When Kevin Hart teamed up with Lionsgate back in the summer of 2017 to launch Laugh Out Loud Network, the idea was to create an owned-and-operated streaming home for comedy content, with subscriptions a big piece of the revenue pie.
As it happened, that was right around the time NBCUniversal pulled the plug on Seeso, its own comedy roll-up SVOD play.
The subscription side of LOL didn’t last long, as niche streaming services struggled and as major players like HBO Max and Disney Plus streamed into the fight for consumer entertainment spending. Hart’s company pivoted from the original plan to become a distributed, diversified producer of comedy content — a shift in strategy, Hart told Variety, that has allowed LOL to expand well beyond its original goals in terms of audience reach.
“We made some changes that were for the better, which put us in a position to grow,” Hart said. “Now it’s much bigger than we thought.”
In early 2019, Hart bought out most of Lionsgate’s stake in Laugh Out Loud to become majority owner. Then earlier this year he inked a deal with NBCU, under which the media company took a minority equity stake in LOL. The deal makes Hart’s company a flagship partner for Peacock with a slate of series and short-form originals coming to the hybrid free/paid streamer starting later in 2020. Peacock also will distribute LOL’s catalog.
Having the controlling interest in LOL, Hart said, “let me build the company I believe in.”
The creative mission of the company hasn’t changed, Hart said. “Three years ago it started off as a vision to give people, the comedy talent of today, male and female, an opportunity to pop — and be seen… We have progressively busted our ass, and worked hard to get closer and closer to that goal. We made some noise and stayed consistent.”
LOL’s content comes from a talent lineup of some 300 comedians from over 30 countries. The biggest opportunity, Hart said, remains “being able to give people a true identity on our platform, especially people of color. It’s comedy in color, from people of color.” It’s a space that historically has been underserved, “and we’re doing our best to fill it,” he said.
As he and his team at LOL — led by EVP and GM Thai Randolph and president Jeff Clanagan — have been trying to build a digital comedy empire, Hart has had to juggle his time at Laugh Out Loud with his acting work, which he’s continued apace with roles in recent movies including “Jumanji: The Next Level” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” There was also the PR blowup in 2018, when his past homophobic tweets were resurfaced and he stepped down as host of the Oscars; Hart and his production company turned the experience into a Netflix docuseries, “Kevin Hart: Don’t F**k This Up.”
Did Hart ever think about throwing in the towel on LOL? “No, not at all,” he said. “It was about, for me, ‘How do I step up to the challenge?’ My challenge now is build this thing from ground zero to potentially a hero – one of the ones that made it. That’s my motivation, that was my reason to continue.”
Today, Laugh Out Loud is a multiplatform network with multiple lines of business. The company says it reaches over 100 million video viewers, via distribution on streaming platforms including Roku Channel, ViacomCBS’s Pluto TV, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram — and will soon have a perch on NBCU’s Peacock.
“The landscape has really evolved the last three years,” said Randolph, GM of Laugh Out Loud Network. “We’ve expanded it in terms of reach and distribution but also in terms of ambition about what the company is and can be. Our focus — our moonshot — is to develop the most relevant comedy brand in the world.”
To mark its third anniversary, LOL Network is launching a redesign of its website (at laughoutloud.com) to better highlight the scope of its content across all platforms and formats, as well as comedy talent. “With the site redesign, we wanted to create a new destination that mirrored our evolution as a company and showcased the multiple divisions, distribution touchpoints, and top-tier talent partnerships we’ve developed,” Randolph said.
The company also operates LOL Studios, a full-service production company with 40,000 square feet of studio space in Canoga Park, Calif. That arm of the company produced Quibi original “Die Hart,” co-starring Hart and John Travolta. In addition, the LOL Audio division comprises a radio channel on SiriusXM with a show hosted by Hart, and the No. 1 podcast on Pandora, “Straight from the Hart With Kevin Hart.”
It also launched LOL X!, a live-event and experiential division, and earlier this year led marketing for Nick Cannon’s Wild N Out tour in partnership with ViacomCBS, though additional projects have been on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. And LOL is continuing its global expansion through Canada’s Bell Media, with other deals in the pipeline.
Randolph noted that LOL always had an ad-supported component to the business model, targeting a multicultural audience and doubling down on an African-American base of comedy fans. The industry’s increasing lean into AVOD, as demonstrated by Peacock, “validated our assumptions,” she said. At the same time, company execs wanted to diversify their portfolio to not be overly reliant on any single revenue stream because, as Randolph put it, “not all of these things are going to work.”
Meanwhile, marketers have tapped LOL to create comedic branded content through diverse cultural voices. For example, the company has worked with Lyft on “Kevin Hart: Lyft Legend” (in which Hart goes undercover as a Lyft driver to give unsuspecting passengers a trip they’ll never forget) and “Cold as Balls,” sponsored by P&G’s Old Spice, the ice-bath sports talk show on YouTube.
LOL has been built around Kevin Hart being “that North Star, the heart and the vision” from a talent perspective, Randolph said, with him being “an endorser” to raise up other comedic voices. “What Kevin has done, and his whole MO, is sweat equity — making sure the foundation is there.”
The company is profitable, Randolph said, with headcount scaling up or down as needed for productions. “The core team is deliberately small and nimble,” she said. “We’ve kept this bottom-line focus and an eye toward profitability.”
Clanagan, who is also Hart’s longtime business partner, said the company has been able to adapt quickly to industry trends with its lean, partnership-focused structure. He sees continued global expansion for LOL, particularly in Africa. “What we saw from Kevin is there’s a huge global market for this content,” Clanagan said.
LOL, like other networks and studios, has been thrown for a loop because of production shutdowns caused by the pandemic. That’s forced the team to become more creative, Hart said.
“You saw people really get to a place where they said, ‘Although we’re not in a position to physically produce on set, what can we do virtually?'” he said. “We challenged the team to still produce and come up with things, and be aggressive in this time…. It never was the time to sit back and be engulfed in our own misery. It was about constant trying, that’s what literally has gotten us through this pandemic.”
During COVID-19 lockdowns, LOL has put several animated projects in the works. “That wasn’t really in our road map, but we accelerated that development pipeline,” Clanagan said, because it’s far more feasible to produce animated content remotely. The company has a pilot coming out in a couple weeks of a show called “Confessions From the Hart,” with animated renditions of stories told by comedians. “Comedians are storytellers,” Clanagan said, noting that idea germinated after Hart posted stories around 10 minutes long on Instagram every week “and they started blowing up.”
Hart is hoping to be able to start production in L.A. as soon as September on his first original Peacock series, “Hart to Heart,” with him interviewing different guests in what he promises will be “real, authentic and raw conversation.”
Once productions get back into action, Hart is hopeful that LOL will be able to land even more fans on Peacock. The NBCU deal is “huge and special,” he said. “They can act as great partners and put us in a position to do more — and be more.”