(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times; Jay L. Clendenin)
It started as a goofy experiment: a low-budget Spanish-language soap opera packed with the usual tropes — a pretty young maid in distress, a vengeful wife, a handsome hero and even a horse.
But in this telenovela, the audience is invited to play along by choosing plot twists in real time. The show streams on Facebook Live and, in a recent episode, the action paused for 30 seconds so viewers could decide whether the wife should disguise herself as a hairy gorilla, a giant lobster or a colorful clown.
As viewers around the world voted, their preferences flashed on the screen. “It’s going to be the lobster,” the show’s production manager shouted on the set. The actress then slipped behind a partition to scramble into a red shellfish costume.
This may be the future of television.
“We’re telling the audience: You can choose your own adventure,” said Wolfgang Hammer, president of Super Deluxe, the eclectic Los Angeles entertainment companybehind the live telenovela.
Super Deluxe, which launched early last year, is testing different forms of storytelling to engage young viewers. It has sought out unconventional characters to develop scripted programs for television, screwball contests for the Internet, political spoofs and other videos, including the over-the-top telenovela, for Facebook Live, the platform that enables users to share live videos with their friends. The videos have generated eye-popping traffic numbers and high levels of viewer engagement.
The start-up studio represents a bold step by Turner, the cable television giant that boasts such prominent channels as TBS, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies, to address a fundamental problem vexing the television industry.
Millennials, those aged 18 to 35, don’t watch television like their parents. They are less inclined to sign up for pricey pay-TV packages, opting instead for a video-on-demand option so they can choose what and when they want to watch. They spend a huge chunk of their free time on social media and on their smartphones.
A flood of new-media companies, including BuzzFeed, AwesomenessTV, Gunpowder & Sky and others, also are attempting to reach this coveted audience. Walt Disney Co. spent $675 million to buy Maker Studios. NBCUniversal, AT&T, Verizon Communications and Google Inc. also have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in digital media platforms and studios. But the results have been mixed.
“It’s not a great business if you are trying to find needles in a haystack,” said Kevin Reilly, chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment, which owns Super Deluxe, and a veteran programmer who previously ran entertainment for Fox Broadcasting and NBC. “It’s low-percentage ball.”
Turner, a division of New York media giant Time Warner Inc., has taken a different approach from other media companies by fashioning a studio from the ground up.
“We said: ‘Let’s build a manufacturing system for programming,’ ” Reilly said.
Super Deluxe’s self-described mission is to “future-proof” television — to figure out how to survive the disruption while producing original and distinctive programming that young consumers will embrace.
But the competition is fierce.
“Consumers evaluate whether they are going to watch a video on a split-second basis,” said Melanie Shreffler, senior director of insights at Cassandra, a consulting firm in New York that studies youth culture. “Companies have to be a lot more nimble these days.”
Super Deluxe is based in a hipster-cool, 93-year-old office tower on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, a nod to the region’s revitalization — and its proximity to Hollywood.
“We asked ourselves when we started: ‘Does the world need more video?’ The answer, on the surface, is ‘no,’ ” said Hammer, a Stanford-educated Austrian who leads Super Deluxe. “But there is an opportunity now to build an entertainment business that looks like, and takes in, the best of Hollywood.”
Hammer, 40, who joined Turner two years ago, is a veteran of the television and film business. While a program executive at Media Rights Capital, he pushed for a remake of a BBC show that became Netflix’s first scripted drama, “House of Cards.” He was a film executive at Lionsgate and served nearly four years as co-president of CBS’ feature film division, curating such well-received movies as “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a 2011 British romantic drama, and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the 2013 Coen brothers’ film about a struggling folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961.
A publicity poster from “Llewyn Davis” hangs in Hammer’s corner office with exposed brick walls. Here, Hammer explained a pet peeve: He doesn’t consider Super Deluxe a digital content studio.
“I'm so against this term ‘digital’ because digital to me always just implies cheap and bad,” Hammer said. “We're an entertainment company first and foremost. We are trying to build an artistic brand that people love.”
“I'm so against this term ‘digital’ because digital to me always just implies cheap and bad.... We are trying to build an artistic brand that people love.
— Wolfgang Hammer, president of Super Deluxe
Super Deluxe was the name of an earlier digital video effort that Turner abandoned during the Great Recession. But Hammer liked the name and its retro vibe. The term ‘super deluxe’ was used to market albums and other quality products.
His plan is to produce a variety of content — television shows and offbeat videos — so that viewers recognize the Super Deluxe brand and, perhaps, eventually pay for a subscription for its content. For now, the content is free.
“The goal of this company is to be a consumer brand,” Hammer said. “We want to drive culture.”
Turner would not disclose its investment in Super Deluxe, but company executives said they view the platform as a farm club to scout for emerging talent, collaborate with rising stars in Hollywood and experiment with ways to reach audiences — particularly those who are glued to their mobile phones.
“How do we create value for the mobile consumers and turn it into value for our company?” Reilly said. “We can’t sit this one out.”
Most of the group’s 71-member workforce are millennials, and nearly 50% come from diverse backgrounds.The studio also relies on nearly four dozen contractors, including Vic Berger, a Pennsylvania music therapist turned video editor who has become an Internet sensation by creating mash-up videos, punctuated with air horn blasts, that zero in on awkward moments involving President Trump, other politicians and celebrities.
