Marni: Hi. This is Marni Edelhart, director of Content & Experience for the Pivot Conference, on the line with Amy Emmerich, EVP of Programming at Refinery29. Hi Amy.
Amy: Hi Marni.
Marni: Welcome to our interview. I’m so glad to be speaking with you.
Amy: Me too.
Marni: Amy is the EVP of Programming at Refinery29 where she oversees everything from video content to partnerships. Amy joined the team from Scripps Network Interactive where she was the Senior Vice President of programming for ulive.com, focusing on production and development of all original programming. Prior to Scripps Amy was the VP of production and development at Vice Media and the Travel Channel. At the Travel Channel she oversaw production of such shows as the Emmy Award winning docu-series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Man v. Food and Ghost Adventures. So then welcome Amy, I’m so glad to have you.
Amy: Thanks. Good to be here.
Marni: In a recent Fast Company article, you mentioned that when you first started at Refinery29 co-CEOs Justin Stefano and Philippe von Borries asked you how you would get them into Sundance while continuing to produce the best tutorials and win awards. What was your response?
Amy: I love challenge, bring it. I think that Refinery29 is doing some amazing work and I love that they dream big and that was the reason why I chose to join the company. This is a platform for discovery. It’s always been a megaphone for creators and I think that for all content on any screen and I didn’t believe that it was honestly going to be a problem. I mean every day that has always been something that we are gearing towards and we are currently in development on multiple projects in the hopes that we will get there next year.
Marni: Well, that’s pretty exciting and I can see why they were happy with that response too. So how do you define and characterize Refinery29’s audience?
Amy: Refinery29’s audience is a big group of independent minded people. I think that you know there is a lot of acceptance in striving to change, I think it’s a group that’s very self-reflective, they never stop improving. They are always out to up-end stereotypes to grow for the better and I think that really goes across all people that are fans and our audience.
Marni: So looking at that audience and what you’ve been tasked with there, what was the value add for Refinery29 in rolling out scripted series in addition to the current content.
Amy: You know I think Refinery is in an age of thank goodness, women empowerment, and when I got here it became apparent about the lack of opportunity for female directors. Currently it’s 4% of the top 100 box office films are directed by women and the more I kept interviewing and meeting with people there was so many great stories that needed to be told that they couldn’t find anyone who was willing to help tell those stories. So as much as it was going to be a value add for Refinery I think our ad was offering up a place for these stories to be told. It was something that we already knew our audience was looking for and I believe that there’s topics that are just sometimes better told in a scripted environment especially if they are really heavy topics, you can add a lot more humor to kind of get the point across.
Marni: Yeah, I think that people are much more apt to tune in if there’s a little bit of lightness along with the weight, so that makes a lot of sense.
Amy: Yeah, exactly, we’re big on the wink.
Marni: So for one of the new series I know you are partnering with Planned Parenthood, how did that partnership come about and what input did you have from the audience that issues around reproductive and sexual health were important to them?
Amy: You know when I first – I have been at Refinery for about 7 months and when I first got here I dove into all of the content that the editorial team has been writing for all these years and you know they are consistently writing about sexual health and they know – so we already knew our audience would respond to it. I went and attended Sundance for the first time and a friend brought me to a Planned Parenthood party that Lena Dunham was actually attending and speaking at. It was apparent to see, there was high school kids working at this party. The President of Planned Parenthood made a speech where she spoke about all the things that Planned Parenthood stands for, all about women’s and men’s health issues and every one of them lay perfectly in line with what Refinery has been speaking about. So it was pretty simple to see how each one of these topics could be created into a short film and in order to help spread the message of Planned Parenthood and to talk about topics that we knew the audience would already love; let’s add some humor as well as offer up the opportunity to female writers, directors and actresses if they wanted to change positions and do what they can to not only stand for a good cause but to you know; somebody who might be an actress can finally direct something that she wanted; really kind of create a forum, a bit of creative freedom for testing, experimentation and innovation. So all that came together just from an afternoon at Sundance believe it or not. Luckily Karen at Planned Parenthood was willing to partner with us and allow for this and they have such a huge reach into the talent pool, so many people across the country who stand with them and for them. And we kind of just crafted the ask and said this is what we are willing to do, we will build it, are you willing to play with us. And so far it was just overwhelming who came to the table and who wanted to do this, and it’s been probably one of the most fun partnerships of my career.
Marni: Just a follow-up to that question, can you quickly share with us a few of the folks who are partnering with you, who came to the table after that afternoon?
Amy: Oh yeah sure. So Lena Dunham, Jack Antonoff, Mae Whitman, Mamie Gummer, we are speaking to Rose McAllen right now and a few others that’s probably like the most I can talk to now everything and the rest is in development. We’ve shot one already and it is hysterical and they really are beautifully crafted. So and everyone’s you know literally doing this in tandem. People are taking time out of their extremely busy schedules. We are reaching out to female writers to help write the script. Certain people that are coming to the table to direct are offering up the opportunity to new writers. So it’s been really like a pretty collaborative – a collaborative project.
Marni: Sounds like that was one very important afternoon.
Amy: Well, that’s how it happens. It just takes a moment. I say it so simply and honestly I have to give Karen such a lot of credit because she really has been doing her part for Planned Parenthood and helping us with this and then you know the internal time for the team here. So but you know and even Refinery I was new and Philippe and Justin didn’t bat an eye at the opportunity to join into this partnership and I think it spoke volumes for the company and what they really want to create and what they want to stand for.
Marni: Yeah, absolutely. So where do you see the most exciting possibilities at the cross section of new media like what you are creating at Refinery and emerging technology.
Amy: I am really excited about virtual reality. We worked on something with Samsung called Fashionably Bound. We did it at the end of last year but it’s with the headset, Samsung headset, VR and I just think it’s been a while where we are creating content with entirely new technology and how you shoot and how you think about it from sound to motion, and I think with what YouTube is about to do with Jump 360 program and their 360 page and how you can think differently and how you are going to tell a story utilizing that someone can be anywhere within 360 of a moment that you are standing in one, I think it’s just going to change the way we can literally experience content of any kind. Google Cardboard was also another one that I got to experience at Sundance actually and it was probably one of the first monster movies I had ever seen, never mind in VR – outside of Godzilla, this was the second monster movie I have ever seen, and it just blew my mind. I think this is what the first 3D movie must have felt like when you put on your blue and red glasses and it’s taking it to another level. You feel like you are in the matrix. So we’ve got a couple of scripted projects that we are working on, we are working with YouTube on some of the prototype cameras that they’ve got, we’ve 3D printed our own VR camera, it’s really all about the casing, we’ve done that and we are working on some new software and figuring out you know just all kinds of ways that we can reach our audience, and in order to like make sure that they are aware of this new tech. It’s pretty awesome.
Marni: Yeah, that sounds incredible, just when you are kicking off scripted series now you’ve got to figure out a way to make them virtual reality ready, it sounds like thinking big continues to be the rule there.
Amy: We go big or go home.
Marni: Exactly. Well, Amy I want to respect your time. I could ask you more questions and talk to you all day but it’s been really great to learn more about this project and about Refinery and about you. So thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Amy: This is great, thank you Marni. I can’t wait for the conference.
Marni: No, we can’t either. See you on stage at Pivot in October.
Amy: Perfect. I will see you then. Thank you.