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Beta Male: The Auteurs’ Efe Cakarel interviewed

By Paul Fileri

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An online-only interview with The Auteurs’ founder and CEO Efe Cakarel

PAUL FILERI: Roughly how many people have signed up as members in the social network?
EFE CAKAREL: We have 40,000 members on The Auteurs and 30,000 monthly active users of Movie Theater, our Facebook application.

How many films are now available for viewing by video stream? How many of these are unavailable elsewhere on DVD/video? Evidently, some are available in certain territories but not in others at this point.
We are adding new films every day. As of this moment, we have about 60 films available to stream in a variety of territories. As for what films we are showing that are unavailable on DVD, that is a difficult question to answer, as the distribution status of films in the large number of territories we exhibit in is varied. For example, we are showing Philippe Garrel’s Le Vent de le nuit in the U.S., where the film is currently unavailable on video, although it is available on DVD in France. We are proud to say we are showing a number of films in a number of territories where they were previously unavailable to watch, including Claire Denis’s Vers Mathilde.

As the founder, how did you bring together the group of seven that now runs the site? Were you already a friend or contact of each of these people or did you go out searching for collaborators?
We believe in small teams. Small teams reduce mass—there is less formality, less fear; more flexibility, more change. We also embrace constraints—fewer resources means better use; less time means better time.

With this philosophy in mind, I brought together our team one by one. Kamer, our creative director, was a friend of mine in Istanbul. He’s the best designer I’ve ever met, so I flew him to Palo Alto. I found Gabe and Jatinder, our developers, through open source based on their contributions to the Ruby and Rails core. Gabe was in Minnesota and Jatinder was in Pune, India. I moved them both to Palo Alto. I found Daniel, our editor, through a friend at Zeitgeist Films who told me about “‘this intern from NYU who was the best writer.”‘ I met Halim, who’s in charge of content, through a very close friend, and Melissa, who’s in charge of user experience, is a friend of mine from Stanford that I wanted to bring in for more than a year since she’s so good. We also worked with very talented individuals who contributed greatly to our effort: Chris with Flash Player, Adam and Matt for front end, and Alessandra in marketing.

We hire very rarely; and we try to hire the best in the world in whatever they do. That’s the way to build an organization. Because A+ people hire A+ people, B people hire C people.

Your online bio [studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, then obtaining an MBA at Stanford, working at Goldman Sachs and also becoming involved in the continuing negotiations between the EU and Turkey advising the Vice President of the European Parliament] of course does not fit the typical picture of a “‘cinephile,” dedicating one’s time to the appreciation and study of cinema. It’s safe to say Silicon Valley/Palo Alto is not a historical mecca of cinephilia either. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about your relationship with film and filmgoing over the years, both in personal and business terms? Have you always been something of a passionate filmgoer, a frequent attendee of festivals? Did you become interested only recently in the possibilities of online media distribution or have you been following the world of international film distribution for a longer time?
I have a confession to make: I only became a cinephile after I founded The Auteurs. Yes, I loved Chunking Express and Band of Outsiders, but I’ve never followed Cannes or Berlin, or passionately hunted down obscure films. I also knew absolutely nothing about film distribution. But I knew two things really well: 1) how to build Web applications, from concept to interface design to programming; and 2) how to do deals.

Last May, I saw a very big market opportunity: nobody offered a good selection of movies, and the right user-experience, online. It was unbelievable; that story about me wanting to watch In the Mood for Love online in Tokyo is real. I would have paid anything for that, and nobody was offering it to me.

I was especially excited to start this company because everybody that I talked to, especially from the industry, told me that I’d fail. They told me that not even Apple could get Criterion’s films. They told me that I simply don’t understand how this industry works, and that whoever had tried to build such a platform in the past had failed. But one thing I learned as an entrepreneur is that there are two reasons people tell you why something is going to fail: 1) it’s been done before and 2) it’s never been done before. It was a no brainer for me: big market opportunity, nobody was doing it right, everybody thinks it will fail. I founded the company at Coupa Café, a coffee shop in Palo Alto, where I worked for two months before Kamer joined me from Istanbul and we got an office, and I never looked back.

