Pilgrim Studios’ Long Game Formula for Short-Form Success

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Even with varying color accents on the walls to differentiate the floors, it’s easy to get lost in the offices of Pilgrim Studios. Spread across all four stories of a nondescript office building in North Hollywood, Ca., it has some 300 employees working to churn out 47 unscripted and scripted series spanning 27 networks, including SyFy’s Ghost Hunters and Fox Sports 1’s “The Ultimate Fighter.”

But the small crew running its nascent digital division, 1620 Media, manages to turn the anonymous sprawl into a creative springboard.

“While they’re operating with all their shows, we have to do everything solo and make it happen,” said Aaron Kunkel, manager of digital content and production for Pilgrim Studios. “A lot of the shows are shot on-property or around the property. Sometimes we’ll walk down the hallway and try to figure out a story to tell in it.” And, he added, if there’s no soundstage available downstairs, they’ll go to the building’s partially unfinished fourth floor and turn it into a set.

Formed in May, 1620 Media has launched 10 digital series over the last month that are currently streaming on YouTube, Facebook and 1620media.com. They range from the bartending tutorial “The Mixology Guys” (pictured) to “Realistic Steet,” a profane take on the classic children’s educational show “Sesame Street” in which a community of adorable puppets teaches viewers exactly how much life sucks.

Pilgrim Studios isn’t looking for a quick return on its relatively modest 1620 Media investment. In addition to a steady stream of income from its cable TV shows, the 18-year-old company has a fresh $200 million cash and stock buy-in from Lionsgate, announced last week, so it has the financial wherewithal to be a little patient.

According to Gretchen Stockdale, Pilgrim’s COO and general counsel, the reasons for establishing 1620 Media were multifaceted.

“First of all, we have a lot of talented people that work here and we wanted them to be able to use it as a creative outlet,” said Stockdale. “And we want to be able to attract brands to let them know we’re capable of doing content that is really in-the-now and would be good for their consumers.” (At launch, 1620’s advertising partners include Anheuser-Busch, Johnson & Johnson, MTV and UFC.)

But for Pilgrim Studios founder and CEO Craig Piligian the most exciting thing about 1620 Media is its potential to circumvent the typical network development process.

“You go to networks and you show a three- or four-minute tape and they say, ‘No.’ And you say, ‘Wait a minute. This is really good,’” Piligian said. “We just need to get it out there in a short-form and get eyeballs to it so we can say, ‘We have a million hits on this,’ and incubate the short-form content to make a long-form show.”

Piligian pointed out that 1620 isn’t his first foray into an emerging media market.

“I decided to go to cable because I saw an opening there that no one was fulfilling. Everyone else wanted to be in the network television business,” Piligian said. “I did the first three seasons of ‘Survivor’ [as co-executive producer]. During the off-time, we developed ‘American Chopper,’ ‘American Hotrod,’ ‘American Casino’ and ‘Dirty Jobs.’ It just grew one after another after another.”

While the streaming video space has yet to develop into a cable TV-size cash cow, it has built a you-got-to-try-it buzz similar to a hip restaurant or a hot indie band. And 1620 Media has leveraged that excitement to lure some familiar names to its shows, including Barry Bostwick (“Scandal,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), who stars as the host of its spoof “Inside the Extras Studios.”

Just as Pilgrim isn’t expecting instant dividends on its 1620 Media investment, nor should the talent involved in its shows. As a rule, they won’t be getting much in the way of upfront salaries. Instead, they will be given a healthy piece of the show revenue and a shot at creative fulfillment.

“With higher level talent, we’re asking, ‘What’s your passion project?’ or ‘What’s that thing you really want to do that we can make happen for you?’” said Matthew Ducey, manager of digital programming for Pilgrim Studios. “It’s not going to be hold this can of Sprite while you’re doing it. We want it to be an organic, be who you are, you have great talent, let’s get that out to the world sort of thing.”