Part of the fun of SXSWis 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’sSXSW and voila an interview was born! Check it out below. It’s in 5 parts. This is Part 1.
BTBO: What do you do for Fandor?
JM: I co-founded the company with Dan Aronson and Albert Reinhardt. We created the founding principles in mid-2009, launched the beta version of the service in September 2010 and debuted Fandor to the public at SXSW six months later. Albert comes from a design and product background and Dan is a technologist and serial entrepreneur. I bring the entertainment industry side of the equation and I am responsible for film acquisitions. Every film that appears on Fandor passes by my desk at some point.
BTBO: And how many films are on Fandor right now?
JM: There are nearly 4,000 films available on Fandor at the moment. As a curated service, we are always looking for great documentaries and narrative films from around the world. We’re duration agnostic–we have films that are less than a minute in length to one that is twelve hours long–and we’re not particularly concerned about the year in which they were made (though recent releases tend to perform quite a bit better than older films). We’re also very particular about the quality of what we make available on the service. In many cases, we’ve licensed a film and we’re waiting for an ideal source for encoding. But if a particular film is historically important, we take whatever our partners make available to us. We have a handful of older titles, for instance, that have been transferred from circulating 16mm prints. It isn’t exactly ideal but sometimes necessary. Fandor has a remarkable content operations team and they can often work miracles on challenging source materials. And we’re constantly re-encoding when better materials become available. We’re rather obsessive about presenting films in the best possible way.
BTBO: What’s the submission process like?
JM: That’s an excellent question. I attend many film festivals, roughly thirty to forty festivals each year. Some are more important to our efforts than others but all are important on some level. And I find films essentially everywhere I go. Or I meet with filmmakers during these travels, often when there is some pre-existing interest in their work. We are in a very unique period since the rights to many films are reverting back to their makers. Or their producers. We actively seek out films of merit. Primarily, we are looking for films that fill gaps in the existing library because we think of the service as a whole rather than a collection of individual titles. As a result, we’re constantly adding to every genre rather than just adding to one or two. We also get a considerable amount of cold submissions these days. Filmmakers are occasionally interested in what we’re doing and they just send us a copy of their film. Or they email us or call us and ask about the process of submitting their work.
With the cold submission process, we get several dozen films each a week. In some cases, it’s one filmmaker with a number of their films. In others, it can be many filmmakers each with one short or a feature apiece. It is generally a film that has completed its tour of the festival circuit and it wasn’t picked up for distribution. In those cases, the filmmaker or producer is looking for an avenue for their film to be seen but also an avenue for the film to make money. Because there are plenty of opportunities out there to make no money from your film. I believe that filmmakers should be paid for their work and paid as generously as possible.
BTBO: So you’re not opposed to cold submissions?
JM: Not at all. We encourage cold submissions and we enjoy working directly with filmmakers. The principle problem, of course, is that most films are not very good. Not just among these submissions. The odds for most films, in general, are poor. But there are a number of great films that have arrived in the mail which we did not know anything about in advance. It doesn’t happen as often as we would like, though. When we extend a deal directly to a filmmaker, it can take additional time (compared to working with established distributors) because many makers have little experience in this area and few of them understand how the process works. I generally spend a bit of time working with filmmakers to explain it. But it is worth the effort. Admittedly, our royalty system is quite unique. As a reflection of our model, we ultimately pay our partners better than any other service. That tends to make everyone happy.
BTBO: That’s going to be my next question.
JM: It can take some time to explain to potential partners why our model is more beneficial to them than the other services that are out there. For instance, our royalties are far greater than Netflix’s flat-fee structure on a per-subscriber basis. Much, much more.
In Part 2 we’ll find out how much, much, much more.