After having taken shape in the latter half of 2007, the site launched in February 2008 with a media announcement at the Berlin Film Festival. Then there was the short Flip Video contest at Cannes, and the site has developed further over the course of the year, with The Notebook regularly producing content along with more streaming videos made available. Now in November, the Criterion partnership has been announced. What would you say have been the significant developmental milestones, so to speak, in the site’s short history so far. Anything further to say about when you intend to take the site out of “public beta”?
You have pinpointed many of our milestones. After founding the company in May 2007, we built and deployed our Facebook application—the Movie Theater—in November 2007. Over the winter, we partnered with Celluloid Dreams not only to acquire content globally but also to create The Auteurs Europe to localize and launch The Auteurs in key European countries. We have a similar partnership with Costa Films, an early investor in The Auteurs, to launch The Auteurs Latin America in 2009 starting with Brazil. In February of 2008 we launched a private beta of The Auteurs during the Berlin Film Festival; and in Cannes 2008 we held an official short film competition called Cannes à la Flip in association with Short Film Corner, Festival de Cannes [www.theauteurs.com/competitions/1].

Over the summer, we partnered with the Criterion Collection in order to design and build their online cinematheque and have them program a monthly online film festival at The Auteurs. At the end of the summer, we were proud to host all of the Telluride Film Festival’s short films programs online, as well as partner with Criterion in an online tribute to the Telluride Film Festival, featuring clips, trailers, and feature films from the festival’s history all viewable online for free at The Auteurs [www.theauteurs.com/festivals/20/tribute].

Finally, in November 2008 the Criterion cinematheque opened for the public, and likewise our closed beta has moved to an open beta, letting anybody—whether they are coming from the cinematheque or finding our site another way—access The Auteurs.

The Auteurs will move out of beta and launch during Cannes Film Festival in May 2009.

The site has been striking and distinctive partly for its clean, eye-catching professional design and well-planned media strategy—sponsored events at Berlin and Cannes—right from the beginning, as well as for the promising partnerships it has secured with some very prominent players with high reputations like Celluloid Dreams and Criterion: can you talk a bit about how these notable connections came about so early on for the project? Have specific individuals been key contacts/liaisons in helping The Auteurs as an initiative make this entry into the industry.
When I started the company in May 2007, a week before Cannes Film Festival, I wrote a personal letter to the director of the Festival saying that Cannes should embrace start-ups like The Auteurs in order to be at the cutting edge of film distribution. That miraculously got me accredited as a “Film Buyer” with no money in the bank, no films ever bought, and nobody I knew in the industry. I remember being so nervous when I arrived at the Palais that I couldn’t enter it for more than an hour. It’s amazing that only a year later we were organizing an official film competition there.

Then I started meeting people. You know how Cannes is—I met a Romanian actress from that year’s Camera d’Or winner who introduced me to the producer of that year’s Palm d’Or winner over dinner who took me to the boat of a film financier for an after party where I met two very important distributors. The week went on like that. I met a lot of people but nobody was willing to give me their films. I quickly figured out that I had to meet the person whom I heard to be one of the most forward-looking, intelligent, and powerful in the industry: Hengameh Panahi, Founder and Chairman of Celluloid Dreams. I knew Hengameh—who has access to the most significant producers, and the distributors in the world—could solve my content acquisition problem overnight. At the time, Hengameh did not answer my e-mails or returned my calls, so I postponed my meeting her until the next film festival rolled around.

After Cannes, I spent months writing to every important sales agent and distributor around the world explaining my vision and asking for their films. By Toronto, after four months, I did not have a single film. In Toronto, knowing that I simply had to meet Hengameh, I just strolled into her office, walked in the door, and demanded that I see her. They kindly walked me out of the door, but took my business card. After what seemed like the longest 18 hours, Hengameh called me and said I have 15 minutes. I said I need only 10, and went to her office to meet her. The rest is history. Hengameh immediately got what we are trying to do, and realized the vision is so fresh and strong; I was in Paris three weeks after working and brainstorming with her. Then we met Tom Luddy, director of the Telluride Film Festival, who loved the vision and have become our informal advisor ever since. He introduced us to Dieter Koesslick, director of Berlinale, who initiated partnership discussions between us and Berlinale. In Berlin, I was introduced to Peter Becker, president of Criterion, by Eduardo Costantini, who was our investor and guardian angel. A few weeks later, I was in New York meeting Peter Becker and Jonathan Turrell, CEO of Criterion. I went there to license a few films. I walked out with a multi-year partnership where we design and build Criterion’s website and power it going forward, Criterion curating a monthly festival on The Auteurs, and Criterion taking an equity stake. Since then Peter and Jonathan have been my mentors and have tremendously helped me bring The Auteurs to where it is now.

