Vuguru is one of those rarities in the web content world: a company that has been actively financing and producing web content since 2007, without going out of business. That sounds cynical, sure, but if you look back at the era when the company first became active, it’s hard not to notice that the other digital studios springing up during those years — including Stage 9 and Veoh — are now barely remembered footnotes for this industry.
But Vuguru seems to be doing well, thanks to Rogers Media funding and an approach to creating truly multiplatform content with an international focus.
The company’s latest release is Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a portrait of the many men and women affected by the U.S. Military’s policies regarding homosexuality in the armed forces. The release was written, created by and stars Mark Wolf as, well, everybody. Launched last week on Snagfilms.com, Don’t Ask will also premiere on Hulu next week — timed to correspond with the official end of the DADT policy on Sept. 20, 2011.
Don’t Ask originated as an off-Broadway one-man show featuring Wolf, which Vuguru founder Michael Eisner happened to see while he was in New York. “The performance was so great, and the stories were so compelling, and only a few hundred people were going to see it. So we had the idea to make it much bigger and adapt it to our format,” Vuguru CEO Larry Tanz said.
The Vuguru format, in this case, looks like this: A piece of content running approximately 100 minutes is broken down into “chapters” of somewhat varying lengths, which can then be packaged and sold domestically and internationally to, essentially, whomever is interested. This can mean that international markets see a show before it makes it to America. For instance, Prom Queen: Homecoming, a followup to the Myspace hit Prom Queen, has yet to premiere in the U.S. despite finishing production in July 2009. But it’s also allowed Vuguru-produced content to have an international presence.
It’s a model used by other companies as well: one example is Crackle’s The Bannen Way, which premiered as a web series but has aired internationally as a telefilm. Don’t Ask‘s international rights have not yet been sold, but according to Tanz they’ll be bringing the project to MIPCOM for just that purpose.
The Booth at the End launched on Hulu as five 22-minute installments, but has also aired internationally, thanks to a deal with Fox International. For its release on the UK web content site FX, the show was split into 62 two-minute chapters, with two a day premiering over a month-long period.
According to Tanz, Vuguru uses the term “chapter” for its episodes to distinguish its content from other web shows: there are no opening or closing credits, making it easy for people to watch multiple episodes in a row — which data shows they do, especially if they happen upon a later episode of the show. “With The Booth at the End, people who jumped in in the middle, say with Chapter 3, would jump back to the first chapter. If you hook them in, they’ll go back to the beginning. It works because it’s on demand.”
Vuguru is currently working on two projects for AOL as part of the six-series deal struck last November: A suburban mom comedy called Little Women, Big Cars, featuring Antonio Sabato Jr., Kristy Swanson, Julie Warner and Ed Begley Jr., is currently in post-production and should premiere in Q1 or Q2 of 2012. Production has also begun on another comedy about a woman starting her own dog-walking business. (Both shows are targeted towards AOL’s large, advertiser-friendly female audience.)
Vuguru retains the international rights to these shows and will market them accordingly, with the only difference between them and Don’t Ask being what to call them. “Comedies feel more episodic, while dramas work better as longer-form experiences. Don’t Ask is more of a multiplatform film, while we’re more likely to call a comedy a multiplatform series,” Tanz said.
Multiplatform can mean a lot of things these days, but for Tanz, the term means there are many places for people to see the show, with online being the first — but the production is high-quality enough to work for broadcast.
“Everything we do is broadcast quality,” Tanz said, which makes it easier for Vuguru to bring to other markets and platforms. “For our buyers, it’s easy to put on all your platforms — and possible to put on your best platform.”