Barry Jossen is the general manager of Disney’s recently inaugurated digital studio Stage 9. Co-executive producer of HBO’s Sex and the City and numerous other series, he has also won an Academy Award for Dear Diary. Jossen talks exclusively to Stewart Clarke about his plans for Stage 9.
Short form content, Barry Jossen notes, played an integral part in his employer’s history. "The foundation of Disney was a short cartoon featuring a mouse," he says. "Short form didn’t go away it just became dormant. Now there are platforms for the re-emergence of short form and we find ourselves in a fortunate position to be able to reintroduce it to an audience."
Jossen is heading up Stage 9, which has set out to ‘bridge the gap between user-generated content and traditional production’. He will also continue in his previous role, overseeing production of the studio’s primetime series. Perhaps his best qualification for the new job is that while at DreamWorks he won an Academy Award for live-action short film Dear Diary – which he produced while doing his then day job of head of TV production at the studio.
Rumours Disney had a dedicated digital production arm surfaced last year. Stage 9 was officially founded in February, after a peace between the writers and studios had been brokered – announcing the advent of a new digital studio during a dispute that centred on the studios’ ability to monetize digital content might have been unwise. In any case Jossen says the timing was actually down to having a project, in this case Squeegees, to launch.
The genesis of the Stage 9 dates back to mid-2006 when some ABC Studios programming executives became conscious of developments in streamed media.
"We had some meetings and said ‘let’s figure out how to produce content for new media’, rather then be told how to do it or be guided through, we wanted to figure it out on our own," Jossen says. "We developed a business plan and infrastructure to support that and started searching for talent. It got to the point where we had to make something. We did a beta project, Voicemail, on abc.com. We tried out some specific techniques and had enough of an audience to encourage interest from a sponsor. We learned there was enough to start a business and that we could find the content."
Jossen proceeded to reach out to potential programme makers. But while Stage 9 needs to reach out to new talent, does new talent need Disney? In an era when digital production has levelled the playing field and digital producers can self fund projects that can then reach millions, why get into bed with a major studio? Notable breakout online hits like Prom Queen, from Big Fantastic and Miles Beckett’s KateModern were, initially at least, produced from bedrooms and without the support of a major corporation.
Disney is looking for production talent online and at film festivals and hopes its marketing muscle and production expertise will be a draw for the cream of the new wave of producers.
"One of the challenges before was that people thought if you make it then people will find it, but that’s not the case," says Jossen. "But this is not about Disney – or about Stage 9 – it’s about content. In the industry there are always people who are sceptical. The key to overcoming that is our passion and integrity. What we can provide is an incredible body of experience and resource."
The studio also presents experienced producers with a dilemma. It may allow them to experiment with ideas and production techniques – but it doesn’t pay the same as TV. A Stage 9 project costs 4% to 6% of the cost of a single episode of primetime network drama.
"Talent in mature media definitely wants to get involved," Jossen says. "Filmmaking is an infectious passion; people who do it want to do more, to make more. But their financial expectations are very different to what we can provide at an experimental media studio – we don’t know if it’s a business yet. "We market ourselves aggressively to viewers and to our community. We present it as an opportunity to do things differently. And then we want them to benefit in the upside of any success."
Stage 9 has started to lock talented producers that it expects to produce a body of work into longer term deals. The shows themselves are primarily funded through sponsorship. Toyota sponsored the first Stage 9 project, Squeegees, a comedy series from producers Handsome Donkey.
The studio will develop a handful of projects this year and next, which will be released as and when they’re ready. The aim is to have it generating twenty-plus projects annually within a few years. The output will stretch to scripted, reality and animation programming and Jossen says Stage 9 will produce a wider range of content than any other studio. The Holy Grail is to get something that resonates with viewers to the extent that it spins back to TV, although it would have to be redesigned and adapted from its digital incarnation.
Next up from the studio is Trenches, a ten-part sci-fi adventure series from Shane Felux, the filmmaker who made fan film Star Wars: Revelations, which was viewed over two million times online and eight-minute film Pitching Lucas (coincidentally, Jossen served as head of television at Lucasfilm in the early 90s and produced special effects film Movie Magic with George Lucas).
Jossen says he challenges the creative team to develop specific projects – at the moment he wants them to look at developing a news magazine show – but none of the shows on the Stage 9 slate are his.
Voicemail was originally on ABC’s website. Squeegees is on ABC.com and YouTube and it is geo-filtered so that viewers outside of the US can only see selected episodes.
While the goal of many digital producers is to have their content on as many platforms as possible. That is at odds with the way the Hollywood studios work, whereby they produce and distribute high-cost premium content and make every effort to ensure that IP is only delivered to platforms it chooses.
"We are protective of our content, we want to create high quality content and deliver a high quality viewing experience – we clearly want to be selective where it is seen," Jossen says. "We’re not putting it all over, diminishing the value and creating things that become disposable – we want to get long term value."
The efforts to control distribution are also to enable content sales arm Disney-ABC International Television to market the programming outside the US and for it to be fresh for international viewers. The success of Stage 9 will be measured by the number of people accessing its shows, how happy the sponsors are and recognition from industry peers and Disney bosses.
How long Stage 9 has to achieve it aims is less clear. "I don’t know and frankly it doesn’t matter," Jossen says when asked when Stage 9 will breakeven. He adds: "I know we have the support of the Walt Disney Company to become successful. The leadership is very smart and have belief in their choices and will stick with it."