After it was announced that Will Keenan was leaving his post as president of Endemol Beyond USA in August, he went on a ten-day retreat at Vipassana Center in Twentynine Palms, Ca. The rules called for him to take a vow of silence. There was no reading, no writing, no exercise. Nothing but sleep and meditation.
When he emerged, there were several job offers waiting for him. But the vow of silence continued as far as the media was concerned, until yesterday, when Keenan announced he was signing on as the president and chief content officer for Santa Monica-based live streaming start-up Streamup.
Sitting on the patio of the W Hotel in Hollywood yesterday, Keenan was ready to talk, which is another sort of Zen state for the New Jersey native, who spent the first decade and a half of his career slogging through the indie film trenches, producing and/or starring in a long list of low-budget films including “Tromeo & Juliet” and “Terror Firmer.”
“One of my mandates is to bring some real talent to the platform and create some real live shows,” Keenan told VideoInk. “There are a number of categories that do well on all the other platforms, and we’ve already kind of figured out what they would look like live.”
The biggest thing happening in the live streaming space right now is gaming, but Keenan is interested in exploring a multitude of verticals in a “live MCN” format.
“Music is totally ripe for it, comedy is ripe for it. Imagine live beauty tutorials,” said Keenan, who brought beauty vlogger Michael Phan to Endemol and launched her Icon Network. “One of my first deals is going to be a live prank show with some of the biggest online pranksters.”
Keenan’s plans for Streamup also include a “Saturday Night Live”-style comedy-variety show starring digital influencers, as well as news, talk show and reality-competition programming.
Streamup has gone from 10,000 monthly users to nearly 20 million in less than a year. But at the moment it is still in beta, without dedicated mobile apps, so Keenan has his work cut out for him, especially as the live streaming space gets more crowded by the day, with upstarts like Firetalk, Stre.am and Stage TEN joining established players such as YouTube, Twitch, Periscope and Meerkat.
“At Endemol, they were calling me the talent whisperer,” Keenan said. “So do I feel like the live formats I’m going to develop have a better chance than others? Yeah. I’m a confident mofo.”
Keenan came to the digital space after a stint producing movies in Bollywood, including writer/director Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s “Hiss” (2010), starring Irrfan Khan. Eager to spend more time with his wife in the U.S., but tired of the diminishing returns in the domestic indie film scene, he set out to learn everything there was to learn about the YouTube world.
“We have this huge dining room table and it was just filled with stacks of printouts of YouTube, MCNs, the whole digital space,” Keenan recalled. “They were highlighted, notated, underlined. I was like, ‘A-ha! I know everything about digital.’ Which I didn’t.”
After two weeks of intense study, he heard from an old friend who had become head of human resources at Maker Studios who thought he would be the perfect person to run interference with talent at the rapidly-growing MCN. As director of programming/network optimization at Maker, Keenan worked with rising digital natives such as Alphacat and BadLipReading, as well as mainstream Hollywood talent including Kevin Smith, Adrian Grenier and Margaret Cho, and launched the entertainment and politics network PoliPop.
After the ouster of Maker co-founder and CEO Danny Zappin, Keenan moved on to Endemol, where his talent signings included rapper Pitbull, Andy Milonakis, Brittany Furlan, Courtney Love and former “Sopranos” star (and longtime friend) Drea De Matteo.
When Keenan left Endemol, there were rumors that he would join Zappin at his new venture, Zealot Networks, but he ended up merely making an investment in the company.
Keenan first met Streamup CEO Kyle Michelson when he came in to consult about setting up a live stream broadcast of the activity in Endemol Beyond’s offices. (It didn’t happen.)
“He’s a genius,” said Keenan of Michelson, “and I don’t use that word lightly.”
Streamup has both beginner and pro level options, with features that include animated overlays, news tickers and sound effects. It will be launching Android and iOS apps in the coming months, and Keenan hopes to add 360-degree streaming capabilities.
“I’ve thrown everything at Kyle and his team,” Keenan said. “I’m like, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’ Because sometimes I think I come up with ideas that are impossible. And these guys are like, ‘No, we can do that.’ So I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
At Maker, Keenan chose a compensation package that favored salary over equity, which meant that his windfall from Disney’s purchase of Maker last year was not as big as it could’ve been.
“A lot of my friends are multimillionaires now. I got enough to buy three new Lexuses,” he said of the Maker sale. “Streamup’s offer was a significant piece of equity in the company and a great base salary, and I get to essentially do what I’ve been doing the past years at Maker and Endemol, except this time I’m going to do it live.”
After two years at Maker and two years at Endemol, Keenan wants his job at Streamup to be his last.
“I want to retire early,” Keenan said. “So this might be my equity pop from a start-up, and then you’ll never hear from me again. Everyone is going to thing I’m dead, and I’ll just be meditating in the Himalayas.”