Justin R. Ching is the Founder of j-school, a production company specializing in stories about diverse communities (people of color, women, LGBTQ). Most recently, he produced the Amazon Exclusive Series “Ritual.” Prior to j-school, Ching was an Award-winning Showrunner at FOX where he produced such hits as “Z Dream” starring Sung Kang (“Fast & Furious” franchise) and “The Fighter & The Kid” starring Brendan Schaub (UFC) and Bryan Callen (“The Hangover”). He also led the company’s partnership with Facebook to create @TheBuzzer, which became the #1 social video program in all of sports. Justin started his career at YouTube, helping to launch channels like VICE, AwesomenessTV and Tastemade. Follow him on all social platforms: @justinrching.
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VideoInk: In a climate where television and digital have nearly lost their separate identities, how do you approach the buying market as a producer?
Justin Ching: Good storytelling is still good storytelling. Granted, I mostly work with premium buyers so as much as the climate has changed, my pitch conversations are still primarily focused on the narrative. If the story (or format) works, then we go through the secondary evaluation of short, mid, or long-form.
Whether it be television or digital, the medium is just that, a blank canvas. However the canvas may change, it’s my job as a producer to adjust the show to fit within the edges. In many cases, the concept can be scaled up to an Amazon or down to a Snapchat with platform-specific tweaks. In that sense, I consider this moment of TV and digital merging their identities as a very fortunate time to be a producer because it has created a wider field of buyers.
This is not to say I believe in shoe-horning a project into a platform just to forcibly make a sale. I truly believe you must take the nuances of each platform seriously. Not every concept will work across all platforms, but that aspect is not a new development to the art of producing. In a pre-digital world, a producer still would have to decide if a TV show or stage play could be a feature film and vice-versa.
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You have a project with amazon and were formerly doing digital formats for Fox, what are the similarities and differences between producing for the two?
From my perspective, Amazon has been focused on creating premium content. Thus, for the docu-series, “Ritual” the visual guides we referenced were very cinematic. Rachel Brill and Whalerock Industries, who created the series along with Scott Langerman and ACE Media, were masterful in their vision for the series. This vision set the project up for success. The Amazon Studios’ executives were both easy to work with and decisive at the same time. I had a blast on that show and hope my positive experience is a good sign for future projects I may potentially produce for Amazon.
Fox was a different experience as a legacy media business. Their long history meant that they have a wider variety of content than Amazon. I owe a great debt to Fox because I got to learn every type of show I could ever dream of making. However, for digital content specifically, I feel like Fox has an uneven opinion compared to other big media conglomerates. At times, I would be working on Facebook partnerships that received a lot of resources. Other times, the digital content budget felt discretionary compared to NBCUniversal, for example, who has bet big on Buzzfeed and Snap. With the Fox acquisition, the sun will now rise and set on the Disney empire so I guess we’ll have to wait and see there as well.
What advice do you have for producers or development execs looking to make sense of the current, murky digital / traditional buying market?
Know your audience. Niche is the new mass market. Gone are the days when you can appeal to everyone with your content because of audience fragmentation, so hone in on a well-defined identity to target. There is a reason why buyers are beating the drum of diversity and looking for minority-driven content (women, people of color, LGBTQ etc). I promise it is not because of affirmative action. Rather, minority audiences are known quantities ripe for the taking. Buyers have become wise to where the market has moved.
Moreover, diversity programming is also an untapped well of material. We’ve all heard “Hollywood has run out of new ideas.” Yet, that expression is a false narrative. There are countless untold stories about minorities that were never given an opportunity before the current climate. Case in point: “Get Out” was the most profitable movie (630% ROI) of 2017, but that film would not have been made in years past.
To be clear, I’m not stating content for minorities is the only way to go. There’s a smorgasbord of other audiences left on the table – for example, the online gaming community (more on this later). I’m saying be specific. Don’t be a master of none (ironically “Master of None” on Netflix is a highly targeted show about an Indian American)!
How does the lack of windowing impact how you plan to exploit “Ritual?”
“Ritual” is actually one of the few streaming shows with a windowing strategy. A new episode premieres each week and airs live as a lead-in to NFL Thursday Night Football games on Amazon, including on the masthead of the site’s homepage. Then, the episode moves to VOD. In that sense, it’s similar to the way a linear show airs on a traditional TV network then moves to Hulu.
As far as the results of this strategy, I won’t pretend to know our ratings because Amazon, like Netflix, doesn’t release viewership data. However, given that “Ritual” runs on the homepage of one of the most trafficked sites in the world and airs before one of America’s biggest weekly events, I’d like to think we did pretty well.
Given your background in producing for sports, who do you think are the sports brands of the future?
The future of sports broadcasters like Fox and ESPN is precarious. In short, they are unsustainably overleveraged on rights fees to leagues like the NFL. They need to reinvent, but the road ahead is treacherous.
Brand-wise, Nike continues to be future facing. Since Michael Jordan, they have been the best storytellers in all of sports. Their knack for innovation is central to that consistency.
The real ones to watch are eSports companies. Doubt the power of competitive online gaming at your own peril. I recently caught up with Pete Vlastelica, CEO of Major League Gaming (Activision Blizzard) and visited their stadium in Burbank to watch the Overwatch League. What I saw rivals traditional sports both as an amazing in-person experience and a highly-produced live stream program. The fact that the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, has invested in an Overwatch team is all you need to know about eSports’ future.