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The Viral Machine

Super Deluxe built a weird internet empire. Can it succeed on TV?

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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When Wolfgang Hammer talks about the future of entertainment, people listen. Hammer is the mastermind behind the American reboot of House of Cards, the guy with the unlikely idea of bringing together David Fincher and a forgotten BBC series. He oversaw two of CBS Films’ first prestige movies: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. He’s had a charmed career: leap-frogging from a master’s degree at Stanford to an entry-level job at Media Rights Capital to eventually becoming the president of CBS’s fledgling films division.

So when Hammer came to Turner with an ambitious concept, the cable giant was willing to entertain it. Turner owns TBS, TNT, CNN, and Cartoon Network, but what Hammer was proposing was something altogether different: an all-in-one production company that would thrive online and pretty much do whatever it wanted. Now 18 months old, Super Deluxe is being nurtured with a reliable budget and total creative freedom, and it’s given Hammer the opportunity to play fairy godmother, granting wishes for creators who want to make interesting, innovative art. Super Deluxe isn’t a traditional production company, media company, or art house, but it is a go-between for young talent who have struggled to break the bubble around the Hollywood institutions that can launch stars.

Over a series of phone interviews, Hammer declined to divulge how much money Super Deluxe gets from Turner. Hammer says they don’t have an annual budget from Turner — just a “pot of money” that gets replenished if they do well.

And if they don’t? “Well, then we’re out of luck, and there’s no more Super Deluxe.”

In the meantime, Hammer’s ambitions are grand — and he wields the power and jargon to match. He brushes off an employee’s comparison to Walt Disney, but says, “If you want to say that we aspire to be vertically integrated like the largest entertainment company the world has ever seen… that’s probably true.” He wants to make apps, games, merch, documentaries, viral videos, Instagram stars, his own technology for Facebook Live, and, most importantly, as many of the 50 original TV shows his team has been developing as possible.

The looming question now is whether Hammer can bring all these pieces together into a package that appeals to a large audience. With the recent sale of Super Deluxe’s first big television show The Chances, it’s almost time to find out.

You may not have heard of Super Deluxe, but if you’re part of the demographic that spends its days online, you’ve likely seen its work. Super Deluxe is the force behind some of last year’s greatest internet hoaxes and the weirdest diced-up video edits of the dystopian circus that was the 2016 election. In the last 18 months, the studio produced dozens of scripts for TV comedies, 8-bit video games based on memes, and a Facebook Live video that got pulled for nudity. They’re the specter behind the web magazine Extremely Good Shit and the multi-platform juggernaut Joanne the Scammer. Most recently, they’ve worked with YouTube and Instagram stars like Poppy, Bread Face, and @ScorpionDagger. Their creative director, former Vice editor-in-chief Jesse Pearson, is big on DIY videos — teaching valuable skills like how to give yourself a stick-and-poke tattoo or build your own gravity bong.

Hammer says Super Deluxe is averse to “noise,” but their content belies that assertion, both figuratively and literally: they made the easy Oscars Best Picture fuck-up remix just like everyone else; their go-to sound effects are literally air horns and screams. A lot of the political humor that doesn’t come from fan-fave contributor Vic Berger is gallows-y in a way that can feel cheap, even market-tested, leaning hard on the internet’s favorite mode of speaking — existential dread and off-hand quips about doomsday. Sometimes Super Deluxe can feel like a play for counterculture street cred at a time when the counterculture isn’t that fringe.

Wolfgang Hammer.
Wolfgang Hammer.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
Winnie Kemp.
Winnie Kemp.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

You almost certainly haven’t seen the other half of the company. At Sundance in January, it debuted a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. speechwriter Bayard Rustin, alongside a four-minute viral video about a teen’s friendship with a wild deer. Super Deluxe also premiered The Chances, a concept that the company’s VP of original programming, Winnie Kemp, stumbled across on Kickstarter; it’s now in production as a half-hour TV show. The Chances is the first show to star deaf characters written by deaf writers and played by deaf actors. Its creators, Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, are completely unknown as showrunners.

Super Deluxe is everywhere and nowhere, taking credit for things when they feel like it, eschewing it if it seems like it’ll be more fun that way. Sometimes Super Deluxe even goes out of its way to obfuscate its involvement, like it did when its tech team spurred the short-lived rumor that Drake and Rihanna were about to drop a collaborative album by launching According to Hammer, there’s no reason all these seemingly unrelated projects shouldn’t exist side by side — there’s no brand identity more compelling than “complete creative freedom.”  

To build that brand, Hammer borrowed a little bit of something old. The original incarnation of Super Deluxe, born in 2007 and scrapped in 2008, was a slightly edgier and way less popular Funny or Die, with comedy talent borrowed from Turner’s Adult Swim. When Hammer presented his untitled business plan, he asked if he could revive the name, knowing that most of the audience he planned to court would likely never have heard of the original: “We thought the name was timeless and if we did our jobs right, would eventually become an adjective.”

