September 4, 2013 – With a goal of developing coherence out of the chaos that is the independent filmmaking business – and making some money in the process – collaborative filmmaking studio JuntoBox Films is on a mission that could have important ramifications for aggregators looking to source quality long-form content.
In the discussion that follows, JuntoBox senior vice president Rachael McLean explains the social networking-based approach the company has taken to building an ecosystem designed to lower the costs and foster development of high-quality movies. The studio, founded by filmmaker Philippe Caland and co-chaired by Caland and actor, producer and director Forest Whitaker, uses a five-step approach based on feedback from its expanding social community of players in the business to select which of thousands of proposed projects will be backed for production, distribution and marketing. So far, the studio has “greenlighted” five projects, including the soon-to-be-released Sacrifice.
McLean, whose background includes an eight-year stint as vice president of international digital media at MTV Networks as well as positions with BSkyB, DirecTV and Sony Music Digital, described how JuntoBox works and its plans for future development in a discussion with ScreenPlays editor Fred Dawson at the recent tvXperience conference in New York. An edited transcript follows.
ScreenPlays – JuntoBox seems to be something really different in the annals of filmmaking – a studio that puts money behind projects based on feedback from a social community. Tells us how it works.
Rachael McLean – JuntoBox is really a cool incubator platform. The objective was to create a place that you could find great stories, find great creative ideas, and allow creators, writers, directors to have an outlet to have their films developed, shot, funded and distributed. We do all of that. We created the platform using gamification technology so people could develop the story line and bring their community, bring their network through this. We ultimately greenlight the film and then produce it.
So far we’ve greenlit five films. The budgets range from $250,000 to $2.5 million – micro independent budgets. We’ve just finished up the first film. These are feature length films that take a while, but we’re really trying to condense the production timeline but keep the quality there. And then ideally make more films with the creators.
SP – When was JuntoBox founded?
McLean – It was founded in 2011. And then we launched last year at South by Southwest. In 2012 when we greenlit our first film.
SP – What inspired Forest Whitaker throw his weight behind this? It sounds so ambitious to talk about creating feature-length films this way, backing projects that in some ways have been crowd-sourced into existence. Is this a passion thing or is this a money thing?
McLean – The idea came from Philippe Caland [Boxing Helena, Ripple Effect, Hollywood Buddha, Vipaka], an independent filmmaker who had made several independent films and had gone through this whole process himself. He really worked for many years trying to figure this out, thinking there’s got to be a way that people can have their films made.
It’s so hard, this independent film process, going through Hollywood, etc. You’ve either got your own money or you know people. So Forest is incredibly supportive of young filmmakers and filmmakers in general.
He actually has his own production company, Significant Productions. They recently came out with a film called Fruitvale Station, which was made by a first-time director from USC, Ryan Coogler. It won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and Weinstein picked it up.
Forest has really seen this passion of young people. You can find a great film and story anywhere. He really helped mentor Ryan. They helped push him to the Sundance Institute program. So there’s definitely passion.
And of course, we have been invested, so there’s definitely money, in terms of revenue and a want to make money. Feature-length filmmaking is a long-tail business.
SP – How does the rating system you use to vet and select projects work? Do you just have people come from all over the place saying they want to make a film, and they go through some kind of vetting and then move to the next level?
McLean – There are five levels. The first level you’re submitting your project. At that level you’re shouting out your project to your social network, and you’ve got a series of followers and ratings, like 20 followers who comment and follow your film. And then you get to Level 2 where you have to put more media imaging up, and then Level 3 you’re putting up your script, and you can actually make it private; it doesn’t have to be public. You’re getting more followers and ratings at that level as well. If you get to Level 4, we actually have film development people looking at the project and looking at the script to vet it through them and see what this film would be like and whether it would be too expensive to make.
SP – So you’ve had five films so far. Did they all come through that process or were these people you knew who were doing projects?
