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Vice's avant-garde media revolution

The onetime underdog has built a brand selling cool. With its coveted global youth audience, it's attracted Madonna, YouTube and more. But is it selling out, or has culture just caught up?

November 08, 2013|By Chris Lee | This post has been updated, as indicated below
  • Suroosh Alvi, right, on location in Democratic Republic of Congo, at a Mai Mai camp, east of Goma.
Suroosh Alvi, right, on location in Democratic Republic of Congo, at a Mai… (Tim Freccia / Vice Media )

When Madonna declared herself fed up over the "death of creativity" after a world tour in which religious conservatives protested her concert in Poland, fascist skinheads heckled her in France and she received terrorist threats in Russia, the pop provocateur decided she needed to do more to inspire her followers to fight oppression and stand up for human rights.

She wanted to start a revolution. And she knew she'd need help spreading her message. So the superstar's longtime manager Guy Oseary made one call — to Vice Media.

Best known for sparking the odd friendship between flamboyant former Chicago Bulls power forward Dennis Rodman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for its gonzo magazine series "Vice" on HBO, the company has evolved from contrarian hipster magazine into a media powerhouse valued last summer at $1.4 billion after Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox bought 5% of the enterprise for $70 million.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

The omnivorous, privately held Vice Media now encompasses a network of digital channels, a record label, an in-house ad agency, book publishing and television divisions, and feature film production.

"It's a great time to be Vice," deadpans co-founder Suroosh Alvi.

Doubling down on its TV and movie production capacity, the Brooklyn-based company opened a warehouse-like Los Angeles office near Venice Beach this fall, with room for 40 video editing suites. In addition to its Hollywood proximity at a time the company has become an effective movie marketing presence, Vice L.A. geographically situates the company near its strategic partner YouTube, whose Playa Vista campus is a few miles down the coast.

"We've got a new season of 'Vice' on HBO in the works, and you're going to see a Vice feature film division emerge within the next year," says the company's chief creative officer, Eddy Moretti, pointing to "Fishing Without Nets," a Vice-produced dramatic thriller about Somali pirates set for release in 2014.

Last month, Advertising Age named Vice Media its publishing company of the year, citing the magazine's 4% year-over-year ad-page increase and expansion to 24 international editions.

For Madonna, Vice eagerly signed on this year to promote and curateher public art project, Art for Freedom. As part of that initiative, "secretprojectrevolution" — a 17-minute film the singer wrote, co-directed and produced — has been downloaded free from the peer-to-peer file-sharing portal BitTorrent more than 1.3 million times since its September release.

"It felt like the right kind of partnership," Madonna manager Oseary said of Vice. "They have great reach to the people who are likely to take action — to do something. The Vice audience is not a passive audience. They want to be turned on to things, they want to see things first. They want information they're not getting on regular channels."

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV

With the high-low worldview of 1960s Playboy and the global youth outreach of 1990s MTV, Vice Media has become a viable alternative to mainstream media.

Even before Murdoch's $70-million investment, the Australian mogul tweeted of Vice, "Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don't read or watch established media."

By all accounts, 2013 has been a banner year for Vice, which will celebrate its 20th year in operation come January. Its 2012 revenues reportedly topped $175 million.

But beyond simply transcending its punk-rock roots or generating robust revenues in a depressed media market, Vice has achieved a kind of cultural saturation this year. Even while continuing to do exposés such as "Fracking Gave Me Gonorrhea" and "Oktoberfest in Palestine," the company entered strategic deals with HBO and YouTube. All while promo-blitzing "Spring Breakers," the indie babes-in-bikinis crime thriller, and helping culturally reestablish international superstars including Daft Punk and Snoop Dogg — the latter as his controversial reggae-performing alter ego Snoop Lion.

"It was a team effort," Snoop said of Vice's rebranding push. "They are professional and edgy, just like I am."

Toward that end, Vice's HBO magazine series scored a world-class get when it flew Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea. The Vice crew was not only granted rare face time with Kim but it was also able to show some of the government's deceptions, including a computer lab where students pretended to use nonworking computers. Vice's effort was ultimately rewarded with a 2013 Emmy nomination for documentary or nonfiction series.

"Emmy voters are not the most cutting-edge viewers in the world and yet they embraced the show by giving it a nomination in a very competitive category," says HBO's president of programming, Michael Lombardo.

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