Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Crowdsourcing Hollywood, Hedge Fund Style!

Hedge fund manager Jack Selby is trying to harness social networking to change the way films are made.

Jack Selby is not what you would call a movie junkie. The hedge fund manager got his start at PayPal, where he was employee number 12. In 2002 he founded Clarium Capital with former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, who was an early investor in Facebook.

Selby got into the movie business last year when he formed Horsethief Pictures with filmmakers Tiller Russell and Duncan Montgomery. (Clarium is not an investor in the company.) Unlike many rich people who get into the movie business to go to premieres and meet stars, Selby got into the biz because he saw a technological hole he thought he could fill. Social networking is changing the way we live--maybe it should change the way we make and market movies, too.

The company's yet to be released first production, The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, staring Scott Speedman and Jason Priestley, was produced with the help of fans on Facebook and YouTube who gave feedback on raw footage that helped shape the final edit. Forbes talked to Selby about social networking, film distribution and the power of fans.

Forbes: Why get involved in the notoriously money-losing business of filmmaking?

Selby: I've done a variety of different investments on a personal level--start-ups--and this is another one of those investments. I'm old friends with [filmmakers and partners] Tiller Russell and Duncan Montgomery from high school. I've also invested in a couple of movies with Thomas Tull of Legendary Pictures. We went to Hamilton College together in upstate New York. He's showing me the industry from his perspective. [Legendary helped finance films like The Dark Knight and The Hangover.]

With Horsethief Pictures, we're trying to bring to bear our expertise from Silicon Valley and importing it to Hollywood's independent film community.

How can Silicon Valley help independent filmmakers?

We're looking at essentially how independent films are marketed. Display advertising is a traditional way to market films. If you're a large studio you go to Yahoo Movies and spend a bunch of money for banner and placement ads. That's difficult to measure in terms of awareness and value capture.

We're working with Flixster instead. They're much more about engagement marketing, which is different from what Yahoo does. Flixster will send out e-mail campaigns catered to their users' preferences. We did that with our first film, The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, and generated 600,000 views of the trailer in four weeks. Thousands of Flixster users have indicated they want to see the film. So there's a social multiplier effect. If you say you want to see the film that gets communicated to your network of friends.
take advantage of social networking?

You can leverage a platform like Flixster as a focus group from very early on in the development process. You have leaks of the script to the fan base and then get their take on casting and even where to film the movie. Maybe for a major production company that doesn't have much allure but for an independent producer it could be quite useful and a great way to connect with fans.

Have you done anything like that?

When we were done with the production of Ransom Pride, we took the directors cut and basically showed snippets on YouTube and got feedback. That was incorporated into the final cut. With this feedback group it was interesting and valuable and will create an end product that's more marketable.

Can you give me an example of something you changed?

The film is cut more in a Tarantino style now. It's cut much more quickly and in a more stylized fashion. Before the flow was much more smooth and traditional but the vibe we got was that it should be cut differently. The end result is incredibly different in terms of the flow of the movie.
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Is there a limit to what fans can bring to the filmmaking process?

What we're trying to do from an independent point of view is interact and give fans the ability to give their feedback as much as possible. We're opening the door to an interactive process that never existed before.

Why is this important in the independent film world?

t lowers the cost of marketing dramatically. Display is expensive and inefficient. In terms of development of projects, it's more collaborative, which will feed into the marketing. If fans feel like they helped create something they'll be more evangelical about promoting the movie.

Is the film set for a theatrical release?

Not yet, but we're in discussions with distributors.

Is it important to have a theatrical release?

I am open to thinking as creatively as possible about how a film is distributed. The traditional sequence works if you have a certain budget, but you can make money without theatrical as long as you have a low enough budget. [Ransom Pride cost under $5 million to make.] If you choose not to go down the theatrical route, you have to leverage every avenue available to you and that's what we're trying to do in terms of marrying the social component with engagement marketing.

We're going to continue developing our own material and promoting it. We're also going to outsource our skills to independent producers and let them use what we've learned.
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