A conversation with Emily Best about her crowdfunding and independent film distribution platform, Seed&Spark, the current state of the independent film market, how to balance business and artistic expression, and the urgent need for the arts to become more representative of the diversity in our global society.
Emily Best is a film producer and entrepreneur, best known as the co-founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, a Los Angeles based crowdfunding and independent film distribution platform which reimagines the film studio model. Her film production credits include the 2010 film Like the Water. Best was named as one of 2014 “78 women of influence” by the New York Business Journal. She can be followed here: @emilybest.
What is Seed&Spark?
Seed&Spark is a film studio for film and TV with a focus on two core values: diversity of content for audiences and sustainability for artists. The way we do that is we synthesize subscription streaming with the next evolution of crowdfunding to deliver a studio that’s really in the hands of the audience.
Could you elaborate on what that next evolution of crowd funding is?
Sure. Because we only provide crowdfunding for film and film adjacent projects, TV, VR, and long form and serial content, we are able to build in a lot of things that help make crowdfunding more useful in the long run of a filmmaker’s career. They help make crowdfunding a lot more successful from project to project, and they’re really focused on the most important part of crowdfunding, which is the crowd building part of it. Our platform is selective in so far as everyone who applies to launch a project is given comprehensive feedback from our team on what would make that project at that scope successful. There are times, for example, when filmmakers want to raise $100,000 but don’t have a mailing list or much of a social media following, and there are just two people on the team. We will reset those expectations and help them understand how to leverage crowdfunding to build up to that $100,000 raise – perhaps with staged financing or with a longer term audience building strategy before launching a campaign – with the core goal of being really successful not just in the raise but also in gathering an audience that will watch the thing.
The way our streaming platform works is that it’s a single monthly subscription where the audience gets unlimited access to stream all the new movies and shows on the platform and they get to allocate half their monthly fee to a new crowdfunding project of their choice. That means we have what we call a Seed Fund – a recurring monthly fund from our subscribers that we’re allocating to crowdfunding projects on our platform each month. As the subscriber base grows, so does the Seed Fund.
That must create a much more engaged audience.
Yes. We like to say “you can find what you want to watch now and fund what you want to watch next”.
How does distribution work?
We have output deals with every cable, VOD and digital distributor out there. We also have sold movies and shows to Showtime and Fullscreen. If you have Time Warner, Comcast, or Verizon you can find our films there. You can also find them on iTunes, Hulu, Amazon, Google Play, among others.
Do the filmmakers get a piece of the backend?
Yes. It’s a 90/10 split. Whatever comes through, they get 90% and we get 10%. On our streaming platform it works differently but there aren’t myriad of middlemen in between. It’s free to deliver to our streaming platform and we split the revenue 60/40. Filmmakers who stream with us also get real time data about their audiences, which you can’t get from any of the other platforms. We build tools so that every step of the filmmaking process can help grow an independent, sustainable career. Getting real time data about who your audience is, how and where they’re watching really matters.
Is there a project that was funded through Seed&Spark that you were most excited about?
Gosh that’s unfair. There are so many. For narrative films, there was a breakout from Sundance this past year called First Girl I Loved that is a beautiful touching coming of age story about a young girl falling in love with another girl for the first time. In documentaries, one that we took particular pride in was I Am Thalente about a young South African man who grew up on the streets and skateboarding saved him. He was noticed by some of the biggest skateboarders in the US and brought out to LA. That’s his coming of age story as well. It’s really spectacular. There are so many series that are exciting to me. The Benefits of Gusbandry, which is about a woman and her “gay husband.” It’s a really clever and exceptionally high production value. Alicia Rose is one of those creators that should be an example to everyone in the pride she takes in not just making but also marketing her work and developing a relationship with her audience. Money & Violence is a show that was started by a group of friends in Brooklyn who felt like their story was being erased from Brooklyn and wanted to make a show about the struggles between morality and survival. Their first season was produced entirely on their own and basically taught themselves how to make films. They had over 30 million views and they raised close to $100,000 for season two which was picked up by Lionsgate. They’re now talking about doing season three for premier television. Those are just a few.
Are you able to share any stats about the platform?