Super Deluxe now has a staff of 120 full-time employees, tasked with turning a number of well-intentioned oddball web experiments into a financially viable commodity. The studio is leveling up: it recently added former Vice sales executive Thomas Nolan to lead an ad sales team, and it’s planning on taking more shows to market throughout the year. This fall, Super Deluxe will be taking over a 90-minute late-night programming block on TBS.

In the old model of self-made online success, the only way to make money was to make a lot of free content for indifferent platforms like YouTube and Twitter, accrue followers, then hope and pray that someone would grant you a book deal or a part in a commercial. You could have millions of fans and still subsist on Top Ramen. That model treats raw talent like fuel, and inevitably, fuels get burned. Across the board, YouTube personalities disappear far more often than they transition into stable stardom.

Super Deluxe isn’t the first to consider paying young people to do the stuff they’re already doing for free. Plenty of others have tried to do the same, operating under the assumption that throwing money at a rising internet star is enough to jumpstart success and mass appeal. But a big budget doesn’t erase skeletons from the closet, nor can it structure a series-length story around a character that shines in five-minute YouTube videos. PewDiePie’s Disney deal imploded in February, partly the result of his flippant, detached attitude toward the Holocaust, while YouTube star Miranda Sings’ disappointing Netflix show last year was bloated and clearly lacked a savvy editor in the writers’ room.

Companies built specifically to exploit internet talent haven’t fared much better — experiments like DreamWorks’ AwesomenessTV, Verizon’s Go90, and even YouTube’s own premium service have fallen short of expectations for one reason or another. Other, more successful, networks of YouTube creators have been gobbled up by corporations: Warner Bros. acquired Machinima’s loose network of gaming vloggers last year, folding all of its content into AT&T’s purview and angling for better promo for its DC Comics properties. Disney acquired Maker, along with most of its management, in 2014. A year later, power struggles between the YouTube network and Disney’s corporate megastructure was already leading to layoffs and deflated expectations.

Only a few “creators” have managed to truly break through, unaltered — the remarkably driven Hannah Hart, the creator of “My Drunk Kitchen”; or the Fine Brothers, who maintain a YouTube channel with 15 million subscribers and managed to launch their own production company.

Super Deluxe has a new approach, one it thinks supports creatives and simultaneously holds corporate influence at arm’s length.

Kemp explains Super Deluxe’s role in the entertainment industry in buzzy startup terms: “We’re almost like an incubator. We’re able to help [young creators] preserve what they want to make and present it in a way that makes bigger companies feel confident that the execution and the creative is all going to be there when we make it.” Translated: Super Deluxe gives these creators experienced production teams, the resource of their enormous industry network, notes on their drafts, and yeah, space and time and money.

Their crown jewel is Branden Miller’s Joanne the Scammer, a self-described “messy bitch who lives for drama” who was discovered, of all places, on Instagram by the company’s then-social media manager Jason Richards. Miller says when he and Wolfgang Hammer met for the first time, Hammer told him, alternately, “You’re going to be a star” and “You’re already a star.” Miller signed on for three videos as Joanne; less than a year later, he landed a cover story in The Fader. Now he’s working with Super Deluxe to put together a half-hour comedy series to pitch for TV and churning out increasingly elaborate short films. He has an app and merch — he’s one of the most diversely monetized internet creators currently working. But in his Fader story he was careful to point out how fragile that is: “[People] know my past and they don’t feel that I’m worthy of being verified or talking to celebrities. I have to be funny at all times. If I say something not funny, the one thing — they don’t give me a second chance. I’m cancelled.”

Before The Chances, Super Deluxe had only sold one show in development — Magic Funhouse, a raunchy half-hour comedy about a drug-addled kids’ TV show host that scored two seasons with the AT&T-owned YouTube network and digital content distributor Fullscreen. That’s a sale Kemp and Hammer are proud of. But Sundance Now is a whole other ballgame, a full-blown TV service you can subscribe to through Amazon. The Chances will be that service’s first original scripted series.

When Kemp first met with Stern and Feldman, she and her team were so impressed by their ideas and commitment that they offered to fund the web series on the spot. Once signed, Kemp surrounded the creators with a production team, director Anna Kerrigan, a consultant from the Deaf West theater company, and her team’s help selling the series for television.

Watching the series’s shorts, it’s easy to see why Kemp found The Chances so exciting, as well as how much work there still is to do. Stern and Feldman play best friends navigating bizarre, incredibly specific situations, from a UTI that causes Stern’s character to pee at the table at her anniversary dinner, to an episode about clunky movie theater closed captioning devices, to a tender take on the “someone accidentally got super high” comedy trope. There’s not much there in the way of an overarching story, but the ease between the two leads, and the confidence of the writing, is obvious. It’s reminiscent of the early YouTube shorts that eventually became Broad City — little in the way of plot, but the characters are golden, and obviously belong together.

