In our fourth annual Digital Entertainment Impact report, Variety spotlights leaders making a mark ina world of virtually infinite content choices. Here are 27 decision makers — at tech giants, big media firms and venture-backed start-ups — who are postitioned to blaze paths through this dynamic landscape in the year ahead.
VP, Virtual Reality, Facebook
Barra runs Facebook’s multibillion-dollar bet on VR, including overseeing the Oculus hardware team, after joining the company about a year ago. The Brazil native — whose first job was as a college intern on Walt Disney Imagineering’s DisneyQuest VR project — previously worked at Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi and before that was one of Google’s top Android execs. “A new generation of VR products is coming to market, and a whole new world of entertainment will open up,” he says. “We’re also about to see social presence take a lead role in VR. … In 2018, we’ll see products that haven’t existed before — they haven’t needed to but do now.”
Burnie Burns & Matt Hullum
Co-Founders, Rooster Teeth
The duo that’s calling the shots at this sci-fi/fan-
dom content company was part of the founding team
that launched a subscription-video service for its web TV video-game parody series “Red vs. Blue” back in 2003 — before YouTube even existed and years prior to Netflix’s streaming debut. Today, Rooster Teeth has an ardent fan base for its originals, events and merchandise, having succeeded where others have failed (including parent company Fullscreen, which shuttered its SVOD division last year). Says Burns, Rooster Teeth’s chief creative officer: “In 2017, many content creators learned the hard way what only relying on one revenue stream or one platform can do to your business. In 2018, we’ll see more creators diversifying their businesses and finding new ways to finance their projects.” CEO Hullum adds: “Digital media businesses that just focus on scale at the expense of deep engagement with their audience are going to hit the limits of that strategy.”
As head of ad sales for Fox Networks Group, Byrne pitched brands and agencies on the power of TV. Now, he’s all about digital — extolling Zefr’s contextual-targeting solutions for YouTube advertising to Madison Avenue. In 2018, as audiences continue to migrate from linear TV environments to digital, says Byrne, “we will see media companies, studios and brands invest in technology solutions that not only deliver reach but also ensure that their content is placed in contextually relevant environments.”
President, Laugh Out Loud/Codeblack Films
The producer teamed with longtime business part-
ner Kevin Hart and Lionsgate for the launch of Laugh Out Loud: a digital-first multi-platform network and comedy brand built for diverse, young and tech-savvy consumers. In 2018, LOL is set to premiere YouTube original comedy-reality series “Kevin Hart: What the Fit?” and will bow a full-time SiriusXM channel. “Multicultural youth audiences are early adopters that drive brand relevance and outpace the level of content consumption of all other groups,” says Clanagan, who began his career as a concert promoter for artists including N.W.A, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. “Publishers will need to make strides to appeal to this increasingly powerful audience to maintain relevance in a crowded marketplace.”
Jamie Erlicht & Zack Van Amburg
Co-Heads, Video Programming Worldwide, Apple
After Apple plucked the pair of Sony Pictures Television co-presidents last summer, they’ve been building a television studio from scratch. Apple hopes the duo behind such breakouts as “Breaking Bad,” “The Crown” and “The Goldbergs” can bring a magic touch to the company’s Hollywood script. Says Erlicht, “We’re entering a time where new technology is enabling incredible advances in narrative storytelling.” For Van Amburg, success boils down to creative acumen: “Cutting through the clutter and standing out is not just a marketing job anymore — it’s now about access, zeitgeist conversations and the predictability of ongoing, high-quality content.”
CEO, Baobab Studios
In 2015, Fan co-founded the Silicon Valley VR animation studio with Eric Darnell (writer-director of the “Madagascar” movies) and Larry Cutler (formerly with DreamWorks Animation and Pixar). The start-up, whose investors include Comcast and 20th Century Fox, has worked on projects with John Legend, Elizabeth Banks and other talent. “Technology has focused on helping people get things done more efficiently and in the easiest way possible,” says Fan. “In 2018, the tide is changing to focus on how to create real emotional connections through advances in everyday uses of technology like VR and AR.” Before Baobab, Fan was VP of games at Zynga and worked on Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” as an intern.
