Part of the fun of SXSW is not just the sessions, the films, the Chevys and the parties but the people you meet, waiting in line for films. Such was the case for Jonathan Marlow of online distribution platform Fandor and me. We were waiting to see press screeners at this year’s SXSW and voila an interview was born! Check it out below. It’s in 5 parts. This is Part 3. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.
BTBO: Is there an opportunity for filmmakers to connect with the customers that have viewed their films?
At the moment, there are only a handful of opportunities but it is definitely something which we plan to expand. There is a mechanism for people to connect through social networks and, on a number of occasions, filmmakers have connected with viewers through reviews. But it doesn’t happen as often as we would like.
We are definitely interested in enhancing the engagement between our audience and individual filmmakers. There are a number of forthcoming improvements to the service that will make it more viewer-friendly and, simultaneously, more partner-friendly as well.
BTBO: You just mentioned, if you’re promoting a film on your social networks, how do you decide which films you’re going to be promoting?
JM: These are decisions made between the content team, the marketing team and our Keyframe editorial staff: Susie Gerhard, our editor-in-chief; David Hudson, responsible for Keyframe Daily; and Kevin Lee, our chief video essayist. There are layers upon layers of curation which occur.
When we debuted the Todd Solondz film Dark Horse, we knew immediately that it would perform very well with our existing audience. But we also knew that it would attract a similar audience that may not have seen the film when it was in theatres or others that might want to see the film again. Dark Horse was featured on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere and those efforts take on a life of their own as well. Prior to this year, we were primarily focused on marketing the concept of Fandor, explaining that we are an on-demand subscription service specializing in international and independent films. That won’t end, of course, but there is going to be a considerably larger role for film-specific marketing going forward. These activities are coordinated across our advertising and in articles and interviews featured on Keyframe. As the moment, there are several thousand titles published on the service–nearly four thousand films–and we will double that number by the end of the year. The number of good films made available to us has continued to increase through our existing partners and aggregators. That number has increased significantly as Netflix and other services continue to pass on renewing films. Many films have become available to us that weren’t available previously. That makes a significant difference.
We’ve also cornered certain so-called “verticals” that are of interest to our audience. For instance, we have the largest collection of silent films available on-demand anywhere. Silents are obviously a very specific niche but the audience that is interested in them can be quite obsessive. It is crucial to us to activate obsessive audiences across numerous genres. Experimental film also has a relatively dedicated audience. Audiences for an experimental film program would likely be smaller than the number who would attend the local multiplex but that smaller audience is very engaged. It is great to have younger filmmakers making non-narrative short films in the same vein as Bruce Baillie and Lawrence Jordan. We have the largest library of these films, too (including the works of Jordan, Baillie and many others).
Several of our filmmaker partners were not interested in making films available digitally until they started seeing their work pirated. They were frustrated with the fact that someone has stolen their work but they were also angry that the work was represented horribly. For instance, when someone has taken an awful VHS copy which was used to submit to a film festival twenty years ago and that has been encoded and put up on YouTube or somewhere else. Then, despite their best efforts, they either can’t get YouTube to take it down or they get it down and someone immediately uploads it again. In many instances, we have become a viable mechanism for filmmakers to have their films presented in the way that they want it presented and a service which allow them a vehicle to get paid for their work.
BTBO: Fandor’s available among across a number of platforms, can you break down where you’re getting most of your viewing from?
One disappointing thing is that the largest audience potential will arrive through devices but they have yet to perform as well as they could. We added a channel on Roku rather early in this process when we launched. We have apps for the iPad and iPhone, essentially variations on a theme. Part of the issue is the same problem I had when I worked at VUDU.
At the time VUDU had a box. And the box was an albatross. It seemed clear to me that no one was going to buy the box. And no one really did. One reason why no one bought it was that the box really only did one thing: it facilitated the buying (or renting) of more things. Initially it was $500. Then it was $400. Then it was $300. Then $200. Ultimately, they could hardly give it away. It had a beautiful interface and not much else. This buying-of-more-things notion is a problem that many apps face. They have limited usability until you make some sort of a commitment. In our case, you can watch trailers but not much else until you subscribe. Asking someone to commit before they have more of an idea about how things work is very difficult.
Until we have a process which deals with that issue, it’s going to be challenging. That is not saying it is never going to happen. In fact, we know how it is going to happen. There is great potential here.
BTBO: And what are the devices you’re available on? So you’re on iPad, iPhone, Roku…?
We are available on Android as well. There are a number of other platforms which will be introduced soon. We have an impressive in-house development team and that creates a lot of advantages. But realistically it is about setting priorities: where do we want to be versus where should we be? It isn’t always easy to say which place makes the most sense, specifically since many of our subscribers come directly from the website. The majority of the functionality for discovery tools can be found on the site and there are other variations for Roku or the iPad or iPhone apps.
BTBO: What are some of your most successful filmmakers doing? What are some of the best practices?
One of the things that was important when we founded the company was to give context to the films available on the service. Therein, it was essential to actively market the films which we’d licensed. As a curated service, we’re making a commitment to a film that goes beyond other on-demand services. Others are satisfied to merely put the film up and hope that something happens. Making the film available isn’t nearly enough. That is why Keyframe exists. That is why we have a remarkable marketing team. These are all parts of what you get with Fandor.
For our best performing film of all time, we have no direct relationship with Maren Ade, the filmmaker, though we have two of her films. One comes from Cinema Guild and her debut feature is from Film Movement. Her second film is entitled Everyone Else. It’s a German relationship drama and it is exactly the sort of film that, on paper, should not do well. I loved it. It was recommended to me by a friend and, once I was finally able to see it, I thought that it was brilliant. Despite the challenging subject matter, I figured that we should make it available and it went on to become our most popular title.
BTBO: Why? Why do you think that is? Just because it’s a good film?
It doesn’t always work this way but, in this particular case, I wager that is exactly why. People who have watched it generally rate it very highly and that tends to create a feedback loop. Popular films tend to stay popular.
To a lesser degree, the same is true of a number of music documentaries available on the service. In particular, there is a film which we brought in from Kino Lorber about Harry Nilsson. I saw the documentary in Toronto before they’d acquired it and it’s a great film. Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everyone Talkin’ About Him)? is also in our top ten of all time. It has done consistently well month-over-month. Amazingly well. Through one of our other partners, MVD, we licensed an animated film which Nilsson wrote and scored and now there is a reciprocal relationship between the documentary and The Point. Those kinds of relationships are quite exciting. The same with the filmmaker behind Everyone Else. Once I had located her earlier feature, I thought that it made sense to figure out a way to bring these two films together. Audiences who loved her second film can now see the two together.