Diary of a Film Startup Post 19: Searching for Green Card

By Roger Jackson

Previously: New Year Update

Less of a diary post this time, more of a rumination on Hollywood, video-on-demand, and long-tail movies. Klaus and I decided to build KinoNation because we want to make it super-easy for indie filmmakers to distribute their films to the medium that is rapidly replacing DVD. Along the way we’ve come to realise there are also many well known films that remain almost impossible to watch “on demand” -- fuelling consumer frustration that can often only be solved by breaking the law.

Last week was a big day for Klaus‘s wife -- Malona had her final interview with the Feds for her Green Card. It all worked out, green card approved, and she wanted to celebrate that evening with a family viewing of the classic movie Green Card. Klaus and Malona have a pretty cool home theater setup, making it fun and easy to watch video-on-demand movies. Well, maybe not so easy in this case.

Green Card was nominated for an Oscar in 1991. It won a Golden Globe for Best Picture and Best Actor. And it grossed $30m at the box office. Surely there’s widespread consumer demand for this movie to be available to rent via video-on-demand? Certainly there was demand last week from one family in Santa Monica. Klaus started by searching Netflix. They have the DVD, but not Green Card for streaming. Next up, iTunes -- no joy. Amazon Instant Video or Amazon Prime? Nope.. Google Play, Vudu, Hulu, YouTube Movies? Not available.

It was getting late, kids becoming restless. Malona drove to the local Blockbuster store. They don’t have the Green Card DVD. No demand for it, apparently. Although there are about fifteen million people in the USA with one of these (partially green) permanent resident cards. And millions more applications pending.

So after 90 minutes of searching -- and failing -- to find a legal way to pay to watch Green Card that evening, Klaus gave up. Or rather he gave up trying to give Touchstone Pictures his money. Instead, he fired up the BitTorrent file sharing service. Found that Green Card is available for “sharing” from a dozen or so people’s hard drives. Sixteen minutes later he’d downloaded an excellent quality .AVI file, and the family were off to NYC with Gerard Depardieu and Andy MacDowell.

In this case at least, Hollywood has made it more convenient for consumers NOT to acquire movies legally. And this isn’t an isolated example. Most people don’t want the hassle and risk of illegal downloads. What they want is what has always been a big part of the KinoNation vision: Making it easy and convenient for consumers to watch any film, at any time...and to pay the content owners for the privilege.

Meanwhile...back at the ranch. Signed a distribution deal last week with Viewster, who’ve already ordered a half-dozen of the films submitted to our Private Beta. Viewster is becoming a significant player on the global VoD scene. They’re based in Switzerland, very active in the USA, Europe, Asia. And they have a great model which allows consumers to either rent a movie, or watch it for free with ads. We also just started working with SnagFilms, who are currently reviewing a package of the private beta movies. Great films continue to be submitted to us. For example, The Orator is a drama set in Samoa that won awards at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. So keep them coming -- what we’re building is now real, with more outlets every week, and getting very close to our upcoming “soft launch”.

Next Up: Post # 20: (scheduled for Tues February 5th)

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Startup Post 18: New Year Update

By Roger Jackson

Previously: How KinoNation Works

What a difference a year makes. This time in 2012 I was working for an humanitarian assistance NGO, just back from a village solar power project in Tajikistan, and about to fly to West Africa to set up a veterinary aid project in Mauritania. That contract ended in July, and by August I was fully committed to online film distribution and KinoNation. Quite a contrast.

We’ve been on a “coding sprint” throughout the holidays to hit our planned “soft-launch” later this month. Klaus and our software team have been doing what developers in start-ups do -- writing code into the early hours. I usually work past midnight, but there’s always a twinge of guilt when I get up and see the emails that have flown back and forth at 4 in the morning.

Klaus now has the cloud-based encoding system working beautifully. Once a film is successfully uploaded, it’s now automatically transcoded to a great looking Preview version for each of the video-on-demand outlets. It pops-up on their web dashboard, along with trailer, IMDb page, synopsis and sales pitch. And then the outlet Selects or Declines the film according to their programming criteria. If they choose Select, the film is transcoded to their custom specs, packaged with their metadata, and automatically delivered.

I haven’t been entirely idle on platform development. I spent Christmas and New year writing the rather complex spec for the KinoNation Metadata Module. This is the super-set of data that we have to collect for every film. It’s several hundred data points all told, hopefully structured in a way that’s simple and fun for filmmakers to input. It’s all the obvious stuff, of course. Movie title, genre, running time, director, writer(s), producer, talent, synopsis, poster art, etc. But there’s also a ton of not so obvious data. For example, we need the filmmaker to provide timecode to define all the chapter breaks, so when someone buys the film online (known as Download to Own or DTO) there’ll be chapters, just like a DVD. But wait, each chapter needs an image, and what’s on the screen at the chapter break point probably won’t be the screen grab you like. So we also need timecode for each chapter screen pull -- and we have to build an online toolset that makes it super-easy for filmmakers to enter. And of course all these hundreds of data points have to be customized and mapped to each and every VoD outlet, who want the metadata in different sequences, different formats. As I said, it’s complex, but once this is built (it’s being coded now) it should be uber-efficient; ultimately, machines do this type of work -- spitting out bespoke packages of film+metadata to dozens of different VoD outlets -- way better than humans.

This week we’ve sealed a deal to get ALL films submitted to KinoNation on to Amazon Instant Video (AIV). And while it’s already possible for filmmakers to get movies onto AIV via CreateSpace by submitting a DVD, we’ll be able to deliver much higher resolution video files to Amazon, all automated. Plus, every KinoNation film on AIV will be eligible for Amazon Prime. AIV is a “transactional” video-on-demand service, where films can be rented or purchased. Whereas Prime is Amazon’s subscription VoD service, more like Netflix. Both great services, growing rapidly, with expansion both in the US and globally.

Amazon pays 50% of transactional (rent or buy) revenue to the filmmaker, plus a flat fee for every time a film is watched on Prime. So that’s exciting. Really great to have a prestigious outlet where we can more or less guarantee placement for a film uploaded to us, subject to it being full-length, with an IMDb page, and of course no porn, hate speech, etc. At the same time, we expect to be “live” soon with Hulu, iTunes, Google Play, SnagFilms, Viewster, YouTube Movies...and many outlets around the world.

Finally, great films continue to be submitted to our Private Beta. Now’s a great time to show us what you have.. Keep them coming.

