Remember skipping school to watch MTV, or to flip through your friend's copy of Sassy or Bop? Rob Fishman and Darren Lachtman do. Despite that these glossy teen-media relics are long folded (or, in the case of MTV, unrecognizable in its old age), and young people today prefer new platforms, these guys thought not all that much had fundamentally changed over the decades about what kids and teens want to read, watch, and hear.
Thanks to their experience building one of the first major influencer-marketing upstarts, Niche, starting in 2013, Fishman and Lachtman were armed with the knowledge of Gen-Z's taste--and an awareness that practically no fresh, vibrant content was being created to appeal to it. There was Netflix, and there were individual influencers on Snapchat and Instagram, and little in between.
The two became obsessed with the idea of creating an entertainment company for teens. They dreamed about producing bite-size episodes of fictional shows, the kind of stuff kids could watch alone in their downtime. They'd publish it themselves, on their own YouTube channel. And with the help of influencers, they knew they could build a massive following--and later attract big-budget advertisers.
There was just one problem. Back in February of 2015, Niche had been acquired by Twitter. It had been a fantastic deal for the 18-month-old company--a reported $50 million--and Lachtman and Fishman stayed on, signing four-year contracts. The two had agreed to help keep Niche running as a semi-independent entity within the social media giant.
"The decision to leave was because we knew if we didn't do it, someone else would," Fishman says. "Nothing awesome was out there, and timing, we knew, was everything."
He left his contract. Eight months later, Lachtman joined him. When asked how much they'd left on the table by leaving Twitter, Lachtman sighs. "Millions," he says.
In February 2017, they launched a YouTube channel, the first step toward creating a full-blown media company that targeted Gen-Z but produced content that felt timeless. They gave it a name that nodded to the old: "Brat," after the Brat Pack, the label foisted on the group of young actors known for their coming-of-age flicks in the 1980s.
Part of their theory is that the Molly Ringwalds and Emilio Estevezes of Gen-Z are already promoting themselves online--and building massive followings through their various social channels. Maybe they're live-streaming on Twitch, or singing on Musical.ly, or simply filming their regular family interactions to upload on YouTube.
"What's interesting about the people who use the internet to build a following today is that they're not all spoiled brats," Lachtman says. "They're not all cheerleaders or jocks. They're unpredictable and complex individuals--like the Ferris Buellers of today's generation."
And they're the core of the talent Brat is using to create its first six shows, out of a 10,000-square-foot studio in Hollywood. There's Annie LeBlanc, whose personal YouTube channel has nearly three million subscribers, who stars in Chicken Girls, Brat's breakout hit. Musical.ly star Kristen Hancher, who also has five million Instagram followers, appears in another show, Misshaps.
Brat produces 12 shows in-house, with one episode debuting every day at 3 p.m. The viewership is encouraging: About a million people tune in when a new episode of Chicken Girls appears--and the shows, ranging from short, couple-minute clips to 21-minute episodes, have a 75 percent completion rate. Brat has turned into, essentially, a small TV network, with nearly a network-size viewership.
But Brat is in a tricky industry, producing, staffing, and publishing its own shows. It has 32 full-time employees. Most other TV companies in Hollywood are trying to pitch their pilot shows to networks, studios, Netflix, or Amazon, making deals that fund their operations. Not Brat. "We are one of the only places out there trying to own our own intellectual property," Fishman says.
With that comes a significant burden: Although the shows are generally single-camera, they can still cost upward of $1 million to produce. "Right now, our shows are pretty expensive to produce--and they aren't making a lot of money," Fishman says.
That's in part by choice. For its first year of full-content-producing operations, Brat has eschewed advertising altogether. "We went headfirst into production when we had no experience in it--so we felt we had to spend a year or more really building up the franchises" before selling advertising against them, Fishman says. "We've made a lot of difficult decisions in terms of not selling our content."
For the time being, Brat is venture-funded, with $12.5 million raised to date. The founders say this fall, when Chicken Girls will debut its third season, will be the right time to start trying to generate advertising revenue.
"We've built a $100 million business in this space," Fishman says about Niche, their first company, with the confidence of someone who has, well, built a company valued at more than $100 million. "We know how to sell ads."
What will be perhaps even more interesting to watch will be whether Brat can expand into a multimedia empire for the coming-of-age generation. In its sights are songs, music videos (they are already producing these, and have made the Apple iTunes charts with 10 songs to date), books, and magazines for teens.