McLean – Not at all. Forest has been pretty clear about that. We wanted to create a true democracy. It’s a longer process that way because you’re really opening it up. You’re not stepping in and trying to direct it a certain way. Clearly, you’re telling people you know and great talent, if you want to submit a script you can. It’s actually been worthwhile for them. When they go to people and say could you fund, could you produce my film, make it with his production company and the answer is no, they can submit their project on JuntoBox. So that way it really helps them, and we don’t step in.
SP – Is the concept to stick with traditional theatrical distribution as the first window? Or are you looking at all outlets?
McLean – You know, coming from the digital world, I have to say feature length definitely limits the options. But there are more opportunities depending on the nature of the film. Certain genres will work better if you go straight to VOD. Some will warrant theatrical release. We really want to do theatrical releases for our first films. But we’re really open to different distribution models.
SP – Has one of these projects reached the distribution stage?
McLean – Yes. One has. It’s called Sacrifice. The writer who wrote the script and submitted it was based in Hollywood a long time, and then moved to Texas and became a professor. For years he had been trying to get a film produced. He actually ended up being the director on this as well. We shot it in Texas. It’s a coming-of-age drama. Most have been dramas, and now we’re looking at different genres like horror, comedy, sci-fi, action.
SP – We see low-budget films bubble to the surface and become big hits, but they’re the exception. What is your feeling about the budget limitations and the role that has on potential success?
McLean – It really depends on who you talk to. You always hear the stories of the hit that was a $10,000 production, but then there was $30 million put into the P&A, the marketing expense. From a production standpoint, the ten thousand, that’s not the complete cost of things in the film, like the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) costs that are quite important to going the traditional film distribution route. So they probably had to pay a lot to make sure they got the right rights and a lot of clearances.
But, yeah, you can make small films for small, small budgets. But those are the harder ones to make. With Forest and Significant Productions, they’re still a traditional film production agency. So everything they do they have to make sure it’s SAG, DGA (Directors Guild of America), WGA (Writers Guild of America). That alone brings up the budget.
SP – Let’s say you have this great new film. How do you go about marketing and getting it into distribution without that 10,000-to-10,000,000 ratio you just mentioned?
McLean – Clearly the first discussions we’re going to have is talking to the distributors and talking to the studios to see if there can be traditional distribution. From there I’m really open to trying things like Tugg, which is something Forester has used – a networking tool that goes out to the community and people decide if they’d like that film in their marketplaces. They’ll compete to have the premier and opening. If we’re doing a theatrical release, we’re really open to finding things like that, and then, clearly, going into more VOD distribution as well.
SP – I imagine getting on the festival circuit is a big part of this as well.
McLean – Absolutely. Festival is all about timing. Our first film we’ll have some discussions and screenings, and then it will depend on whether there’s a festival around that time.
SP – What are you seeing happening out there with creative people, the talent pool, the opportunities in the context of what we have as this incredible bottleneck with movies. Is there a strong surge, kind of same ol’, same ol’ or a diminishing of creative people who are willing to put their time and effort as actors, writers, directors into making feature length films these days?
McLean – Having a company in Los Angeles, the lens is a little different. Clearly, it’s a place where, if you’re making films, there’s a lot of talent. There’s a lot of people with a lot of different skills. It’s a matter of the quality, though. That’s the harder thing.
But when you think of the technology, you can pretty much create your film and ultimately distribute it yourself. If you had a really big social network and a really big personal following of people and built up some sort of cult interest around your product, you could absolutely do a better job of distributing your film than other people.
SP – What about getting actors to participate in those lower budget projects and the chances of getting people who have some level of recognition?
McLean – That’s clearly how it’s done. We actually did get some talent with this one. And this one gets the up-dial budget to get more talent in the film. But then we’ve had some creatives, pretty big names, that have been attached to the project because they’re either friends or they love the idea of being part of a team or a group of people who are starting out as directors or writers. And the motivation can be that they can be a lot more creative in their acting.
