I joined the short films website iFilm.com in 1999 and stayed until 2006, after we sold to MTV. By then we’d also sold out our original vision, captured perfectly in this 1999 commercial. Since iFilm I’ve produced war-zone documentaries for the Annenberg Foundation, started a production company, and for the past year run humanitarian projects in Afghanistan and West Africa. But I often thought of that iFilm vision...and now, more than a decade later, I find myself the co-founder (with film composer Klaus Badelt) of a digital film startup with a similar mission. This is the first of a series of weekly guest posts as we bootstrap this new venture -- ideally with a ton of critique and input from you.
I first met Klaus at Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. It’s where most of our work gets done. As we became acquaintances and then friends, we started talking about a shared passion for foreign and independent films -- and our frustration with the distribution eco-system where 50,000 features and documentaries are made (globally) every year -- and only a couple thousand (4%) get released. What happens to the other 48,000?
The Music Precedent
Klaus is a musician -- and a keen student of the music business and its transformation over the past decade. He convinced me that the film industry will follow a similar trajectory -- radical and disruptive change in the way movies are created, shared and consumed. Meaning, among other things, those 48,000 films could be available to rent or buy, in multiple languages, via the dozens of digital video-on-demand platforms around the world. Just like that Qwest commercial.
The Pain Point
So where’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What’s the pain point for those 48,000 films? The reality is that it’s incredibly difficult, expensive and frustrating for filmmakers to get their movies onto these platforms, which lack any real standardization of video format, metadata, payment, etc. Filmmakers typically have to pay to get their film encoded for any digital platform. They’re Fedex’ing hard drives around the world. Then they pay again for another platform. And again. Always with no guarantee they’ll see a dime in revenue. Being available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu and the rest certainly doesn’t mean people will find and pay for the film. So it’s a lot of upfront cost, hassle and high risk -- with no guarantee of any return -- at a time in the life of a film when filmmakers can least afford it.
Klaus’s vision was for a simple web based platform where any filmmaker, anywhere on the planet, could upload his feature film -- with zero upfront cost -- and have it immediately in distribution on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, Lovefilm, Snag, Mubi, Fandor...and the hundreds of other paid digital outlets around the world. And available in as many languages as the filmmaker wants to make sub-titles for. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Intrigued and fired up, I agreed to write a business plan, and in early 2011 we shared it with some friends. They had suggestions, but they liked it. But like all ideas, it was worthless without the commitment to make it happen. Klaus was running a busy music studio and writing scores for multiple movies, including the upcoming Astérix and Obélix. I was working for a Los Angeles based non-profit called Spirit of America, launching a new program -- School Partners/Afghanistan -- that connected American and Afghan high school students via video conference. But Klaus and I kept talking and noodling and becoming more and more convinced that we could -- and should -- create something truly disruptive in the film world. And by the summer of 2012 we were convinced that if we didn’t do it soon -- someone else would -- maybe they already were? So I left my non-profit gig and we got down to work.
Next week: Part # 2: Birth of a (Kino) Nation: figuring out a name, shooting a trailer, endless video edits until it (sort of) makes sense, and questioning the massive assumptions behind this whole crazy venture.
Roger Jackson is a producer and co-founder of film distribution start-up KinoNation. He was Vice President, Content for digital film pioneer iFilm.com and has produced short films in LA, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. He is executive producer at Midnight Swim Productions.