FUTURE 4: Mika Salmi, AtomFilms

by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman

indieWIRE: What impact do you think what has been happening over the past two years with short films and short form entertainment had on independent film, if any? And what has Atom gained from its connection or access to the indie film community.

Mika Salmi: The answer to that last question is pretty simple. We needed, in a crass way, a product and this is where it was available. It wasn't like I could go to Disney or WB and get what I needed. That was one. And what was so great about that product? It was appropriate; it was actually something I thought would work in the various media we wanted to work in. In the beginning, as you probably remember, I wasn't saying the Internet was the only thing. So that was one. Two, there was just loads of it sitting around, so it was easy to get, and I think part of easy is, it wasn't very expensive. And three, I think is that community. Maybe I should've gone to CAA or to ICM or something and said let me work with some of your hottest directors, type of thing.

None of these people had gotten sucked into the system, and had high expectations. I think the issue is that once you start making features and you're part of the feature business, whether it be on an independent level, but definitely when you're on the Hollywood level, your mind isn't open necessarily to trying new things. I think the leading edge is farther away from what you're thinking. A lot of filmmakers, that's what they want to do, they want to do a feature. I don't blame them, but when they're first starting out, they want to do anything just to get their name out there and they're very creative. So there was also this ready pool of people that were more likely to get it, you know, that classic term: "get it." I think they were more likely to understand what we were looking for and what going forward we would need more of. Their talent was aligned and their desires were aligning with what we were trying to get accomplished also.

"There's a lot more chance of you getting noticed in the new industries than in the old industry, but at the same time, if you get your foot in the door in the old industry, in the short term you're going to have more money than you would in this new one right now."

iW: How do you think short films -- not just short films, but short form entertainment, that would flash animation, etc -- have effected and are going to continue to effect the way movies are seen and made?

Salmi: I think expectations have been raised in the last few years. I think unrealistically because, whether it be any company you take, including Atom, we're still a few steps away from being successful and I think everyone assumed there was big money and big success just around the corner. I think in a few cases people have done fairly well, but the business is still in its infancy and I do believe, as I said earlier, there's going to be a need for a lot of these kinds of creators too. So there is a whole new avenue and opportunity to create interesting entertainment with these films or animation or whatever and also make money. But it's still in its early days and so I think the hype got way ahead of the reality of the business. So I think a lot of people have come down to earth in the last nine months. I'm trying to talk to a lot of filmmakers and I don't think people have gotten discouraged, but we're always sending quarterly royalty checks and in every quarter, they're getting bigger so they're feeling that, "Ah, there's something happening." But I meet new filmmakers and I think they're a little confused. "Should I be thinking about doing this stuff? Which direction should I go?" I say, "Follow your heart." Wherever your creative juices get charged up the most I think you should be doing it. If you're good, I think there's a lot more chance of you getting noticed in the new industries than in the old industry, but at the same time, if you get your foot in the door in the old industry, in the short term you're going to have more money than you would in this new one right now.

iW: Do you have a sense from the filmmakers you deal with, from the creative people you deal with, that this whole short form entertainment has any sort of aesthetic affect on what people are thinking about creatively?

Salmi: No, I think the way to produce it and where it's displayed is so varied. People are creating things digitally, they could be using film, they could be using all kinds of technology, they could make it interactive, if it's animation, and even when they're choosing their animation, they could choose not just flash, but pulse and digital. There's all these different things they could use to convey what they want to do. I think aesthetics-wise, it's across the map. And then you layer on top of that people thinking about the distribution channel. Some people are just doing things from palm pilots, which are black and white with no sound most of the time. If you want to narrow it down to what is a flash animation, well, even a flash you can put actual photographs and you can put things that don't even look like animation into flash and I've seen those kinds of things being done. So I don't think there's a certain aesthetic, at all.

iW: So it sounds like it's creating new aesthetics right and left.

Salmi: Yeah, but you can't really put your finger on it saying it's this aesthetic or this style or it's cinema verite or something. I think they're just emerging.

iW: There are specific platforms that Atom is exploring right now: cell phones, etc. What are the natural extensions of these? Is there a basic natural extension in the next few years or is it continuing to push into more places where you wouldn't expect entertainment right now?

Salmi: I think it's a combination. Sometimes they stand alone. So what you're experiencing on a PDA probably is a different kind of aesthetic and it's probably stand alone. That's that and occasionally that'll have a lot of artistic merit, sometimes it'll be very trashy and that's what it is. Why are we in so many channels? There's an opportunity and there's a need so we're there. That means that there's a business there. The long term goal is being in everything, because now we're working with interactive TV people in Europe and here, and we're trying to figure out things with everyone from Direct TV to cable systems on what we could do more of -- very old media stuff. We've done theatrical things. There's all these different things to do, and on the one hand, what some of them are starting to do, what we think we're going to do, is this terrible word: converge.

"I think we'll still have the same info-mercial-esque trashy product kind of stuff. That'll probably be 90% of it, but occasionally you'll get something that has a little more merit and I think that's what we're trying to push for."

If they start to converge, there are some pretty clear elements that the converged world will have and it's the screen on your wall in your living room or potentially in your office. They're fairly interactive, the consumer has a lot of control over what they're doing in terms of when they want to get something, how they want to treat it. So there are certain elements that are true for Internet, narrow band, broadband, interactive TV that will be layered on top of high quality HDTV and other things. So we're trying to plan all these different avenues, because we want to understand not just the business of being there, how do we make money there, but also what's going to be the demand? What are they going to watch on this stuff? I don't think anyone really knows what people are going to watch so we want to learn as fast as possible what's going to happen. I think cell phone, PDA and that kind of devices -- because the screen size is so much smaller and the environment where you're watching it might be on the go or in a subway -- that I think might actually separate off into its own little market. I think you'll have a much richer market with Theatrical, TV, Internet, Internet broadband -- I think there's going to be a lot of convergence happening on that end, and then on the other end you're going to have smaller screens. So we're doing all this so that we understand the business as quickly as possible and also understand what people are going to want there.

So the first thing is that there is a demand. Second, we're trying to learn where everything's going for the future in terms of business and content. And the third is that we're trying to do a lot of what we're calling content threading. We may take Angry Kid and Angry Kid is now been imported over to PDAs, it's on the Internet, we're negotiating some TV deals in various countries. We've created two games out of Angry Kid. So we're taking a character or a concept and tweaking it for each device or each media so it's appropriate for that. It becomes very powerful. I think those are the three reasons why we've approached our business in the way we have, in terms of why we're such into broad distribution.

iW: Mika, will there be short films on ATMs and gas stations in the next 3 years?

Salmi: We've got elevators too. I once was at a Chevron a year or two ago and I saw a Road Runner cartoon while I was pumping my gas. So it's already happened. I've seen that on ATMs. And if you go to the Hilton Towers or whatever it is on 6th avenue, those elevators there have little videos playing.

iW: We forget where it impacts us sometimes, but we're seeing it everywhere.

Salmi: I think a lot of it is advertisements, but I think it would be more powerful if you're in your elevator and you get this 1-2 minute cool, far out film that happens to feature a Ford in it. I think we'll get there. I think we'll still have the same info-mercial-esque trashy product kind of stuff. That'll probably be 90% of it, but occasionally you'll get something that has a little more merit and I think that's what we're trying to push for.