SP – There’s a lot more flexibility now. It’s not the old studio system. There are people everywhere who are freelancing. They may be under contract for some big-name thing, but they’re also willing to do smaller things.
McLean – Absolutely. Most of the films you see going to festivals are independently financed.
SP – How does this make any sense when we’re now in the most restricted environment for theatrical releases I’ve ever seen. I live in Boulder, Colo., and I may as well be in Toledo in terms of my film options. It’s unheard of as to how hard it is to crack that bottleneck now.
McLean – When you think of companies that have come to try to open up that space – Prescreen was one that’s really interesting where they offered a lot of marketing around the films, all independent films. People would submit their films and it would be a pay-per-view model. They got a lot of subscribers, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the company.
But there was something there. You have Netflix. We’re getting approached more and more when people hear we’re doing a feature-length film. People are actually looking for longer form content. That’s really just starting, that co-acquisition of content. It used to be shorter form videos, but now you have the devices where you can watch feature length films.
SP – It’s interesting you’re saying that, because it gets back into this idea that you don’t really need theatrical release given you have movies being made available and now original content being created for online distribution. Maybe that compensates somewhat for that theatrical bottleneck. Of course, you can have a much bigger audience if you end up in Netflix than you would if you had a more limited theatrical release.
McLean – That’s right. And if it’s a theatrical release, if you’re funding the marketing, it’s more expensive.
SP – Getting back to JuntoBox, how would you gauge the level of submissions? Have you had a tidal wave of people coming to you with ideas?
McLean – We’ve had over 5,000 projects that have come through with full scripts. We’re very active in social media. But it’s also about it has to be quality. You can open the floodgates and have a ton of stuff to come through, but then you’re just wading through things that you’d never think of maintaining.
SP – Yeah, well even 5,000 scripts is a huge number.
McLean – That’s over a year. We’ve used social media to try to micro-target people, and using that – specifically, Facebook has been really effective – we’ve seen an uptake in project submissions. It’s all about converting people from social media to unique visitors and actually getting projects. So when we do that we see a lot more. When we do press announcements we get a lot of traffic we’ve never seen, a lot of projects coming through.
SP – Let’s say you had an infinite budget, and you could pick however many good ones that you think really merit release. Is that a tiny fraction of what comes in or a surprisingly large share?
McLean – For us right now we have to focus on production. You don’t want to be caught in a backlog. But if we could, we probably would have greenlit a few more films and taken a few more risks. Absolutely.
SP – So there’s a certain level of making hard choices out of all the things you’re looking at.
McLean – Oh yeah.
SP –As you look at where your company is at right now, do you have certain goals that need to be met? Are you thinking we have to see such and such happen to have this experiment really pan out?
McLean – On the platform side, I see a lot things where, if we want to change and integrate, we can because of the technology. On the film side, we’re looking at what’s coming through, and we want to start targeting perhaps younger filmmakers or people that are still in college and working on projects. We’re not sure whether that’s from a brand perspective or whether there are certain things we have to do with the technology.
SP – What are you referring to when you talk about your technology?
McLean – Things like the levels can be frustrating to some people, or they feel they want to have more privacy. Some of the feedback from younger filmmakers is, “I’m starting my career. The last thing I’m going to do is put my film up there.”
We didn’t think that would be the case. We thought it would be more the younger set that would be okay about doing that. And some are, but they’re not coming from the idea that his is how they’re growing a career. For young people who are perhaps more established screenwriters what seems harder for them is getting through the privacy issues. So there are different mindsets on the technology.
SP – As you look at the younger generation of filmmakers and would-be filmmakers, are you looking at work they’ve already done as part of how you judge their projects? Are you looking at what they did in school or maybe where they created some interesting things on very, very low budgets that show some talent?
McLean – Really, all those things. Another thing is how this person might be to work with. When you’re dealing with projects coming through your platform, you don’t know who’s on the other side until you get farther down the line. It’s so important if you’re a director or writer. Leadership is something that comes with that filmmaking process that’s very important.
