Dec 11 | Author: Roger Erik Tinch
A little more then a year ago, Efe Cakarel sat in a Tokyo coffeeshop trying to find classic and important films to watch on his laptop. To his astonishment, amid the millions of hours of video content online, there was no accessible auteur cinema. Always a bit of a contrarian, Efe went to Cannes, and through charm, determination and a letter written to the festival director he miracuously got himself accredited as a film buyer. With no buying history, no money in the bank, and nobody he knew, Efe began to pitch his concept – use the Internet as a distribution channel for auteur cinema and connect it with social networking to uncover audiences for these great films.
I stumbled upon a very early iteration of The Auteurs in February of this year while browsing through the many Facebook applications. First, I was taken by the tasteful design and then by the mission statement that “The Auteurs is an online movie theater where you watch, discover, and discuss auteur cinema”. Since then I’ve stayed in touch with Efe and watched as he and the company presented at the first Facebook Film Garage at SXSW, conducted a Flip camera competition in Cannes, opened a user generated content section called GARAGE, debuted their public beta and then announced an online partnership with The Criterion Collection. The latter of which had me reeling from not only such a great pairing of similar ideals, but also from such a confident step forward that Criterion was taking in a still untested space. I contacted Efe about an interview on this unique partnership and he was more then happy to take part. Enjoy:
How did the relationship between The Auteurs and Criterion come about?
I was introduced to Peter Becker, President of The Criterion Collection, by Eduardo Costantini, an early investor in The Auteurs, in Berlin. A few weeks later I was in New York meeting him and Jonathan Turrell, CEO of Criterion. I remember being very excited the first time I entered the Criterion’s offices in New York; it felt so good to be there. My goal that day was simply to license a few films. But 15 minutes into our meeting we realized that the affinity between the two companies was so uncanny that we had already started brainstorming a more meaningful partnership. In the weeks following that meeting we continued exchanging ideas, and in the end formed a partnership where we design and build Criterion’s website and power it going forward, with Criterion curating a monthly film festival on The Auteurs, and Criterion taking an equity stake in our company. Since then Peter and Jonathan have been my mentors and have tremendously helped me bring The Auteurs to where it is now.
What was the design and implementation process like?
Our design has always been about a combination of sophistication and simplicity. Focusing on bringing a select library of films to users, our design needed to be distinctive and unusual—in order to reflect the quality of artistic vision we are dedicated to making available online—and combine it with an emphasis on intuitive user interactivity. Since discovery—of films, of opinions, of other people—is a key facet in The Auteurs’ experience, we had to redefine how a user could access our library, access our forums, and access one another. In other words, while the subject and the style had to be sophisticated, actual usability and functionality had to operate on bare basics, so that anyone could watch, discuss, and discover film. This combination intuitively led us to our minimalist, editorial-style approach to design, which we find distinctive and easy to use.
There’s a very similar design aesthetic to both sites, is this intentional to make the Auteurs site the social networking destination for Criterion.com?
One of the first things that attracted The Auteurs to Criterion was our design aesthetic. When we created the original design for The Auteurs, we had no idea that we would find such likeminded partners as Criterion—it is a truly great pleasure to work with them to bring their vision for online cinema forward. In designing criterion.com (with tremendous input and revisions by Criterion), we wanted to stay true to the brand’s original design aesthetic, and we believe we have done so. The two sites—The Auteurs and Criterion—are linked through both content and discussion: Criterion programs a monthly film festival for us, and we host discussions of their films on our site. Design-wise we have each followed our own vision, and have been pleasantly surprised to find out how much in tune we are with one another.
Do you eventually hope to bring the streaming experience to set top boxes such as the Xbox 360 and Tivo? What about mobile viewing for iPhones or the G1 phone?
We absolutely do. One of the central goals for The Auteurs is to make great cinema accessible. Far from “dumbing down” great works of art, we mean accessible in the sense of giving audiences access to films they previously were unable to see – anytime, anywhere. In the past, many of the films we are showing were only available to watch for audiences who lived in major cosmopolitan cities or who attended film festivals. By bringing these films online, we are offering them to a public that has never before been able to see them. This leads us naturally to expanding our accessibility beyond being rooted to desktops and laptops and making The Auteurs’ cinema accessible through devices other than computers, be it the complete mobility of a phone or the home theater experience of a TV.
The key, however, is not just to bring movies but to bring the whole social platform of The Auteurs to these devices. Watching a movie by oneself is no fun at all, and most of these devices only offer services for a user to log-on, watch a movie in solitude, and log-off. We want to bring the social network of The Auteurs to TV and mobile devices so that the other aspects of online cinema—reading, discussion, and discovery—are equally accessible.
Do you hope to leverage more partnerships such as this to extend The Auteurs brand? Such as powering the streaming and encoding processes?
A principle challenge has simply been to convince rights holders that internet distribution is a viable business. This is neither theatrical distribution nor video distribution; the internet, as a social platform, makes the availability of media work in a far different way than those arms of traditional distribution. That making films available online is as much a viral way of marketing films as it is source of tremendous income is something that few rights holders have been far-seeing enough to recognize. One of the most intelligent and forward thinking people we met in the industry early on was Hengameh Panahi, Founder and President of Celluloid Dreams, who shared our vision for using the internet as a way to make films accessible to audiences in ways they never have been in the past. We partnered with Celluloid Dreams who also invested in The Auteurs, and have been acquiring content together globally. With Celluloid Dreams, we also established The Auteurs Europe based in Paris to localize our application and establish The Autuers in key European markets.
We are also partners with Costa Films, a leading production company from Latin America and an early investor in The Auteurs, to establish our presence in that region. You will hear more about our activities in South America, starting with Brazil, in 2009.
For the future, we conceive The Auteurs as an open platform with a broad set of partnerships globally. The vision is no less than to become a global cultural hub for cinema. We will only get there with the right partners.
What is the next step for The Criterion and The Auteurs partnership?
The next step for Criterion and The Auteurs is improving upon and expanding the power of the online cinematheque. We are going to continue improving the user experience (little tweaks, but it’s all in the details). We will advance the proprietary encoding platform co-developed together, introduce higher quality image and sound and lower bitrates (that enables instant viewing even when you have low-bandwidth), provide you with offline viewing capability, and more fluid links between the two sites for our combined audience to discover, discuss, and watch the best of cinema.
What are your thoughts on the future of the DVD and Blu-ray medium?
While we of course focus on online media, these video formats have a long life ahead of them. So many great films have been made available on DVD in the last couple years, even if American users have to import foreign DVDs to watch them, that it has been a real boon for film lovers. Blu-ray’s jump in quality is amazing, and whether or not it will be a transition format like Betamax or laserdisc remains to be seen. In any case, we celebrate the increasing accessibility of films, be it on DVD, higher-res Blu-rays, or online.