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.