Under the leadership of Vice Studios president Kate Ward, the three-year-old production and distribution player is expanding to become a dedicated premium player for major outlets around the world, with a keen focus on high-end unscripted fare.
In her first major interview since taking the reins in late 2019, the former president of international for Refinery29 tells Variety of a concerted effort to hone in on an ethos for Vice Studios in a media landscape brimming with content arms-dealers. Ward describes balancing subject matter “that will be inherently popular, but also has that artful edge synonymous with Vice.”
Based out of London, part of the executive’s remit has been to unite the Vice and Refinery29 content teams. Vice Media Group closed its acquisition of the women’s online lifestyle brand in October 2019 — a deal perceived as a logical play for two digital-centric media companies to better reach young audiences, as well as diversify Vice’s male-skewing base.
“This is an expansive moment for independent media,” Nancy Dubuc, former A+E Networks chief and CEO of Vice Media Group, said at the time. “We will not allow a rapidly consolidating media ecosystem to constrict young people’s choices or their ability to freely express themselves about the things they care about most.”
Ward was named president of Vice Studios shortly after, with a remit that oversees feature film and TV production across scripted and unscripted. The global production outfit was launched in 2017 with a mandate to produce content not only for Vice channels, but also external broadcasters and platforms. The move made sense, considering many of Vice’s cutting-edge productions were going down digital rabbitholes and getting lost on TV channel Viceland, which had mixed reviews and poor viewership in most markets.
Vice Studios was supercharged under Dubuc, and now boasts teams in London, Toronto, New York, Mexico City and Mumbai. With a 900-hour catalogue, the outfit launched a distribution and licensing business earlier this year headed up by former ITV Studios exec Bea Hegedus — a savvy move that was particularly well-timed considering the voracious appetite among global buyers for finished programs during the pandemic.
“What you’ll see with Vice distribution is a desire to see content monetized, but the strategy behind it is a desire to do large-scale partnerships,” says Ward, citing a recent Hulu partnership that saw 100 hours of Vice shows landing on the Disney-backed streamer.
Ward, too, got her start in distribution, working at London-based specialist factual distributor TVF International before moving to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group, which eventually became Endemol Shine Group and is now part of Banijay. She rose steadily through the ranks, working as director of international distribution before serving as VP of Shine Network and ultimately becoming head of commercial and strategy for Shine TV.
“I come from a production environment, so to return to that has been absolutely fantastic,” says Ward, who calls her Refinery29 stint something of a “departure” from her previous work. Of her former workplace’s reckoning with race earlier this year — an episode that saw co-founder Christene Barberich stepping down after criticism over a lack of racial diversity and allegations of racial discrimination, soon followed by the exit of global president Amy Emmerich — Ward says the appointment of new editor-in-chief Simone Oliver “marks a new and exciting phase for the company.”
In her new role, Ward doesn’t mince words about Vice Studios’ objectives in working with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple, rather than serving up a pipeline for Vice TV. “There are times when everyone wants the same idea, and while we’re family, they see the programs [at the same time] as everyone else, and that’s important.”
Chris Smith’s Emmy-nominated “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” and blockbuster Netflix doc “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” were major turning points for the production outfit. The documentaries “began a transition” of premium unscripted work for deep-pocketed streaming players, according to Ward.
Scripted plays like Adam Driver-starrer “The Report” for Amazon and the Riz Ahmed-fronted “Mogul Mowgli” with Pulse Films may have been sound reputation builders, but it’s the unscripted piece that’s to become “a significant proportion of the focus” for Vice Studios, explains the executive.
“Scripted and film is very, very important but in the last year, there’s been a big push to be a leader in premium documentary,” she notes.
Recent doc credits include Diego Osorno’s “1994” for Netflix, out of Vice Studios Latin America; pro wrestling doc series “Dark Side of the Ring” for Vice TV and documentaries “AKA Jane Roe” for FX and “Satanic Verses” for the BBC. Another highlight is three-part series “Jack the Ripper: Hidden Victims” (w/t) for ViacomCBS-backed U.K. broadcaster Channel 5, which debunks the myths and mistruths around the infamous Whitechapel murderer.
And as often happens in the documentary sphere, there’s a strong editorial underpinning across the board — which is handy given Vice’s portfolio. “Access is such a critical part of our purpose for Vice Media Group — to really understand that IP and bring it to audiences in a different way,” says Ward. “That can be an article we take as original reporting and extend, like ‘Fyre,’ or it can be a format like ‘Shine True’ [previously titled ‘Clothes Minded’].”
Ward notes the outfit is working closely with the wider editorial, whether that’s Motherboard or i-D. “Working with them to identify and co-create has been a big shift this year,” she says.
As for expanding Vice Studios’ global aspirations, Variety can reveal that Vice Media Group has renewed its partnership with Australian broadcaster SBS, and will continue its content deal for free-to-air TV channel SBS Viceland and SBS digital platforms. Struck in 2016, the partnership sees a dedicated channel that features a mix of Vice and SBS content.
The multi-year pact covers more than 1,000 hours of Vice Media Group content available to Australians through SBS, with access to over 600 hours of new programs including Vice TV doc features, series and the new Vice World News strand, along with Vice Studios productions.
Meanwhile, India will be a key market going forward, with strong relationships in place with local players like Disney Hotstar, as well as Netflix and Amazon.
While the market has been traditionally focused on scripted fare, Vice Studios will look to leverage its non-scripted bona fides and gain traction in the documentary space. “We’re there to participate and contribute towards the boom in IP happening in that market,” says Ward.