FUTURE 4: Mika Salmi, AtomFilms
by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.11.01) --There's been a lot of talk about short films on the Internet over the past two years. Maybe too much talk. Along the way, a number of companies have made a play to carve out their niche online, in the hopes of cashing in bigtime. Even Steven Spielberg and his Dreamworks partners weighed in with their unsinkable idea, backed by their own Hollywood expertise and the mega-money of Paul Allen. Well, Titanic sank.
The year 2000 ended with AtomFilms, a leader in online entertainment, the regular subject of countless rumors and speculation about its own future. Some ndustry insiders breathlessly spread rumors about its imminent demise, ready to add it to the long list of dotcom casualties that knocked the wind out of the online entertainment sails. As the year drew to a close the company announced a merger with Shockwave.com and many breathed a sigh of relief, afraid of what another high-profile drowning would have meant to a jittery emerging online entertainment industry.
All eyes are on Mika Salmi as the new year begins. The founder and CEO of Atom will take the helm of the new combined Atom/Shockwave -- arguably the first real next generation company to emerge after two years of experimentation, anticipation, and disappointment from the winners and losers within the space. The combined company has a likely online audience larger than the viewership of many cable networks, a distribution system that relies on ancillary markets as a primary pipeline and a growing library of short form entertainment from what Salmi calls "a new generation of creators." The smart, amiable and energetic Salmi, himself a former exec at RealNetworks and Sony & EMI music, talked with indieWIRE Editor-in-Chief Eugene Hernandez and indieWIRE Senior Editor Anthony Kaufman about the next generation of next generation entertainment.
indieWIRE: I always think back to that day about two years ago when you walked into our office. You walked in and explained what AtomFilms was going to be before it even launched. A lot has happened in that two years. I've been thinking that you were presenting an alternative. I think a key alternative area Atom has been exploring is the way that some "independent filmmakers" can express themselves outside of the feature film mentality. Why should we be confident that this emerging industry is going to continue to flourish and why should we continue to invest ourselves in this emerging industry?
Mika Salmi: I think that's a really good question, because from our perspective we are a business and we need to be profitable and successful to get there. In the past, to become profitable and successful, if you look at any kind of examples from MTV to Miramax or other entertainment or media companies, they've had to dumb down or get more mass market so they lose that independent flavor -- it's the classic "sell out thing." I think it applies to music, I think it applies to a lot of industries. If I'm understanding your question, it's about -- if you're an independent filmmaker or an independent creative audio visual artist, let's not even say filmmaker -- and Atom has always stood for discovering and nurturing and fostering these new creative individuals around the world, can we continue to still be on the track to be a successful business?
I would throw a question out myself and say, "Shockwave is much more mass market and they have a bunch of games, so how does that fit?" I think time will tell whether this is correct, but I firmly believe that there has been a shift in the landscape, because there is just such a need right now and there will continue to be a need for a whole variety of entertainment out there. And the one distribution area that's stagnating is probably theatrical. But everything from satellite to cable to all kinds of variations of television is growing. Obviously the Internet is growing, whether it be narrow band or broad band. Then you have wireless and on and on and on. DVDs, other things. There's all kinds of new distribution growing and so there's a need for content to fill that. On the one hand, consumers are wanting a lot more choice and they're wanting a lot more of what they want when they want it. So there's a demand on the consumer side for a lot more entertainment. We'll see if it mirrors what happened with the music industry, which I used to be in, where you used to see less than 10,000 albums released a year in the US. Then it grew. And with Napster and MP3, there's probably a lot more music being consumed than ever before. And I think that's applicable to the film/video area. I think that's where the opportunity lies for independent film and that's where a company like Atom can focus on.
We do work with some big names and established players and I don't see that as incongruous to what we want to do. But I do believe that the next generation will really understand how to deliver something to a consumer that the consumer is looking for. It could be a variety of stuff. Everything from very artistic to very mass market is going to come from a new generation of creators. And so our job is to make sure that we are in touch with that new generation and we are helping them and I see them as a resource for us so that when Atom/Shockwave has a new big TV deal or a wireless deal we have this pool of talent we can go to and say, "Hey, we now need this kind of entertainment, can you guys produce it?" And it could be everything from a feature to a 30 second little animated thing that appears on a cell phone.
