by JC Gonzo
Since its premiere at Austin’s 2011 SXSW conference, online streaming host Fandor quickly became one of the web’s top resources for instant access to left-of-mainstream cinema. Covering shorts, independent films, the film fest circuit, cult hits, classics, and international films, Fandor offers an expansive library that varies in era, genre, and country of origin. Fandor operates with a discerning eye for content and seeks to assist the individual’s intellectual experience.
We spoke to Fandor CEO Dan Aronson about their latest project, Journey Into Film, a thematically concentrated and curated series which provides the viewer behind-the-scenes perspectives from renowned critics and expert staff while streaming. Some of the tantalizing theme headers include “The Descent Into Madness” and “Fantastic Flights,” and the selected works within each topic cover a broad scope of styles and approaches. The project furthers their interest in guided exploration and educational context to showcase the value of their content.
What sets Fandor apart from other online movie sources like MUBI or even more mainstream outlets like Hulu and Netflix?
Aronson: The primary focus of Fandor is both access to the content and good curation and discovery around content. In some ways, the problems we’re trying to solve where like when 15 years ago, you went to the video store and you wandered up and down the isles for 30 minutes and couldn’t find what you wanted because of too many choices so you end up with something you’ve seen before. So, we combine access to our entire catalogue with a focus on independent and international film.
It’s interesting how the online alternative to obtaining and watching film has really opened up opportunities to viewers to get to see things they otherwise would never come across.
Aronson: Absolutely, and giving quality content. For instance, this year at Sundance, there were about 12 thousand film submissions. A lot of them aren’t great, but there’s about two thousand or so that get looked at seriously, and there’s heck a lot more than 120 films that are quality. We very much believe that streaming is the way to get movies out. The challenge is that there is so many choices out there. If you want to have a delightful experience, you don’t want to spend your time looking and doing all the curation yourself. And, while you can, part of the idea of Fandor is to provide curatorial guidance to help you out.
Seems like your series Journey Into Film is another step in that direction. From what I understand, Journey Into Film offers insight from critics, theorists and Fandor staff while the film is streaming online through interactive graphics and such.
Aronson: One of the things that we noticed is that if people want a delightful initial experience with Fandor, then one could try lots of films they haven’t seen. Part of what Journey is all about is making sure people have some sort of contextual experience that they can feel comfortable with. Not only are we curating in terms of what we’re allowing on the site, but furthermore, we’re curating to make sure you can find interesting things via thematic discovery and more. Journey is really there to give contextualization around the series of films that may lead your further into our library.
How did you go about curating the Journey into Film series?
Aronson: A lot of Fandor’s staff is from the film world and are filmmakers, so part of it is that we have deep knowledge of the content that is on the site. Journey was a fairly collaborative process with the staff, which we’re going to do more of. We’re also bringing in guest curators. On top of that, part of the program’s long-term goal is we’re going to allow any member of Fandor to curate their own series. We need to figure out what the mechanics of that are, but the idea is that you could tell your friends “hey, here’s my curatorial page” and that hopefully that would get them interested. Fundamentally, by exciting people we get them to tell others about it.
Where did you get the idea to offer something like this to your audience?
Aronson: Jonathan Marlow, who co-founded the company with me, is a veteran of both running cinematiques (he ran some in San Francisco), also ran Green Cine, an early Netflix competitor doing distribution of indie and international DVDs. While he was there, something they figured out was that a magazine helped their audience discover things by giving a context on film. We combined some of the ideas and concepts that we had.
[Fandor also hosts the online film magazine, Keyframe.]
How would you like to see Journey into Film evolve? How would you like to see the future of Fandor and independent cinema access grow?
Aronson: One of the other differentiators between us and some of the other distributors is that we have a really good revenue-sharing model. We want to make sure that as we grow, the filmmakers we partner with join in that boat. We don’t want to say “we think this film is going to be worth this, give it to us” and as we draw and then say, “well thanks a lot.” We don’t think that’s interesting at all. Part of the test is proving how to get more people to support this model. A lot of people have been coming to us because of this model. Growth includes even more platforms. We really do want to and need to be available to anyone who wants us to watch us. We want to be as universal as we can, not just to the US. Part of the challenge of that is film rights, of course.
The future is big and bright. It’s not easy but that’s why it hasn’t been done before. What’s really exciting is that the film production community is on the cusp of a new age in distributing film. People are realizing that no, unfortunately you’re not going to be able to get everything you want on Netflix. I’m hearing people say more and more “Hey, I really like these kinds of films and these other kind, I’ll subscribe to Fandor as well.” It’s a really exciting time for the growth and transition of the market.
[Fandor pays a portion of their total user subscription revenue to the filmmakers and distributors.]
Will Fandor one day host experimental work and video art?
Aronson: As a small company, we are totally focused on serving the market we are going after today. Certainly over time the company will grow, it’s pretty hard for me at this point in saying specifically if we will go in that direction or not at this time.
Tell me about your personal relationship with film and how that got you here. What are a couple of your favorites?
Aronson: I’m actually primarily a tehcnologist. I’ve been involved in a bunch of internet startups including the first anti-spam company and the first internet search engine, and I’m also an incredible film fan. What was clear to me as you know is that there is this great market failure of great movies being produced that more and more people want to see over the blockbuster fair. The internet has been really wonderful for finding market failures and fixing them, so I basically saw those two interests and passions of mine come together.
Also, I have a couple of kids, so the truth is I don’t get out to film festivals anymore. I saw this as an opportunity to solve that problem for people like me. So, talking about my favorite film is really hard. It’s like choosing the favorite of your kids. I can try but what I’d rather say than specifics is that every week I’m seeing delightful films that I’m really excited about. It’s wide-ranging.