Less than two months after Freer started his job as Hulu’s chief, Disney announced it was buying out 21st Century Fox’s 30% share in the TV streaming venture as part of
a seismic $52 billion deal. For now, the former Fox Networks COO is sticking to the current game plan — make Hulu a must-have streaming service by delivering breakout originals and a compelling live TV service. What Freer is watching for in 2018: “Which live-TV streaming service will break out of the pack with consumers and achieve a level of scale that’s valuable for advertisers,” he says.
Three years ago, Gandler and his FuboTV co-founders took the wraps off their subscription-streaming service for soccer fans — before widening their lens and turning it into a virtual pay-TV operator with a skinny bundle that today competes against the likes of AT&T/DirecTV, Dish’s Sling TV, Hulu and YouTube TV. Previously he was VP of monetization for DramaFever, the Korean drama streaming service, and before that worked in ad sales for Scripps Networks Interactive, Time Warner Cable Media Sales and NBCUniversal’s Telemundo Media. Not surprisingly, Gandler is aiming to capitalize on the acceleration of cord-cutting in 2018. “We are at the center of capturing a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, particularly among sports fans looking for live TV streaming alternatives,” he says.
Tech and media entrepreneur Goldberg is angling to get premium-content greenlighting down to a data science — based on the wisdom of social-media crowds — with his Santa Monica-based start-up. Dubbed Fresno (it’s named for the midpoint between Silicon Valley and Hollywood), the company raised $8 million in seed financing to advance its model. “With technology finally able to deliver unique audiences at scale outside of SVOD services,” says Goldberg, “creators will be able to discover new audiences, and consumers will be able to discover new programming in a win for both.”
Media veteran Levin has built a career out of catering to youth audiences and, since last May, has been the new boss at Awesomeness — the digital company focused on tween and teen viewers that’s majority-owned by Comcast. He previously had stints at the NFL and Microsoft’s defunct Xbox Entertainment Studio after founding Generate, a studio and talent-management company that became part of Defy Media. He also was CEO and a founding exec of WB Television Network, now The CW. This year’s big trend for Levin is “the continued impact that Gen Z will have on business as well as the companies who are able to adapt to meet this new demo where [it is]. … The power of this generation to shape the future of content cannot be understated.”
President and CEO, Pandora
The struggling streaming-music player — after receiving a $480 million infusion from SiriusXM — last fall tapped Lynch to turn things around. He previously headed Dish Network’s Sling TV over-the-top service, after joining the satcaster in 2009 as exec VP of advanced technologies. For 2018, the former investment banker at Morgan Stanley says, “I’m excited to watch the connected-home and voice-activated device market continue on its explosive path.” For Pandora, he asserts, “There’s plenty of room for more growth as we work with our partners to improve the in-home listening experience and create new ways for advertisers to interact with their audiences.”
Co-Founder and CEO, Beautycon Media
Entrepreneur and trend hunter Mahdara, since taking over as the company’s CEO in 2015, has built Beautycon beyond beauty-blogger meet-ups into a digital and live-events community for young content creators, celebrities, fans and brands. Last year, she led Beautycon’s $9 million fundraising efforts that netted investors including A+E Networks and Live Nation. The first-generation Iranian-American was previously CEO of marketing agency Exopolis and once worked as Gwen Stefani’s brand manager. For Mahdara, wellness is a trend to watch in 2018. “You can definitely expect to see a massive upswing in apps for health and well-being,” she says.