Over $6 million have been raised for over 400 movies and shows, and film adjacent projects. We have the highest campaign success rate of any platform in the world, that’s 75% of our campaigns reach the green light or better. The project size is also higher than the closest competitors, with an average size of $15,000-$17,000. Our audience aggregated per project is 3:1, meaning three people who sign up to follow for every one person who actually makes a contribution. The reason that this is important is that those other two people are excited to follow your progress and are very likely audiences even if they haven’t contributed monetarily to your project. They have identified themselves as people who, in the end, will watch what you’re making. The thing we’re really proud of is that from those audiences we gather essential and actionable data on where else they like to watch stuff, what other kinds of content they like, what platforms and devices they watch on. For example, if I am a filmmaker and I’m trying to decide what to shoot on, and 80% of my audience says they watch on a device that’s a television or smaller, I don’t have to shoot on 5k raw and spend a ton of money on data storage. I can make more effective monetary decisions. If I happen to know that this 70% of the audience that I’ve gathered for my feature film like series, and I have this other series I’m thinking of developing next, now I have actionable audience data to encourage me to head into a certain direction. Certainly understanding what other platforms they watch on helps filmmakers make very actionable distribution decisions.
How do you see the next few years playing out for independent film, especially with Netflix and Amazon’s entry into the space.
Well firstly, I don’t think that it’s true that even with the high dollar that is being spent that Netflix and Amazon are buying a lot of independent movies. They are buying a few banner pieces of content, they’re inflating the prices, they’re making it impossible for the creators to recoup, and then they’re also focusing on their original content which is what they really care about. Netflix is dumping the pieces of the independent market, the licensing and acquisitions, we used to count on, in favor of original content. They’re spending $6 billion on original content next year. So it’s cool on the one hand because if you can get a deal from Netflix that’s great for you. On the other hand, those intrepid companies are using the same old models of having an agent pitch unless you know somebody. We’re really interested in flipping that on it’s head and saying ‘forget the agents and distributors, if you can establish that there is an audience that wants to see this, that puts you at the head of the line.’ That is what ultimately our model does. What I think is important about what we can do in aggregate is as the audiences grow, for each individual project, we’re growing them on the platform as a collective audience and being able to grow our streaming subscription capacity allows us to deliver money directly back into the pockets of the filmmakers without them ever having to give up their IP. Because with any of these original content deals, you’re signing away all your rights forever. Fundamentally that can be really challenging. I know a large number of filmmakers that wrote great scripts and sold them, and whose films got shelved and will never ever get made. And that is not the reason most people are doing this.
How do you balance the artistic expression and the business decision of the studios?
The first thing is that the world is different now than it was even five years ago, and it’s only changing quicker with cellphones, the ability of people to access and be overwhelmed by content choices than ever before. I can watch a short film or a cat video, which is very delightful. It’s a lot easier for me to watch that than a short film. So we’re in a moment where there is a premium on curation, and the way that filmmakers have been taught to do business up until now – to go and make something great and hope someone buys it from you – and if they don’t you’re out of luck. We can’t continue to work that way anymore. The economics are broken because if you’re letting someone else decide which project gets made, they can also decide the economics of the deal. That is why fewer than 2% of independent projects make their money back. And so what we’re really interested in is helping filmmakers come to work in a different way that is much more sustainable for them as creative entrepreneurs. Certainly the filmmakers we work with are very willing and excited to tackle new skills in audience building if it means they get to make the stuff they really want to make on their terms and reap the rewards of it. It’s hard, but not any harder than making the film itself. What we need in the industry is a sea change in how filmmakers approach their own work, and that’s why we’ve invested a lot in education to help them do. I think it’s a lot more empowering to have things you can do as opposed to having people to ask for stuff.
Its seems this shifts a lot of power to the filmmaker if they can prove they have an audience.
Yes. If you have built an audience that is eager to see your work and you have the direct connection to that audience, when you go in to negotiate a deal, you have leverage. Filmmakers normally never have leverage, and its even more rare if you’re not male, in your 30s -40s, and probably white. Even then, its only specific men like that. It’s not that this is a qualification to get through the door, it’s just that those criteria represent most of them. So I think it’s really important for filmmakers to understand that this is also about not being subject to the implicit bias in the system which is of course what is producing content that still totally lacks representation. We can wave the flag for all the great inclusive projects that are happening and we need about a thousand more of them until we even get close to actual inclusion.
I understand you’re quite active in advocating for women filmmakers. Is there a unique contribution that they bring to filmmaking?
