Q&A: Joshuah Bearman, Co-Founder at Epic
This week, The Idea caught up with Joshuah Bearman about whether film and television can save the publishing industry and what’s changed since Epic was acquired by Vox Media.
Can you tell me about Epic?
Epic is a publishing and film production company, and from early on, a branded content company, so we do storytelling in many forms. It’s been going for about six years now. I cooked up the idea with my partner, Joshua Davis.
Can you describe the initial strategic vision and how that’s evolved over time?
The original idea was to create a company that did what me and Josh were doing individually. We were both journalists who had sold written narrative pieces to film and television. Over time, as we got more experienced in that realm, we also became producers on those projects.
Longform nonfiction is time-consuming to produce and therefore expensive. That type of journalism was basically impossible, especially being freelancers or contributing editors like Davis, because magazine payments had not advanced beyond where they were in the ’80s, for the most part. Now, it would be completely impossible; I don’t understand how any freelancers could operate doing a story that takes six months or a year, as these stories do.
The only way that it worked financially was that there was a pretty good chance that a certain type of a story would be a good option for film and television. That basically allowed us to subsidize the very unremunerative career of being a magazine writer. It also allowed me and Davis to spend more time on stories and pick stories that magazines didn’t really want to assign — they’re not trying to assign 10,000-word stories on a CIA mission in 1979.
Our original conception was narrow. One of my stories had been turned into the film Argo. That was a whole to-do, and it seemed like a good time to capitalize on some kind of momentum. That was also when all these digital publishers like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox, were starting or getting big attention.
We got started and published a bunch of good stories. The film and production company part wound up with an overhead deal with a studio. Medium was just starting too, and so we published our first stories with them. Medium then stopped spending that kind of money, so we started self-publishing and now, we actually co-publish all our stories. Media’s changed so much so that now there are all these partnerships: we’re in a world where we, an outside editorial entity, provide copy to Texas Monthly, Smithsonian, and Wired. They have all these readers, and we’re able to put resources into a story they can’t anymore.
The scope of the company grew as we got some press. David Carr, for example, wrote a column about it, RIP. We started having conversations with investors: people were looking at the investments in BuzzFeed and Vox and Vice and were thinking there might something similar to do with Epic. We had not thought about it, but said, sure why not. We threw together a very homemade investor deck — looking back at it now it seems absurd because we didn’t know what we were talking about or how to run a company. That raised a little bit of money and allowed us to grow a little bit faster and operate in the world a little bit differently.
The branded content business, which we didn’t anticipate at all, arose directly out of the media interest following the launch of the company and our coming into the world seeming like a start-up. The branded content business is now what pays our bills; our original business model did not really pan out. We work with producers and are doing all kinds of stuff, but film and TV is not really the answer to the dying publishing business since it is itself changing all the time.
Walk me through the process of our branded studio arm, Epic Digital.
Projects come about all different ways. Sometimes we get introduced to a company through the CMO or CEO or somebody in the brand studio of a big company like Google. We’ve been hired and are on retainer for some big companies, for whom we are regularly looking for stories. To be fair, my partner deals with this mostly as it’s out of the San Francisco office. I tend to deal more with editorial and film & TV. Early on, we did both, but now it’s too big for us both to do.
There are a couple of different ways to go about the branded content. We’ll get hired to do story hunting, and that’s just finding out what’s interesting. Then our researchers enter the company, throughout the world sometimes if it’s a big company like GE, Google, or IBM. We’ll send people to India or Israel to start cultivating leads about interesting tales. The stories they find get presented to the company, and can be a wide range of ideas, like a documentary short, comic book, or a print book to be used internally for corporate retreat purposes.
How separate is the brand studio from the magazine?
There’s no advertising in the magazine, so we don’t have to have the old-school publishing firewall between editorial and advertising. It’s a separate business applying storytelling power and technique in a different way.
The story hunters and researchers cut their teeth on different parts of the business — they’ll go wherever there’s something interesting or needed. In that sense, there’s an educational overlap in storytelling in all of the departments.
Epic was recently acquired by Vox Media — what has changed, if anything?
In some sense, very little has happened so far. We don’t overlap with anything that Vox does — they don’t have a scripted film and television entity, they don’t do narrative non-fiction — so in terms of acquisition, it’s been pretty seamless.
What’s surely changed is that we have additional opportunities: Vox has more resources and is a much larger company. They wanted to us to keep doing what we’re doing, that was their desire for the acquisition. It’s also allowed for some opportunity for collaboration to develop new businesses that neither of us currently do but which we each could form a part of. For example, solving high-end documentary, which there is now a big market for. Vox Studios does a lot of non-scripted content, but it’s more TV shows and built around the Vox Explains format. They’re just starting out doing high-end doc series. They have the production capacity for that and we have a lot of stories, so building a big narrative documentary wing is a possibility that exists now for us.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media from an organization other than your own?
In general, the new initiative realm of the New York Times is just killing it. Obviously The Daily is great, but so are the podcasts generally — Caliphate was the best podcast of that year hands-down. The Weekly show on FX is great. All the special Sunday inserts that have been appearing for a while, like the Sunday kids section, the feature on Simone Biles, or the one on the U.S. Open with the athletes as constellations in the night sky, are really incredible. The interactive versions of those are super cool too. I’ve been consistently impressed, as they offer something different from what I’ve seen from a major media organization in the past.