- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Like so many business success stories, FilmRise started with a huge failure.
It was 2009, and City Lights Media, the TV production and distribution company founded and run by Danny Fisher and his brother Jack, had just gone bust. The company was nearly 30 years old and an industry staple, the producer of dozens of shows, including the Food Network hit Chopped, and home to one of the biggest postproduction operations in New York. It had more than 400 employees.
But City Lights didn’t survive the financial crash. The company was heavily leveraged, with some $15 million in debt personally guaranteed by Danny. When the world’s economy pancaked, he was forced to file for personal bankruptcy. His savings were wiped out. He was left with $1,700 in his checking account and no idea what to do next.
“I was luckier than most,” says Fisher. “My wife, Barbara, was still working as a psychologist. We still had our brownstone in Brooklyn. So there was food on the table and a roof over my head. But I was thinking: What now? Work in a supermarket? Drive a cab?”
Like many suddenly made unemployed by the Great Recession, Fisher found himself spending a lot of time on Facebook. Connecting with industry friends and colleagues — many facing the same challenges — he started a blog documenting his efforts to rebuild his life and career. He also took a close look at what went wrong at City Lights.
“As my company was going down in flames, I did a lot of observation, especially on the distribution side,” Fisher says. “And I noticed we were producing movies and shows, spending millions of dollars on them, and losing our shirts. But there was other content, content that we’d licensed for almost no money, that was actually performing, and doing almost as well as the shows we spent millions and millions of dollars to produce.”
Fisher thought he spotted a gap in the market. If he could identify those low-cost shows that no one was paying attention to, but for which there was huge untapped viewer demand, he could build a new business around that.
“The thesis was: If I could identify and measure the viewer demand to see content, irrespective of what the industry thinks the demand is, I could find that disconnect between demand and market evaluation,” says Fisher. “I knew if I could do that, I’d do very well.”
Alan Klingenstein, a film producer and financier, had contacted Fisher after reading his Facebook blog. The two met and immediately hit it off. One of Fisher’s old City Lights investors, who had lost seven figures when the company collapsed, agreed to give Danny and Jack one more chance. He and Klingenstein put up $200,000. FilmRise was born, with Danny as CEO, Jack as president, and Klingenstein as chairman.
The timing was not ideal. This was 2012, a year before Netflix would launch House of Cards, kick-starting the streaming revolution. Big advertising-supported streaming platforms like PlutoTV and Tubi still hadn’t arrived. The “smart money” was in subscription VOD, which, for most people, meant premium content.
“When we started, we got a lot of pushback,” says Fisher. “Everyone looked at me and my partners like I was crazy. It was all about Netflix, all about SVOD. But I’ve learned something: If everyone is telling you to do one thing, do the opposite.”
Instead of chasing after expensive, premium shows, the Fishers scooped up rights to low-cost, syndicated staples like Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries and library titles with strong cult followings, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Greatest American Hero and 21 Jump Street. These shows weren’t being featured in The New York Times best-of-the-year lists, but they were being watched. According to FilmRise’s own figures, over the past 12 months, episodes of Forensic Files were streamed online for a cumulative total of 11.96 billion minutes. Heartland, a wholesome Canadian farm-and-family series that FilmRise identified as an under-the-radar hit and licensed two years ago, was streamed for a total of 3.71 billion minutes.
Danny Fisher always had a head for figures. As an 11th grader at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, he came third in a citywide math contest. Even now, he says he can spot a mistake on a spreadsheet a mile off.
“I did my taxes recently, got a 400-page tax return from my accountant. I took a quick look and called him back five minutes later and said: Look at page 47, row 12, that number’s wrong. He called back a half hour later and said: ‘Oh my God, that was a huge mistake, it would have cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars,'” Fisher recalls, before adding, sheepishly, “my wife thinks I’m autistic.”
That mathematical mind helped Fisher design FilmRise’s data analytics model for identifying undervalued, in-demand programming. What he initially did in his basement, jotting down figures on the backs of envelopes, is now handled by a team of data analysts across the U.S.
Initially, FilmRise licensed its shows to third-party platforms — still the core of FilmRise’s business — but later the company set up its own AVOD platform, as well as ad-supported thematic streams, known as FAST channels. Last November, FilmRise inked a deal with electronics giant LG to launch a suite of its FAST channels, including one for Gordon Ramsay reality format Hell’s Kitchen and a FilmRise Free Movies channel, on LG’s smart TVs worldwide.