Next Up: Post # 19: Searching for Green Card

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Startup Part 15: Film Marketing Tools

By Roger Jackson
Previously: Early Results

50 Ways to Sell Your Movie KinoNation now has a library of almost 100 feature films and documentaries in our Private Beta. As I spend time showing some of these films to various US and international video-on-demand outlets, I am more and more convinced of the need for a step-by-step template that helps filmmakers with the the business of selling & marketing their films. So last week I spent some time creating a “back of an envelope” plan for a section of KinoNation where filmmakers can be guided through a series of fifty steps to give their film a better chance at finding an audience. The idea is to have one page on KinoNation.com for each of these fifty steps, along with an overall Progress Bar -- so a filmmaker can review what percentage of this marketing checklist has been completed. This is deliberately rough -- I just want to get the discussion started.

Checklist Imagine yourself going through this checklist, with a page on KinoNation for each one, including examples and hand-holding and discussion and comments. The objective is to come out the other side having taken action -- and marketing is all about “taking action” -- to make your film stand out in a crowded market. This is down and dirty, stream of consciousness stuff right now, but will coalesce over the coming weeks into a critically important part of KinoNation. It’s in our interest to help filmmakers sell their films on VoD, since we only make money when they make money!

  1. Mission/Objectives - what’s the point of making this film?
  2. You - tell your audience about the driving force behind this film, warts and all. Especially the warts!
  3. Them - people are, fundamentally, interested in themselves. They want to learn about themselves and their world thru the medium of your film. Make your marketing personal and organic and authentic.
  4. Ask for Help - marketing is a second marathon alongside the making of them film - start by inviting people to help. It’s like KickStarter, but you’re not asking for money, just time.
  5. Timeline - I rarely see this, but I always want it, a timeline of the film from inception thru now.
  6. Budget - be open and transparent about money issues, it’s interesting and compelling and people love it. Share your budget docs!
  7. Synopsis - I see SO many bad synopses. Make yours sing, with lean, spare prose and perfect grammar and syntax. Around 200 words. Max.
  8. Tagline - a short, pithy one-liner that instantly grabs attention.
  9. Long Description - you need this also, should be no more than 1000 words.
  10. Storyboards - great if you have them, share them online.
  11. Genres - choose 1 primary genre and (maybe) one sub-genre, and stick to it.
  12. Sales Pitch - 50-100 words on why this film is a smart commercial bet.
  13. Script - put the script (or at least bits of it) online, it’s great SEO (search-engine optimization)
  14. Memorable Quotes - we love ‘em on IMDb, and people will be similarly drawn to yours
  15. Top Ten Lists - my 10 biggest rookie director screw-ups or 10 lucky breaks in the making of this movie, and so on.
  16. Optimal Title - I’ve written about this before, the alphabetical advantage. Unfortunately it’s true that “20,000 Zombies” gets better placement on many VoD platforms than “Universal Zombie”
  17. SEO - Search Engine Optimization. Learn a little about it and views all online marketing through this lens, it’s critically important.
  18. Keywords - come up with a half-dozen keywords for your film and make sure they are on every web page you have control over (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, etc.)
  19. Film Detail Page - we’re planning to give every film a “detail page” on KinoNation.com
  20. Trivia - everyone loves this, it’s always compelling, so give your audience some!
  21. Video - you can never have too many video clips out there, the more the merrier.
  22. Trailer - cutting a trailer is hard; don’t wait for this, get other clips released.
  23. First 8 mins - studios often do something like this, easy to cut, great way to get viewers hooked.
  24. Clips - studios do this constantly, releasing literally dozens of 30-60 sec clips as part of the marketing campaign. You should also.
  25. Outtakes - don’t save these for the DVD, get them out there if they’re truly funny or compelling.
  26. Behind the Scenes - mini interviews with cast & crew, location scouting video, whatever you have.
  27. Media Relations - journalists want things to write about, especially if their magazine or blog is on the same subject as your film, or if your film was shot in their town. Don’t be scared, call them!
  28. Hand-Crafted Pitches (emails & calls) to film mags and blogs, tell them why your film is worth featuring.
  29. Social Media - think about what this really means. It’s not just having a Facebook page -- it’s about creating a compelling arc for the story of your struggle to write, finance, cast, shoot, edit, screen and market your film.
  30. Web Site - or at least a single “film detail page,” which KN.com will have for all our films
  31. Facebook - start it early in the process, post something every day.
  32. Twitter - I’m far from expert,  all I know is that it’s worth the investment.
  33. Pinterest - more popular every day, should be the pictorial hub for your movie.
  34. YouTube - all your video clips should be here, plus Vimeo also.
  35. Images - still images can show aspects of your film that video won’t...take lots and lots and show them off!
  36. Posters - on VoD, films live or die by how compelling your poster image is as people scan a page of movies. It’s the same as a video store shelf. Don’t make a great movie with a lame poster. This deserves enormous effort to get right -- make a dozen and test, test, test!
  37. Talent - empower your talent, beg them if you must, but enlist them early in mobilizing their friends and family and fans if they have them.
  38. Behind the Scenes - the stories behind the camera are only worthwhile if you capture them somehow.
  39. Cast - create profiles of your cast members, the who/what/where/why when of them and the characters they play.
  40. Crew - the crew have friends and families too, so find ways to leverage them for marketing.
  41. Director, Writer, Producer, DP, Editor -- get them to write some copy, snap some images, generally engage them in the on-going marketing
  42. Locations - leverage your locations, make sure the good folk of the small desert town you filmed in are kept informed via their local paper, blogs, etc. They’re prime target audience.
  43. Score Music - release bits of your music online, give your (hopefully) growing audience some sounds
  44. Tech - don’t forget to talk tech, there are plenty of gearheads out there, they want to know about the camera, the lights, etc.
  45. Stunts & Action - if you have stunts or car chases this is great footage for early release.
  46. Languages - think globally from the beginning, VoD is a global medium, translate at least your synopsis and sales pitch into the major foreign languages.
  47. Funny Stuff - there’s always funny stuff on film sets, documentary shoots, etc. Don’t just tell your pals, tell everyone.
  48. Accidents - these happen too; as long as they’re not tragic, you should blog about them.
  49. Festivals - tier A, tier B, tier C -- all useful, but you must plan!
  50. Test Screenings - do what the studios do, show and tell and feedback loops.

Feedback very much desired. I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed. And keep submitting movies!

Next Up: Post # 16: Top Ten Mistakes, So Far

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Startup Part 14: Early Results

By Roger Jackson

Previously: Indie Film Inspiration

Quarter Million Views I thought I’d share some results -- as in numbers -- for a feature that is having a nice run on YouTube Movies. The film is called Time Expired, and won a silver award for Comedy Feature at WorldFest Houston. It was submitted to KinoNation last week. And in fact the master ProRes file (71GB) is currently being uploaded by the filmmakers to our cloud storage servers. What immediately caught my attention is that Time Expired has almost a quarter million views on YouTube Movies since it was placed there by director Nick Lawrence 12 months ago. That’s the full length (93 mins) movie, not the trailer -- an average of 20,000 per month, and accelerating. Nick has kindly agreed to share the extensive stats that YouTube provide. It’s interesting and quite instructive, I think, as YouTube Movies becomes an increasingly significant -- and profitable -- option for indie filmmakers.

