The temporary Cinovu office is decorated in old cameras that founder Shermin Voshmgir bought on the corner of Reuterstrasse and Flughafenstrasse, across the street from a non-profit film collective that projects super-8 films from an offline server onto a shabby wall each week. ”We’re building a platform that allows anyone – with or without the best camera, editing software, or financial backing – to upload their films for everyone to see,” Voshmgir and Cinovu’s young Australian community manager Annika Burgess tell me where they’re propped on the windowsill.
These two women (and a team of Castlabs mobile video experts and developers) are out to solve a problem: About 99 percent of films being produced independently don’t get distribution. This doesn’t mean they’re bad or uninteresting. It just means they didn’t make the cut in a traditional film industry with limited resources and well-established biases.
“The likelihood that your film will get selected for Sundance is very unlikely without an insider connection or a previous film,” Voshmgir tells me, “Of the 6,000 films that apply, only 40 make it into the festival. Where do the rest go? We’re bringing them, and others that are falling off into the abyss, a platform. There are audiences for these films.”
“iPhones have democratized the film industry. We’re following up on that.”
For now, filmmakers without distribution are uploading their films online, either on Vimeo, YouTube, or their personal websites. But how do people find them once they’re there? So far, there’s no solution. “What Myspace did for independent bands and musicians, we’re doing for filmmakers. We look to people like SoundCloud who are taking industry judgment out of the game and letting artists decide for themselves,” says Voshmgir. “We identify with that cause.”
Why Vimeo and YouTube aren’t serving the cause
Vimeo requires you know the filmmaker’s name and can search by it. YouTube is the place where you can find everything, from cat videos to tutorials on how to make pasta. It’s not an independent film platform and it never tried to be, but at least it’s a place to discover content. Cinovu is bringing the inclusive attitude of YouTube to a platform designed specifically for filmmakers and film enthusiasts.
On Cinovu, you can search by genre, mood, country, and length. This enables you to find niche tastes, and to explore options recommended to you by friends and peers. ”’I love short films. Random little animations and stuff,” Burgess tells me, ”If you feel like watching a couple of shorts as opposed to a feature, there’s no way to search for that, unless it’s a short film you may have already heard of.
“We believe you should be able to find films that fit your own taste, not just the that of film industry executives.”
So you’re an open-source platform for every indie film that can’t get distribution?
“We don’t think inclusivity is a problem, especially when your personal feed is determined by your friends and those whose taste you share,” Burgess tells me. “If a filmmaker has the initiative to want exposure beyond their friends, colleagues and people who know their name- then we’ll be the space for them. It’s as simple as that. From films that have been in Sundance but haven’t won to the construction worker who decided to make a documentary about workers’ rights— we’re hosting and making it possible for these films to be discovered.“
But what about quality? Aren’t there better films than worse?
“Quality sometimes exists in different aspects, where one film is outstanding in one element and not in the other. There are films that have this incredible story, for instance, but couldn’t reach an amazing cinematographer,” Burggess gives an example. ”We had this one guy who approached us who had been collecting footage in Jamaica, for instance. He’s got a good camera and exclusive access to compelling stories, but no editing crew. Cinovu is a place that would showcase him. A festival would never.”
”There aren’t many people that will fund a documentary that’s not about…Bob Marley,” (Burgess is referring to the half-hour documentary about the Jamaican reggae king which premiered last month at the Berlinale). ”If you’re a documentary maker working on a film about funerals that aren’t funded and need to be paid for by the state, you’re going to struggle getting distribution. But some people will want to watch that, and there should be a way for people to find it easily.” (Editor’s note: the film about the funeral options I ended up watching days later at the aforementioned film collective).
Filmmaking is expensive and filmmakers aren’t necessarily the most business savvy. How are you addressing that?
“As filmmakers ourselves, we’re well aware of the costs needed to make a film independent of funding,” Voshmgir tells me. To make a 35 mm print costs 20,000 euros. To add Swedish subtitles can cost you another 20,000.”
“There’s a good quote,” Burgess tells me, a few nights later, taking out her notebook. ”’To become a millionaire in the film industry, you need to start out a billionare.’ This is more common now, because no one’s making as money as they used to. Smaller cinemas are disappearing, everyone has to go commercial because market’s not as strong. Everyone has to stay safe, because of a deprived economy. Where does that leave the small films that aren’t space?”
On Cinovu, once you sign up, you’re entered into a business model. Filmmakers earn money by the minute. ”This benefits formats like short films, and also keeps the audience happy because they don’t have to pay for what they don’t have time to watch. So often people pay for films that they decide against after 10 minutes, but they’re paying for it, and out of obligation either watch or discard without receiving a refund. We’re changing that.”
Does this mean you could replace distribution one day? Where are you heading?
”Eventually, yes. For now, it’s in the independent spirit. It’s letting filmmaker make something off their films and giving people the options they aren’t reaching. If you look back in the day, films with Paul Newman were good. If you look at what Hollywood’s putting out, it’s desperate. It’s a whole lot of…’Let’s reproduce the Lion King in 3D.'”
“We’re building a database that’s community-curated by taste groups and time lengths. 90% of our films have subtitles, so anyone around the world can watch them.” In the near future, you’ll be able to Google ‘Kasikstani horror animations’ and find Cinovu’s database as your first option. ”We’re working with Castlabs, our pre-seed investors, who are responsible for development. They’re a well-established mobile video experts building up our SEO.”
Gaining traction with an international set, preparing closed beta
The Cinovu team is currently preparing to go into closed beta. Of the 500 pre-registrations, 100 countries were represented. Within the first 2 months of launching, they had 3200 twitter followers. ”One of the best films I’ve seen registered to Cinovu so far is a photojournalist who went to Afghanistan and took these beautiful slow-motion landscape videos,“ says Burgess, ”That’s the type of film that isn’t going to get distribution by virtue of the fact that it defies categories. It’s a little boy flying a kite through some cherry blossoms, shots taken from an airplane…hardly any narrative but really fascinating.”
“What we’re doing is simple. We want to see these videos, and we want to be able to search for them, so we’re putting them on one platform and sharing.”