TPI Q&A with Founders: #2 — Emily Best, Seed&Spark

As part of The Players’ Impact Blog, we like to have periodic Q&A sessions with awesome people making an impact in sports and entertainment. Knowing very little about the film industry, I wanted to chat with Emily Best, Founder and CEO of Seed&Spark. So here we go…I’ll Q, you A…

  1. Alright, so what’s your background Emily? How’d you get into film tech? Tell us about Seed&Spark:
Emily Best, CEO of Seed&Spark

I did not grow up wanting to be “in the pictures.” If anything, I ended up in the movie business because I was tricked into making a feature film by my really good friend Caitlin. Caitlin is one of the smartest, most well read people I know, and the parts she was being asked to audition for were so, so insulting to women. And it’s like I woke up all of a sudden and looked around and realized that none of the women I know were being represented on screen — the women on screen were pretty much exclusively looking for a solution to their main problem which was not having a man to complete them. There was no talk of “strong female protagonists” or “complicated women.” (This was 2010, so I was a little bit ahead of the curve — but this is something that we now all seem to have recognized.) And quite honestly, it happened like this: It was after a particularly great night of a play. This group of women I mentioned was sitting around at a bar raging about the lack of representation of women like us on screen. And we were just drunk enough to believe her when Caitlin said: “Women! We should a make movie! It’s so easy!”

All of a sudden I was learning to make a feature film. As producer, I had only produced plays and shorts at that time, and it’s not the same. We needed to raise I think $85,000 to shoot on location in Maine for the 21 days plus the preproduction. We had to travel in most of the crew. We had raised some money from friends, family and fools, and we were $20,000 short six weeks before we were going to leave for Maine.

Crowdfunding had sort of just woken everyone up. Our filmmaker friends knew about it, but our friends’ parents didn’t, and those were really who we wanted to reach. So we convened one night and said, “OK, what are we going to do? What is a crowd thing, a funding thing that everyone recognizes?” That’s when we settled on a wedding registry, because everybody’s touched a wedding registry. We made a list of all the things we needed to make our film, and we put it on our WordPress website with a PayPal link, and we sent it to everyone we knew with little more than the promise of your name in the credits.

We needed $20,000. We raised $23,000 in cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and gifts of locations, goods like coffee and picture cars, services, production, tons of extras, people just loading — you know, “Can I spend a day on set and help you move things?” It was really astonishing, and it built this incredibly active community.

Of those almost 700-some people who contributed to that first campaign in some capacity, everywhere the film went on its festival run around the world, somebody who contributed to the campaign or somebody who knew somebody who contributed to the campaign showed up.

That was when we sort of thought, “Wow, maybe we’re on to something.” But it was really talking to financiers and other filmmakers that it started to occur to me that maybe this is something that we should codify and offer. The real catalyzing moment was a moment of profound cognitive dissonance. We had just premiered the film and were traveling to festivals, and women were approaching us to say “thank you, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to see a movie like this.” And then a sales agent said TO MY FACE: “Well, if you could put some lesbian erotica in it, we could sell it.” And I thought: this system is broken. That’s how it started.

2. Wow, very interesting and love how it came about. Now that you are up and running, what drives you and your team at Seed&Spark? What are the big things you want to change in the industry?

There are two major problems in the industry that also represent massive business opportunities: the first is that while movies and shows with diverse/representative casts perform better by every metric, they just don’t get greenlit as often, leaving billions of dollars on the table. In part that’s because those movies and shows are typically made by diverse writers, directors, cast and crew — who only have overall little more than 15% share of the jobs. The real problem here is sustainability for artists: the industry is set up so that artists (who because they love their job should be ok doing it for free) are the last in line to recoup anything from what they make. And the only people who can afford to make things without getting paid tend to be fairly privileged. So it just perpetuates the cycle that people who can afford to make stuff get to keep making stuff, and so on. It’s an ecosystemic sickness: the lack of artist sustainability drives the lack of diversity in content and so forth.