Ad-Supported vs. Transactional VoD First a little background. YouTube launched their Movies Channel in the spring of 2011. Films on the channel are either transactional VoD -- that is, consumers rent them for between $2 and $15 - or they are ad-supported (like Time Expired.) The content owner sets the rental price. Ad supported films typically have 4 or 5 ad breaks within the movie, where a 30 second TV spot is shown. They also have pre-roll and post-roll ads. YouTube kicks back 60-70% of revenue to the content owner. Anyone can put their film up as ad-supported. The bar is much higher for rental movies, since they have to be uploaded by a YouTube Rental Partner (such as KinoNation.) It’s easy (and understandable) for filmmakers to shun ad-supported platforms, and think the audience should pay a rental fee for their movie. That’s a mistake, in my opinion. You can make money from both, and Free can drive a large audience.

Cash Incoming Time Expired is generating about three hundred dollars a month (and climbing) from the commercials playing before & within the film. Would Nick and producer Rachel Tucker make more money if Time Expired was, say, a $2 rental on YouTube? Hard to say. Almost impossible to do genuine A/B testing of the two scenarios, but Nick and Rachel are happy with the film’s performance, and understandably reluctant to mess with a winning formula. Remember, even if a viewer only watches the first few minutes of the movie, it still generates ad revenue. And of course on a channel like YouTube there will always be a ton of people who browse free movies by just clicking Play. The psychology of free vs. not free is, obviously, massive. Chris Anderson wrote a book on the subject, called Free. He essentially argues that for long-tail content, there are only two prices: Free...and everything else.

How Many? YouTube Movies does a nice job providing stats. Here are some crucial numbers for Time Expired (they’re a few hours behind so the live player will show a bigger views # by the time you read this. And I’m rounding these #’s to the nearest thousand for readability.) The film has 241,000 “views” which is triggered when the viewer clicks Play. Of those views, 114,000 were “monetizable.” Meaning YouTube inserted ads. The reason is simply that the filmmakers didn’t get “ad-supported” status until June this year. Since then every view generates income. On average in the USA people watched 30% of the film, which falls to 19% globally. That may seem disappointing from a filmmaker’s POV, but remember that’s just an average. Tens of thousands of folk around the world have watched it to the end credits, and of course some have hung around just a few seconds. That’s the reality of free online movies. But tens of thousands of people watching the movie to the end is orders of magnitude bigger than even the best festival run. That’s pretty satisfying, I think, and the cash is a nice bonus. As Nick said to me, “Would be great if everybody watched it to the end, but on the plus side at least we earn advertising revenue even when people are just checking it out.”

Where Are They From and How’d They Find It? The lion’s share of the views are from the USA, followed by UK, Canada, India, Philippines. Makes sense, right? They’re all English speaking. Less obvious, perhaps, is the 11k views from Saudi Arabia. Time Expired has also garnered north of 5k views in each of Germany, France, Australia, UAE and Singapore. Again not surprising that just over half of views come from referrals within YouTube. e.g. someone is watching other content, and they see (and click on) Time Expired in the “Suggested Video” section. The other half? Typically they’re via Google or YouTube searches for “comedy movies” or “2011 movies” or “Hollywood movies” -- even though this is very much an indie from Oklahoma.

What’s Next? Time Expired was submitted last week to the KinoNation private beta. Which means, hopefully, that the cash being generated on YouTube will be multiplied many times as we pitch it to other VoD platforms, both in the US and globally. We hope it’ll be accepted by Hulu, the other ad-supported VoD giant, and subsequently by Vudu and international platforms like Lovefilm and Viewster. That’s the whole point of KinoNation. It’s a one-stop distribution system. Upload once, and get your film pitched to dozens -- ultimately hundreds -- of VoD platforms. So keep submitting features and docs -- there’s money to be made, and people to entertain.

Next Up: Post # 15: Film Marketing Tools

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Startup Part 13: Indie Film Inspiration

By Roger Jackson

 
First Looks
This is an important week for KinoNation. Well, every week is crucial for a startup, but this feels extra critical. We’re submitting our first tranche of films to several video-on-demand platforms. We haven’t finished the dashboard for our VoD partners yet -- that’s scheduled for December -- so the submission process is old school. That is, we’re sending them a spreadsheet with details of films, trailer, IMDb link, festivals & awards, and the all-important written pitch. The results & feedback from these submission -- whether VoD platforms accept 10% or 30% or 65% of the films we show them -- will give us the early data we need to solidify our business model. I’ll keep you posted.

 

Upload to the Big Screen
I’ve been to talking to an impressive and innovative company in the UK called Kinopto. They’re in the business of providing high-quality digital cinema systems that are very affordable for even small movie theaters. And therefore can be deployed at rapid scale. Without giving away too much, we’re discussing a deal whereby an indie film uploaded to KinoNation can be selected by a movie theater, downloaded into the Kinopto system, and be playing to a live cinema audience. That would be exciting, I think.

 

Films In
I have a Google spreadsheet called “films in”. Remarkable, I think, that after just 3 months we have almost 100 feature films in our library, from 11 countries. More films are submitted every day, and then uploaded to our cloud storage system. Here are a few samples from the past week: Linda Nelson of Indie Rights submitted Char•ac•ter, a fascinating doc about the craft of acting, featuring the last ever interview with the late Sydney Pollack. Grace Rowe submitted I Am That Girl, an award-winning feature about the intersection of credit cards, debt, work and love. And a quirky but interesting doc about arcade game fanatics -- The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time, which should find its audience in the VoD ecosystem. Keep submitting films, please, to our Beta Launch. It takes less than 5 minutes.

 

Power of the Pitch
One of the lessons I’ve learned is the critical importance of the “pitch” for each film. This is the short, passionate, pithy text that is intended to “sell” a film to a VoD platform. That is, convince them the movie will find an audience. Crucially, this is NOT the film tagline or synopsis or long description. Instead, it’s why this film will perform. Get rented. Or get watched on an ad platform. In short, it’s the sales pitch. Why is the subject matter compelling, right now? Who’s in the film? Festivals? Awards? Press quotes. Whatever you have that is real and verifiable and attention grabbing. Your pitch, coupled with your trailer, is a big part of each VoD platform’s accept or reject decision. Worth some thought.

 

Next Up: Post # 14: Early Results

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 12: Doubling the Upload Speed

By Roger Jackson

Previously: Ranking System for Indie Films?

