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The VICE Production of Youth

Funder meetings are the pinnacle of any film festival or networking night in “the industry”. The air in these crammed media pens is always balmy with competitive excitement: hungry journalists, doc filmmakers, creative video producers and some of the best video production companies in Toronto, all huddling around trying to steal insider hints on how to get their latest project funded. This was my particular experience at DOC Institute’s event this past Tuesday (March 29th), where film production companies and independent video professionals were able to sit in on a candid panel discussion with top decision makers at VICE Canada.

They kicked the night off with an admittedly well-edited promotional video showing the journalism giant’s evolution from youth-based magazine to fully-fledged Canadian broadcaster. The video itself, a kind of brand manifesto for Vice’s highly calibrated optics and demographic appeal, restated its development mantra over and over again: we create youth-driven video content for a younger generation. Not terribly progressive or inspired for a media Goliath synonymous with risky groundbreaking content, but alright – when a giant with an insatiable appetite for online video is telling you what it wants to eat, you tend to listen, hoping maybe you can figure out how to cook up something tasty from its favourite, yet somehow unspecific, one-ingredient recipe.

With this drilled-in point, I started to get the sinking feeling that maybe I was just too old to make anything VICE-worthy. I mean, I grew up at a time when the internet didn’t exist or was at least too slow to do anything meaningful with current affairs coverage. How could I possibly compete with a generation that grew up with the internet hard-wired into its iPadded cribs? The only image I could muster was a Google HQ playground-style newsroom in a kind of millennial Never Never Land, where “senior” reporters get to fly away into fully-fertile retirement at 29, floating on all the happy thoughts of a long life of devoted, hard work. Forgive the flight of fancy here but being steeped in such a seemingly ageist power meeting made me feel not a little like a relic (I’m not even that old, barely out of my 20’s).

But the youth-or-bust thing wasn’t the absolute decree it seemed to be. In fact, there was some wiggle room within this precious concept of ‘youthful’. The group stated that they are mostly seeking productions driven by young host personalities but you don’t have be young to create a show with VICE. It turns out what you really need is a youthful perspective. And, yes, perhaps a bit of young shiny talent speaking un-emotively somewhere in the foreground of your production. But hey, I prefer being behind the lens anyway. So you could say that both my ambitions and insecurities were mildly tempered by the end.

VICE vs Them

Now here’s the marrow of the beast, right here: “If you can imagine your story, creative video series or news item playing on another network, then we’re not interested.” Again, somewhat obscure guidance, almost inflated boardroom-hype, but if you think about it a little it’s a decent way to gauge whether funded collaboration is in the cards. Essentially, your film production fits in if it fits nowhere else but Vice. The missive is as cleverly put as it is elusive, precisely because it retains an open-ended, if not open-minded, stance toward development. So my advice is, go and watch a boatload of Vice if you don’t already do this regularly. Start trolling their big web of online networks. Let the cultish young-and-unstoppable Vice vibes seep fully into your bones. Feel rejuvenated. Hipper. Stronger. Savvier. Then go be a young and unstoppable producer. Easier read than done, right? So what? Go do it.

A bit of take-home intelligence: the key to pitching to VICE, according to Stephanie Brown, Executive Producer at VICE DIGITAL, is “access, characters and stories that are under-reported.” This means eager documentarians and video production companies need to stay on the hunt for the overlooked minority report, or simply the unlikely angles on everyday subjects other dinosaur broadcasters wouldn’t dare produce. I read: outsleuth the competition. Challenge their standards. Get unprecedented access to new people and alternative perspectives. You might even say, return to the glory days of journalism and actually go and discover something fascinating, revelatory or enlightening – in ways more direct or serendipitous than your obligatory Google search. True, this approach in itself isn’t much of a revelation in the profession of good news making. But it is, at least, a more than token dedication by a company that can properly stake a great idea and let you take it in exciting directions.

In their words, “our goal as a digital company, is to be where eyeballs are”. This kind of goes without saying if you’re a media conglomerate propped up on ad revenues. However, they have whittled their demographics down to a sharp point of contact – whether for broadcast television, online video production or mobile apps – and they are more than willing to invest handsomely in new creative video content that promises engagement with this demographic. It’s really up to you to persuade them that you know whose heads these dedicated eyeballs are rolling around in, what they want to see and why.

What Production Not To Pitch

As a first stepping stone, you might want to check out this article below. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek but they tell you exactly what VICE is NOT looking for.

Never Pitch Any of These Things to Us Againhttp://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/never-pitch-any-of-these-things-to-us-again-v10n12

Getting The Production Greenlight

So you’re one of the best video production companies around. You’re a video producer with loads of contacts and a hatful of progressive, risque ideas. On top of this obvious credibility, what are the ins for getting something off the ground with Vice Online or Viceland, their new TV channel?

