The music kicks in. A picturesque scene unfolds in rural America — weeds rustle gently in the wind, horses graze in a far-off pasture. Then we’re in a car — fields roll past outside the window, and an interview with the driver begins.
The production quality of this short film is high — like a documentary you’d see on a top streaming site such as Netflix — but this isn’t true crime or a glimpse into the life of someone famous. This is Mediflix — an “edutainment” platform aimed at providing engaging content that informs viewers about health-related issues. That driver being interviewed? He’s a doctor talking about his journey overcoming obesity.
The approach to giving a common health condition the Hollywood treatment is all part of Mediflix’s plan to generate content related to learning about different diseases and treatments in a way that is easy to access, understand and gain insights from. It’s difficult to imagine the results of this effort looking so good if Mediflix didn’t have a star-studded cast of entertainment gurus working behind the scenes.
Launched in 2020, Mediflix was first conceived by Steve Leber, a music industry big wig who was once an agent for the Rolling Stones, Jackson Five and Diana Ross, and a manager for the likes of Aerosmith, AC/DC, Michael Bolton and others. Clearly, Leber’s storied history in rock ‘n’ roll is a far cry from healthcare entertainment. But like so many in the health world, a heartbreaking personal journey suddenly redirected his life toward wanting to help patients.
Nine years ago, Leber’s wife died after a five-year struggle with multiple myeloma. The experience opened Leber’s eyes to the difficulties of navigating the healthcare system, and after she passed, he became a man on a mission.
“[Mediflix] is the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” he says. “After seeing my wife suffer … I was put on this earth to do something about it. The whole site is my dedication to her.”
After conceiving of the idea to launch the platform, Leber enlisted the help of some of the biggest names in media to get it off the ground: Neil Braun, former president of NBC Television Network and CEO of Viacom Entertainment; Steve Scheffer, past president of Film Programming for HBO; Ron Berk, who sold over $2.5 billion worth of products on HSN and QVC, and others. To create their original films, Mediflix is leveraging a roster of Oscar- and Emmy-nominated producers.
Now, after two years of streaming health education content and gathering $12 million in financial backing through friends and family fundraising, Mediflix is embarking on the next phase of its evolution, and, Leber and Braun say, providing an opportunity for pharma to play a starring role.
The truth about medicine
“It’s so powerful, you just don’t understand. I am actually sitting in a car that I could not have gotten in at 460 pounds. And I’m driving it, and I feel normal like everybody else,” Dr. James “Butch” Rosser explains at the start of the short film about obesity on Mediflix. “With all the innovations and new medications and new approaches … I got the audacity of hope that it’s going to be a better day for people like me, stricken with the disease of obesity.”
He’s telling his personal story, but there are some deliberate elements to the language Rosser is using. The film, called “More Than What We See” is sponsored by Novo Nordisk, the Danish biopharma company that launched Wegovy, the “game changing” injectable appetite suppressant approved by the FDA for chronic weight management last year. As part of the sponsorship, Novo’s logo appears on the thumbnail image for the film on the Mediflix home page. Although the company did not have a hand in producing the documentary, nor is it being used to promote Wegovy or Novo’s other obesity drug Saxenda, Braun says Novo provided some guidance about how to educate patients about obesity.
“Novo wanted to communicate that this is a disease,” Braun, co-founder and head of subscriptions at Mediflix, explains. “There’s hormonal science behind this. So we mix that messaging in, while helping [consumers learn about] new therapeutic options that are available.”
It’s just one of the approaches pharma companies could take on Mediflix to help patients make informed health decisions.
“[Mediflix is about] democratizing healthcare information and providing people with the context for making decisions that help them take control of their lives,” Braun says.
So far, much of the content on Mediflix relates to major indication areas such as heart health, women’s health, COVID-19, Parkinson’s, oncology and more. Like Netflix, Mediflix features its own “original” films alongside “indie films” and other videos that provide viewers with general wellness advice. In addition, the platform has content from major healthcare institutions, such as Cleveland Clinic, that feature interviews with doctors discussing a variety of common health conditions.
“We’re creating an ecosystem of trusted sources,” Braun says.
Providing insights directly from some of the country’s leading doctors and institutions is key to this strategy, which Leber hopes will make it a go-to source for patients looking for help.
“Instead of Googling [health problems], we want people to Mediflix it,” Leber says.
Winning trust from viewers is what Leber and Braun say make Mediflix an ideal platform for pharma.
