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BuzzFeed Video's Ze Frank and Screenwriter John August Talk About Different 'Gardens' of Content (Video)

The duo collaborated on a Web series during the writers' strike of 2007, but their paths have since diverged.

Asa Mathat

One of the Web’s early video pioneers and the screenwriter known for “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” came together on the Code/Media stage Tuesday at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, Calif. They talked with Re/code’s Peter Kafka about the evolution of video — and the types of entertainment that blossom “in the garden” of traditional media versus short videos that flourish in the social media stream.

Ze Frank rose to fame on a viral video created in the early, pre-YouTube days (a birthday invitation he sent to 17 friends in 2001 picked up more than one million views). His yearlong daily video blog, “The Show With Ze Frank,” won acclaim as one of the best sustained comedies on the Web. And now he heads BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, the ambitiously named group with the broad mandate to create videos that viewers will want to share (like, say,“People Try CrossFit for the First Time”).

Over the last couple of years, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures has assembled a team of 160 people who have produced around 5,000 short videos that have racked up 950 million YouTube views a month. Some are one-day “bangers,” while others can take weeks to produce.

Filmmaker and screenwriter John August’s debut film, “Go,” was a critical darling. He’s a frequent collaborator with director Tim Burton, writing screenplays for several of his films including “Corpse Bride,” “Frankenweenie” and “Dark Shadows.”

The duo collaborated on a Web project called The Remnants during the writers’ strike of 2007, which August described as part “The Office,” part “The Stand,” for a now-defunct digital studio called 60 Frames.

“It was ahead of its time — but it was also wrong,” August said. “It was trying to do TV in a Web format. Web doesn’t want to be TV.”

Since then, their creative paths have diverged.

Frank’s BuzzFeed studio breaks the familiar Hollywood mold of highly specialized professionals coming together to collaborate on big projects. His youthful crew of filmmakers are versed in all aspects of creation — and they’re used to an iterative creative process, where the performance of one video informs how they approach the next.

The videos are fundamentally different from the movies and television shows that inhabit what Frank dubbed “the garden,” where theater goers or viewers holding a television remote control know what to expect of the content.

BuzzFeed’s content swims in “the stream” of social media content, with a jumble of family photos, animated GIFs and viral videos.

“The question is, is the stuff that works really well in the steam the same that works really well in the garden?” Frank said.

Frank cited one video that works “incredibly effectively” in the stream — a short video called “Weird Things All Couples Fight About,” which mines little domestic spats about replacing the toilet-paper rolls or properly folding the sheets for humor.

“That had 40 million views and 2.5 to three million shares,” Frank said. “From a traditional viewpoint, there’s no (story) arc, there’s no backstory.”

August said the comedy short is the sort of humor that TV sitcoms have been mining for years — but TV writers take the time to provide the viewer with the additional context of relationships, so they care about the outcome of the domestic spat.

“It’s just like eating popcorn all the time,” August said. “There’s no story.”

Frank countered that viewers of the BuzzFeed short brought their own personal context to the video.

“The video is a way for couples to bond over something,” Frank said. “There’s impact.”

August said he’s very happy laboring in the garden of traditional media, where online videos serve as marketing tools.

“It’s promoting this thing that I’ve made. That’s the goal. That’s the end product,” August said. “That’s very different from the stream. We need people’s attention for opening weekend, so people show up.”

Some digital platforms, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, feel like another cable channel — another outlet for the longer-form stories August prefers to weave.

Frank chafed at attempts by traditional media to denigrate the videos BuzzFeed creates by labeling movies or television shows “luxury” or “premium” content. Of course, premium is the stuff people should be willing to buy.

“That’s changing.” Frank said. “The bottom line is, it is such an exciting time to learn about content, rather than picking which form of content is going to win.”

Below, video highlights from the interview.

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