On the second Monday of September, just one week ahead of her one-year anniversary as president of Condé Nast Entertainment, Agnes Chu attended her first Met Gala. She walked the red carpet outside New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inside, she sat at a table opposite Elon Musk, where she took in a tribute to Broadway and Justin Bieber’s “jaw-dropping” live performance. She also had a bit of a “geeky girl” reaction when meeting “Game of Thrones” stars Kit Harington and Rose Leslie.
But beyond the glitz and glamour of celebrity run-ins, Chu’s first Met Gala held larger significance. The function doubled as a litmus test for the new global content strategy of Condé Nast Entertainment, the multimedia arm of the storied magazine company — which counts Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Wired among its Tiffany brands — and is focused on targeting audiences any way they can be reached, via the pages of magazines or social media, in movie theaters or across streaming platforms.
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“It was really palpable to feel the appreciation, but also the excitement, about such a culture-defining event,” Chu told Variety in a Zoom interview after the soiree. “You can see from the results.”
And those results certainly were impressive. Vogue’s Met content pulled in more than 320 million global views across all social platforms, with audiences watching more than 54 million minutes’ worth. Upwards of 15 million people tuned in as Keke Palmer and Ilana Glazer hosted the brand’s exclusive livestream. CNE also produced behind-the-scenes videos of celebrities like event co-chair Billie Eilish, Blackpink’s Rosé and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez getting ready for the event, as well as a retrospective video with Anna Wintour, Vogue’s global editorial director and U.S. editor-in-chief and Condé Nast’s chief content officer, breaking down Met Gala looks over the years.
The new strategy, Chu explains, amounts to leveraging the company’s unparalleled access to swanky fundraisers and elite events to drive audience engagement, a plan CNE will repeat for the Super Bowl (with GQ Sports) and at Vanity Fair’s 2022 Academy Awards after-party.
“A theme for me this year has been transformation, and Condé Nast is going through a really pivotal transformation,” Chu says.
The longtime Disney executive comes to the storied magazine company at a time when it is reinventing itself in the wake of readers’ move to cheaper, digital forms of news and opinion. That migration has siphoned off the advertising dollars that once flowed to the glossy magazines that Condé Nast publishes. To continue to be a major force in media, it has turned to Chu to help it expand and create business opportunities.
Condé Nast Entertainment launched in 2011 and has since become a behemoth in the digital video space, annually producing for its digital network more than 4,000 videos, which garner better than 13 billion views. But film and television have proved harder to crack. The company has produced award-winning film and TV projects — including the Netflix sports docu-series “Last Chance U” (based on a 2014 GQ feature); movies like Sony’s “Only the Brave” (based on a 2013 GQ article) and Fox Searchlight’s “The Old Man & the Gun” (based on a 2003 New Yorker short story); and the 2016 doc “The First Monday in May,” which focuses on the Met Gala — but it has yet to have a truly sizable hit. To that end, Chu has been tasked with transforming CNE’s film and TV business and reestablishing it as a full-fledged production company. Instead of managing magazine articles and features as somewhat of a rights broker that sells the IP to another company to produce, Chu and her team are working with writers and editors across brands to develop their work into viable in-house film and TV productions.
“It’s taking a new business model and helping to shepherd a new way of thinking about how we reach our audiences with our content,” she explains. “It’s taking all this incredible IP, all the talent — we have the best writers and the best thinkers in the world — and finding the path through.”
Chu notes parallels between her work launching Disney Plus with shows like “The Mandalorian” and the pivot she’s attempting to execute at Condé Nast. From that experience, she learned that the key to success is creating synergy between print and digital. Another guiding principle came from Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige.
“He is as much a fan of his characters and storytelling worlds as he is the architect and producer of the great Marvel Cinematic Universe,” she says. “And that’s been that mindset that I’m also cultivating here at Condé Nast Entertainment: How are we fans of our brands? How are we meeting our audiences and our fans where they are? And ultimately, how are we bringing stories that we know fans will absolutely love, but then also, how do we make new fans out of those stories?”
Going forward, the company has more than 70 active feature film, documentary and TV projects in development and production. Just as Chu arrived, CNE greenlit production on “Escape From Spiderhead,” the company’s first New Yorker Studios film. Based on the short story by George Saunders, the movie stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett and will debut on Netflix this fall. Other projects in the works are “The Great Chinese Art Heist” (from GQ and set to be directed by Jon M. Chu), a docu-series about Hillsong Church (from Vanity Fair) and “A People’s History of Black Twitter” (from Wired).
“Agnes is a quiet force — creative, brilliant, tactful — a truly wonderful collaborator and colleague,” Wintour tells Variety. “She hit the ground running at Condé Nast Entertainment and in just one year, has built a talented team who are engaged in telling stories in innovative ways.”
