Babelgum’s Multimillion-Dollar Original Content Push

Babelgum, the shape-shifting video startup that has yet to find its true calling, has been making a new bet as of late: original content. Backed by Italian telecom entrepreneur Silvio Scaglia, the company started focusing on U.S. content with a browser-based relaunch in April. It has bulked up its American staff and given them a mandate to launch 10-15 content initiatives per month, mostly exclusive original shows.

After noting our reviews editor Liz Shannon Miller’s continued interest in the site — with reviews of shows like Road Trippin’ With Ice Cream Man and Your Geek News — and seeing Babelgum’s deals pile up to premiere a feature film on mobile phones, exclusively provide mobile access to Funny or Die videos, and fund pioneering show Goodnight Burbank, we asked for an interview to hear more about Babelgum’s master plan.

Babelgum has the go-ahead to spend multiple millions of dollars on original content, said Michael Rosen, EVP and chief revenue officer. The company said last year it had budgeted $15.4 million for contests for documentaries and narrative shorts, but its mandate seems to have broadened since then.

Million-dollar budgets are not unheard of for web studios — for instance, Crackle’s Angel of Death cost $1 million on its own — but that’s a major departure from where Babelgum has come from, competing with Joost, Dailymotion and Hulu as it evolved. “We don’t want to be the biggest; we want to be the most engaging and the most original,” said Rosen.

Though Babelgum’s only backer is Scaglia, he has deep pockets. The company said last year that Scaglia had invested €50 million ($73 milllion) and planned to spend €40 million to €60 million annually for the next 2-3 years. The business of web video will require more than just funding, but nobody will deny that making content requires cash.

Some recent Babelgum projects that don’t sound particularly low-budget include an exclusive David Hasselhoff show about diving with sharks in the Maldives (on Babelgum’s subsidiary site, and a new think tank for comedy writers called Chillarious that will meet three times a week in Los Angeles with the aim of coming up with multiple new series that Babelgum would greenlight.

Besides funding and licensing exclusive content, Babelgum is also investing in exclusive windows to air new programs, such as Sally Potter’s full-length film Rage, which features Simon Abkarian, Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo and Dianne Wiest and premiered as a series of episodes on Babelgum’s mobile apps.

Though Rosen may have the word “revenue” in his title, he said he’s more interested in establishing solid programming and an audience than making sure it pays for itself. Babelgum today uses a combination of video ads, display ads and broader sponsorships, and is exploring branded series. Rosen’s attitude sounds decidedly like the days of web series yore — before the downturned economy made the business of creating online video so much harder. “We are committed to a significant investment in content,” Rosen said. “We’re continuously programming regardless of whether we have advertisers.”