By most measures, FilmRise is now the largest independent provider of content to ad-supported streaming platforms. Viewership data from ratings group Nielsen, measuring total minutes streamed on various platforms, ranked FilmRise’s AVOD platform in the U.S. top 10, with 21.68 billion cumulative minutes streamed, from Sept. 20, 2021, through Aug. 5, 2022. That’s just behind Apple TV+, with a cumulative 21.7 billion minutes streamed.
By any estimate, the AVOD business is booming. Global AVOD revenues topped $38 billion last year, and recent estimates by U.K.-based analysts Digital TV Research forecast that figure to hit $91 billion by 2028. Both Netflix and Disney+ have entered the ad streaming business, introducing lower-cost, ad-supported tiers to their subscription models.
But FilmRise got there first and, Fisher insists, is still doing things differently.
“On the content we identify and go after, we are typically the only bidders,” he says. “We are still finding things either no one’s heard of or off the radar for everyone else.”
In person, Fisher gives off a nerdy vibe that’s less Silicon Valley wunderkind and more Central Park chess tournament. He sports hip designer glasses whose coolness factor is immediately undercut by his no-nonsense sports jacket and jeans combo, and his ready, goofy smile.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Fisher spoke about his strategy and vision for FilmRise and the inspiration he takes from his family — his wife, Barbara; their two kids, Aaron, a director, and Josh, a cinematographer; and his late parents, both Holocaust survivors. “They taught me perspective, because however bad things have got, I know I was a million, zillion times ahead of what my parents went through. Even when it’s bad, I know I got it good.”
So how did you get from your basement to a company considered by some investment funds to be a unicorn?
It really comes down to our algorithms. We’ve found a way to measure audience demand and see where demand for a piece of content is much higher than what that content is being valued for in the market.
At first, it was just me with a stopwatch. I’d look at Twitter mentions for a certain show and I’d time how many mentions a show got in a minute, and compare it to mentions for so-called popular, buzzy shows. When I saw a big gap between audience demand and market valuation, I’d go out and try and license that show. Now, we have algorithms doing a similar thing.
We have our own apps, our own streaming platform and FAST channels, and they generate a wealth of data, which is first-party data, you know: A single mother in Kansas City with three kids is watching this show at this hour. We’ve got a very sophisticated analytics team to parse through the data.
On the content we identify and go after, we are typically the only bidders. We are still finding things either no one’s heard of or off the radar for everyone else. Shows that are dismissed or underappreciated.
Take Heartland, a Canadian drama series. Some people had heard of it, but it wasn’t part of the water-cooler discussion. It wasn’t an in-demand show. But we identified massive viewer demand for it and we secured the rights. And, it turns out (according to Nielsen ratings) it was the fifth-most-streamed show in 2021: It out-streamed Squid Game, it out-streamed Ted Lasso. We bid on one of the most streamed shows, a show with huge demand, and there was no one else at the table.
Another great example is The Rifleman. It’s a show from the 1950s, in 4-by-3 aspect ratio in scratchy black and white. But we saw demand for it was crazy, really through the roof. So we got it. And now it’s one of the highest streamed shows in America.
How do you identify audience demand, since you don’t pay attention to TV critics and the water-cooler buzz?
Usually, there are two methods people use when they’re buying library content. One is there’s a committee that sits around a room and watches the content and they go “Wow, this is great. Oh wow, I don’t like this.” Then there’s the slightly more sophisticated method where people analyze the last five years of a show, or whatever cash flow it generated and value it according to that.
We don’t do either of those. We don’t care if a show is getting buzz in New York or Los Angeles, we don’t care if it got awards last year. The only thing we care about is: Do people want to see it? We measure that by looking at things like social media, what people are talking about, what they want to watch.
Recently, our algorithms flagged Cheaters [the 2000s syndicated reality show, not the buzzy BBC drama] as something that would go through the roof. We bought it, and it has, it’s doing phenomenally.
There’s a real disconnect between what people watch and what the industry values. My theory for this disconnect is almost political. If you’re the chairman of a big media company of platform, you’re probably in New York or L.A. The shows everyone around you is talking about are the shows that people are watching in New York or L.A. But there’s a whole country in between. If you go to, say, a ranch in flyover country, people will be talking about Heartland, not the latest hot show in New York. There are 50 states in the U.S., there are a lot of people watching shows that nobody in the media industry is talking about.
