Is America Ready for a High School Version of Marvel?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Today’s teenage girls know their voices are important, and Rob Fishman is giving them a platform.
By Carly Stern
As a fifth grader, Rob Fishman was indignant that Greenacres Elementary School didn’t have a newspaper. So at the ripe old age of 10, he started the short-lived Greenacres Gazette. In a memorable editorial, Fishman recalls ripping American companies for employing sweatshop labor overseas: “How much it alerted Corporate America, I cannot say.” Now 33, the serial entrepreneur has built a media career by spotting gaps in the content landscape. His latest venture addresses a crowd only slightly older than Greenacres Gazette readers but in a vastly different way.
Fishman thought teenage girls were being fed “empty calories” rather than high-quality narrative shows. Historically, they were limited to shows by Nickelodeon and Disney — geared toward younger eyes — while MTV skewed older, says Carter Hansen, who founded Different Entertainment and previously worked at Generation Z media company Awesomeness. And for a generation increasingly literate with social platforms and distant from traditional TV channels, there was “nobody creating content in ways they wanted to consume it” back in the early 2010s, Hansen adds.
People assume Gen Zers have 20-second attention spans, content to flick through Instagram feeds and watch stories that disappear. Fishman diagnosed them differently: If you serve a whole generation with disposable assets, he argues, you’ll train them to throw things away. This climate spurred Fishman to launch Brat, a YouTube-first digital production company, in 2017, with partner Darren Lachtman. The audience, which is 80 percent female, has consumed nearly 4 billion minutes on YouTube to date. Scripted episodes ranging from 12 to 20 minutes are uploaded regularly at 3 pm Pacific Time directly to YouTube. Viewers live-chat through YouTube’s premiere feature, with as many as 50,000 concurrent viewers in this virtual “waiting room” before the newest episodes drop, Fishman says.
Fishman pegs Brat as “slower than BuzzFeed and faster than Hollywood.”
While other companies like Awesomeness eventually licensed content to Hulu and Netflix, Brat’s goal is to build a brand and slate of shows to be marketed directly to consumers. Modeled after the Marvel Cinematic Universe— which includes 22 films — all Brat characters in the roughly two dozen current and former shows exist in a single universe of the same fictional county. In shows like Chicken Girls and Zoe Valentine, characters from the two high schools cross over. Hansen says the scripted nature of Brat’s shows and its cohesive world set it apart. In its first two years, the company has raised $42.5 million in venture capital and garnered more than 3 million YouTube subscribers.
Brat casts Gen Z social media influencers, even if they lack acting experience, in addition to seasoned actors like Anna Cathcart and Annie LeBlanc. The shows are meant to occupy the space between casual vlogs and scarcer high-budget Netflix series — as Brat seeks a piece of the fast-declining traditional television market, with its nearly $70 billion in ad dollars. Brat’s production cadence echoes an approach that MTV pioneered: Rather than “focus group-ing” shows to death, the network threw a bunch of content at the wall and saw what stuck, says Philip Napoli, a public policy professor at Duke University who focuses on media institutions. Fishman pegs Brat as “slower than BuzzFeed and faster than Hollywood.”
Fishman’s company caters to an increasingly influential market. Gen Z wields $44 billion in annual buying power, according to the National Retail Federation, while 93 percent of parents say their kids influence spending decisions, according to Forbes. What’s more, younger media consumers historically have been toughest to reach and are the demographic for which advertisers pay the highest premium — in part because their brand preferences haven’t been established yet, says Napoli.
Fishman grew up in Scarsdale, New York, with two younger sisters. He nods to his great aunt Marilyn Berger, who wrote obituaries for The New York Times, as his inspiration to enter the media world. He was a child of many talents and always the charmer, according to Berger. “Robert knew everybody, and everybody knew Robert,” she says. He plays the piano by ea, and can just as easily write computer code or manage design as he can write a press release, Lachtman says.
After graduating from Cornell University, Fishman zipped off to Columbia Journalism School (during which he lived in his great aunt’s guest room). His first job doing social media for the Huffington Post hammered home the discipline of writing efficiently, he says. In 2011, he launched Kingfish Labs — which developed a data service to optimize Facebook ads — until BuzzFeed acquired the engineering team. After writing for BuzzFeed, Fishman co-founded Niche, a platform that connects advertisers with social media stars, which he and Lachtman sold to Twitter in 2015 for roughly $50 million. After doing product work at Twitter, Fishman began hatching Brat.
Operating at the intersection of tech and TV production has proved to be an asset, and the company’s sun-streaked Hollywood offices embody a Silicon Valley vibe. I watch young employees clad in leopard-print pants and emerald blazers chat in an airy living room-like space, where I’m offered an espresso. The production set, just a few blocks away, buzzes with activity as the crew finishes shooting a scene set in a school hallway.
To be sure, Brat is operating in an increasingly crowded, or “unprecedentedly fragmented” space, as Napoli puts it. And Brat’s use of influencers is hardly breakthrough, as other media companies like Awesomeness — founded years earlier in 2012 — leveraged already-popular YouTubers. But Brat has influencers exclusively play scripted characters rather than mirror what they’re doing on their own channels, Fishman says.
While the company is off to a fast start, it remains to be seen how the brand will expand, “especially as the characters start to age out of the world they’ve built,” Hansen points out. As of now, Brat doesn’t intend to sell shows to platforms like Netflix, says Kristen Lachtman, Brat’s executive director. But Fishman says nothing is ruled out, and some Brat series are already available on Amazon Prime Video. Evolving platforms will be critical so that the company doesn’t rely solely on YouTube’s dime or algorithms, says Hansen.
The company has just ventured into branded partnerships and is beginning to build a sales team, striking deals with Universal Pictures and Extra Gum, and planning to open offices in New York and Chicago. As potential partners come to the table, Hansen says he’s interested “to see how long they can hold on to that core identity as their business model grows.” The company has attracted big names like author Sara Shepard of Pretty Little Liars fame, actress Daniella Perkins of Nickelodeon’sKnight Squad and actor Michael Campion of Netflix’sFuller House.
Above all, the Brat team appears energized by the young people they’re working with and for. “They know their voice is important,” says Kristen Lachtman, “and they have … the megaphones they need to share their perspective.” Whether it’s YouTube or the Greenacres Gazette, any rising generation wants a place to tell its stories.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Rob Fishman
- What are the last books you read? Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, and Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.
- What do you worry about? Everything.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I always like to be near a piano.
- Who’s your hero? Roger Corman. He’s the king of B-movies. And Robert Pittman, founder of MTV.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Go to Asia. I still haven’t been.