Since joining CNE, Agnes Chu has hired award-winning producer Helen Estabrook to oversee programming as global head of film and TV. She also brought on former Disney colleagues Jennifer Jones as head of global business affairs and operations and Sarah Amos as VP of development and production for nonfiction TV and documentaries.
They are entering the company at a time of cultural change and in the wake of Condé Nast facing its own racial reckoning. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” says Chu. “We had gone through an intense summer with some of the things that had been happening at one of our titles, Bon Appétit.”
A social media scandal involving editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport led not only to his ouster but to allegations of a toxic workplace and culture of racial inequity at Condé Nast. In response, the company executed its first-ever diversity and inclusion report and pledged to overhaul its hiring practices with an eye toward diversifying its newsrooms.
“I think all of us have been in a place where we’ve been thinking about: ‘How do we want to make an impact? What can we be doing differently?’” says Chu.
In that spirit, Chu’s senior leadership team is largely composed of women and people of color: “I’m not leaving it to other people to handle it.”
Companywide, Condé Nast now reports nearly 40% of new hires are from diverse backgrounds and 70% of the executive leadership team are women.
“There are times where I’m on Zooms where it’s entirely women. That’s really unusual in my career,” Chu notes. “Voices at the table translate into the projects that get chosen.”
Chu has experienced the impact of diversity firsthand. The executive recalls watching the pilot for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and immediately connecting to the material.
“It spoke so honestly to me, and it was something I spoke very passionately about as being something that should be on television because of the universal nature of it being a fish-out-of-water story,” she says, explaining that having grown up in an immigrant family — her parents moved to the United States from Hong Kong — the show’s premise “didn’t feel foreign or exotic to me.”
“Fresh Off the Boat” executive producers Nahnatchka Khan and Melvin Mar recall the experience so positively that the “C” in “C-suite” may as well stand for “champion” when working with Chu.
“Agnes is a perfect example of why we need more women of color in positions of power in the executive ranks,” Khan says. “She is a true champion of stories and storytellers she believes in. And she’s also unafraid to take chances. Just because something doesn’t exist in the marketplace or hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it’s not needed. Agnes understands how to make the change we want to see into a reality.”
Mar also worked with Chu on “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.,” which she greenlit at Disney Plus.
“On [both shows], Agnes was our champion,” Mar says. “It’s really meaningful to have someone like her in the C-suite.”
Just as important as it has been for Chu to be an ally, she credits much of her success to having had powerful supporters over the course of her professional journey.
“I have had the great benefit in my career to have leaders who consistently sponsored me during and long after I worked for them,” Chu says, pointing specifically to former ABC Daytime president Brian Frons and Bob Iger, the executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, for whom she served as chief of staff 2013-2016 during his tenure as CEO. “These are two men in positions of power who define what it is to be an ally and from whom I have gained lifelong lessons in leadership.”
Chu adds that she “did not expect to be lucky enough to experience that allyship again in my career,” but has found a true advocate in Wintour — and one who is “iconic and inimitable” to boot.
“Every day I learn from her drive for creative excellence, her dedication to hard work and results, and most of all, how she regularly champions new voices,” Chu says. “In one of my first leadership team meetings at Condé, she asked for my opinion and set the table for others to listen.”
Like Wintour, Chu is focused on passing the mic to the next generation, sharing that it’s their “real desire for change” that she finds most encouraging.
“It is something that is infectious and, in the best of ways, keeps us all on our toes to be thinking about how we can be doing better every single day,” she explains.
As for other women who she admires, Chu (who majored in film at Harvard, dreaming of becoming a director or cinematographer) first points to Iranian filmmaker and visual artist Shirin Neshat, whose work she came across in an art gallery 20 years ago.
“What struck me so incredibly about her work is that it is a collection and nexus of what it is to be a woman, but through a lens of society, politics and the psychological dimensions of all of that,” Chu says.
Across the pop culture spectrum, Chu has been particularly impressed by Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. Eilish is featured in Condé Nast and Vanity Fair’s “Time Capsule” franchise — which has captured Eilish across four years, while she came of age and became a global celebrity — and Chu worked with Rodrigo on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
“We used ‘High School Musical’ as a chance to really help her unleash that opportunity of using her voice with her music,” Chu recalls.
“To see Olivia today, not just with an unbelievable record, but one that has galvanized multiple generations of people around the world,” she continues. “And to see her use her voice to impact people of her age — at the White House talking about getting vaccinated alongside President Biden — I really applaud her for being this new voice for a generation, both creatively and in mission and purpose.”
Chu has similarly found her own purpose. It’s not just the projects that she supports that will help to alter a monochromatic media landscape, but she sees her own elevation as an Asian American woman to a top role at a major publisher as a signal to the next generation of artists and writers that career paths that they may not have considered are in fact open to them.
“I think the biggest power that we all have is actually to be our authentic selves,” she says. “We all need to see it to be it.”
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