Twice as Fast
We’ve made big strides at KinoNation over the past week. Klaus has been pulling late nights building the cloud-based Transcoding Engine. This automatically encodes films to the specs for each of dozens of VoD platforms. It's complex work that's normally done manually at encoding houses -- and costs several hundred dollars per film. It's a non-trivial challenge, so I was pretty psyched to see it working -- and to see how fantastic the encoded films look! Not wanting to get too techy, but this means the huge ProRes files being uploaded by filmmakers are auto-checked on completion, queued and then transcoded into the Preview version that VoD platforms can watch and review. And then decide “yes, we want it” or “no thanks, not what we’re looking for.” So that brings us several steps closer to completing version 1.0 of KinoNation. But -- we definitely want the Upload piece of the puzzle to be faster. So far the longest upload is 19 days. That was a documentary -- 95GB file --  from New Zealand. The shortest upload was 12 hours. That's a feature from New York -- 80GB file -- uploaded from a Manhattan post facility with a fiber-optic uplink. Most uploads take 2-5 days. These are huge files. So far we’ve had over 50 full-length films uploaded, and no one has complained about the elapsed time. Bandwidth at the filmmaker end is, well, what it is. And the process is completely painless for the user. But faster would be definitely be better. So we’ve come up with an ingenious solution to double (or even triple) the Upload speed. That new technology went live today and is already being tested by filmmakers. It solves the bandwidth problem by allowing the film to be uploaded from multiple locations, simultaneously. Here’s how it works: Your master ProRes file is on an external hard drive, probably. Start the upload to KinoNation from, say, your home computer. KinoNation kicks out an email with a unique re-upload link. Now simply copy the master ProRes file to a second hard drive. Then take drive # 2 to a different location. Maybe your office. Or your mother’s house. Anywhere with a computer. Click on the link, login to KinoNation, select the movie file on the drive, and click “Resume Upload.” The new Uploader software does the rest, making sure each location uploads different parts of the movie, and then putting it all together at the end. It checks for 100% integrity of the movie file, it seems bullet-proof so far, and your movie gets to KinoNation in half the time. Or even faster, since there’s no limit to how many locations you can add -- the only factor is how many hard drives you have, or maybe how many willing friends. We’re really excited about this technology, not least because we're very filmmaker focused, and the more rapid the upload, the better the experience. Plus it's now more viable for filmmakers in low-bandwidth developing countries to get their movies to us. Feel free to try the new Uploader system as part of our Private Beta trial.

Setting Expectations
I spent some time updating the KinoNation FAQ last week, in an effort to re-set expectations about how easily (or not) films will be accepted for VoD.  We’re very sensitive to this -- in this town (Los Angeles) everyone seems to over-promise and under-deliver! We want to be the opposite of that. So here's the deal. KinoNation -- uniquely as far as we know -- will accept any feature film or full-length documentary. Once the film is uploaded to us, it's immediately transcoded into a high-quality "Preview" and then appears on the web dashboard of the video-on-demand platforms. They can watch it, or more likely scroll thru it, just sampling a few minutes. They'll have access to all the metadata, the trailer and the film's KinoNation ranking. And they'll make their decision to accept -- or reject -- the film. Every VoD platform has a curatorial process.  Some more rigorous than others, but they all pick and choose films that best fit their programming criteria and their audience taste. So there will be filmmakers who submit to KinoNation -- are reviewed by multiple outlets -- but get a disappointing "No" from everyone. That's the tough reality which has certainly prompted several discussions here about launching a spin-off video-on-demand platform that (like virtually every online music service) would take the position that "curation" is a job best suited to the audience. And maybe we'll follow through -- with the cloud technology infrastructure we're building, it wouldn't be that hard. But right now we're uber-focused on the distribution game. Keep submitting those films!

Next week: Post # 13: Indie Film Inspiration

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 10: Three Months of Work

By Roger Jackson

Previously: Filmmakers Festival Feedback

3 Months In

We’ve been at it for three months now. Building a platform like KinoNation from scratch is an enormous amount of work, and like most start-ups we have limited resources. But we’re having fun, meeting a ton of really great people in the indie film world, and making rapid progress. Most important, we’re increasingly certain that KinoNation is a viable business, and we’ve been able to validate (prove) most of  our early assumptions.

The Uploader software is working great -- dozens of films from around the world have been successfully uploaded to our cloud storage, and dozens more are currently in progress. We’re already working on version 2 which should speed things up significantly. We’re now busy building the all important “dashboard” -- the web interface that allows filmmakers to see what VoD platforms have selected their film, and allows the VoD platforms to review films and select the ones they want. In many ways it’s the core of the movie marketplace we’re constructing.

10 VoD Lessons

Meanwhile, we’ve climbed (partially) the steep learning curve of video-on-demand, thanks to daily meetings and calls with smart and generous people in the industry. Here’s are some of the top 10 things we’ve learned, that I think are useful to all indie filmmakers. They’re anecdotal -- meaning I haven’t independently verified the numbers, and I’m certainly not the first on this blog to discuss VoD, but I think they’re instructive.

 

1. 70% of US video-on-demand revenue is generated by Cable VoD. Not surprising since they’ve been in the on-demand game the longest, and they have a captive audience to whom they can promote their VoD titles.

 

2. 30% of US video-on-demand revenue is generated by Internet VoD. By which I mean iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon and many others.

 

3. Approx. 70% of film festival acquisition deals are now “driven” by video-on-demand. I know this sounds like a throwaway number, and it probably is, but I’ve heard it from three different sources. Whatever the percentage, it’s a clear indication that the market for indie films will increasingly be dominated by video-on-demand.

 

4. VoD is generating real, meaningful revenue for hundreds, if not thousands, of indie films. As in thousands of dollars a month. It’s not trivial any more, if it ever was. Hopefully more specificity on that in future posts.

 

5. VoD is in many ways more of an annuity driven revenue stream rather than an event driven revenue stream. Theatrical and DVD releases in the traditional distribution model were events. They had street dates and windows. VoD also has a release date, of course, but it doesn’t fit the old “windowing” system, because VoD is forever. Meaning your film should still be available in 20 years. Of course, that means you have to keep marketing it so you continue to see that long-tail income.

 

6. It’s a really bad idea to just get your film onto 1 or 2 random platforms just to get it out there. So while it’s super-simple to get a movie onto Amazon VoD, it’s probably not the best idea. i.e. You need a planned and rational VoD distribution roll-out.

 

7. It’s critical to think about VoD marketing before you start shooting. Because while there will be some organic discovery of your film -- consumers stumbling upon it -- much of your revenue will come from an audience that you’ve worked hard to aggregate and then drive to rent or buy.

 

8. Hollywood has really woken up to VoD. If they were even asleep. Smaller movies are being released day & date theatrical and VoD. David Giancola’s riveting Addicted to Fame, about Anna Nicole-Smith and the making of the B-Movie “Illegal Aliens,” has it’s theatrical release on November 30th. VoD release is three weeks earlier, on November 6th.