McCollum was part of Mark Zuckerberg’s original Facebook team at Harvard, and just as the social network was about to pop, he left to finish college. He then entered the VC world and was one of the first investors in Philo, a start-up that was slinging cable TV over college-campus networks. He took over as CEO in 2014, and has now expanded Philo’s mission to join the crowded race to win consumers with cheap over-the-top skinny TV bundles. The exec is betting Philo will stand out with its stripped-down focus on lifestyle and entertainment cable nets — the no-sports, no-broadcast package starts at $16 monthly. The strategy is informed by the investor group McCollum brought on board last year: A+E Networks, AMC Networks, Discovery, Scripps Networks and Viacom. In 2018, he says, “I’m curious to see whether the tech industry can restore its cultural image of harnessing innovation as a powerful, positive force in our society and the world.”
CEO, Barstool Sports
When Nardini joined bro-focused Barstool Sports in 2016, she was the only female employee. As CEO of the Chernin Group-owned company, the digital media and marketing vet has led content partnerships with Facebook, Snapchat, Comedy Central and SiriusXM, which is launching a 24-hour Barstool station in 2018. Not every deal has been a winner: The brand’s coarse style of humor and attacks on sports personalities led ESPN to cancel Barstool’s talk show after a single airing. Nardini, undeterred by controversies, pegs “affinity” as the headline trend for 2018: “It will fuel consumption online and off, it will drive monetization, and it will dictate which brands and platforms succeed and which begin to fail.” Prior to Barstool, she was a senior exec at Bkstg, a start-up that launched a direct-to-fan app for music artists; and was AOL’s chief marketing officer.
Chief Digital Officer, Tegna
After more than 10 years at Mashable, Ostrow exited for a gig with TV broadcast station group Tegna — just a few months before Mashable sold at a fire-sale price last fall. Formerly the No. 2 employee at Mashable and an influential new-media voice, he now overseeing digital strategy for local TV stations and digital sites spanning 38 U.S. markets. He predicts 2018 will be a year of “accelerated experimentation” in digital business models: “Expect new direct-to-consumer offerings, commerce and content convergence,” says Ostrow, as well as “surprising industry alliances as publishers look to find growth outside of conventional advertising.”
Chief Product Officer, Netflix
Content is the fuel in Netflix’s race car — but the streamer also invests heavily in polishing the look and feel of its video vehicles. A nine-year company veteran, Peters took the helm of the Netflix product team last summer and moved back to the States after being based in Japan, where he led global partnerships with consumer-electronics companies, internet service providers and pay-TV distributors. “The intertwining of entertainment with technology has opened up many possibilities for storytelling across all dimensions,” Peters says. “Netflix is also focused on making improvements for those on set and behind the camera — a space that’s particularly new and exciting for us.”
VP, Partnerships, Facebook
Since joining Mark Zuckerberg’s social network in 2006, Rose has been helping the company manage phenomenal growth to a daily user base that today has reached more than 1.3 billion. In his current role, he’s in charge of mobile partnerships, business development, M&A, community operations — and overseeing the team bringing content partners to Facebook Watch, its long-form video platform. Before joining Facebook, he spent seven years at Amazon.com, where in his last role with the company, he helped develop the Amazon Kindle. “By marrying great content with new innovative tools for community and conversation,” Rose says, “we’ll unlock a wave of opportunity in mobile video and VR/AR.”
Scannell cut his teeth on cable television — overseeing Nickelodeon’s boom more than a decade ago — but he’s long been a believer in the power of internet media. Now, he’s heading Mitu, the L.A. digital-media upstart aimed at millennial Latino audiences, looking to expand the brand into TV, film and other segments. Last year “was just the beginning of the mainstreaming of Latinos, who were front and center in pop culture with hits like ‘Despacito’ and ‘Mi Gente,’” says Scannell, whose mother hailed from Puerto Rico. “As music has always been an early indicator of a coming trend, expect more of us in 2018 in pop culture,” he says. Prior to Mitu, Scannell was head of BBC Worldwide North America, and before that was the founding CEO of Next New Networks — a multi-channel network of indie content creators that YouTube eventually acquired.
