AHC 2016 Interview: Emily Best, Founder and CEO, Seed&Spark

on January 19, 2016

By Daniel Loria

A filmmaker, both in practice and at heart, Emily Best developed Seed&Spark after finding current independent production and distribution models out of touch with today's culture and technology. Seed&Spark is a crowdfunding and distribution platform that gives filmmakers the tools they need to take full control of their career. BoxOffice spoke with Best ahead of her closing keynote address at Art House Convergence.

Seed&Spark originated from an independent-film production; can you tell us more about that experience?

I made a movie with some friends in 2011 called Like the Water. This is before women and media hit the zeitgeist; we wanted to make a movie that we felt reflected women we recognized as opposed to the ones we were told we were. We wanted women who had strong friendships and complicated, interesting journeys as opposed to ones who had problems that only a man could solve. My friend Caitlin Fitzgerald was making Newlyweds with Ed Burns at the time; he was one of the first filmmakers to really embrace the digital revolution and released a movie theatrically that he made for $9,000. This was really the ushering in of a totally new era, and that's really when I got into filmmaking. I didn't enter with any of the traditional industry rules and regulations; I came into it knowing the ways things were changing and the opportunities that created. 

Is that where the crowdsourcing component of Seed&Spark comes from?

When we tried to fund this movie about women we recognized, we were constantly told there probably wasn't an audience for the film. Kickstarter and Indiegogo had been around for a little while, but we didn't want to ask for a pile of money. We wanted to get our community involved in a way that would help them understand what it would take to get the movie made and what the journey would look like. I don't know, maybe you don't need to get a group of women in a room for that long to get to the idea of a wedding registry: a list of things and their associated costs. We made a wish list and listed everything we needed: $20,000 in 30 days. We raised $23,000 cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans of locations, goods, and services. We listed bug spray and sunscreen because we were going to shoot in Maine over the summer, and my cousin-who didn't have a ton of money at the time-was working in a sports- supply warehouse in California and shipped us a case of each. He was a legend for it. A local car dealership loaned us a couple of cars for six weeks. A local coffee shop gave us 60 pounds of coffee and kept us caffeinated for our 22-day shoot. It's a way of filmmaking that respects what filmmakers are really trying to do; it captures a community in one way or another, it not only tells us a story. When we finished the film and started taking it around the festival circuit, people who contributed to our campaign would begin bringing friends to our screenings. Even when we were in Poland and Oaxaca, Mexico-places where we didn't know we knew people.

Beyond funding, Seed&Spark can also be seen as a disruptive platform for the current independent-film distribution model.

I was meeting all these gatekeepers: sales agents, financiers, and distributors. They kept telling me there wasn't an audience for the movie. I would keep on going to festivals, however, and we'd see how positively people reacted. Clearly, the gatekeepers seemed incredibly out of touch, but, more critically, they didn't seem to know how to reach a community of interest in a way beyond what they'd been doing for years.

Seed&Spark was born out of our desire to help filmmakers connect with the communities that would support their careers-not just for one film but for their entire career. We also wanted to distribute those films in a responsible way that could also reap financial returns for the filmmakers. A lot of people have said they're there to help filmmakers make money, but very few have meant it. We are a for-filmmaker, by-filmmaker company, and we're aiming to transform the industry into a place where we think we have a sustainable future making films. 

Last year we went on the road to teach this class called Crowdfunding to Build Independence, which is really about using crowdfunding to build a lasting, sustainable, direct relationship with audiences that can be monetized to build distribution for many films-not just one. We're building increasing numbers of features into our product, which allows filmmakers to leverage the data they gather about their audience from crowdfunding to build strategic and sustainable distribution plans. Not every [independent] film can be released theatrically, but the ones that do often aren't doing it based on anything other than their desire to release theatrically. We want every single person that touches a crowdfunding venture to receive a survey asking where they watch films. It would be a very different thing to start building a distribution plan if you had 500 guaranteed audience members who indicate they like to watch content at art-house theaters across three states. Then we can work directly with theater owners in each state. 

Speaking about distribution, can you tell us more about your partnership with Tugg, the communal film-booking platform?

Our partnership really centers around the educational efforts, teaching filmmakers that all the tools are available for them to control every aspect of their careers. Filmmakers will never have to talk to another gatekeeper again to create, generate, and capitalize on the demand for their own films. I fundamentally believe that while there will always be the business of the gatekeepers, if you're not telling the stories they're used to making money on, they're just not going to pick you. That is not going to happen. So you can either try and change the things that matter to you and write, produce, and direct films that look more like the ones they're making, or you can tell your own stories and connect directly with the audiences who are being massively underserved by the Hollywood model. It's a different way of coming to work; you need to take more entrepreneurial control of your career. That's really where Tugg and Seed&Spark have found our greatest overlap-in our desire to give filmmakers all the tools they need to build the sustainable careers they want.

There's a curatorial aspect to film programming, but the root of it all really does come down to what sort of films are being acquired by distributors. How does crowdfunding alter that model?

As we align more around our interests, taste becomes a very tricky way to judge things, because taste is heavily biased. We just saw Project Greenlight, and while Matt Damon is talking about meritocracy, we need to realize that a meritocracy to Matt Damon is stuff that looks like him. He's the success story, and therefore stuff that looks like him has merit. Inside our notions of merit and taste are built deep, entrenched biases: racial, gender, regional. We need to start thinking that part of diversity is getting people outside of New York and Los Angeles. Crowdfunding brings things to the forefront that might not be for me but that have huge audiences that feel they're well represented by these stories. The only kind of gatekeeping there should be is one where the audience says yes or no.

Ultimately taste doesn't sell tickets, demand does. With Seed&Spark you're identifying that demand on a community-by-community basis.

Our hope is that we can seed films directly into the communities that are demanding them. We can identify projects that might not think of themselves as art-house worthy, projects that have strong connections to communities. This is what the Internet promised it could always do, and we're doing it.


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