 

9. There are over 100 video-on-demand platforms. It’s definitely not all about Cable + iTunes + Netflix.  Roku is having a huge impact.  Snag Films is a great revenue source for indie films, as is Fandor. And, of course, YouTube Movies and GooglePlay are fast becoming major platforms for indie films. KinoNation will distribute to all of them. It’s a vast, growing and complex VoD ecosystem.

 

10. This one is pure anecdote: dozens of traditional distribs struggling, or going out of business. They’re unable to adapt to the rapid demise of DVD, as the rise of VoD requires a whole new set of skills. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

 

Thirst

Finally, we continue to get great films submitted every day to our Private Beta. One that caught my attention is Thirst, sent by Aussie producer Megan George. Keep them coming!

 

Next week: Post # 11:  Ranking System for Indie Films

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 9: Filmmakers Festival Feedback

By Roger Jackson

 

Previously: Time to Go Live!

 

Card-Counting Christians
Just back in Los Angeles after 4 days in Arkansas at the excellent Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. So great to have a deep immersion in indie film, watch back to back movies and hang out with passionate filmmakers. I loved Holy Rollers, the true story of a tight-knit group of  Christians running a very successful operation dedicated to beating casinos at Blackjack. Motivated not just by their multi-million dollar winnings, but by a deep hatred of the rapacious casino industry, this is a superbly executed movie by filmmaker Bryan Storkel.

 

Paper Lion
I was invited to the festival to speak at a workshop on “New Waves of Distribution.” Talked to lots of filmmakers about KinoNation. Universally positive feedback. Everyone just wants their films watched, and make a little cash back. Hopefully we can revolutionize the process. So that was fun, but it was the festival films that really blew me away. I’d heard of the late writer George Plimpton, but knew little about this incredible man who invented “participatory journalism.” After watching Plimpton! I’m an instant fan and already reading his iconic Paper Lion.

 

Mismatch
I watched seven feature length docs, and could argue every single one deserves a theatrical or TV release. Which won’t happen of course. And there, in a nutshell, is why Klaus and I are building KinoNation. Because there’s a profound mismatch between the high number of worthwhile films that get made, and the low number that achieve meaningful distribution. We believe video-on-demand holds the solution to this mismatch. Every one of the films I saw in the beautiful town of Hot Springs has an audience in the tens of thousands, or even more. But outside of festivals, they’re unlikely to ever again assemble 100+ people in a theater to watch. Why? Because the audience is, almost by definition, scattered. Dispersed throughout the world, in thousands of tiny pockets of citizens, households, or perhaps classrooms or clubs or interest groups. VoD changes everything because now these filmmakers have a way to reach even their most isolated audience. There are now over one hundred VoD platforms globally, and there’s ultimately no reason why every doc at this festival can’t be running on most of those platforms, in multiple languages.

 

Glen Campbell
Actually, one film I watched in Arkansas is likely to get a decent theatrical release -- and will doubtless have a highly profitable on-demand life. It was the closing night film, as yet untitled and unfinished, about singer Glen Campbell, his memory-sapping Alzheimer's Disease, and its impact on his farewell tour, family and fans. Superbly executed by veteran filmmakers James Keach and Trevor Albert, it’s a moving and in places hilarious doc with two huge built-in audiences: Millions of Glen Campbell fans, and millions of families who’ve been impacted by Alzheimer's. Still, as Keach and Albert acknowledged when I talked to them, success via VoD is a complex marketing challenge, requiring enormous planning, effort and creativity -- and needs to begin long before a film is wrapped.

 

Incoming!
So our Movie Uploader software is now being thoroughly field tested. The first group of filmmakers -- from all over the world and with varying connection speeds at their end -- have been uploading films to KinoNation. The largest is well over 100GB. The smallest is 20GB. Most are around 60-80 gigs, and have averaged around 4 days to upload, chugging away in the background without impacting email & web usage. Exactly what we expected -- a fiber-optic line from a post facility is obviously going to be faster than home internet, where it can take 10 days or more. What’s great is that it has worked super-reliably, and on the few occasions where the upload has been disconnected, all the re-starts have been easy and the software just picks up where it left off. And this is just version one. We’re already working on v2 which should be 30% faster. Bottom line: filmmakers can now by-pass the antiquated (and costly) system of sending hard drives around the world. Today we released the Uploader software to the next group of beta test filmmakers.

 

Distribution Starts Here
Still getting lots of great features and docs submitted. Keep them coming. There’s no hard deadline, but this week is when we start presenting some of them to our video-on-demand partners. So if you submit to our Private Beta (the form takes 2 minutes, no upload required) then your film can easily be among the first tranche we show to these big global platforms. There’s no risk and no commitment at this stage -- and huge potential upside.

 

Next week: Post # 10: Three Months of Work

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 8: Time to Go Live!

By Roger Jackson

Previously: New Mantra: Do More, Faster

 

Digital Hollywood
I spent today (10/15) at the Digital Hollywood conference, an event that happens in LA a couple times a year. Attended several panel discussions. One panelist argued that the film industry today will not only follow the same trajectory as the music business -- but that film now is only where the music business was at the time of the phonograph! Hmm, maybe. I certainly agree that in terms of massive disruption we have a ways to go. Had a bunch of meetings. The head of a group of angel investors suggested we pitch KinoNation “as soon as we have our MVP done.” MVP meaning “minimum viable product.” He said it doesn’t need to be pretty, it can be full of bugs and missing features, but, in his words, we need to “remove the technology risk” for people who might write a check. That is, prove we can actually build what we claim we’re building. Good timing, since we’ve just today launched the Movie Uploader and will roll it out to most of our Private Beta group over the coming days. The Beta is still open for movie submissions, by the way. Keep them coming! Meanwhile, another potential investor emphasized the importance of providing tools to filmmakers to help them market their films -- he suggested a “freemium” model -- meaning the basic service is free, with a monthly fee of 10 or 20 bucks for premium services. Comments...?

 

Down and Dangerous
Talking of the Private Beta, a couple new submissions last week that blew me away. Down and Dangerous is a crowd-funded thriller that raised $38k on Kickstarter in September 2011, went immediately into production, wrapped by December -- and looks like a multi-million dollar studio picture. Inspiring. And if it looks authentic, well, that’s because writer/director Zak Forsman grew up with a Dad who was also a coke smuggler! Write about what you know! In complete and delightful contrast, Patang (The Kite) is a New York Times critics pick that Roger Ebert called “Masterful.” Both these films should have a long and profitable life in the video-on-demand realm.

