VOD platform YEKRA announced today the launch of the customizable digital YEKRA theater, which, in keeping with the company’s previous single-film YEKRA player, can be embedded into any affiliate website for a direct-to-viewer VOD experience.

Since 2011, the company has been one of the major VOD platforms to offer a “traveling” (i.e. embeddable) player, allowing moviemakers to team up with interested organizations, outlets or individuals to distribute their films. These interested parties become “affiliates,” hosting a film’s player on their sites—from blogs to Facebook pages—and bringing that film directly to its target audience, while earning a small cut of the VOD revenue. The model has proved itself to be, for smart filmmakers who know their audience, a viable alternative to more streamlined and impersonal digital distribution options like Netflix and iTunes.

The new YEKRA theater is, in essence, the same idea, but expanded: If you can host a single film on your site (and garner the profits of that single title), why not host five? Or 10? Or 21 (like our own version, which plays selected indie titles like The Armstrong Lie, CBGB and Linsanity)? To this end, YEKRA has dramatically increased the range of titles available for affiliate hosting, augmenting its previous stable of specialty indies with classics like Singin’ in the Rain and mega-blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

YEKRA CEO Lee Waterworth predicts this newfound curatorial ability spawning a new age of online content options for viewers—specialized digital art-houses springing up around the “handful of online retailers peddling single editorial visions” that currently dominate the VOD market. After all, the idea that any film buff can play theater programmer, in the spirit of brick-and-mortar institutions like Alamo Drafthouse and LA’s the Cinefamily, is just undeniably fun.

The theater constitutes the latest incarnation of the evolving way we conceive of movie-watching, progressions that YEKRA and its cohorts continue to provoke. While the four-walled theatrical spectacle becomes flashier, zanier, more eventized, VOD advances in the opposite direction: incorporating film into every other aspect of the digital experience, so that you encounter a movie while reading the news, or shopping, or any other part of your day-to-day life conducted on the Internet.

“In essence,” says Waterworth, “[the theater]’s turning the destination model on its head”—by, paradoxically, creating movie destinations for viewers to stumble upon. MovieMaker spoke to Waterworth about what the theater means for moviemakers and movie-lovers both.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The theater is quite a new focus for YEKRA, which has previously been a service mainly for filmmakers, allowing them to take distribution into their own hands. With the theater initiative, though, the company is taking on the audience frontier—allowing fans to turn into programmers and tastemakers. Is this the future of Internet entertainment, as you foresee it?

Lee Waterworth (LW): Our vision at YEKRA has always been the same: build a platform that empowers filmmakers, producers and distributors to take their content direct to fans in a way that suits them the best. The core challenge that every piece of digital content faces is finding its audience. Building a website, making your content available from it and hoping people will make their own way to it seldom works, unless you have a massive in-built fan base to begin with, or, an advertising budget that will help you serve impressions to a slice of your targeted audience. Even then, in both of these cases, the majority of filmmakers do not realize anywhere near what they anticipate being possible, in terms of revenue generated from online sales.

Independent filmmakers, in most cases, need a model that allows them to do much more than sell from their own website. One that empowers them to pay off their investors, build a fan base, go on to make more films and craft a sustainable career for themselves as they go.  As the barriers to entry fall, the level of online noise increases, so now more than ever filmmakers need to get it right and work hard on building a network for distribution from the get-go. Meanwhile, studios and distributors need to find a digital model that offsets the predicted and continued decline in both physical rentals and sales, as well as their growing dependence on a handful of monolithic destinations who are treating content more and more like a commodity every day, or straight-up producing their own for an audience they own and increasingly understand.

Both problems ultimately converge on the same path – we need to create more points of digital distribution as quickly as possible. Doesn’t it seem crazy that while we still have thousands of theater screens here in the U.S., and not so long ago we used to have thousands of stores selling DVD and VHS, we now rely on just a handful of online retailers peddling single editorial visions to see us into the future of distribution?

We’ve designed the YEKRA Theater to offer a transparent solution to this key issue, enabling filmmakers, producers and distributors to break through the increasing online noise in a cost-effective way and find their audience. Anyone can become a tastemaker or programmer, exactly as you say. So long as they own a website, blog or an online community of any sort, it’s now possible to curate content from YEKRA’s growing library, that either they know their audience will love, or that they believe their users should know about. Tastemakers retain their users on their own website while they watch the content, instead of sending them back to our website or to any other online destination, and as a thanks for supporting the future of independent film, our filmmakers reward curators with a meaningful share of the revenue they helped generate. It’s a win-win for everyone involved, including end-users; they get to discover more content that matches their actual interests while doing what they do everyday – visit their favorite sites.

Waterworth, founder and CEO of YEKRA

Waterworth, founder and CEO of YEKRA

MM: What are the costs in setting up your own digital theater, and what kind of returns should theater owners hope to receive?

LW: Setting up a theater is completely free. All that you need to do is pick your films and embed your theater – and that’s as easy as embedding a YouTube player. From then on, films can be added or removed without needing to re-embed anything. Our filmmakers set their own commission rates, so I can’t offer exact numbers, but rental commissions for curators normally lie between 10 and 30 percent, while physical and digital purchase commissions lie between 5 and 25 percent. YEKRA pays out every month so long as a curator has $10 or more in their account. The key of course, lies in curators picking films that they know their community will be interested in, talk about, share and enjoy. In cases where our beta-testers have clearly been in touch with their audience, we’ve seen single curator earnings in excess of $10,000 in commissions already.