Who do you see as the site’s intended audience in online English-language film culture versus the still developing audience it’s attracted at this stage? Those who are interested in the journalistic film coverage don’t necessarily overlap with those attracted to the social networking/forums and those attracted to the online video content.
Our goal is simply to become an online destination point for film lovers—anybody who loves film. The Auteurs is a place for cinephiles as well as those just beginning to become interested in film. From our private beta to the early days of our public beta, the community we have attracted are varied but all have one thing in common: an ardent passion for film. We hope in the future to attract those who haven’t yet found their passion but are willing to try. We are providing a varied experience: come to watch, come to read, come to discuss, come to discover. We have built a social network platform that spreads interest in and awareness of smaller films to a wider audience; and our platform gives our audiences a wide range of activities that can cater to different levels of interests and involvement in film, and encourage them to expand both. Those who come to talk about their favorite movies might read about something new or intriguing in our Notebook, or take a chance on one of the many films our site offers to watch for free. The ideal community would be a comprehensively active one: people who come to do everything: they watch, they discuss, they read, they write, they spread the word.

What’s your thinking behind the prominent framing of the site’s subject as “auteurs” and “auteur-driven cinema,” which of course places the emphasis on one particular facet of world cinema, the cinemas of the world as a whole, in all its genres and nationalities? For instance, is it the particular creativity, innovation, status/prestige of “auteur cinema” as a niche identified with film festivals that’s framed as the center of the project?
We have framed our site under The Auteurs moniker not because we are strict auteurists or wish to only view cinema from this angle, but because it represents our dedication to cinematic artistry. We want to show only distinctive, visionary films, whether their inspiration comes from the single mind of a director, or from a star, subject, country, culture, or any other deciding factor. Our niche is in using online distribution as a means to show these distinctive films, many of which, like those of Philippe Garrel, are tremendous works of cinematic art but which have trouble finding distribution in the current conservative climate.

The library has been expanding, especially with Criterion now onboard. In what directions do you see or hope to have the offerings grow? What has the challenge been like to negotiate for Internet distribution rights with other distribution companies or the filmmakers themselves? Will you be proceeding by finding other well-established operations with which to partner, or will The Auteurs act as a distributor directly?
We want our library to grow, of course, but we have always conceived The Auteurs as being a curated selection of cinema. I’m pleased to announce that just this week, one of the most respected programmers in the world, Marie-Pierre Duhamel Muller, who was in the selection committee for this year’s Venice Film Festival, joined The Auteurs as a programmer to help us select the most significant films ever produced. The last thing we want is to befuddle those who are coming to the site and are open to trying these films with an overwhelming, video store like barrage of films. We are going to carefully choose great films from those that played at film festivals, those that have already been released, and those that have never been released—we are dedicated to showcasing the best of cinema, wherever we can find it, and make it available to whomever we can. The goal is not only to acquire these films, but then to be able to show them to as many audiences around the world as possible.

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. We are overjoyed that two of the very best film companies in the world—the Criterion Collection and Celluloid Dreams—share our vision for using the internet as a way to make films accessible to audiences in ways they never have been in the past.

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. Just to give you an idea about what we are up to, we are in partnership discussions with an advertising agency in U.K., a publishing house in Italy, a consortium of distributors in Spain, and film-financing company in Japan.

What shapes the editorial vision behind The Notebook? Is it largely an autonomous entity, set free to cover the film festival scene, DVD releases, and film culture in general with an independent critical eye, from many writers’ perspectives? What kind of coverage do you want to see? Do you see any publishing ventures as models or online outfits as ones that share a similar vision about film criticism and debate? What is the relationship between this critical project and the film library where content has to be promoted?
The Notebook is our online journal that has grown spontaneously through outreach to Internet-based contributors. It operates autonomously, and focuses on one of the prime goals of The Auteurs project—to explore and discover international cinema. We have selected a group of writers not through traditional sources but through online networks of film criticism—blogs, magazines, review sites, etc.—mirroring not just the way The Auteurs as a company was formed, but also emblemizing the mission of the company to unite disparate film viewers around the world. For the most part, we give our writers independence to find their own subjects, be it reviewing, festival coverage, film theory, in-depth criticism, or image essays. The key was to find a talented and varied set of voices and give them a space to explore film in their own way. We hope to expand our criticism towards a more multi-media based approach: more images, more video, video essays, excerpts from films, etc. The subject of inquiry will always remain the same: cinema new and old, obvious and obscure—helping new readers discover these works and veteran readers push deeper into film.

Because The Notebook is running in tandem with The Auteurs as a broader conception of an online movie social network, it has no exact equivalent online, but there are a great many online publications which have a quality of criticism that we hold up as ideal—for examples Senses of Cinema, Reverse Shot, and Rouge, as well as dozens of smaller, more personal websites. Perhaps the closest example of an ideal we are pursuing is Girish Shambu’s blog, which unites astute critical discussion of film with a large and active community of readers.

Our desire is for the most part to keep The Notebook as a critical publication and our library separate. If we write on films in our library is solely from a critical standpoint and not a PR move.

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The Notebook

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