 

Time to Go Live
So we’ve just (today) rolled out the KinoNation Movie Uploader to our first 8 filmmakers, scattered among 5 countries. What I’ve realised over the past couple weeks of internal testing is that this is as much about psychology as technology. Let me explain. The digital files we need -- exclusively Apple ProRes for our beta -- are big. Actually, they’re huge, often 100 Gigs or bigger. And everything is constrained by the size of the “pipe” at the filmmaker end (at the KinoNation end it’s in the cloud, hyper-fast.) So with a really fast connection (e.g. post-house) at the filmmaker end that 100GB film might take 24-48 hours to upload. With merely a decent connection (big company office, university, etc.) it might take 50+ hours. And with a slower connection (e.g. home cable) it might take 100 hours or more. Not that 100 hours of uploading is that big of a deal. It’s happening in the background, you can still use email and stream from Netflix. And the upload can easily be stopped and then resumed from wherever it left off. You can even decide it’s taking too long from home, stop the upload, take your film on external hard drive to the office and re-start from there. All that said, I still think the “strangeness” of a multi-day upload may yield interesting results. Anyway, we’re excited. It really cuts out the friction, cost and aggravation of getting your film digitally distributed. No hard drives, no Fedex in the new KinoNation!  What do YOU think?

 

Next week: Post # 9: Filmmakers Festival Feedback

Roger Jackson is a producer and the 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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at roger@kinonation.com.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 7: New Mantra: Do More, Faster

By Roger Jackson

Previously: Late Nights and Early Breakthroughs

 

Latest & Greatest

Lots more great films submitted to our Private Beta launch this week. The quality and diversity of the filmmaking is impressive. Every time we watch one of the trailers we’re reminded of why we’re building KinoNation -- to make it simple for movies like these to actually get released, exhibited and watched “on-demand” by the global audience that undoubtedly exists for them. I talked to Marianne Hettinger, director of the delightful Mango Tango. Marianne submitted her award-winning film to KinoNation at least partly because -- unlike traditional distributors -- we’re not seeking a “lock-up” commitment of 10+ years. In fact, there’s no lock-up at all, beyond what is required by any VoD platform that selects a KinoNation movie. Meanwhile,Peter Anthony Farren sent us his debut black comedy Kenneth, whose life definitely isn’t going according to plan. Both films are out of the mainstream, and both have been created from that incredible mix of drive and passion that allows filmmakers like these to complete first-time features. Keep submitting your features and docs, please -- there’s absolutely no cost, risk or obligation, and great upside.

 

Fifty Thousand Films?

As we talk to potential investors, I’ve been trying to verify the oft-repeated claim that 50,000 feature length films are produced each year, globally. We want to paint a picture of a vast international treasure of unreleased -- and unexploited -- movies, just waiting for an online audience. But it’s important that our numbers are accurate and verified. The 50k a year number comes from Chris Hyams, but a little more digging into IMDb Stats shows (after subtracting documentary shorts) that a more accurate and verifiable figure is around 15,000 feature films and docs produced annually. More detail here in a spirited online debate between Chris and I over the weekend. But it’s entirely possible that my analysis is flawed -- there may be thousands of films -- particularly from outside the USA -- that are completed but never listed on IMDb. What do you think?

 

Transcode Engine

Klaus is busy and intensely focused on the technology at the core of KinoNation. This is the “transcode engine” that processes the film master file uploaded by the filmmaker, and encodes it to customized video-on-demand specs each time a VoD platform selects that film. There’s not much standardization around VoD -- actually there’s huge variation in film formats across the platforms. And since there’s over 100 platforms, well, you can imagine the complexity. The film storage challenge alone is huge -- with an expectation that KinoNation will ingest thousands of films, and average file size around 100GB, we need hundreds of terabytes of virtual shelf space. Even a couple of years ago this would have been prohibitively expensive, but now with cloud computing, we can store each massive film master file (e.g. ProRes) for about a buck a month, and automatically trigger the encoding and delivery process whenever any VoD platform says “we want that film.”

 

Hobbits & Dwarves

Now and again I take my head out of the indie film world. Last weekend I had the pleasure of hanging out with the super-talented Graham McTavish, who plays the dwarf Dwalin in the upcoming Hobbit movies. The scope, scale and sheer logistical challenge of shooting three giant feature films, back to back, blows my mind. Worth remembering that director Peter Jackson started with ultra low-budget indie films -- like his 1989 cult hit Meet the Feebles. Genius!

 

Next week: Post # 8: Time to Go Live!

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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 6: Late Nights and Early Breakthroughs

By Roger Jackson
 

Previously: A Crash Course in Film Distribution (and why video-on-demand is even more complicated)

Lining up Deals
Lots of late nights for the team, figuring out the “flow” of the KinoNation platform, writing code and reaching out to global video-on-demand outlets. My spreadsheet list of these outlets just keeps growing. There’s more than 100 now, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. That’s a lot of phone calls and pitches! This is a rapidly expanding market -- it seems almost every day there’s a new VoD initiative. Last week Canadian cable giant Shaw Communications announced “Shaw Go” to compete with Netflix in Canada. And you’ve doubtless heard that Redbox are rolling out “Redbox Instant by Verizon” in December. It’s exciting and fast-changing and provides huge opportunity for filmmakers to reach new audiences. And it’s keeping me very busy, in each case tracking down the right person to talk to -- and then convincing them that upstart KinoNation will be a source of great movie content.

Shoot Local, Think Global
Over 50 films in the Kinonation Private Beta now, lots of cool -- and quirky -- indie films submitted this week. One that resonated is Triumph67, an Arab-American drama made in Minnesota. I talked to producer Jeremy Wilker, who told me the film was shot in the summer of 2008, then completed post-production with the help of a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign -- and finally premiered 2 years ago. And then came the distribution waiting game that most indie films must play. This is definitely a niche movie, with a built-in market among Arab-Americans, plus the wider Arab/Middle-East market. So I was delighted to hear from Jeremy that they’ve “...just now finished the DVDs and BluRays this week and we actually have it already subtitled in Arabic and also in French.” Delighted because Klaus and I have a vision for KinoNation to make it super-simple for filmmakers to exploit their movie as a multi-language, multi-territory asset, providing easy access to VoD platforms throughout the world -- including the necessary technical and metadata infrastructure. Or, put simply, you upload sub-titles to Kinonation (including timecode in/out points), we deliver them to VoD platforms in the relevant countries, and they’re inserted on-the-fly when the film is watched. Think of VoD as a global distribution system that enables you to find thousands of micro-audiences across hundreds of countries. And keep submitting films, please, there’s no risk and lots of benefits!

