Insights of Hope make their way to AIDC

Independent film producer Ted Hope.

Anyone attending Ted Hope’s session at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) next month in order to hear streaming service secrets may want to rethink their approach.

Having spent more than five years as the co-head of movies at Amazon Studios, and also previously CEO of startup streamer Fandor, the independent producer knows more than most about what goes on behind the scenes.

However, his experience taught him there are some parts of the streaming model that remain impenetrable.

“I guess people want to believe there’s some secret genie in that bottle they can somehow unlock for their own ends,” he told IF.

“People would always believe there is a man behind the curtain manipulating all of it to some degree or that it’s gameable, but I don’t think we can ever pull the curtains open and expose the full truth.

“There are things that are common sense that people can figure out and there are things that have become popular wisdom.”

Hope will share insights from his time as an independent producer and film executive on stage with Sue Maslin as part of next month’s conference, with the conversation to cover streaming businesses’ customer acquisitions strategies and the interface design used by platforms, as well as the effectiveness of these models in audience retention.

His 35-year career has included being a producer on more than 70 films, a studio executive on over 60, and a co-head of three production companies.

He is known for co-founding the production/sales company Good Machine, which produced some of the first films of Ang Lee, Hal Hartley, Michel Gondry, and Nicole Holofcener, among others.

It was his extensive work in independent cinema that led him to be appointed CEO of start-up streamer Fandor in 2014.

Founded in San Francisco three years earlier, the New York Times described the company as aiming to be “Netflix for the Sundance Crowd”, housing a catalogue of independent films, classics, silent films, foreign films, documentaries, and shorts.

Hope said it was during his time at the service, which was acquired by Cinedigm last year after laying off nearly all of its employees in 2018, that he began to see the streaming business in a new light.

“I walked into something where lots of folks were more experienced than me on the tech side of things, so they had no hesitation in telling me what they thought the business was,” he said.

“You recognise that streaming is an audience acquisition business – that’s how you win.

“Instead of being single titles based on the revenue they generate, which is what the movie business had been for 100 years – it’s now about the lifetime value of a customer to the platform.

“And so movies and series are just the device being used to keep someone subscribed. It’s about a portfolio of titles that are targeted to a specific audience segment.”

Hope was exposed to the inner workings of the streaming business on a larger scale through his time as co-head of movies at Amazon Studios, where he was initially hired to grow the movies team and focus on prestige films.

In the five years from 2015 to 2020, he oversaw the acquisitions of titles such as Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman, The Big Sick, and Cold War.

Despite having a “privileged seat on the ground floor” early, his role began to evolve as the company grew.

“They hired me to bring in a specific type of film, which was ambitiously authored, willing to dream, and more about quality than anything else,” he said

“We were allowed to do a variety of genres and styles for a variety of audiences, and it was more making sure we had films that critics and that film-loving audience would respond to.

“Eventually, you have to expand beyond that and that was in process while I was still there but it’s inevitable in any large-scale enterprise that you have to widen the aperture and bring new things in.”

Hope’s tenure at Amazon coincided with an exponential rise in the popularity of streaming services that has accelerated since the pandemic.

According to the Motion Picture Association (MPA), subscriptions to online video services reached 1.1 billion globally in 2020, with their prominence leading studios to experiment with theatrical windows for new releases.

The producer said it was “curious” how behaviour was starting to shift amid an abundance of product and a shorter marketing period, noting the impact on certain types of movies, such as documentaries.

“I think some of the boldest forms of expression are in the non-fiction space, where people are playing with new forms of storytelling,” he said.

“Yet at the same time, other pieces of film from the traditional non-fiction space, such as investigative tales, or truth to power, become more complicated because either they might offend someone in the supply chain or other business sector the global conglomerate is in.

“So those films start to get pushed out and then you see this other phenomenon start to develop, where it starts to feel like a lot of the work ends up being almost the equivalent of comfort food – things that make you feel warm and fuzzy but don’t challenge your assumptions.

“Something that has been part of the pleasure of documentary films for a long time is precisely the fact they reveal forgotten truths or oppressed truths.”

Hope’s recent documentary work has included producing Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America and Invisible Nation – about Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ingwen – both of which are directed by his wife Vanessa, with whom he runs Double Hope Productions.

Having also transitioned into a first look deal with Amazon Studios for his feature films, Hope said his time at the company had led him to examine how filmmaking methods can be changed to ensure a higher level of quality.

“Despite the huge uptick of movies getting made, I believe we haven’t seen a proportional rise in excellent movies getting made, but we’ve seen an increase in good movies getting made,” he said.

“I’d say we still have the same number of genius films getting made every year and those are made by folks firing on all cylinders at this moment and it’s a pretty stable number.

“My question becomes: ‘If good is not good enough, and if we can’t just live with Bs, how do we figure out how to turn Bs into As?’

“That’s how I’ve tried to change my process from my time in streaming.”

Hope vs Reality: In Conversation with Ted Hope will be held as part of the AIDC on Monday, March 7 at the Forum Melbourne.

AIDC 2022 will run March 6-9 at ACMI, Melbourne, and online, with an online-only international marketplace March 10-11.