MGM plans on­line in­spi­ra­tional videos

Waterloo Region Record - - ARTS & LIFE - Ryan Faugh­n­der

LOS ANGELES — Metro-Gold­wyn-Mayer Stu­dios is known for re­leas­ing such Hol­ly­wood clas­sics as “Ben-Hur,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Now the sto­ried, nearly cen­tury-old MGM is tak­ing a big step into the fu­ture of bite-size en­ter­tain­ment. MGM this week is launch­ing a dig­i­tal con­tent busi­ness with 25 orig­i­nal on­line video se­ries on a plat­form called LightWork­, cre­ated by hus­ban­dand-wife team Mark Bur­nett and Roma Downey.

The Chris­tian cou­ple, who made the hit tele­vi­sion minis­eries “The Bi­ble” and the movie “Son of God,” hope to at­tract view­ers with 1- to 5-minute in­spi­ra­tional videos, ap­peal­ing mainly to young-adult women who watch con­tent on mo­bile de­vices. The free ad-sup­ported ser­vice will in­clude tu­to­ri­als on thought­ful gift-giv­ing, doc­u­men­taries on peo­ple who’ve over­come tragedy, and shows for cook­ing and spir­i­tual ad­vice.

“We see this as such an un­der­served mar­ket,” Downey, pres­i­dent of MGM’s faith and fam­ily sub­sidiary LightWork­ers Me­dia, told The Los Angeles Times. “There’s a great hunger and need and a com­mu­nity for this ... We need to be a respite and be a re­minder of what’s pos­si­ble.”

It’s the lat­est at­tempt by Downey and Bur­nett to ex­pand their faith-based brand un­der MGM. The com­pany last year launched tele­vi­sion net­work Light TV, which airs fam­ily-friendly ma­te­rial culled from MGM’s li­brary. The ex­ec­u­tives also plan to launch a faith-based sub­scrip­tion stream­ing chan­nel that was first an­nounced in 2014.

Like other free on­line video out­lets, LightWork­ers aims to make money through ad­ver­tis­ing and spon­sored con­tent, bet­ting that peo­ple will want to share their ma­te­rial with friends and fam­ily on so­cial me­dia. The site could also serve as a home for new ma­te­rial based on films and shows from MGM’s li­brary, and pro­vide a test­ing ground for new ideas.

MGM, run by Chair and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Gary Bar­ber, is mak­ing other dig­i­tal moves. The stu­dio re­cently an­nounced a new se­ries of mini-episodes for its “Star­gate” fran­chise, which will air on a new sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that also hosts pre­vi­ous ver­sions of the show.

“MGM as a com­pany has come so far in re­ally see­ing and em­brac­ing the tra­di­tional me­dia busi­ness and the new me­dia busi­ness, and LightWork­ers is a great ex­am­ple of the com­pany’s com­mit­ment to em­brac­ing that startup men­tal­ity,” said Kevin Con­roy, MGM’s pres­i­dent of dig­i­tal and new plat­forms.

The on­line push comes at a time of resur­gence for MGM af­ter a long pe­riod of un­cer­tainty. The com­pany, which also pro­duces the James Bond films, filed for Chap­ter 11 bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion in 2010. Since then, MGM’s tele­vi­sion busi­ness has been grow­ing with ac­claimed shows in­clud­ing FX’s “Fargo” and Hulu’s “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” which last week be­came the first stream­ing pro­gram to win the Emmy for best drama se­ries.

Bur­nett, known for pro­duc­ing pop­u­lar shows in­clud­ing “The Voice,” “The Ap­pren­tice” and “Shark Tank,” has led MGM Tele­vi­sion since 2016, af­ter MGM bought full con­trol of his and Downey’s joint ven­ture with the stu­dio, United Artists Me­dia Group.

To­tal rev­enue for MGM was $589 mil­lion dur­ing the first six months of this year, vir­tu­ally flat with the same pe­riod in 2016, ac­cord­ing to a reg­u­la­tory fil­ing. Tele­vi­sion rev­enue nearly dou­bled to $215 mil­lion, but was off­set by a 35 per cent de­cline in sales from MGM’s film di­vi­sion. MGM also has been grow­ing through ac­qui­si­tions, buy­ing “Real Housewives of Or­ange County” pro­ducer Evolution Me­dia and pay-TV movie net­work Epix this year.

With LightWork­ers, MGM is en­ter­ing a com­pet­i­tive space. Com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Re­fin­ery29, Gwyneth Pal­trow’s Goop and count­less YouTube chan­nels have built big au­di­ences with as­pi­ra­tional videos and ar­ti­cles ap­peal­ing to the 25-34 fe­male de­mo­graphic. Var­i­ous pro­gram­mers and pro­duc­ers, in­clud­ing Turner Broad­cast­ing and Blum­house Pro­duc­tions, have de­vised their own dig­i­tal video strate­gies for spe­cific au­di­ences, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

Faith-based ma­te­rial has not al­ways worked for MGM, as ev­i­denced by last year’s re­make of “Ben-Hur” that flopped at the box of­fice.

Still, there’s an op­por­tu­nity to serve au­di­ences look­ing for up­lift on­line dur­ing di­vi­sive news cy­cles, said Matthew Faraci. The vet­eran mar­keter and pro­ducer spe­cial­izes in faith-based au­di­ences, es­ti­mated to to­tal about 52 mil­lion U.S. adults.

“This group is ac­tively look­ing for in­spi­ra­tional, clean, fam­i­lyfriendly con­tent they can all watch to­gether,” Faraci said. “The launch of MGM’s new ven­ture is timely and a wel­come ad­di­tion to a num­ber of rapidly grow­ing chan­nels that are al­ready re­al­iz­ing suc­cess in this space.”

LightWork­ers has been work­ing on the launch for six months, as­sem­bling a staff of 25 who work out of an of­fice in Cul­ver City.

The new se­ries in­clude “Giftable,” a video how-to for thought­ful gifts such as a get-well bas­ket with home­made gin­ger and lemon tea. An­other se­ries, “I Strug­gle. I Rise,” fea­tures mini doc­u­men­taries on peo­ple who have over­come dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal chal­lenges, such as pro­fes­sional boxer Heather Hardy, who is a sur­vivor of sex­ual as­sault. Many of the videos have spir­i­tual un­der­tones but are not ex­plic­itly re­li­gious.

Even spon­sored videos on the site will have an up­lift­ing bent. For ex­am­ple, the com­pany will host and pro­mote videos from cruise gi­ant Car­ni­val Corp.’s “so­cial im­pact” brand Fathom, high­light­ing sto­ries of pas­sen­gers who took part in life-chang­ing trips to such lo­ca­tions as the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic.

Downey said she came up with the idea for LightWork­ af­ter be­ing over­whelmed by neg­a­tive sto­ries while watch­ing the news. The for­mer “Touched by an An­gel” star wanted to cre­ate a site to high­light peo­ple who were do­ing good in the world, she said.

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