Upload and Breakthrough
We targeted an October beta launch, and this week we start inviting selected filmmakers to upload their movies. And by “upload” we don’t mean a super-compressed version, we mean the big, fat file that is the end result of filmmaking. The ProRes (or equivalent) from DaVinci Resolve or Final Cut Pro or whatever the film is finished on. This hasn’t been possible before. Or at least not in the way we envision -- as simple to upload to KinoNation as posting a cell-phone video clip to YouTube. It’s not a trivial tech challenge, requiring multi-part upload, the capability to seamlessly re-start the upload even from a different computer, and a cast-iron guarantee that the film arriving at KinoNation is exactly the same as the one that left your hard drive. But we think we’ve cracked it and now we’re testing it with a handful of filmmakers around the world. Some will have fast connections -- probably at a post-facility -- where a massive 100GB upload can be started in the evening and done by the morning. Others will have slower connections -- it’s dependent on how fat or thin is the “pipe” at the filmmaker end -- and the upload may take a week. Yes, that’s a 7 day upload. Sounds a bit daunting, but we’ve built the software to handle crashes and interruptions, and otherwise it’ll just do it’s thing in the background -- you’ll still be able to do all your normal internet stuff. Our engineer David, field-testing the upload of Kris and Lindy Boustedt’s hi-definition drama This is Ours (weighting in at 108GB) reported that during 3 days or so of upload, he was still able to stream Netflix movies at the same time -- on his home internet connection. Anyway, we’re excited to test KinoNation with Private Beta filmmakers in the USA, France, UK, New Zealand and South Africa. I’ve always found it annoying to send hard drives around the planet -- not just the expense of Fedex, but also the overall hassle and the feeling I’ll never see that $150 drive again. Upload is simply better.

Cold Brain, Hot Springs
Sometimes the late nights at a start-up result in sub-optimal morning brain. Last week I stumbled into Peet’s coffee to meet Klaus at 8am, after a 2am wrap the night before. I excitedly shared with him that we’d been invited to speak at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. “Where’s that?”, said the German to the Brit. I glanced at the email on my phone, saw “Hot Springs, AR” and replied “Arizona.” Duh. After 15 years living in the USA, I surely know the difference between AZ and AR. But apparently not that morning. Anyway, was delighted to discover (once I’d had some coffee) that I’m heading to delightful Hot Springs, Arkansas in a couple of weeks. I love film festivals, can happily watch documentaries back-to back for days, and I’ve never been to AR. Above all excited to speak, and get some up close and personal feedback from filmmakers!

Next week:  Post # 7: Automatic Transcoding: The BIG Challenge

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 Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 5: A Crash Course in Film Distribution

By Roger Jackson

We now have more than 40 films in the Kinonation Private Beta, with more submissions arriving every day. Among them, a couple of documentary trailers immediately had me wanting more. And that’s exactly what KinoNation seeks to do -- make it super easy for independent films and docs to get video-on-demand distribution, so anyone “wanting more” can instantly rent or buy the movie from among dozens of global VoD outlets. Black Sun, a 2005 documentary by Brit filmmaker Gary Tarn, tells the tragic and inspiring story of Hugues de Montalembert, a New York City artist who was blinded for life during a vicious street mugging. On a lighter note, French filmmaker Pascal Cuenot submitted In The Tracks Of, her intimate look at the life and work of the late, great film composer Maurice Jarre. I watched this preview clip, frustrated that just as Jarre starts telling the story of his involvement with Lawrence of Arabia and his first meeting with the legendary producer Sam Spiegel...the clip ends! I desperately wanted to watch the full documentary, right away. That’s why we’re so passionate about KinoNation -- the promise of instant access for consumers to rent or buy movie gems like these. Keep submitting your films, please.

 

Distribution Deep-Dive

While Klaus and the technology team is busy building the KinoNation platform, I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of film distribution. Trying to make sense of the tangled system of windowing -- the sequential release of films for cinema, pay-per-view TV, DVD, airlines, broadcast TV -- all elaborately staged to maximize the revenue for a film, but increasingly anachronistic for an audience that wants 24/7 access. Above all, analyzing how the exploding market for video-on-demand is impacting this complex ecosystem, and making some educated guesses about how it’ll evolve in the next few years.

 

Five Lessons

So what have I learned so far, or at least what seems useful to understand for KinoNation? Five key lessons, some obvious perhaps, others less so. First, that video-on-demand now generates serious revenue, in the hundreds of millions annually in the US alone -- and growing exponentially. Unfortunately there’s an equally serious lack of hard numbers  -- unlike theatrical box office, there’s no mandate and little incentive for producers or VoD platforms to publish sales data. But when breakout indie hits like Margin Call and Melancholia can gross more online than in movie theaters, video-on-demand is rapidly overtaking DVD in the minds of Hollywood and indie producers alike. True, the per unit margin on DVD sales is still way higher, but VoD has the potential to make up for lower margins with much higher volume, driven by the lure of instant, convenient, multi-device and multi-language access.

Second, that indie studios like The Weinstein Company’s RADiUS have already embraced “Day & Date” simultaneous theatrical and VoD release. Some producers are even experimenting with the so-called “ultra” release, where the VoD live date comes before the theatrical release -- not so popular with movie theaters right now!

Third, that VoD really democratizes access to independent film for that massive but highly dispersed “heartland” audience who never before had such depth and breadth of access. Fourth, and perhaps less obviously, VoD provides -- or will provide -- hyper convenient access to features and docs in a way that now just fits into the lives of busy people. That alone is game-changing in the way it accelerates film consumption.

Finally, and most exciting, VoD means that the “other 48,000” of the approximately 50,000 features and docs made (globally) every year now have a real shot at distribution -- and not just in their home language, but in as many languages as the filmmaker can find translators for. So that one of the KinoNation team favorites -- the rousing A Barrel of Laughs -- can be distributed and enjoyed in Arabic, Japanese, Zulu...and every language in between. Just like my favorite commercial!

 

Next week:  Post # 6: Late Nights and Early Breakthroughs

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.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 3: The Producer's Dilemma

