Q&AA: Dawn Ostroff Has Some Thoughts for Video Pivoters

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In a year when publishers have been talking about the "pivot to video," Condé Nast has some hard-won lessons to impart—for example, success in video can have less to do with quick-hit food clips than TV and even movie-length fare. Today, Condé Nast Entertainment is garnering a billion monthly views on its digital videos, Emmy and Oscar nods for its expensive efforts in TV and movies and, since last year, actual profits to top it off.

Dawn Ostroff
Dawn Ostroff Credit: Illustration by Jérôme Mireault

To be fair, it's taken a while to get here: TV veteran Dawn Ostroff was tapped to lead the newly created division as its president six years ago. Only this fall did it achieve wide theatrical release for a feature film, the firefighting movie "Only the Brave." The division has another 35 films in various stages of development, including "The Old Man and the Gun," which Robert Redford has said will be one of his final roles, and "King of the Jungle," set to star Johnny Depp. Other work includes "Last Chance U" on Netflix, "Vanity Fair Confidential" on Investigation Discovery and "Invisible," a supernatural series shot in VR.

Ostroff, who had a hand in generation-defining TV hits like "Gossip Girl" when she was entertainment president at The CW, talked with Ad Age about the real value of video, the whims of Facebook, aging TV audiences and finding the next "Gossip Girl." Our conversation has been edited.

Everyone wants to figure out video, but is there consumer appetite for it?

They're literally insatiable. They're voracious consumers of digital video and the more we see coming out the more surprising it is for everybody. Millennials and Gen Z don't know the difference between short or long. All they care about is being entertained, engaged, informed and getting whatever they need right away.

What platform are you most focused on?

We're really focused on YouTube because it's still a huge powerhouse and we believe in the YouTube viewer. They've been great partners. We work with, obviously, Facebook, Snap, all of the Samsung VR and Google Daydream. We work with the OTT platforms. We work with the syndication partners. It's a business that has to be managed on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

Which platforms seem most sustainable?

I don't know if I would say any of the platforms we're working on now won't be here in six months, but I would say everybody has changing initiatives.

Right, like Facebook, if you look at the way they're pushing the Watch hub for episodic video after an emphasis on live video ...

At one point everyone was incredibly focused on live and that was really where we were spending our attention in the building. And then we pivoted because Facebook pivoted and it felt like there was more opportunity with Watch. And so we are experimenting with them. It could pivot again, I don't know. But it's about really being able to pivot with the platforms that exist.

How do you do that?

For one thing, we have established ourselves as partners with all of the major players and they will call when they're experimenting. There's really nothing we won't try. Two is being able to have a good enough partnership where we're able to really say we need to learn from this experience. And the other thing is being open to new opportunities, meaning other platforms in their infancy that can rise up. But we don't know where video will end up. It can be anything, from when we are all driving in automated cars and video will be there.

Is there a format that's working well? Are you moving away from more of the shorter-form content to the mid-form, mid-length?

We have been big proponents of mid-form content.

Having come from the TV side, is it fair to compare digital viewership to TV?

Absolutely. A recent Google research study showed that millennials and Gen Z watch more than three hours of video content on their mobile devices every day. I don't know how you reach those viewers unless you're on the video platforms, so of course the numbers are relevant and comparable. Our digital videos are entertainment with advertisements, just like TV. To give you an idea of the scale, in November, our video "Autocomplete Interview With the Cast of Stranger Things" did 12 million views in five days on YouTube alone with a completion rate of 60 percent. Our video "73 Questions With Liza Koshy" did 6.2 million views on YouTube in just five days with a 67 percent completion rate, and "Cheese Expert" for Epicurious has done 1.5 million views on YouTube in 12 days with a 61 percent completion rate. And that was all in one week in November. What network wouldn't want those statistics?

Condé Nast had its first wide-release feature movie with "Only the Brave," which came out Oct. 20. What was the reception?

We were really proud of it. The audience as well as the critics really loved it. We produced the film, we don't finance the film, so we made money.

Was it as big of an opening as you would have liked it to be?

We would have been much happier if it had a bigger opening. I think it's a film that's going to have a long tail—a lot of people are going to see it on a lot of different platforms, which doesn't surprise me. I mean these days, realistically, adult movies of this kind of theme don't really do well in movie theaters alone. It's really about the tentpole movies going after the "Star Wars" crowd. It is just a different business model and I think everyone in the film business is starting to see this is a different way to approach making these kinds of movies.

Digital still accounts for most of Condé Nast Entertainment revenue, but will that ever be matched by film and TV?

We expect that side of our business to continue to grow exponentially.

What did you learn from The Scene, the video portal Condé launched in 2014?

When we started The Scene, we envisioned it as an aggregator, but quickly realized that millennial women and Gen Z want programming with a point of view. We repositioned The Scene to produce digital videos for "women who get it" and focused our distribution on Facebook, where it has done extremely well.

Is it more difficult for TV shows to find audiences now than when you were at The CW?

The expectations on behalf of the ad buyers are much different. The ratings are really very different. The networks have aged up considerably and so it depends on who the audience is, who you're speaking to and finding the right content. Certainly, Netflix and Amazon, including Apple, are really interesting and we're in business with them in a big way. Movies are not only being made by studios for release in a movie theater, they are being made by Netflix and Amazon now. They will be made, I think, probably by Apple. Reality content takes on many different forms. And yet there is still a lot of content for TV that is successful. "Vanity Fair Confidential" is a big hit for ID and ID is one of the few networks where ratings have increased.

Do you have a dream project?

I would love to be able to do something that was probably as noisy and as relevant as "Gossip Girl" was at that time. What that looks like now, I have a couple of ideas, but it's not out there for sure.

That whole genre of scripted teen soaps has gone away—probably because that demographic is consuming content so differently now.

That's ironic because this whole generation watches all that content on Netflix.

Right, there are high schoolers who binge-watched "Grey's Anatomy."

I have high schoolers, and they don't know the content was made long ago. It still seems relevant to them. So they'll call me and say, "Oh, I just watched 'One Tree Hill' or I just watched 'Vampire Diaries.' " It's all being rediscovered, which is fantastic. But we have a couple of shows we're working on that really is about targeting that audience. I do believe there's a different way you need to speak to them now, but I do believe they're out there. "Stranger Things" is representative of that.

Is there anything, not necessarily Condé Nast-produced, that you watch regularly?

Great Big Story is really good. Vice, depending upon what it is, can be really interesting, especially short-form—it gives you a quick little hit. BuzzFeed, The Dodo. I love Attn—they have really created a great brand and tell stories that are missing right now, and I find some positive news is really important.

What's your outlook on VR?

It's early testing. It's almost like streaming: Early on in streaming, the technology was holding it back. It would buffer. Then as soon as the technology caught up, it became a wonderful experience. We can see the same thing could happen for VR. The technology needs to catch up. For example, when we shot "Invisible," we literally would call up our partners and say we need you to create a different camera and they would create the camera and send it to us.

But I wonder, with any type of technology that includes wearing headgear, how mainstream it can really get.

I've seen enough AR and VR to see what some of the capabilities are now, and to use my imagination to see what some of the capabilities could be. And you can imagine a time where you don't need a phone or a screen to do anything you do now.

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