MGM bets on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s plan for inspirational content online
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 will launch a digital content business with 25 original online video series on a platform called LightWorkers.com, created by husband-and-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 lure 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 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 chairman 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 start-up 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% decline in sales from MGM’s film division. MGM also has been growing through acquisition, 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 hasn’t 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, family-friendly 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 about 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 the idea for LightWorkers.com 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. The company started testing the idea with 37-second videos highlighting heartwarming stories, such as a community in India that set up a fridge offering free food to the poor. Those clips garnered more than 20 million views, bolstering the company’s confidence in the concept.
“I have worked on big epic productions, and I believe this is the future,” Downey said. “I’m very excited to be ahead of the curve on this.”
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