November 19, 2017

At BuzzFeed, a Pivot to Movies and Television

Mr. Henick’s team is also working with Smokehouse Pictures, a production company run by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, to develop a movie based on a BuzzFeed News investigation into assassinations that may be linked to the Kremlin.

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Other projects include a series for the NBCUniversal cable network Oxygen that is based on an article about the gruesome death of Jessica Chambers, a teenager who was burned alive in Mississippi, and an adaptation of the online cooking show “Mom vs. Chef” for USA, another NBC cable network.

Mr. Henick grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., and spent his childhood riding forklifts around his father’s floor-covering business at a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood that has since been converted into an apartment building. His interest in media and technology began early.

When he was 14, he and his best friend created an MP3 website that drew a cease-and-desist letter from the Recording Industry Association of America because it hosted the “Titanic” soundtrack.

Several years later, Mr. Henick and his friend started one of the first ringtone sites in the United States. They bought the domain name NokiaUSA.net in the hope that Nokia customers would stumble on their site. Nokia was not pleased — it served the teenagers a cease-and-desist letter in the halls of their high school, after which they changed the company’s name to MobileSmarts. The business, Mr. Henick said, made a lot of money, although he wouldn’t specify how much.

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Jim Parsons, right, with Kunal Nayyar on “The Big Bang Theory,” has been signed to star in a BuzzFeed movie inspired by a search for a lost cellphone in China. Credit Monty Brinton/CBS

“He’s an entrepreneur who knows how to build new things and new companies,” Jonah Peretti, the founder and chief executive of BuzzFeed, said in an interview. “I’m always amazed at the way he’s able to switch between these different models in his head and see the same things through a totally different lens.”

Mr. Henick’s experience as a teenage ringtone magnate gave him the idea to go west for college. “I was sort of already on that trajectory of wanting to head at least somewhere close to Silicon Valley, to figure out what was going on there,” he said.

He enrolled at Stanford, where he wrote for the campus humor magazine and played bass in a band called North of Cuba with his Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers. After graduating with a degree in science, technology and society, he stayed at Stanford another year, earning a master’s in digital media studies, which he now calls “completely useless.”

“The professor would want to talk to us about LiveJournal and Myspace to a certain extent, and the students in the class would raise their hand and say, ‘Well, what do you think about Facebook?’” Mr. Henick said. “And they didn’t even know about it.”

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From there, Mr. Henick studied producing at the University of Southern California’s film school in Los Angeles. During summer break, he attended a talk at the Skirball Cultural Center by the comedy producer Judd Apatow.

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Tiffany Lo, who helped start BuzzFeed’s food division, Tasty, making a chicken dish for a video. Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

“I just went up to him and told him as much of my story as I could,” Mr. Henick said. “We were both from Long Island, both went to U.S.C., and I was looking for a gig.”

Mr. Apatow brought him on as an intern before hiring him as an assistant, so Mr. Henick spent his second year at U.S.C. balancing classes with reading scripts and checking out sets. After graduation, he worked on movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Step Brothers” before going out on his own as a writer, script doctor and start-up consultant.

Along the way, he and Ms. Killoch, who met at U.S.C., started a clothing company. They also got married.

“I clearly get bored very easily, because I do too many things,” Mr. Henick said. “I was literally sitting in my apartment writing movies, doing all right — that’s sort of the dream for some people — and I was like, ‘What else can I be doing?’”

Before Mr. Henick started at BuzzFeed, he was worried that he might end up restless yet again. But so far, he said, “I haven’t been bored once.”

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Before going out on his own as a writer, script doctor and start-up consultant, Mr. Henick was an assistant for the comedy producer Judd Apatow. Credit David Walter Banks for The New York Times

When he joined three years ago, Tasty, the site’s popular food division, did not exist, and the company had yet to secure funding from NBCUniversal, which has since plowed in $400 million.

During Mr. Henick’s tenure, many digital media companies that once raked in millions of investment dollars found themselves struggling. A so-called pivot to video — a term sometimes used to cover layoffs of text-oriented staff members — swept the industry. Increasingly wary of the outsize influence of Facebook and Google — and hoping to siphon away some of the billions of advertising dollars still devoted to television — new media companies rediscovered old media, setting off a race into TV and film.

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Cue Mr. Henick.

His mission is to help diversify BuzzFeed’s revenue stream: Executives expect that partnerships with production studios may bring in a third of the company’s revenue in the coming years.

Since it was founded in 2006, BuzzFeed, which is now valued at about $1.7 billion, has anticipated trends in the media business. Its move into the entertainment industry could be viewed as prescient — but the company is also said to be pursuing an initial public offering of stock, and associating itself with a glamorous business may have the side benefit of attracting investors and bolstering valuations.

“I don’t think we do anything specifically for that reason, but it’s always a byproduct,” Mr. Henick said. “If our business is stronger and it’s growing exponentially because we keep finding brand-new businesses to get into, it’s going to allow us to hopefully go public or invest in a lot more stuff elsewhere in the company.”

During a weekly check-in meeting at the old BuzzFeed lot on Sunset Boulevard, Mr. Henick swiveled around on his desk chair, a hand under his chin. He wore jeans, a light blue button-down and retro Air Jordan sneakers. Staff members talked about projects or possible deals with Netflix, MTV and Facebook.

The talk turned to a recent article about the right-wing website Breitbart and one of its former star employees, the rabble-rouser Milo Yiannopoulos. Did anyone see a film opportunity there? Someone suggested the Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Mr. Henick’s eyes sparkled.

“I would retire out on top,” he said, “if we could get Sorkin to write it.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/22/business/media/at-buzzfeed-a-pivot-to-movies-and-television.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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