An interview with the founders of Big Couch, a platform for crewfunding in the film industry
Crewfunding allows the film crew to invest in the film projects they work on. So the crew dedicates their time and skills and therefore are transformed into investors. The two co-founders of Big Couch Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala took some time at Berlinale 2017 to talk about their project and their vision for the film industry.
Irina and Maria, how did you get to know each other and how did you become Big Couch?
Maria Tanjala: I guess we have started in 2014. We are two good friends that have decided to start Big Couch together. I come from a production background. I was a producer in feature documentaries and fiction. I’ve done a lot of projects as a production manager and producer and I was just seeing difficulties in the whole preproduction and production stage. Maybe less in commercials, but it was quite a pain within the independent film sector. I have spoken to my old time friend Irina. She comes more from a tech-background, did London School of Economics and she had several startups in the past. She told me about a governmental grant, that would support us for one year to grow our business in the UK.
Irina Albita: I was just coming out of a different startup in a very different industry and was just looking to go and develop a new business. The UK government at that time had a really interesting initiative. They wanted to support foreign entrepreneurs to start businesses in the UK. Both of us originally are from Romania. It was a one-year program and we got not only a grant, but also office space. That was an invaluable support for us, just because the both of us, were able to quit all the other side projects. And go straight into a really intense research and development period for BigCouch.
We started with some assumptions of what we thought the problems in the film industy are. And the six months of intense research, going out there speaking with filmmakers, speaking with crews, with producers, really shed light on actually grievous problems.
Crewfunding and the benefits of Big Couch
What is Big Couch about and which problems are you solving?
Maria Tanjala: Statistics show, that 60 percent in the TV-space and about 80 percent in the film-space of the recruitment is done on word of mouth. So people only employ their own immediate network of professionals. They always go back to the same crews that they have worked with in the past. And that makes it a very opaque process. So people who just moved to the UK can’t get jobs.
Even people within the country, if you move from Glasgow to London it’s a completely new world and you have to start from scratch. And at the same time for producers, if the camera operator who you normally use is not available, it’s a master freak out and you start to frantically make phone calls and beg other people to recommend you someone. So we are working with legal organizations, who want to open up the job market. We want to make it easier for producers, to find crews.
“…if you move from Glasgow to London it’s a completely new world and you have to start from scratch. And at the same time for producers, if the camera operator who you normally use is not available, it’s a master freak out and you start to frantically make phone calls and beg other people to recommend you someone.”
Secondly, the resources are diminishing and the production costs are rising. As we were discussing earlier, I think everywhere in Europe, also in Germany, it’s the same problem. More and more producers are expected to work on shoestring budgets. So less medium budget films are being made than of ever before. There is just a very limited number of two, three, four, five million euro films. And that’s why basically the rates can no longer be the same as they used to be. Therefore it comes to a big conflict within the unions. Of course, the crew unions push for higher rates, where the producer’s unions are pushing for affordable budgets.
The third problem is a trust issue, and I guess it’s the same with every industry. Especially when you work with someone new and especially when you have to trust them to professionally deliver. Also, there is a special thing going on in the film industry, because the people you work with become your family. So you spend weeks on set, of twelve hours a day, so it better be someone nice next to you. Or at least someone who won’t give you a headache, since the pressure on the producers is so high.
I guess the reason why they go for word of mouth, is because they don’t want to take risks. And at the same time for crews, they’re just worried if they get paid at the end of this job? Or is someone trying to screw me over? With these three issues in mind; diminishing resources, the recruitment and trust, we have set up Big Couch to tackle the three.
We have invented something, that, at the moment, seems to be a market first: Crewfunding. Yeah, there are a few similarities with crowdfunding, but they specifically refer to crews. And the model is quite different because we allow the crews to invest in the projects they work on with their time. What that means, is that they take lower upfront rates. Instead of 400 GBP a day for example, they take 200 GBP and the rest of the money, they invest in the film against profit shares and deferred payment.
Money starts to come from the revenues of the film, and that means that producers can optimize their upfront costs. But then, we negotiate a very good position in the revenue distribution for crews who are kind of alongside investors. We put all sorts of clauses in the contract to make sure producers or financiers can’t just avoid paying the crews.
It’s important to have a very clear and safe system for everyone and at the end of the day, everyone is happy because there is a much more collaborative environment. All of the sudden the finance doesn’t only come from the top from a few wary places. Actually, you can allow people around you to contribute and all of the sudden you have twenty, thirty ambassadors, the crews, who work on your film. Who go and talk about the film to their friends, and their friends talk to their friends. It is not just a job, they literally become investors in the project.
“It’s important to have a very clear and safe system for everyone and at the end of the day, everyone is happy because there is a much more collaborative environment. All of the sudden the finance doesn’t only come from the top from a few wary places.”
When it comes to the trust issues, what we have built is a good rating system for both parts. We are looking at all producers that look to crewfund, investigate the potential of the film, read the script, the synopsis and are on good marketing and distribution plans. We ourselves want to believe, that a project will make it. Then we put it forward to the crews. When it comes to them, as I was mentioning, we have our rating system, to make sure that we only have top quality people on our platform.
I guess the last very important feature about Big Couch is, that organically our platform became a marketing tool. We developed it like a community of investors, distributors and sales, that regularly come and check what films we have on our platform. Because at the moment, there are not many platforms out there that take themselves seriously when they do film promotion of films in development. Of course you can discover some projects on Kickstarter. You can look up some projects on IMDb, to see whoever director does what. But we think, that our profiles are really convincing. You see a trailer, you see information about the producing director, the costs attached, the synopsis of the film. You can even download the script if it is available under NDA. People from all over the world can discover what films are being done.