The point is that there's such a need from both the distribution side, all these channels, and there's also a need on the consumer side. The consumers are also very much wanting choice. I think there's very specific wants. Some people want the "South Parks," others want the art-house cinema. In music, it's amazing how diverse it's gotten. I've always been pretty diverse in my tastes, but it's even gotten more, just because I've been presented with a lot more choice and so it's gotten easier and easier for me to listen to diverse music. I think a similar phenomena somewhat has occurred in the film business, and I think it's going to occur even more going forward.
iW: We recently talked with the partners of a film distribution company about the idea of re-educating audiences. When you talk about there being an interest and a demand for alternative forms of entertainment presented on alternative platforms, to what extent do you think that this requires a certain re-education of an audience?
Salmi: I think we've done an okay job, my company and the industry, of presenting this material. I think it just could be presented in a lot simpler more user-friendly fashion where you can find stuff that you definitely know you're going to like. I think education can come through presentation. I'm surprised I'm going to say this, but I think technology can help on that end. I don't fully expect that people's tastes are going to get a whole lot more sophisticated, though I saw something about a year or a year and a half ago in The New York Times how the US has gotten much more sophisticated in the last ten years in a surprising way. Stupid things, coffee, for example. And they were comparing movies from the '80s to the '90s and they were comparing all kinds of fashion and consumer's tastes. I think it's partially because of the rapidity of communication that people get to know about styles and trends all over. But I don't know if consumers are willing to be re-educated or educated, but I think it all depends on how you package it or present it. I think that's a combination of marketing and technology.
iW: Stepping back for a second, how do you define Atom? Is it a distributor, a producer, all of the above?
Salmi: We're an entertainment company and we do production, distribution, aggregations, whatever it takes to have the best product basically.
iW: Can you liken it to a micro version of Sony?
Salmi: Potentially, yeah, because we have our own distribution channel and now with Shockwave, their internal numbers have them at like 12 million, so that's bigger than MTV and it's the size of a UPN or something out there. So we have our own distribution channel. I like to say we're just an entertainment company working in new formats and in new platforms. Ford recently said, "We want to make three short films that feature a Ford in them. We'd want them to be product placement type, we don't want them to be an advertisement, we just want a cool film, we think shorts are cool." So we went to some of our short filmmakers and said, "Do you want to do this?" And they jumped at it. Or we had this thing with Sony. We did the first immersive film, a 360 film, and so we called up Amy Talkington and a few filmmakers and said, "Who wants to do this?" And Amy jumped at it. So we are continually having that situation where we need to produce something. And we, as a production company, we're very lean, we don't have a lot of money so we tend to rely on a sponsor or a reason to drive it. But the place we go to get it done is with this pool of talent that we've gotten to know over the last couple of years.
iW: Looking ahead as far as production, do you feel like these sponsorship arrangements will always be a part of what you do, or do you feel like it's something you might grow out of? How do you see that developing?
Salmi: I think that's going to increase. We basically are looking at it as a pre-sell in some ways. In traditional business, you'll have a foreign market buy the rights to something and they'll basically help fund the production of a film or a television show. Similar to a pre-sale, because we've done that also. We're doing these 10-minute shorts with famous directors: Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. That one we already pre-sold to a bunch of European distributors to fund that. What's happening for a company like Ford or other big brands out there is that they're seeing that while TV commercials are still probably the most effective way for them, their effectiveness is being reduced, and they're looking forward, and going, "Wait a minute, what if people took the time to get their entertainment via things like TiVo?" There's a huge amount of investment going on in broadband and interactive TV. In five years, these standard 30-second commercials could be less and less effective and in 10 years who knows where they'll fit into the landscape. So they're thinking about going back to the old Texaco Presents kind of thing. I think we've done a few of those now and I think that's going to increase. I don't think any filmmaker or any company like ours can place our bet and say that's the future. We're basically getting funded by big sponsors. So that's why we do a combination of whatever it takes. We look at pre-sales, we look at funded productions, we look at stuff that's already made that people have done out of their own pockets and hopefully we can help them recoup their money by selling it. So there's no clear pathway or business model that we follow in terms of how we either produce or aggregate or license stuff. I think we're very pragmatic, we say whatever it takes and whatever it takes for us to make money as a company and whatever it takes for the filmmaker to make money and to feel comfortable in the relationship.