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 3: The Producer's Dilemma
By Roger Jackson
The Producer’s Dilemma You probably know the classic movie making conundrum that indie producers struggle with: talent (or rather their agents) won’t commit to a film project until you prove you have funding, and investors won’t write a check until you prove you have talent attached. The producer’s dilemma. And, of course, all successful producers find creative solutions to that thorny issue. KinoNation has a similar challenge: It’s tough to get filmmakers fully committed without video-on-demand distribution outlets in place, and it’s hard to sign VoD outlets without a slate of films.
Meeting with Hulu
So in an industry (Hollywood) that’s notoriously suspicious -- even hostile -- towards outsiders and upstarts, our first meeting with a VoD distributor was a breath of fresh air. Hulu “got it” immediately. They were informed, candid and provided the type of objective but positive feedback that Klaus and I needed. Yes, you can be a content partner with Hulu, they said. Just show us you can aggregate great independent features and documentaries, and then prove you can deliver them to Hulu in the high quality format we require. Deal! We got to work immediately on the ideas and to-do list that sprang from the meeting -- in a new venture like KinoNation, the positive momentum from this type of informal encouragement is huge.
Acronyms on Demand
Since then we’ve been talking to video-on-demand platforms all over the world.  So now is probably a good time to deal with the soup of video-on-demand acronyms we find ourselves swimming in. SVoD, TVoD, FVoD are among the most common, but the list goes on, it’s confusing, and from now on I’m just going to use the umbrella term VoD -- “Video on Demand.” But, for the record,  SVoD is “subscription“ video-on-demand, where the customer pays a flat monthly fee. Like Netflix, or Hulu Plus. TVoD is “transactional” video-on-demand, where customers pay each time they rent or buy a movie. Like iTunes, or Amazon Instant. And FVoD is “free” video-on-demand.  Like Vimeo, or YouTube. OK, with that out of the way, suffice it to say we’re busy knocking on the doors of dozens of VoD companies, worldwide.
Now We Need Movies
Now the flip side of our producer’s dilemma: we need an initial slate of films -- fifty or so would be ideal. So last week we fired up an Invitation Only page on KinoNation, seeking full-length films (and filmmakers) for what techies call Beta Testing. As we wrote on that page “These films will form the initial slate of films to be run through our automated Upload-Transcode-Distribute process...filmmakers involved will help shape the creation of KinoNation.” The response already has been great -- indie features from the USA, UK and Australia, documentaries from France and South Africa, and amazing enthusiasm from filmmakers who know they can drive an audience to their films, but want help getting them out there!

First Mover Advantage So who are these bold filmmakers, and what are they submitting to KinoNation? And why are they motivated to be “first movers?” Here’s a sampling. Husband and wife filmmakers Lindy and Kris Boustedt are sending us their beautiful existential drama This is Ours. Lindy notes that “We’re confident we can market/find an audience for our film, we just want a simple route to getting our film into paid video on demand.” South African filmmaker James Walsh has submitted his stunning mountain bike documentary An Epic Tale, and writes “Love the simplicity of Kinonation! More than happy to be a guinea pig for this process.”  From Australia we heard from director Sky Crompton, who has submitted his Austral-Asian drama Citizen Jia Li. Veteran LA filmmaker Rich Martini (what a great name!) already has his incredible after-life doc Flipside out on DVD, and writes that “VOD is definitely the smartest way to go with my own particular niche of story telling...once it’s available on demand I can sell the heck out of it...thank you KinoNation for showing up at exactly the right time to enable a new vision of distribution!”

So I invite you to submit your film to our Private Beta. The form takes 2 minutes to complete, the rules are super-simple, there’s no obligation to participate, no cost, no strings attached. And there’s absolutely no danger that your baby will be stolen, or end up on DVD at the night market in Shanghai. Although as filmmaker Lindy Boustedt wrote, “"We'd be oddly thrilled if This is Ours was pirated. Cause that would mean it was popular enough to steal."

 

Next week:  Post #4: Story Arc for Investors or Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Raising Money.

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.

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 2: Birth of a (Kino)Nation

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 2: Birth of a (Kino)Nation
By Roger Jackson
KinoNation We were determined the site would be a dot com domain -- not dot biz or dot US or dot-whatever. But available dot coms are rare and we weren’t going to pay thousands of dollars to some shady cyber-squatter. Klaus found KinoNation.com -- it was available, it makes sense, we like it and seems easy to remember. “Kino” is German for cinema. And “Nation” can be defined as a community of persons bound by a shared interest or passion. That seems to work. We’re also excited about the potential for this venture in China, making thousands of Chinese indie films available to the rest of the world. So the name had to sound OK to the Chinese ear (we’re assured it does) and it more or less translates into Mandarin as “Film Kingdom.” But. There’s always a “but.” In this case there’s a site in Russia, kinonation.ru where you can watch Hollywood movies -- in Russian -- for free. Hard to say whether they’re legit or pirated. Either way, we have the dot-com, they have the dot-ru -- there’s no reason we can’t co-exist, right?
The Lean Startup
Klaus and I are fans of The Lean Startup -- the idea that all new ventures are based on big, untested assumptions, and the best way to test them is to get a minimum viable product out there quickly. In weeks rather than months. That way, if you’re going to fail, at least you fail fast! Our big assumptions are that filmmakers and content owners will see value in KinoNation and want to upload their movies. And that digital video-on-demand outlets will want those films enough to work with us.  Are those assumptions true?
First 6 Weeks So now we're 6 weeks into it. What have we accomplished so far? We're filmmakers so we started with a video. We convinced a few successful friends to talk about the problem we’re trying to solve, and Remy Boudet, our talented French director/DP/editor, pulled it all together. We built a website, nothing fancy, we used a WordPress template but I think it looks pretty good. Remy designed an ice cream logo, because apparently in France they still quaff ice cream in movie theaters. We decided to experiment with fund-raising on Indiegogo. We haven’t started a company yet, an actual legal entity. Haven’t printed business cards. Haven’t bought any equipment. It’s too easy to get bogged down in stuff like that and pretend you’re making progress, when it’s really just spending money you don’t have, before you need to. We’re focused on writing code, doing deals, spreading the word to filmmakers.
Response So Far The response from filmmakers and indie producers has been remarkably consistent: “KinoNation is a great idea, but since your success is dependent on the online success of the films uploaded, you’d better help filmmakers reach their audience, because there’s the real challenge.” We can provide online tutorials and tools, of course. Plus lessons on guerilla marketing, case studies of indie films that have grossed a ton of money via VoD – and examples of decent films where the online marketing was a fail. But we need more. I have a strong feeling there’s a more imaginative and even game-changing solution lurking just over the horizon? We’ll see.
Coming Soon The first few weeks were the easy part. Who doesn’t love brainstorming, shooting video, building websites. Now we have to build the technology that will do the uploading and transcoding magic. That will move massive digital movie files around the planet without any loss of quality. We have to do deals with digital distributors like Hulu and Netflix and iTunes and dozens of others. We have to convince filmmakers to trust us with their films. We have to figure out a business model that is fair and reasonable and transparent. Oh, and of course we have to find investors who believe in the vision and the potential to create a global distribution business.
That’ll keep us busy for a few months.
Next week:  Post #3: The Producer’s Dilemma - you know how movie talent won’t commit until you get funding, and film funders won’t commit until you’ve signed talent? KinoNation struggles with the same dilemma with content owners and video-on-demand partners.

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.

 

 

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 1: Every movie ever made...

Diary of a Film Start-Up Part 1: Every movie ever made, in any language, anytime, day or night...
By Roger Jackson
 

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.

The Other 96%
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.

 

A Solution?
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?

Commitment
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.