The motivation behind a Crewfunding platform
Irina Albita: I think at the core, what we really need, is that we really see the world as a freelanced place. One of the statistics that’s really powerful for us is, that 40 percent of the Americans workforce, so 60 million people, by 2020 are going to be freelancers. And we don’t see any real commitment from governments to put any regulations in place to actually deal with this huge transformation that we’re seeing.
The big Motivation of Big Couch is how do we actually empower these freelancers to take an active step. And really become the key reenactors in their careers. Making them empowered. Making them interested in the projects they work on. Our passion lies within the film industry, but we would love to see this brother with other creative industries. Creative industry freelancers should become profit-participants in what they do. For us, this is really important and it’s not just a key-trend but it’s the reality of what we’re going see in the very immediate future.
Women in the industry
With Big Couch you are bringing new and revolutionary approaches to the film industry, which in many fields is still an old school business, mainly run by men. When working with investors, who are also mainly men, what are the challenges?
Maria Tanjala: The tech-world and the film-world are similar from this perspective. It was just as hard to find a female first AD as it is to find a female investor. It‘s a very male dominated industry when it comes to crews on set. Especially on the technical side. Directors, even female characters on screen. And at the same time in the tech-world, it was quite ambitious to find investors, that are female. And also generally, within the co-funders. If you are going to startup events, if you are going to accelerators, if you are going to whichever program that gathers startups, you will see a very heavily dominated male audience. So we are really trying to promote as much as we can the equality.
Someone asked me recently in an interview if I am a feminist. Yes, I definitely am. And I think Irina is the same. And for me, feminism just means literally creating and giving equal opportunities to women. It doesn’t mean anything else but that. Just get to the point, that everyone is equal. And then we will get equal pay and equal coverage and equal chances.
We from Big Couch strongly connect with organizations that promote female founders, female entrepreneurs and female crews. We work with women in film and television. And we are connected with a fantastic platform, that promotes female DOPs. Because that’s another misconception; like how can a tiny, a gentle girl carry a thirty kilos camera on her shoulder? Well, yes you can. Let’s give her a chance and she will do the best film, you can have. We really want to promote more females into these very technical departments.
Big Couch encourages and cheered for the success of projects that had entire female crews. And it is really not about positive discrimination. It isn‘t. It‘s just about showing everyone else that it is possible, to see all these departments with a girl doing it. I have spoken personally to a man that couldn’t believe that women can do it. And just getting to that level where we have an understanding that women can do it just as good as man. And from that point onwards we can only look on portfolios and CVs and who is more talented or who is more suitable for the project. But until then we have a long, long journey. And I just let Irina talk.
“We encourage and cheered for the success of projects that had entire female crews. And it is really not about positive discrimination. It isn‘t. It‘s just about showing everyone else that it is possible, to see all these departments with a girl doing it.”
Irina Albita: In tech, I think, one of the things I’ve noticed, that it is as hard to find backup-developers, designers that are women. You know, we were looking for just talented people in general, but it just happened that out of 50 CVs that we’ve screened, there were no female CVs. We have a great IT team and some great guys are helping us out, but of course we´d like to get some women involved on that side as well. When I started in the London tech-scene almost seven years ago, it felt much more male dominated. I feel now, especially in London, there are starting more and more companies where at least in a pair you have one female founder at least. It‘s getting a bit better.
Well, you know, we come from Romania and I‘ve been part of a project that is supporting software development and commercializing projects from a very early stage on. At university level, we have a lot of female software developers and the one thing that feels like that it‘s still lacking in that really male dominated sort of scene is confidence. They don’t have role models to empower them to say: You can start your own company, or you can do something more than work at Microsoft or Oracle. Which is great, but you can actually do much more and have a much bigger impact. Both, in film and in tech, you need role models.
Maria Tanjala: If anything, to end on a lighter note, I respected in the UK the opportunities, we were given. Maybe we had a few occasions, that gave us a negative feeling at the end of the conversations, but many times people have taken us seriously. We had meetings from early beginning with CEO‘s and we had very good, constructive conversations. We were seeing them and getting appointments with them. They were sharing their feedback with us. And they were supporting us when necessary. I definitely see a lot of potential and a lot of people that do support female entrepreneurs and women with ideas. And I was very grateful for that.
Some advices from Big Couch
Would you be so kind and give some hints and advices to young females, who want to get into the film industry?
Maria Tanjala: My recommendation would be to have confidence in their vision and to negotiate hard. It all comes down to confidence. When it comes to the pay gap, I think it is so big because of women not being very vocal or not very sure that they deserve what they envision. I would say, whatever you envision and whatever goal you have set yourself. Go for it with confidence. Like a tank and knock down all the walls and don’t underestimate the power you have. And whatever goal you have in mind. Even if it is a company and then you set yourself an evaluation and people try to tell you that you’re worth less, that´s their job, to tell you, you’re worth less. But they should believe that they’re worth what they think they’re worth.
Irina Albita: I think the most important thing is knowing what your skills are. It’s something cliché, but it’s super important. Knowing what your skills are. Don´t think you know everything, because you don´t. Just finding more business partners or friends, people that support you on your way. For us being a duo forming Big Couch and not being on our own, proved really powerful. You get ups and downs and sometimes one person takes it better, the other takes it worse. You push each other and get emotional support.
Thank you very much for this great conversation!
Want to learn more about innovation in the film industy and get in touch? For business inquiries please visit my website www.paulrieth.de or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find an overview of offers, services and references in the field of Audience Building, Crowdfunding and Marketing as well as video content production on the website of my agency GET YOUR CROWD.