No Moviemaker or Medium Is Out-of-Bounds for Upstart

Blowtorch Combines Professional Content Creation With Online Community

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LOS ANGELES -- Upstart Blowtorch Entertainment last week secured more than $50 million in initial funding from venture-capital firm Ignition Partners to create a hybrid media company -- one that combines an online social community with professional-grade content creation for delivery online, in theaters, to mobile devices and through live events.

Kelly Rodriques, its CEO and co-founder, helped start the interactive-marketing group at Ogilvy & Mather at the very dawn of the web,
Blowtorch's first film, 'You Are Here,' will make its debut in theaters in spring 2008.
Blowtorch's first film, 'You Are Here,' will make its debut in theaters in spring 2008.
and says that from the get-go, it's been designed to work in concert with advertisers.

"For probably longer than we've been talking to [film] exhibitors, we've been talking to marketers who want to be able to connect to a 18-to-24 audience across a broad array of media."

The question: Is it a recipe for success or too many cooks in the kitchen?

Well, for starters, if your idea of sound business is turning over $50 million to a bunch of teens with webcams, Mr. Rodriques has a short speech for you. It goes like this: "No."

Leaving it to the pros
Instead, for the next three years, much of that sizable chunk of VC cash will be deployed in old-fashioned moviemaking, left safely in the hands of Hollywood professionals.

Paul Schiff, producer of movies such as "Rushmore," "My Cousin Vinny" and "Young Guns," is a board member and adviser, and his next movie will be Blowtorch's first: "You Are Here" will make its debut in theaters in spring 2008, directed by Henry Pincus and featuring an ensemble cast including Bijou Phillips ("Almost Famous") and Danny Masterson ("That '70s Show").

As to Blowtorch's social network of up-and-coming wannabe directors? Mr. Rodriques says he thinks of it not only as a low-cost proving ground for future feature directors without the high cost of development deals but also as a way for rival content distributors and media buyers to gain all-points access to a group of Gen Y-ers.

Said Mr. Rodriques: "We're not so bold that we could take a pile of money and come up with the world's greatest content for young adults on our own. We're also willing to distribute other people's movies."

Bucking tradition
And that's where Blowtorch is truly interesting: Traditionally, in order to be taken seriously by exhibitors, film distributors need to have tons of desirable product or they risk being pushed around by theater chains that will refuse to offer a substantial number of screens or a fair share of the profits.

The reason this doesn't happen to Hollywood studios is because they're able to say, "If you don't treat my little movie the right way, then there'll be no 'Harry Potter' for you."

Where Blowtorch is different is not in the large number of movies it has to offer but the small number of screens it's asking for in order to be profitable.

In short, Blowtorch is taking a media buyer's approach to movie distribution and hoping to game the system. Its plan is to heavy up on movie theaters with disproportionately large collegiate audiences -- the very same audience it hopes to engage on its social network.

The media-buyer model
That Blowtorch is using a media-buyer-as-movie-maker strategy should come as no surprise, given that Renetta McCann, the worldwide CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group, is a member of its board of directors. Still, this has never really been attempted before and bears watching.

"Filmmakers want to be everywhere, all over," Mr. Rodriques said, "but 80% of a film's gross can come from 50% of the screens. We're trying to look at how movies perform and have found that they perform tremendously on a subset of screens."

He quickly added, "In deciding whether to be a distribution company or a technology company, we decided you have to be both."
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