- Posted by iWe
- On March 16, 2016
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1-on-1 with Seed&Spark (Emily Best)
Interviewed by Sienna Beckman
What can you tell us about Seed&Spark?
EB: Seed&Spark is a crowd-sourced film studio. We leverage the audience building power of crowd-funding for strategic distribution. We have currently the highest funding success rate in the world, site-wide. Over 75% of our projects are successfully funded. It is also a pipeline of distribution to literally hundreds of millions of audiences – across cable, VOD, and all the online retailers. We just started a theatrical division called Bright Ideas Pictures. We also publish a semi-annual print magazine called Bright Ideas. It’s distributed at all the top North American news outlets. We’re busy I guess!
Seed & Spark started because I, well honestly, I guess it started because I had a feminist epiphany when I was 28 or 29. I was doing a site-specific production of Hedda Gabler in New York City with an incredibly group of women. I had co-produced this run. And these women were the kind of women I had always envisioned would be my friends. They were brilliant, they were funny, they were talented, they were brilliant collaborators and creators, in all different respects. My friend Caitlin, who had done some big movies, like Nancy Meyers movies, It’s Complicated, she had done a bunch of big movies and TV, and she was going out on auditions all the time for the next big “Independent” film. And Caitlin looks like Audrey Hepburn, if Audrey Hepburn were a six-foot blond. But that’s the least interesting thing about her. She’s smart and incredibly well-read and insanely funny, and the parts that she was being offered were SO INSULTING.
And so she’d show up and she’d be like “Read this!” And I’d be like “No, really? You have to be Chronic Masturbator, that’s the part they’re offering you? Do you have any other qualities?” And she’s like “No, just that one.”
So we started talking about when was the last time cinema was really feminist and one of the women in our crew is a real fan of the French New Wave. And we got to talking about adapting a French New Wave movie to the stage in something nobody would have come to see. And I was starting to get disenchanted with the reach of theater in New York. Caitlin was at that time making a movie with a filmmaker named Ed Burns, who was really one of the first major independent filmmakers to adopt the digital cinema technology. He was shooting a feature for $9,000 with a 5D and a sound guy and that was it. That was his entire crew. He hired his friends, who all happened to be famous actors, to be in the movie, made a wonderful feature and released it theatrically to great critical acclaim.
That was the person I learned about independent filmmaking from. So I didn’t come into indie filmmaking with these pre-conceived notions about the way the system is supposed to work. That was a beautiful, blissful ignorance to begin with. But then Caitlin and Carolyn Von Cune, who co-wrote the script, wrote a contemplative drama set in Maine in the summer. (The first draft of the script had everything shot at golden hour.) And all of a sudden I was producing a feature that wouldn’t be able to be made for less than $120 or $150k. That was a really different scale.
The first inklings of Seed&Spark were when we had a $20k budget shortfall before we could go up to Maine and shoot this film, and we needed to raise it really fast. We had like 30 days. And kickstarter and Indiegogo had only been around a very short while, so our broke filmmaker friends had heard of it and our friend’s parents had not. And we thought well, what really resonates with people, what does everybody know that is a crowdfunding tool. And you don’t have to get a group of women in a room for very long to settle on a wedding registry. So we built a wedding registry for our film. And we put everything on it – the camera, the car rentals, the bug spray, the sunscreen, the costumes, the makeup, the props, the coffee. We sent that list to everyone we know with a Paypal link on our little wordpress website, and a really interesting thing happened. We raised $23k in cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and gifts of locations and goods and services.
So that was interesting point number 1. All of a sudden we looked like a very expensive film because of some of the locations we were offered.
Revelation number 2 was when we finished the film and we started taking on the festival circuit. I was simultaneously going out on the festival circuit with the film and having conversations with sales agents and distributors. And the sales agents would say things to me like “If you could put some more lesbian erotica in this film, I might know how to sell it. Otherwise I don’t think there’s an audience for this movie.” And I was like “more lesbian erotica than what? Than zero? Interesting.” And then I would go to a film festival where a 60 year old woman and say “Thank you, I’ve been waiting for a film like this my whole life.” And then she would come back to the next two screenings, bringing more and more friends each time. And when we showed the movie anywhere in the world, I think we did 15 some-odd festivals, somebody who contributed to our project, or someone who knew someone, showed up and brought their friends. Because they felt a specific kind of ownership over the project, having known what they contributed.
So that was the beginning.
But in thinking about how to build a really interesting audience-building tool for filmmakers with a new crowdfunding platform, I wanted to learn more about the pain points that filmmakers were experiencing that were not just my own. So I went to Sundance in 2012 and took a wire frame of this thing that was at the time, very sexily called the Independent Media Wish List. And I asked all the filmmakers who had crowdfunded their films, what do you need, what more do you need and what else hurts? And every single one of them across the board said distribution.
So what really is the point of building a big luscious relationship with your audience if you don’t have access to distribution. Now, in 2016 there is a lot greater access to distribution. In fact, you might argue that there are too many outlets and it gets very confusing, so without a concerted strategy, you can’t really take advantage of the access to the marketplace. So we built a really broad access to the marketplace, but also a crowd-funding product that helps filmmakers gather the data they need to build smart strategies to take advantage of that.
