EXCLUSIVE: Oscar season used to boil down to one main thing for Condé Nast: Vanity Fair‘s party. While the famed bash is back this year, there’s also a more consequential reason for the company to feel festive: The New Yorker‘s record five nominations across all three short film categories.
Stranger at the Gate and Haulout are in the Documentary Short Film field; Ice Merchants and The Flying Sailor are up for Animated Short Film, with Night Ride represented in Live Action Short Film. The haul marks a high point for Agnes Chu, who left her role as head of content for Disney+ in 2020 to become president of Condé Nast Entertainment. Feature projects have also been breaking through, with recent New Yorker-based projects including Spiderhead debuting last year on Netflix and Cat Person world-premiering last month at Sundance.
A known commodity in Hollywood, Chu has aimed to re-energize CNE not by showering it with showbiz glitter, but instead trying to focus on the less-glamorous work of team-building and culture-designing. It is work for which the Columbia MBA (she majored in art, film and visual studies as an undergrad at Harvard) is well-suited. Long known for its cluster of fiefdoms centered around glossy print magazines, Condé now (like its media peers) must think a lot bigger than newsstand circulation and print advertising. Roger Lynch’s appointment as Condé Nast CEO in 2019 after executive stints at Pandora and Sling TV underlined the new approach.
While the new footing has entailed some cutbacks in staffing and expenses, it has also brought formerly ancillary activities center stage. Ideas for streaming series, podcasts, film adaptations or digital shorts are incubated from the moment story ideas start to percolate, sometimes when a freelance pitch lands in an inbox. “We are holistic in our way of behavior and that has come from better relationships with our editors, ultimately, which I think in the past had been off-and-on, hot-and-cold,” Chu says.
In her light-filled office at 1 World Trade Center, Chu reflected on the company’s Oscar fortunes and the past two-and-a-half years of culture-building, plus a Disney principle that has come into play. The following is a condensed and edited transcript of the conversation.
DEADLINE: The last time we spoke, the pandemic was raging and you had just landed here after being part of the team that launched Disney+. How would you say the past two-plus years have gone?
AGNES CHU: Well, so far it’s been an incredible experience, but also like a set of challenges that are unique to a company that given the states of transformation, not just transformation on a global level but transformation into how we create our content, who are we addressing it to, and how we are monetizing it.
When I got here, I had nine direct reports that were spread out between some in television and digital video, primarily in the U.S. Two-and-a-half years later, I have seven direct reports. One of them is the same from when I arrived here, but overall it’s entirely new leadership team and it’s been a clearly defined link of four different businesses [branded entertainment; audio; film and TV; and digital video].
Each one of these businesses is ultimately in service of creating a brand ecosystem, so that if we’re doing a podcast, we’re also featuring editors who just wrote an article about a certain topic, for example. It is a world in which we are not showing our org structure to our audience. We are holistic in our way of behavior and that has come from better relationships with our editors, ultimately, which I think in the past had been an off and on, hot and cold.
DEADLINE: How bought in are the editors and the rank-and-file editorial employees to this strategy?
CHU: It’s been wonderful to see I think, in a very short period of time that shift in how our teams are working together. I’ve seen it most significantly with Vanity Fair, and I think before when I arrived here every piece of business was something that we like everybody else was reading in the magazine and then it was, ‘Oh, could that be a movie?’ Or, like, ‘maybe we should do something with that.’ And then like everyone else who had also picked up the magazine, reacting to the possibility of it by really leaning into the fact that we were making this Vanity Fair project. It’s been fabulous to have the team really together with the editorial team identifying projects during the research. Oftentimes we’re actually commissioning research and early treatments with CNE budget.
We’re supporting the investigative journalism very early on, and we’re identifying projects often before they’re even published. And so, we have a project like a story about [controversial yoga instructor] Guru Jagat, which we identified during the pitch phase and were able to sell to production to HBO Max and announced it on the day of its publication. That’s the kind of proactiveness that has been really exciting, and it’s ultimately leading into what is our competitive advantage which is early access and unification with our editors to define brand, brand-defining storytelling.
DEADLINE: That doesn’t sound like the old system here or at other media companies.
CHU: I don’t want to be speaking ill of the past, it’s just really an evolution of how I’ve been thinking about really how to win in this space. We do have a competitive advantage when we are the earliest in identifying projects for film and television. So, being able to repair the relationship [between entertainment brass and editors], but also more importantly, be true value add to the writers and to the editors. I’m not interested in exploiting their IP, I’m interested in finding the best way to tell this story, and oftentimes an article can be a slice, you know, a moment in time. …And so, our team has now become a value-add to the entire editorial writing system and that has, you know, a wonderful symbiotic relationship as a result.
And I think the other way that film and TV has become this, that we’re leading into our competitive advantage is that early access to IP and to partnering with our writers in a really early phase. It’s the fact that we’re leading with the brand.
DEADLINE: How did that strategy come into play with this Oscar crop of short films?
CHU: It’s really exciting to be able to say that The New Yorker is, yes, an incredible intellectual piece of journalism on your coffee table every week, but it is also in the form of a short film, it’s also in the form of a movie, and we’re leading with that brand and it’s a brand that I think buyers in the marketplace really respond to because it’s tried and true, access to great IP, 100 years old, global in nature. These are brands that people know through and through around the world so, it’s another competitive advantage.
By leading with the brand we’re able to be more attractive in this crazy, streaming marketplace that we’re in right now where it’s not just about any hit, it is about now you have a way to rise above the din and so, leading into our brands is another competitive advantage that I really am locked into filming to do their best. And then finally, you know, we talk about symphony. That’s kind of Disney 101, too. That’s another thing that I’ve brought to this company and how we are now as a company galvanizing around whenever we launch something is a marketing advantage that both streaming buyers as well as our own viewership is really benefiting from the ultimately drive sophisticated monetization of business as well.