3. Already rooting for you. Now you are headquartered in LA. What’s the Los Angeles startup scene like?

It’s really diverse. I’m certainly not surrounded exclusively by people who are making frivolous apps. The entrepreneurs in my community are working on hard problems that represent billions of dollars in opportunity in Health Care, in entertainment, in diversifying the workforce, in empowering freelancers…When you go to an event in LA, there is always an incredible blend of creative, social and technical entrepreneurship.

4. Can you tell us about some of the crowdfunding successes and/or films you are personally proud of?

I love them all as if they were mine. But a few really worth noting:

REZ was the first big “hit” on our site from a crowdfunding perspective — they raised double their budget in the first week of the campaign before the website even worked that well (in 2013). Dominique DeLeon was making the film his deceased film school friend wanted him to make. But you can watch the pitch video (still one of my favorites) or stream the completed film on Seed&Spark.

AMERICAN TRIAL is a documentary in production that is staging a mock trial — with real witnesses and real lawyers — for Eric Garner’s murderer. It’s at the limits of what documentary cinema can help us examine, and we got this incredible letter from Eric’s widow while it was crowdfunding.

KEEP THE CHANGE crowdfunded on Seed&Spark and won the jury award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It stars all autistic actors and is just a marvel of a film.

MATTER OF BLACK is what would happen if Shakespeare could have written on #BlackLivesMatter — a short film currently streaming in our cinema.

5. Since we are a group of athlete investors and entrepreneurs, have to ask, who are your favorite athletes (past or present) and why?

First on the list is Serena Williams (duh). She embodies so much of what we need to see in the world right now, but she’s doing it by just being absolutely excellent. Also, because I am a working mom, when it was revealed that she won the Open while pregnant I have to be honest, I cried in womanly pride. Just absolute GOAT.

Chris Webber. I was 10 when I started watching the Sacramento Kings and we had season tickets all through the Bench Mob years. Honestly, could I say the entire Bench Mob (I think it was Barry, Delk, Funderburke, Martin and Pollard and also Peja)? That’s sort of how we feel at Seed&Spark sometimes — a rag-tag team of specialists whose powers combined are greater than any of us could be alone…

And then the entire Women’s World Cup team of 1999. I’ve played soccer all my life and that was the first time it really felt like women soccer players had the national stage. They loom large in my mind forever.

6. If you could have one athlete back Seed&Spark as an investor, who would it be?

Magic Johnson is someone who has been investing for a long time, but more than experience I just hear really great things about his investment team (which is everything to an entrepreneur — the relationship to my investors is one of the most important to vet!).

7. We think the sports industry can fuel growth in startups directly or indirectly related to sports. How could you see sports impacting Seed&Spark?

Many athletes also have a lot of visibility in underrepresented and under-resourced communities — whose stories (and geographies!) are often not represented in mass media. Athletes’ sphere of influence has always crossed over into show business (I mean, Sports is a show business of its own). Seed&Spark’s platform brings Hollywood-level opportunities to the new and diverse voices who will shape the next generation of our stories — and our culture. Athletes are on a constant road show — traveling all across the country gaining visibility with fans in every major market. They have a unique ability to elevate the visibility of up and coming creators on a national scale — and we have the ability to bring resources to those communities.

8. As an entrepreneur, what are your words of wisdom to athlete entrepreneurs in TPI?

You will have to get good at doing a lot of things that are unfamiliar, and even boring, in order to build and run a company. Business details, contracts, legal terms, investment documents…Don’t pass it all off before learning about exactly what you’re doing.

9. Ok, fun stuff. What’s your favorite movie snack?

Ugh. No one will like me after this. It’s Good N Plenties.

10. Eew. In one emoji, characterize your life as an entrepreneur:

11: Lastly, where do you see Seed&Spark in 5 years?

As a new studio model, perhaps in the way the original United Artists intended but did not have the technology to make happen: where creators are paid fairly, retain majority ownership of their IP, and audiences are constantly getting a fresh supply of new and diverse voices. This studio is agile and allows a much faster cycle from idea to execution, so it remains responsive to the way demographics, tastes and technologies shift.

Cap tip to Emily Best for her thoughtful and insightful answers to our questions. Please note, The Players’ Impact is not an investor in Seed&Spark — we are sharing their story for the “love of the game.” Check out Seed&Spark and tweet at @Emilybest or leave a comment here!