Why are Netflix or the other platforms not doing what you’re doing?
I get that question all the time. One is the business model. Most are focused on the paid subscriber model, so focused on increasing their subscriber base, and they’re doing that by leaning into originals. We operate on a revenue-share business, so the platforms take our content, and if something doesn’t work, they pay nothing. If it goes through the roof, they get 50 percent or whatever the share is.
So it’s not really an issue for them. They get this kind of content from us, they license content from other providers like the major studios, and they are producing their own originals. We aren’t really competing.
What the platforms really focus on, what their algorithms do incredibly well, is match users to content. They aren’t focused on what we are doing with our data analytics, which is unearth content people really want to watch but [that] is under the radar or considered low-rent. Things like Cheaters.
Or take user-creator content from YouTube or other digital platforms. For most platforms, the idea of putting creator content next to, say Game of Thrones, is heresy. But we did deals [with YouTube creators] stitching together webisodes and reformatting them into half-hour, broadcast-style series. And the result was completely phenomenal.
There’s a certain idea of what’s sexy or trendy among industry people in New York and L.A. For FilmRise, sexy content is whatever people want to see. It doesn’t matter if it costs a billion dollars, or was shot in somebody’s basement on a camcorder for two cents. If people want to see it, that to me makes it sexy and buzzworthy.
You license your shows to platforms, you have your own AVOD streamer and various FAST channels. What areas are you not in yet where you’d like to be?
Anywhere where we can actually increase our audience reach and footprint. So FAST channels, or international, wherever. Take the U.S. Hispanic market. There are 60 million Americans who speak Spanish. We’re dubbing most of our content into Spanish and it’s doing great, because that audience is really underserved.
We’re also doing some original productions now, but we have a very unique model, what I like to call an almost zero-risk proposition. We are operating at a very cost-efficient price point, in unscripted and other genres that have proven to work well for us in the AVOD space. We usually team up with a co-production partner, often outside the U.S., so we can avail ourselves of tax credits and that kind of stuff, and that means we are probably putting up about 50 percent of the budget. We will only do deals where we have rights for 25 years or in perpetuity. So, at the price point we’re working at, we can either sell the series to a platform to have as an original, which means it is profitable right away, or, if no one offers us a deal, we can put in into our revenue share output deals and put it on our own AVOD platform. We have so many different places to monetize that we can basically guarantee we will recoup in a year and then we have the rest, 24 years or in perpetuity, as upside.
Another area we are looking into is potential M&As. We are looking at production companies with libraries and IP that fit our model.
With Netflix and Disney+ adding ad-supported tiers, and AVOD platform like Paramount’s Global and Fox’s Tubi doing booming business, are people coming finally coming around to the FilmRise way of thinking?
Now I love Netflix, I love Disney+. I’m a subscription VOD watcher. But it always seemed obvious to me that, on a macroeconomic level, the drive is toward AVOD. The SVOD bundle, like the old cable bundle, is getting very expensive. And even a cheaper ad tier is still not free. $6.99 a month is still $6.99 a month. And if you’re watching ads, you might start thinking: “Why am I paying for this?”
And when you go outside the U.S., the potential, for AVOD and FAST, is just massive. Most of the world cannot afford even a low-tier Netflix or Disney+ subscription. International right now is about 4 percent of our revenue, but it’s going to be two-thirds of revenue eventually. People tell me there’s so little money in international, but I don’t look at the nominal numbers, I look at the trends. If I earn $1 on a piece of content one month and $2 the next, I don’t feel I’m wasting my time for $1. I think, that’s a 100 percent increase. We’re seeing really high growth rates in AVOD in the U.K., in Germany, in Latin America, France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Australia. I don’t know if it’s going to be three years or five years when international revenues hit parity with the U.S., but it will be 50-50 at some point, and at some point it will be 60 to 70 percent international. So while other people wait for that to happen, we are scooping up deals, securing international rights, and dubbing our hit shows and movies into various languages. We’re taking the long-term view, like we always have.
You launched FilmRise a decade ago. What still motivates you?
I used to think I had no ego, but I was lying to myself. I think everyone has an ego. I realize I get the most enjoyment out of proving others wrong. If someone tells me something isn’t going to work, if someone rejects me or turns me down, I find that the highest form of motivation.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly located Abraham Lincoln High School in the Bronx.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day