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Diary of a Film Startup: Post # 27: London Calling
By Roger Jackson
Previously: How to Avoid Rejection
I’m in London talking to most of the UK video-on-demand outlets. Being English myself doesn’t seem to confer any advantages. It may even cause suspicion — the Brit who abandoned ship and washed up in sunny California, and now he wants our business…screw him. That’s still the attitude here, at least among some. LOVEFiLM (yes, that’s how they write the name) just told me that while they’ll happily ingest KinoNation films, they’re much more interested in — and focused on — television content. I like that level of honesty, and I’m not surprised. The lion’s share of VoD revenue on platforms like Netflix, Hulu and LOVEFiLM right now is being generated by TV shows, rather than movies. But movies on demand is still a big — and growing — business. Big enough for us to disrupt!
The Usual Objections
During this 10 day trip I’ve had meetings to get KinoNation films distributed — or at least start the ball rolling — with VoD outlets like Virgin Media, SkyMovies, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, Sky Movies, Curzon-on-Demand, HMV and Kinopto. Of course, no one signs a deal at meeting #1. It’s just the beginning of a process, hopefully fairly short, since the Kinonation offer is, essentially: here’s our catalog, it’s fantastic and growing fast, do you want in? But of course everyone is skeptical at first. They say: How can you possibly automate the encoding and metadata authoring? Can’t be done. Surely your films are all second rate? American indies don’t play well in Britain. You have to get every film rated. Bla, Bla. The usual objections. Actually, in this sales process, I think it’s good to serve up some genuinely easy objections they can volley back — otherwise they get uncomfortable that what you’re proposing makes WAY too much sense!
£3 million Box Office or…?
What the UK outlets want — or at least what they say they want — is only films with £3m box office. That’s four and a half million dollars. Meaning they will only take films on their VoD platforms with a proven theatrical track record. I dug a little and found that they’re actually OK with £3m OR a six theater release — the latter being much less onerous, especially since Tugg came on the scene in the US. I dug a little more…and found a little more flexibility — but the bottom line is that (right now) UK digital outlets have the same mindset as US cable outlets: we only want the cream, and cream mostly rises to theatrical. I think (but I’m really no expert) this will change, once cable TV head-end capacity grows, along with cable TV user interfaces evolving, plus a growing perception among VoD outlets that ingesting and storing a really BIG on-demand catalog (like iTunes) makes better economic sense than a limited on-demand catalog (like Virgin Media.)
Artist to Entrepreneur (A2E)
Spent the weekend before London at the San Francisco Film Festival. Specifically the innovative and very productive A2E workshop. Think twelve impressive indie films, cherry-picked from various festivals — meeting Round-Robin style with 12 distribution platforms. The objective was to craft a distribution template for each of the films. KinoNation was one of the dozen tech companies or platforms. For me the biggest takeaways were: a) the opportunity for an indie filmmaker to self-distribute is now bigger and easier and genuinely more viable than ever — but it’s called self-distribution because the workload on “self” is massive. b) the video-on-demand ecosystem is so nascent, and so rapidly evolving, that the various VoD distributors feel much more like collaborators than direct competitors. KinoNation is a squealing infant in this family — yet treated kindly (and collaboratively) by VoD success stories Gravitas Ventures and Cinedign/NewVideo, and rapidly growing start-ups like indie four-waller Tugg, and indie film marketer TopSpin Media.
Feature films and docs in the KinoNation Private Beta are flowing to our beta partners Amazon, Hulu and Viewster. As the delivery tech is tested and improved, we’ll pick up the pace and widen the distribution to iTunes and the rest. But the Quality Control (QC) process takes a while. Gary Tarn’s BAFTA nominated documentary Black Sun failed Hulu QC this week because his poster art had his sales agent contact details. We had to fix, re-submit, then it passed. Not Gary’s error. Not Hulu’s either. Our error. This is an example of much more detailed metadata specs that KinoNation needs to publish — and also catch in our internal QC process before we deliver to outlets. Another example: Sky Crompton’s Asian-Australian feature Citizen Jia Li (set in Melbourne, but with Mandarin dialogue) failed an outlet’s QC because the subtitles file wasn’t “just” right. These files are machine readable — and thus error intolerant. Not Sky’s fault, again, it’s incumbent on Kinonation to write code that checks subtitles in advance of submission to outlets. Like all of this system we’re building, it’s complex, surprising, non-trivial…and challenging. And that’s why it’s fun.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.