’s Mermade digital studio, which has a first-look deal with Topic Studios; and a talk show hosted by comedian Maria Bamford exploring mental health through conversations with comedians.

Topic also is licensing international shows and is working with distributors including FremantleMedia, France’s Lagardère, BBC, ITV, and Australia’s ABC. In addition, it’s looking to acquire rights to independent movies, documentaries and other projects that have premiered at Sundance Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA and other festivals or have landed on Oscar shortlists. Topic’s SVOD service will draw some of its original programming from Topic Studios, the company’s separate TV and film unit headed by Maria Zuckerman, who most recently was senior VP of HBO Films.

“We are looking for really engaging, lean-in content. We want you to be watching it in a concentrated way,” Chanatry said. He declined to say what First Look Media is spending on the Topic subscription-streaming project but said, “We’re concentrated on being smart and focused.”

Chanatry was named GM of Topic in June 2018, after joining First Look Media in October 2016 as VP of audience development. Prior to that, he worked at Netflix as director of global marketing insights.

Topic’s video projects released to date have included Wyatt Cenac’s Emmy-nominated directorial debut, “aka Wyatt Cenac,” “The Loving Generation,” “Black 14,” “Edith+Eddie” and “She’s the Ticket.” Topic has commissioned current and upcoming projects from filmmakers including Darius Clark Monroe, Nathan Silver, Jia Li, Yvonne Michelle Shirley and Charlie Tyrell.

Topic’s foray into SVOD has a decidedly niche focus. “It’s not a catalog play. Netflix has so much but it’s very difficult to navigate,” Chanatry said. “People want a place to go where they can take a chance on anything in the library and be entertained and shaped.”

To market the service, Topic initially will target users who have installed the free Topic channel on Roku. According to Chanatry, Topic’s channel has more than 200,000 installs on Roku players. It will also promote the service to visitors of Topic.com and followers on Facebook and YouTube.

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