DEADLINE: While you have a lot in motion, you do ultimately have to partner with someone, right? You’re not a studio. So, how do you approach those partnerships – case by case, or with an overarching goal?
CHU: I have an incredible leader in business affairs who’s really helped to set up a very sophisticated framework of what’s important to us in the value chain of how we operate as a production company ultimately for each one of these brands. There are moments where I look back on whether it was an app or whatever, but we missed some opportunities to really connect our audiences to some of the most impactful culture-defining stories today. The Addams Family started out comics inside of The New Yorker. It has spawned one of my favorite ’90s movies with, you know, Anjelica Huston. But look at Wednesday, the series, which is, you know, a gangbuster on Netflix. It is a missed opportunity that the world does not realize that it was fostered by The New Yorker.
DEADLINE: So, the idea is to be on the right side of the next one.
CHU: Yes. Be on the right side of next one. Right now, yes, we are lower in the value chain in terms of the economics of not fully financing or being a studio, but there are other ways in which we are part of that conversation, and certainly by adding our creative ability to help shape these writers early on to provide a treatment that is an undeniable concept from article that they’re already writing for this brand connection where we’re actually marketing on behalf of the streamers to connect them to audiences that we already have, like another monetizing, like I don’t know how to say it on the record properly, but we do have other fees in which and other services that we offer that are very valuable in a marketplace that’s looking for ways to break out with an audience. I’ll just say it’s being on the, I think, the right side of that association, whether it’s on a consumer-facing level or on the way to our offering that benefit to these distributors.
DEADLINE: Since you used the word ‘monetizing,’ can you tell me how the company makes money on these short films? I consider myself a cinephile but I confess I can’t remember the last time I bought a ticket to see shorts in a theater. It’s prestigious to be Oscar-nominated and I imagine it burnishes the brand, but is there any financial plan under way here?
CHU: There’s a couple things there. First of all, I used to go…do you remember those…I used to go to these short film festivals as a kid that were all animated shorts–
DEADLINE: Spike and Mike?
CHU: Spike and Mike!
DEADLINE: Shoutout to Spike and Mike. Big fan.
CHU: I was a big fan, too. They were amazing! What is helpful for us here is that first of all, these are all stories that are through and through what The New Yorker planned. It was about their characters who were then they’re often intellectually stimulating, emotionally moving, and aesthetically innovative or just a feast for the eyes. So, all of these films really showcase the attributes of The New Yorker brand.
In addition, these are not films that we, like we physically produced ourselves. It’s the economics are a little bit different than what you should look at when you’re looking at our YouTube channel, for example, or when you go to Vogue.com and see the volume of video content that we’re investing in behind those brands. These are shorts that we have either seen completed or in the process of completion that we’ve identified and therefore acquired. In some cases, we’re in the unique position where we’re acting as an acquirer distributor of content that doesn’t have a place to live.
DEADLINE: Right, because your platforms are like a huge showcase for a small film.
CHU: Exactly. So, the economics are actually quite favorable on that front. But what is also exciting is to see the engagement with these short films. Our engagement on those shorts are in the top of our performers. Internally, I look at two different things. I look at how many views — you know, we use views as a way of kind of identifying generally if our content is reaching its audience defined in terms of engagement. And so, it speaks to the loyalty and immersion and the function of that storytelling being added value to someone who comes to newyorker.com, and I think that that has been kind of why The New Yorker continues to be something you are willing to pay 179 dollars a year for in terms of the subscription. So, it’s a different model, monetization model than some of our ad-driven video. I don’t look at our short films as vesicles for commercialization. I don’t look at it as a subscriber acquisition vehicle, but it is certainly a retention vehicle, and then the engaged watch time.
DEADLINE: Across the board, this Oscar year has not been a high point for streaming, compared with the last two years. But in the shorts categories, you guys can go toe to toe with Apple or Disney. You have visibility.
CHU: The other thing that is part of this ecosystem is that every article, every video that we acquire, we also build an article rolled around it. We make sure that it’s featured on Instagram. This is the kind of network that we have that kind of goes back to the ecosystem of synergistic behavior.
DEADLINE: As we look at your family of brands, one that I did want to ask for an update on was Bon Appétit. It experienced an extremely difficult period when its test kitchen videos were criticized in terms of pay equity and diversity and the former editor resigned after a racist photo surfaced. There has been a top-to-bottom reset there – what is the state of things now?
CHU: I’m really proud of the progress that we’ve made on Bon Appétit. In 2022, our views are up 15% year over year. One of the ways we also measure the health of where we are is on our YouTube channel is how many people are subscribing to the channel, gained over 23,000 subscribers this year, we’re up 275% compared to the year before.
So, these aren’t huge numbers, necessarily, although it’s over 6 million subscribers at this point on the channel. But it showcases progress. I think that that is, you know, maybe it’s a buzzword, but it is an important word because when I got here two and a half years ago that was not what was going on with this channel. It was a complete free-fall. There were many things that were in question. I’m really proud to say that it’s like night and day now in terms of the attitudes of the team, the type of content that we’re making, we’re very confident, and the way that we’re making it is fair, equitable — it was before, by the way, but it just wasn’t overtly available for people to understand that.
It is now overtly clear our processes, how we do this work, who’s being hired, how they’re being paid. We went through a lot of effort … professionalizing our operations in the making of Bon Appétit videos that I think have addressed a lot of the turmoil that I came into when I joined this company, and the results I think are part of that, that people are here excited to lean into like this new day.
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