MM: Who do you see being able to take the most advantage of a YEKRA theater—individuals, like bloggers, or brands and organizations like the Dove Foundation?

LW: I see an opportunity here for anyone who likes the idea of being able to curate and deliver movies to their community. Right now there are only 10-15 meaningful retailers in the online space, yet there are millions of online communities of various sorts, each with niche specific interests and, more importantly, a unique audience. Brands are in a key position to be able to set themselves up quickly, either using our library of content, or their own, and now they don’t have to pay millions of dollars to do so. I see it more as a land grab opportunity for them, as they can syndicate their theaters and content to other sites in addition to featuring it on their own. The Dove Foundation, for example, will be syndicating the Dove theater to the network of churches that they are affiliated with, which will quickly provide them with a targeted releasing network consisting of thousands of digital screens that they control. Any other brand could do just the same with the content of their choosing.

MM: The titles on selection are quite an eclectic mix, from Blade Runner to An American in Paris to niche-interest, contemporary indies. How does your team put together this pool of films? How do you see these possible groupings complementing each other? What about indie filmmakers who might be concerned about getting drowned out by, say, Batman?

LW: Up to now, we’ve been very deliberately growing our catalogue of content slowly, working with content that we believe has a niche-specific audience that YEKRA is already invested in, or partnering with filmmakers, producers and distributors who understand who the audience for their film is.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve started to ease open the floodgates and are extremely excited to start scaling our service accordingly. As for getting drowned out by Batman – quite the contrary. My belief is that the Batman movies will help drive audiences, bringing a market of curators and users that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach. In turn, this opens up new avenues for promotion, curation and purchase for the independent filmmakers who also use our service.

MM: Marketing-wise, how does a purveyor of a YEKRA theater compete with the other digital viewing options that a film consumer has these days?

LW: I guess this question encompasses the exact reason we created the theater. There’s too much noise online. More and more content is created as barriers continue to fall, which creates amazing opportunity for filmmakers, but at the same time, the counter-effect is that filmmakers need to be even more focused on creating a great product that has the ability to reach its unique audience. Most consumers find it difficult to discover content that matches their unique interest, but people habitually visit the sites that are most important to them. The theater has the capability of taking content out to the places where people are, based on their interests, so users actually have a chance of discovering relevant content while they go about their everyday business. In essence, it’s turning the destination model on its head, based on a fundamental belief that niche channels are the future of online content.

Some titles in MovieMaker's own digital theater.

Some titles in MovieMaker‘s own digital theater

MM: YEKRA has grown into a top VOD platform for documentaries. What kinds of help do you offer a moviemaker who wants to change the world—designing an engagement campaign, etc?

LW: Thank you! Documentaries have always worked exceptionally well on YEKRA. In fact, the platform was built initially to facilitate the distribution of one documentary called Thrive: What On Earth Will It Take? When we examined what it took to make a documentary – the relationships filmmakers need to build, the buy-in that they pursue from passionate, like-minded individuals and supporting organizations – the affiliate model became a key component in helping the finished product reach its desired audience, as in most cases documentary filmmakers have little if any marketing budget available to them. In turn, this process enables YEKRA to build specific verticals of audience and curators that incoming filmmakers can utilize to their advantage, meaning that if ever a filmmaker decides to use YEKRA as part of their distribution strategy, our marketing and affiliate teams will automatically promote their content to the users in our system who we know will be interested in taking a look at it. Aside from that, we have an account management team who are always only an email or phone call away, ready and willing to brainstorm engagement campaigns, share best practices and help our filmmakers realize success as they envision it.

MM: There are some cool new features that set the YEKRA theater apart from what I think are its closest parallels: sites like Netflix, or brick-and-mortar art house theaters. Can you tell us more about some of these functions?

LW: Sure. The theater travels and can be embedded with a single embed code on any website. It can be customized with a site’s branding, look and feel. We offer custom curation, as well as niche hand-picked slates of our films that match what our current network of sites and users are interested in. Every single interaction takes place within the theater and the partner site, from trailer play to gift purchase to social sharing.

MM: Speaking of brick-and-mortar art houses, what would you say to those who lament that VOD is taking away from the much-beloved communal theatrical experience?

LW: Almost every filmmaker I’ve come across dreams of watching their movie on the big screen. It’s one of the most romantic things about the business! I conform to that dream entirely and don’t think theaters are going anywhere quickly. I do think the experience itself needs to evolve slightly, and I believe companies like Alamo Drafthouse are leading that change effectively – but it gets expensive for some folks; others don’t have the time, etc. On the flip side, I will admit that I’ve got a 60″ widescreen TV, surround sound and a very comfortable armchair at home, not to mention great broadband speed and a popcorn maker if I’m compelled to pull it out of the cupboard. And if movies aren’t easily available for me to watch when I have the opportunity to use all of that stuff, it’s pretty quick and easy to find something else to occupy my limited chill-out time. VOD is the natural evolution of the business. Love it or hate it, it can’t be ignored and fighting it is a waste of time. Just think about how many movies you could watch instead! MM

For more information on YEKRA and their new digital theater, visit yekra.com.