We look at their creativity, the things they’ve written, what they’ve done in directing short films. You can tell, especially from Nina Yang Bongiovi, who is head of our film division and also heads production at Significant Productions. She and Forest have been doing this for a very long time. They know when they see talent. Ryan Coogler had never directed a film, but they had complete faith and trust in him to get behind them.
SP – That raises a question of when you have someone who might not be a Jack or a Jill of all trades who can act in and direct a film as well as write it, how do you pull people into a project? How does this come together? Once you’ve determined it’s worth your investment, how do you convince others to take part?
McLean – It’s like match making. A lot of people will come out of the context of what we’re trying to do in getting them to help mentor people and get their film made. Especially in the film community, there’s such a passion, they know the hardship of getting that done. So we match people. For example, one guy that submitted a great idea, his script needed work. So we actually brought in an established writer to help develop the script. And the scriptwriter served as a mentor as well.
SP – What about other sides of the film business with regard to aspiring players with talent and a certain independent streak maybe, even special effects people or people who have good technology ideas? Do you find those kinds of people to bring in?
McLean – We’ve actually created a section called Crew Up for each project. You can list the open positions you have. And we have a huge list we can cull from like special effects. That’s the other side we’re building out slowly, to have this huge community of people we can go into when we need to find people to balance out the rest of the crew and cast for a project. We expect to create specific apps that will help us do that.
SP – Do you see other entities moving along this course? I know Big Air Studios is one such company moving in that direction, funding films and trying to be a fairly big player in the process.
McLean – It’s pretty interesting. When we started a few years ago there were a couple of companies. They used to do it, but they’ve totally changed their business models. They’re putting sponsors together with creators.
There are things going on. Amazon Studios launched, but they pivoted more to making TV series. They had a reputation for not being creator friendly. You’d upload your script and they would own it immediately. Even if they didn’t decide to make it, for 18 months your script was locked up. We tried to change things like that. We could never own your script unless we do a deal with you, and then the creator will have a percentage.
Then there’s another group doing the crowd-funding role. That’s Indiegogo, which we’ve actually partnered with to help with funding our projects.
SP – You mentioned Netflix, and, of course, now we’re seeing so many other entities, including Google with YouTube Channels. Even Microsoft has opened a studio. Are you talking to these people? Are you considering the idea of partnering in terms of getting co-producers and co-funders of projects instead of just doing it all yourselves and presenting them with a finished project?
McLean – We’re definitely open, but we haven’t had any of discussion with companies like that in terms of co-producing. With the number of films that we’re continuing to green light – we just did one, and we’re doing another three this year – we definitely will need co-producers at some point.
SP – How do you look at the timeframe for getting to returns on your investments with so many films getting underway before any have a chance to generate revenue?
McLean – It’s a long-term thing. With a feature film there’s no guarantee you’ll recoup your investment. If one in five or one in ten makes it, we’re really happy. And we’re also open to international distribution. That’s a big part of the plan, and perhaps volume distribution if we have more than one project we want to do.
So the dearest thing is producing films and over time building the community where we can see which films that have been green lighted and produced are successful. Is that success based on the community that is coming along with that film? Is it based on things like deals that are coming through?
We want to be able through the technology and this data to start to de-risk from that process and do a much bigger undertaking. That’s always been the goal. And then, with the community we’re building and the film community in general, we will start creating applications and tools that you can use within your own production to cut back on costs, to create efficiencies.
SP – Are you looking at certain genres, certain types of films that begin to build an identify for what you’re doing? We all went through the film noir era, certain things that say, okay, this is something different. It has a certain quality to it that isn’t just a good story.
McLean – Yes, absolutely. You creatively want to do something no one is really doing or shift the taste of what seems to be the most popular genre. We’ll see how that goes with focusing on different genres with unique ideas.
SP – We’ll be very interested see what comes out of what you’re doing, Rachael. Thanks for taking time to share this with us.