Founder & CEO, Cheddar
Cheddar — as in “money” — is the brainchild of Jon Steinberg, who built the New York-based financial news streaming network from the ground up to cater to a generation far less likely to watch TV. Previously president-COO of BuzzFeed, he helped the company grow from 15 to more than 500 employees. “The big trend of 2018 will be the rise of post-cable networks and OTT bundles replacing the viewer experience in live news and information,” he says. Cheddar has banked $32 million from investors including AT&T, Amazon, Comcast Ventures, the New York Stock Exchange and Broadway Video.
President, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises
Suniewick has steered NBCU’s different strategic forays into digital, including overseeing its $1 billion investments across Snapchat, BuzzFeed and Vox Media, since fall 2016. On her watch, NBC last year shut down the Seeso comedy subscription-streaming service after it failed to find traction. So what has worked? “We’ve seen incredible growth in engagement with the content we’re making for Snap,” she says. “And we’re gearing up for the 2018 Olympics, where we’ll tell the stories of the games and the athletes to a new generation of viewers.” Previously at the media conglom she headed a cross-division team aiming to exploit Comcast-NBCU promotional synergies, and before that was VP of programming at the cable op.
CEO, Dreamscape Immersive
Vaughn, former chief creative exec for Walt Disney Imagineering, heads the location-based VR start-up, whose technology is designed to give participants a “full-body presence” as rendered avatars inside virtual worlds. Location-based VR, per Vaughn, “is the tip of the spear for all consumer-focused VR categories, and promises to both introduce this exciting new storytelling medium to a broad consumer base as well as stimulate ancillary markets, including VR in the home.” Founded in 2016, the L.A.-based firm’s investors include AMC Entertainment, Warner Bros., 21st Century Fox, MGM, Imax and Steven Spielberg.
Chris M. Williams
Founder and CEO, pocket.watch
Sure, kids these days still watch TV — but Williams wants to reach them everywhere. With pocket.watch, which the former Disney digital and Maker Studios exec launched in early 2017, he’s executing on a playbook that includes producing original long-form shows (in a development slate overseen by former Nickelodeon chief Albie Hecht) and affiliation deals with YouTube channels like Ryan Toys Review and EvanTubeHD, which are a huge draw for the under-12 set. The media trend Williams is watching is the rise of over-the-top skinny TV bundles. “There’s a tremendous amount at stake,” he says. “And I believe this transition to services like YouTube TV, Sling, Hulu TV and DirecTV Now will see major acceleration in 2018.”
Wood has successfully battled tech giants Apple, Amazon and Google for years with a laser focus on streaming content to the TV. Last fall, he led the IPO for the device and platform company — with the stock surging after Roku topped forecasts in its first quarter as a public company. Wood, credited as pioneering one of the world’s first DVRs, also briefly worked at Netflix, which spun off his internet TV project into what became the first Roku player. With the continued growth of over-the-top video in the living room next year, Wood says, “TV advertisers will move more of their budgets from linear TV to OTT streaming, while content publishers will tap more into ad-supported
models to further monetize their libraries.”
Yanover took the reins of the NBCUniversal-owned ticketing site in 2012, and has since built up the unit’s portfolio to cover all facets of the moviegoing “life cycle.” Fandango now owns and operates Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster, Movieclips, digital video-on-demand service FandangoNow and an ecommerce business (FanShop). He’s also expanded Fandango into the Latin America ticketing market and last fall led the acquisition of rival MovieTickets.com. For 2018, Yanover — who holds a master’s degree in computer science — is excited about the emergence of artificial-intelligence tech: “From voice-driven interfaces and machine-learning-based algorithms, I think we’ll see a whole new class of personalized product experiences that should have a big impact on consumer entertainment,” he says.
Chief Content Officer, Giphy
Zeff leads the team at the venture capital-backed New York City start-up that cuts licensing deals with entertainment companies and other intellectual-property owners for animated GIFs of their properties — a staple of visual communications for mobile-first consumers. Zeff, a lawyer by background, began his career at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher before shifting gears into digital media. “As the TV landscape enters post-saturation territory, the market has to consolidate and coalesce,” Zeff says. “In parallel, content itself will be compressed and shrunk, and reformulated and recontextualized in new ways.”