Currently, Vice Studios employs close to 150 people in Toronto, 30 in Vancouver and 20 in Montreal. So that means that Vice has an iron grip on fast and dirty content, which brings us back to the indispensable notion of access. If you have a personal relationship with a subject and VICE likes your pitch, they confirmed that it’s quite likely they will fund your project. This is uplifting information. It demonstrates just how hungry and cash-capable this giant really is.

However, neither VICE nor any other broadcaster could have the resources to bankroll all the unique and organic human interactions that will ground their huge slot of new commissions. This is where the sleuthing comes in. You, the equally hungry video producer, have to go out and find your own recipes to feed the beast that feeds you.

When it comes to producing an entire series instead of a one-off interest piece, if VICE isn’t totally sold but they like the idea, they’ll first suggest it for the VICE web portal and see how it performs there. If enough people are engaging with it, a development deal can often get underway at that point.

This sounds incredulously great, which means there is, unsurprisingly, a catch. With their admirable quality-oriented financial allowances, the entire production does remain under the copyright of VICE’s umbrella. On the other hand, as production ramps up on Viceland, the broadcaster is now considering the prospect of more video co-productions where the intellectual property can be shared between respective companies.

How exactly will this work and what kinds of eligibility requirements will come attached? Well, only time will tell us, friends. Still, that’s cargo tankers of promise sailing into the production ports.

The VICE of Money

Then, there’s the piggy bank and the hammer to think about. I’m pleased to report that as a project backer VICE is an all-in player. A greenlight on any type or scale of creative video project means they’re willing to foot 100% of the production costs: travel, crew, videography and editing services, sound recordist, GFX designer, etc. Speaking generally to their journalistic integrity, they don’t want video producers getting caught up in the administrative hustle of winning tax credits, matching funds and other multi-pronged financial considerations. As Michael Kornish, Head of Viceland Television Production, puts it “we function more like an American network. Let us do all of the business affairs and you do the creative work.” A major point gained in the book of this producer – a breath of fresh air in this rather…let’s say, parsimonious Canadian arts funding scene.

Exactly how much do they license for and how elaborate can my projects be? Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat complicated. It really comes down to a case by case basis. How appealing is the project, does it fill any programming gaps they currently need, can you justify those helicopter shots or the bulldozers for digging up those unmarked graves? In short, be resourceful and reasonable about your budgetary expectations. VICE knows how much things cost and this is documentary-based content here. So calibrate your ambitions accordingly.

Currently, Viceland is recycling the film and video content from their web portal and they are planning to launch their big new station in 2017. They have 75 hours of TV content and 115 hours of Internet content. Vice decided not to acquire any libraries of existing content but to push forward and create all of it on their own. Some exceptions will exist – they are creating a show called the History of Film, where they interview prominent filmmakers and screen their films, licensing the respective films for television broadcast. For the most part, Viceland is looking to produce a whole new slate of cutting-edge, original video content.

Know Your VICE

So straight goods, how do you get your show funded? Well, even for this carnivorous new razor-beast of a network, it still all comes down to the good old basics of survival. Having a truly interesting idea and concept format, making a fresh and convincing pitch, securing solo access to the story-driving elements, building a considered project itinerary and – VICE would want me to remind you polished young guns out there – generating video content that is watchable according to the Big Brand’s vision.

As a video producer, you have to look and see what else is out there. How is your storytelling approach special? How does your project’s subject and format design “lure the eyes” of the broadcaster’s desired watchers? Remember, your idea has to be unique, it has to have a point of view that only you can report from. And remember the vague but somewhat straightforward adVICE – it has to be edgy, current, under-reported and be communicated with a youthful aesthetic. Not that everyone has to be young to produce; rather, producers must carry the torch of youthful optimism and open-mindedness that VICE will follow when they are looking for their stories.

It is this that, to me anyway, makes Vice a fresh alternative to other media outlets. The subject matter of the film and video content they favour really does tend to be overlooked and flouted by mass media. I believe this is a signal that there is a changing of the guard in Canadian broadcasting and abroad. And it’s hard not to be excited by the currently rare prospect of representing the underrepresented – with competitive budgets and some guaranteed reach for the end product. That’s a welcome shift toward more honorable, enlightening storytelling! Another medal for the VICEroy.

So be encouraged. There are all kinds of opportunities out there for upcoming, inventive producers who can manage to think freely under the brand regulations of this rather well-patrolled content commissariat. And do try to remember that while technology may have changed the way we consume media, the golden rule of broadcasting hasn’t changed at all: CONTENT IS STILL KING. So blow them away with a great project pitch, and let them blow you away with their king-sized budgets.

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