The Chances.
The Chances.

To rebuild the show as a half-hour drama, Stern and Feldman started from scratch, sending episode drafts to Kemp for notes before polishing them up and submitting them to the Sundance team. Super Deluxe will hire producers and a director, but Feldman and Stern will still write every episode themselves — just like they would have done if Super Deluxe had never come along. When it comes to the script, the company plays support. Kemp recognizes that Super Deluxe’s primary role in the next few months will be in maturing Stern and Feldman as writers: guiding them through the process of constructing a TV show with several storylines, developing more interesting side characters, and spinning up satisfying narrative arcs.

The Chances is an opportunity for Super Deluxe to prove that its soul is really where Hammer and Kemp and Pearson insist it is. “We’re always looking for fresh and unique perspectives, from Vic Berger to Joanne,” says Kemp. “We always bring it back to ‘What does this particular creator have to say? How is it going to ripple through the society at large, and hopefully make some kind of impact or be a point of conversation?’ I just feel like that’s the spirit of everything that the company is making, at its core.”

Pearson echoes her, saying, “It’s kind of finding the right voices and tone and then letting them do what they do rather than mediating or editorializing too much on what they do… I’ve always leaned toward the voice that speaks in the margins, because I believe that’s where the future is made.” Hammer takes it even further: “This idea that you have pieces like [The Chances] living next to some of the pieces we make for Live or Snapchat or YouTube — that breadth is unparalleled. It doesn’t exist. You can’t point to a company in the entertainment space that does that. And that’s what’s exciting about Super Deluxe.”

When The Chances premieres next year, Stern and Feldman have a pretty good idea of who will watch it: “What will make our show so relatable is that everyone can understand how it feels to be on the outside looking in, wanting to be a part of something.”

But The Chances won’t premiere until early next year, and in the meantime Super Deluxe has to shop its other shows around and hedge its bets.

They’re doing that with an ever-widening roster of YouTube videos, Facebook Live interactive stunts, apps, mobile games, an aggressively irreverent social media presence, and, of course, a go at an Adult Swim-esque TBS late-night block.

Facebook Live is a venue where Super Deluxe excels. The tech team, led by CTO Shahruz Shaukat, has built its own box of tools that supplement what Facebook provides, allowing them to make their shows far more interactive than videos made by most other brands. Viewers can collaboratively punch a Nazi, assemble a taco, or decide which celebrities will get a visit from a stop-motion Grim Reaper in 2017. Pearson says Facebook Live’s “punk rock” energy appeals to him — “It’s chaotic, it’s spontaneous, it’s like walking a tightwire. It ties back to the early days of television in some ways.” It’s also an opportunity: a product owned and supported by what is inarguably the most powerful content distributor in history, and one that not many people know what to do with it yet. They recently put together a Choose Your Own Adventure telenovela purely dictated by audience input on Live, a concept novel enough to get picked up by dozens of internet culture blogs. These videos rack up hundreds of thousands or sometimes millions of views, which makes Super Deluxe the platform’s biggest star.

Kevin Reilly, the chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment says he’s proud of the work Super Deluxe has done so far, explaining, “We started Super Deluxe to create unique experiences for a discerning consumer of video on social.” It has obviously done that. On the other hand, Richard Greenfield, a media and tech analyst at the investment firm BTIG, told me he was impressed by what Super Deluxe is attempting. But, bottom line: “There’s no clear path to Super Deluxe making billions of dollars. Most of the traditional media companies make tens of billions of dollars.”

That’s not to say Super Deluxe can’t be successful. Their advertising business is just getting off the ground, and they’ve got the audience everyone wants. Though it might seem risky building infrastructure around untested talent, the process is ultimately pretty lean. And having total editorial independence from their principal benefactor gives Super Deluxe the freedom to avoid the standard pitfalls of entertainment production — costly rewrites, staffing change-ups, projects killed on the vine, ideas that get bloated and rendered amorphous by a cacophony of contributing voices. Everyone who works there prides themselves on speed, and saving young talent from development hell.

If Super Deluxe is the future of entertainment, it’s because it isn’t much like a TV channel or a media company. It’s more like a tool for supporting inexperienced talent in a entertainment world that’s been stuck in its ways. Being on every single platform at once makes Super Deluxe as multi-functional as a Swiss army knife. It can serve as a translator between two parties — the amateurs of the internet and the stubborn pros of Hollywood — who are constantly dancing around each other. That idea courses through every single thing Super Deluxe produces. The studio will bring Joanne the Scammer, an Instagram star, to TV. It took a viral homemade documentary to Sundance. It intends to monetize Facebook Live by throwing together young talent and unique tech on a rickety, bare-bones platform. Super Deluxe’s hustle mimics that of the stars it hopes to create — success could be anywhere, so you might as well try everything.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed two films “produced” by Wolfgang Hammer at CBS Films. He oversaw their production as co-president.