The pharma factor
“It’s always amazed me that an industry that contributes so much to the enjoyment of life, the prevention of disease and the lengthening of life has been demonized by a handful of bad actors,” Braun says. “We think there’s a huge opportunity to tell a different kind of story about the pharma industry. This is the place to celebrate pharma’s heroes — the scientists who develop drugs and the billions of dollars of investment made to help cure diseases.”
There are a variety of ways Braun says that pharma’s presence and expertise could be felt on Mediflix’s platform. Like Novo Nordisk, companies could sponsor a specific film. Or they could sponsor a whole disease category on the platform. Pop-up links in the content could also direct viewers back to a pharma company’s website with additional info about their treatment.
Because of the different health conditions being discussed on the site, Braun says there are also multiple ways for pharma to show that their medications are a “part of the solution — not the problem.”
“We’re not a media buy. We are a strategic marketing partner,” Braun says. “And it’s a good opportunity to collaborate with us and brainstorm with us to think through business problems and see how we can be a part of their solutions.”
It’s a move that could be in line with broader shifts in the industry away from traditional pharma marketing and sales tactics. According a report by PwC called “Pharma 2020: Marketing the Future”: “Aggressive marketing – whether it be to doctors or patients – is becoming increasingly ineffective as a means of stimulating demand for new therapies and overcoming reluctance to pay premium prices for products that are deemed to offer only minor clinical improvements.”
As traditional sales representatives become “obsolete,” PwC notes that there will be more of an emphasis in pharma on building brands and leveraging external partnerships.
Leber likens the situation to a matchup that once brought two major conglomerates together.
“When ESPN started, no one had ever heard of it,” Leber says. “Then ESPN went to Anheuser Busch [whose customers were likely to be a major part of ESPN viewership] and said, ‘We need support from you.’ This is the position we’re in with the pharma industry.”
Going forward, Leber plans to transform Mediflix into a resource for connecting patients with clinical trials — a feature that could be a boon to pharma.
“For example, we’re attracting Parkinson’s patients who are going to come to our channel to learn about Parkinson’s. What if you need patients for a Parkinson’s trial? We’re a perfect solution to get them.”
Big things coming
Between the pair, Leber is the pie-in-the-sky thinker, while Braun is the boots-on-the-ground guy who brings the ideas to life. Once Leber gets on a roll, it’s clear he could spitball ideas all day.
After Leber watched a “60 Minutes” segment about Tony Bennet’s struggles with dementia and how, despite not remembering where he was sometimes, Bennet sang his way through a concert at Radio City Music Hall alongside Lady Gaga without missing a beat, Leber rushed to the phone to call Braun.
The pair then decided Mediflix would produce a “sing along” segment to enlighten viewers about Alzheimer’s, provide education for patients and caregivers, feature interviews with doctors and raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. (According to Leber, a “major superstar” is being lined up to host the segment, but until all the contracts are signed, he’s not yet allowed to say who. “Neil [Braun] would beat me up,” Leber jokes.)
They are also planning more changes to the platform including a healthcare news channel that he says could potentially stream for hours.
“We could talk about COVID for an hour, and you could ask questions, and you’d be able to interact [with experts] the whole time,” Leber explains.
For now, Mediflix plans to keep most of its content free but aims to add a subscription service that would give viewers access to the platform’s pool of 150 doctors — which they plan to grow to 300 doctors by the end of 2022.
“The subscription service will be about providing this hierarchy of access to our experts. It goes from being in the general audience to having a more personalized communication through a specific question you ask,” Braun says.
The price of the subscription service has yet to be determined, but the goal is to increase the platform’s revenue, which so far, has been in the “single digit millions” annually, according to Braun.
Leber is quick to point out that the executives and doctors behind Mediflix all worked for the first 18 months without receiving “a dime.” Even as Mediflix shifts to monetizing its offerings, Braun says that they’re keeping patients top of mind.
“It’s finding the intersection of doing something impactful for society, while creating a business at the same time,” he says.
They’re hoping to meet this aim with the backing of pharma, which, they say, would find the proposition to be a win-win. Their pitch, the pair say, is particularly timely for the industry.
“There was a recent poll that showed a boost in pharma’s reputation after COVID vaccines were produced,” Leber says. “And I was reading a quote from the CEO of Eli Lilly [David Ricks] who said that the biopharma industry has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset its reputation. We can help them do that.”