And now what we’re really focused on is education, making sure filmmakers understand how to leverage their crowd-funding campaigns to build a lasting, direct and sustainable relationship with their audiences, and then making sure they understand and are equally educated on how to market their films once they’re ready to go to the marketplace.
What do you think that women in the industry, working women in general, can do to help themselves? And what do see women sometimes do that hurt themselves, that they can be aware of?
EB: That’s an interesting, nuanced question. I have had the conversation with several women recently, who are very advanced in their careers who have made excellent films with great critical acclaim or directed a lot of TV, and still feel incredibly left out and thwarted by the system. And we’ve been talking a lot about how many mores years we’re going to have to see the same statistics roll by with no progress being made in TV episodes directed by women, studio films directed by women.
I have a particular political view about this that I understand that not everyone shares, but this is how I feel. We cannot insist that we should get to do things the way we have always done them and expect the system to change for us. The system was literally built for us not to succeed. And not just us. Definitely women, definitely people of color, and honestly most white dudes too. It’s actually built for a very select few white dudes to succeed. So that in and of itself is complicated. I profoundly believe that we have to work together to build a flourishing economic eco-system outside of Hollywood, because what really changes the game? Audiences. And audiences bring money. So I view Seed & Spark as a movement where creators who really want ot come to work in a different way, using all of the tools and technology that are now available to them that were never available before, can come and build a flourishing eco-system outside of Hollywood, where we don’t have to worry about their statistics, because they don’t apply to us.
I think if you want to operate inside a culture of scarcity, which is what Hollywood has created, you have to be ready for what that means. The fact is, as you get up the ladder, it gets narrower for everyone, but especially for women and people of color. Ditto for sexual orientation and frankly diverse perspectives, full stop. Not a coastal perspective. I think if you’re operating inside a system that is functionally built so that you can’t win the game, you can either decide that you’re willing to play the games by their rules – in which case there’s a level of competitiveness that’s required of you, there’s a level of scarce resources that you’re required to compete for. If you want to make $100 million dollar movie next year, maybe that’s the path that you have to take. But I think it’ll be 30-75 years before we see any kind of parity in Hollywood or television. But do I think we can do it in under 10 years with Seed & Spark, and allow people to make big budget movies that connect directly with audiences, absolutely I do.
I just think it means you have to come to work differently. I think the short answer there is you can’t keep doing things the same way expecting a different result.
And do you see things that women do that stunt themselves?
EB: We’re too hard on ourselves. We’re operating inside systems that are stacked against us, and yet we’re constantly assessing “What did I do wrong?” And sometimes it’s like I didn’t do anything wrong except try to play a game that is built for me to lose. My attitude is that technology has made a universe in which we can actually do things our own way. It might mean we have to get expert at shit we don’t know or don’t like. I mean look I’m a CEO of a company I’d say 70% of my job is a shit sandwich. Doing stuff that’s not particularly interesting or necessarily inside my expertise. And 30% of it is the most creative, inspiring excellent work. And I work with my most favorite people I’ve ever met and I get to do that every day.
That’s what it is to get to do things your way. It doesn’t mean that everything you do is awesome. I feel like women often turn that into “Well, I must be doing something wrong.” Like women who don’t enjoy every moment of parenting and there’s a ton of shame around that. No, kids can be shit faces sometimes. That’s ok. So I think that the relative level of forgiveness of ourselves has to go up.
Gender imbalance has been an issue for decades and it’s been a talking point for decades and we still haven’t seen very much change. Do you actually feel like there is change in the air?
EB: Oh yeah. I accidentally started something called the Women in Moving Pictures Salon. And it started with me inviting 13 friends over who I wanted to have work together – cinematographers, producers, directors… 26 women showed up and decided we should do this every month. We’ve done it about 20 times in the last 24 or 25 months. And the list of women has grown to over 850 and the list is used primarily for women to hire women.
So what I’m seeing is between 5 and 20 entertainment jobs per week going to women. Now I have to believe that in this year alone, we will have substantially moved the needle. But again, we’re not necessarily talking about studio jobs. So we may not get counted in the statistics, but those are women who are building their resumes, making really cool work, promoting one anothers work, getting each other’s work into film festivals, getting each other’s work in front of distributors. And not waiting for permission from anyone. So I think that’s the big shift right now. Statistics would tell you that we should give up. And what I see is women profoundly not giving up. In fact, kid of raging against this notion that we can’t do it because there isn’t opportunity. They’re like fine, we’ll just make our own.
The other cool part is that I’m getting contacted by women literally around the world who are interested in starting similar salons. I spoke to a woman this morning in South Africa, who is saying we want to do a version of this but industry agnostic. Just to get women together to help each other and create a culture of abundance, which I love. It’s a wisdom of the crowds thought network.
Where can people find you?
EB: Seedandspark.com. I do have a profile there. @Emilybest on Twitter. @Ebestinthewest on Instagram, but that’s mostly just picture of my dog, you should know that. @SeedandSpark, @BrightIdeasLab. If you want to follow the experiments of our magazine or our theatrical brand. And there’s a lot of cool original content there as well. Just like 9 handles, no big deal.