My first thought would be that we don’t owe anybody a unique contribution. We should get to contribute because we exist. I don’t believe that women need to justify why they should have parity in filmmaking because what goes on screen is very influential in how we as a society collectively imagine ourselves. How many non-sexy-costumed women superhero’s have you seen? I went to watch the modern Ghostbusters, and I loved the old movies and never considered what it meant for them to be all men, but as I watched Kate McKinnon busting ghosts with tools that her character had built I wept because I realized that I had never seen a woman in that capacity in a film before. She was not being sold for her sex, it was just bravery and bad-assery. How can I be 36 years old and this is the first time I’ve been exposed to that? The ‘unique’ contribution is parity. The frame of the female gaze is fundamentally different from the last hundred years of cinema, which has been almost entirely framed by the male gaze, and mostly the white male gaze. Everything would be different about it because it hasn’t come to the forefront yet. It’s also true for the black male gaze, the black female gaze, and the Asian female gaze, etc. Those are different frames through which we can see the world. That’s what the empathy generating capacity of film is doing – letting us look through someone else’s lens. The fact is that there hasn’t been parity and we’ve all been forced through the same kind of lens for the past hundred years. It’s incredibly limiting for our ability to see the world in all its color. There couldn’t be anything more important than getting as close to parity as quickly as possible because it has profound societal implications. For my part, I run a group called Women in Moving Pictures. It’s a salon that meets as often as I can get them together. The mailing list is now over 1,600 women all across the country who use the list to hire one another, make projects together, promote one another’s work, and ask advice and grapple with the difficult questions that we’re facing. I’ve seen that list change the number of women getting hired into positions. I’ve seen lots of projects get made because of women meeting and inspiring one another. I’ve also see women be empowered to say that they’re not going to work with this person who has been in a position of power because of plenty of people on the list have revealed they have had a bad experience and they won’t do business with them. It’s allowing us to dictate some of the terms of our own work rather than be at the mercy of a system that has been terribly biased up until now.
What role do the arts have in society?
Surely in the United States, watching moving pictures is our hobby. There is nothing that we do more outside of work than watch moving pictures. So it’s more than just entertainment because it is going into our brains at an alarming rate per day. It has always helped shape our imagination of ourselves and the future. The whole point of this kind of art is that it shines a light on the world. If you’re only able to get to see the inside of one kind of person, then their story becomes the universal story. Making stuff for women is still considered niche even though there are more of us in the country then men. We are all supposed to accept that the white male hero story is the story that’s all of our story, and that everybody else in that hero role is a niche. I was really struck how one of my team members, who is himself a writer and director, went to see the movie Brooklyn – that Irish/American immigrant story. He thought about what if he were to write that same movie for his Dad who came from Mexico and he realized he could never get it financed because that is considered such a niche story even though its just as much an American immigration story as any other. If it’s not a white person view of things, we don’t consider it universal. And what does that actually say about our industry that we have declared and decided it’s ok that white people don’t want to watch anyone else when everyone else has had to watch the white male experience.
Do you feel that those boundaries of what is considered normal are expanding?
I certainly think there are major strides being made. If we continue to go at this rate, its well over a hundred years before we reach wage and gender parity in the film business. I don’t think that’s fast enough. I happen to believe in the tipping point and we must be approaching it in some respects. If you look at the gains in women behind the camera in television or studios in the last six years, you might not feel very optimistic about how quickly it’s happening because the numbers are pretty flat. It’s still a big challenge and there are so many entrenched interests and structures with how things are because at least from a studio perspective, those are risk mitigation mechanisms. They are not artistic institutions. They are more similar to insurance companies than production companies (with a few exceptions of course). And that makes it difficult to change things.
What do you think would cause that tipping point?
In the film business, it just follows the money. Without a major disruption to the business model that is profitable, which is really what we’re working on at Seed&Spark, I think that tipping point will be very difficult to find. It also requires the filmmakers deciding they will not be ignored, and do whatever it takes to rise above. That is the encouragement I get from the Women in Moving Pictures group. You probably can’t find a group that has been actively discouraged more than women really trying to make it in film and TV. These women are unstoppable. They’re making stuff each day, hiring each other, and they’re basically saying we don’t care how long this takes. This is something we are going to do. I do think the intrepid theory of the artist taking up new technologies is going to play a role in this. But it has to follow the money unfortunately.