Early efforts have been promising. On election night in November, as CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox News anchors focused on high-tech maps of the U.S. as presidential votes were tallied, Super Deluxe published its own map of the U.S. This one was engulfed in flames, and there was audio of a crackling fire, similar to the low-tech holiday Yuletide log video. The “Super Deluxe Election Map” has been viewed more than 23 million times and was one of the year’s top videos on Facebook.
In February, Super Deluxe staged a footrace between an actual tortoise and a hare on a makeshift track with artificial turf sidelines. More than 3.4 million people have watched the 39-minute marathon, which was streamed on Facebook Live.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox has appeared in Super Deluxe videos, describing his disdain for Trump’s proposed border wall and his Trump Tower taco bowl.
This month Super Deluxe served up its own irreverent version of the live testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before a U.S. Senate committee. Viewers were encouraged to suggest comical alterations to a live stream of the hearing. Super Deluxe producers then mixed in special effects, including laugh tracks and audio distortions so senators’ voices sounded like those on “Alvin & the Chipmunks.” They drew cat whiskers on Comey’s face and superimposed someone else’s arms onto his body to make it appear that the fired FBI chief was playing the bongos.
The Comey video generated 483,000 live views, nearly 40% higher traffic than ABC News’ stream of the hearing, according to video analytics firm Delmondo. This week’s remix of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ testimony received 714,000 views.
“These are brilliantly silly ideas — but they are working,” said Reilly, who also is president of TNT and TBS, which plans to carve out a 90-minute late-night comedy block as early as next year to showcase Super Deluxe content.
Super Deluxe produces more than screwball comedy. Last year, a channel manager discovered a drama-comedy about two young adults who are deaf on Kickstarter. Super Deluxe picked up the project and then helped the producers/stars, Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, turn their story, “The Chances,” into a series of short episodes that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
AMC Networks in April ordered “The Chances” as a six-part series for its new Sundance Now streaming service.
“Younger audiences do still watch television,” Hammer said.
His team is creating a television show around another popular Internet character, “Joanne the Scammer.” It stars Branden Miller, a Florida man of Puerto Rican descent who wears a fur coat and blond wig and pretends to be a privileged white woman. Super Deluxe is teaming Miller with young comedians Chelsea Peretti and Joe Mande.
“There is a generation of makers out there, and we asked ourselves: ‘Is there a different intake system, where we could then move it up the food chain?’ ” Reilly said. “We are putting a smart structure around what is a very unstructured universe.”
In a tan industrial complex near the Golden State Freeway in Sylmar, Super Deluxe’s live team, a handful of actors and crew members this month shot the fourth episode of “El Hogar,” the telenovela.
The group isn’t proficient in Spanish. They rely on the mother of the show’s writer to provide the Spanish translations for the scripted episodes that are performed once a month for Facebook Live, complete with English subtitles.
“How do you say ‘future?’ ” asked Cyrus Ghahremani, 30, head of Super Deluxe’s live programming group, who doubles as the telenovela’s baritone announcer. A bilingual colleague provided the Spanish pronunciation. “Futuro, futuro,” Ghahremani practiced before delivering his line.
Producers clustered around computers, monitors and a soundboard in the makeshift control room, which had been used as a hospital ward in the previous episode.
Super Deluxe’s technology team developed an interactive tool kit with software to scan viewers’ comments on Facebook in real time and quickly tabulate the votes. At several points during the live production, the actors froze in place to give the audience time to pick a plot twist.
As one character ridiculously face-slaps another, viewers are asked to decide whether they are witnessing a murder. A horse whinnies in the background. The palomino (an actor wearing a horse-head mask) pops up in the show from time to time.
“This is gold,” wrote one viewer from Istanbul, Turkey.
The first episode in February attracted 428,000 views, according to Facebook data. The fourth, in June, generated 1.75 million views. And now Super Deluxe is trying to figure out whether it can adapt the format for television, which could prove difficult because of the audience participation.
The show started as test to see how viewers would engage with scripted content — and what storytelling devices might hold their attention, Ghahremani said.
“We are used to being able to tune out by flipping through our social media feeds,” he said. “But this [program] is something that you have to be engaged with.”
We are used to being able to tune out by flipping through our social media feeds. But this [program] is something that you have to be engaged with.
— Cyrus Ghahremani, head of Super Deluxe's live programming group
The show seeks to tap into viewers’ longing to be part of an online community. Their comments come rapid-fire in a rolling feed alongside the video screen.
“They are making the social media experience seamless,” said Shreffler of consulting firm Cassandra. “And this level of conversation has become the new expectation for younger audiences.”
In many ways, viewers’ affinity for personal media, mobile phones and tablets has made watching television a solitary activity. Television has become less communal.
“But we want to bring our friends back into it,” Shreffler said. “That’s why this is so smart — because it’s reconnecting you with humanity.”
Lead photos from left to right: Super Deluxe founder and president Wolfgang Hammer poses in front of a cell phone camera at the company's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Emmanuel Plascencia waits for the audience of the live online telenovela "El Hogar Es Donde Esta La Casa" to choose his outfit. Bridgette Lowe breaks apart a video game controller as part of a DIY video for making a fidget spinner.
Clockwise from left: Super Deluxe founder and president Wolfgang Hammer poses in front of a cell phone camera at the company's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Bridgette Lowe breaks apart a video game controller as part of a DIY video for making a fidget spinner. Emmanuel Plascencia waits for the audience of the live online telenovela "El Hogar Es Donde Esta La Casa" to choose his outfit.