Thursday, 18 June 2020

[Interview] - Matkai Burmaster giving Indie Film a voice with Fearless

Films are made to be seen and in the world of independent film competition to be seen is rife. Film festivals bring an audience and recognition, but it's all over in a few days. YouTube as a global platform is so vast that it can hard for a film maker's work to be seen. Although platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime do feature some independent titles, too many are left by the wayside, especially minority voices. 'Fearless' is a streaming service specifically for the independent film market giving a platform and a voice with focus on diversity inclusivity.  

The service co-founded by Matkai Burmaster, features films created by and for people of colour, women, LGBQT, indigenous, and disable people, all with a mission shared by Cine Bijou - to support indie film. Since it was founded over three years ago 'Fearless' has built up a library of films and series of all genres with stories from all walks of life. We sat down with Matkai to talk about the building of 'Fearless' it's mission to support indie film, and the rising popularity of independent films.  



I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, which is about five hours north of Toronto and it's a pretty conservative area. I moved when I had just finished high school to Toronto where I've lived ever since besides this short blip in New York City that I'm in now. I started off as an actor then went to university for acting, hated it dropped out after a year, and then I went to film school. That's where I really found my passion. I've been a filmmaker creating movies, I've acted in some of my own stuff as well and then at a certain point I realised that I didn't have a great platform to put my work on. I know you've talked a little bit about how sometimes for independent filmmakers it's tough to get that attention because the media sources are so heavily invested in Hollywood. So, I created a streaming service that was meant for independent film, in particular, focusing on the independent film that doesn't seem to get noticed, inclusive independent film that feature LGBTQ, women both in front and behind the camera, as well as by people of colour; so that's black indigenous and people of colour, as well as people with disabilities, mental health, all the kind of little niches that because they are niches tend to not get the viewership they deserve. 

So when and how did 'Fearless' come about?

It was really after college I started up with somebody that I studied with at college. However I didn't actually start making any of these projects until college was over. At first I did collaborate with the people that I had studied with and then over time I grew that network to collaborate with more people. In the beginning I was just creating films and series, I was not thinking about running a streaming service and in fact it's not something that probably would have ever crossed my mind except for the fact that once I had made this content I couldn't find a home I'd like to put it on. I didn't want to put it on YouTube and have it free for everyone because I know how hard it can be to monetise content on YouTube, and out of the streaming services that existed it was either I try to make something with a huge budget and try to give it to Netflix or I use the model that a lot of filmmakers use which is they don't actually make the thing they just try to pitch it to everybody and get somebody else to pay for it. Alternatively I could make it myself with a low budget, and I could distribute it myself on a streaming service, and that's really what I wanted to do. So, in searching I couldn't find a platform I liked and so Deanna and I said at the end of the day, "What if we just made our own? What if we just made a streaming service for ourselves that caters to the ideas of what we would want in one?" Turns out other filmmakers were on board with the idea of what we were doing.

So you came up with 'Fearless' with Deanna,  was anybody else involved?

It was just us. We're very entrepreneurial and took a risk; we just started it up by ourselves. Of course, now we have a team of curators, developers and everything else but when we first started it was just me and her. We started with zero dollars just whatever was in our bank accounts and we had no ambassadors or anything like that - we just took a risk.

Fearless Pioneer Matkai Burmaster
How did you set up the platform itself? How did you get it designed and then implemented?

So when we first started we used an out of the box streaming service that already exists to help other people create streaming services. It really was meant more for someone who just want to put their fitness videos out there and charge for them. It wasn't really meant to be a full on streaming service. Over time we grew and we added a team of developers who built us a custom solution; and that's where we are today. So right now we're on iOS and Android. We have TV apps coming soon - Apple TV and Roku - and then down the line we'll have a web version as well. A lot of streaming services start with the web version but we just we just knew that starting with apps was probably a better choice so that's where we began.

Okay, so how long has 'Fearless' been operating then as a business and as a platform for independent films.

We've been around for three and a half years.

That first year that you launched. What challenges did you face, and how did you go about overcoming them.

Well, there's a bit of a 'which came first the chicken or the egg' scenario. It was hard to get new filmmakers on board because we didn't have very much content and we also didn't really have any members at that point, we had maybe 10 members. So at the beginning, it was a case of "how do we get more filmmakers whilst at the same time get more members?" Basically to get more members we need more films. That was the biggest struggle at the beginning overcoming that hurdle. At the end of the day it was just about hitting the pavement and trying to get more filmmakers, and more members simultaneously. I would say the first year was really tough.

So, virtually then you had to use almost old school word of mouth to attract the filmmakers and members.

Yeah, we did. We started going to film festivals and just trying to network with as many filmmakers as we possibly could. There are definitely filmmakers who are members, and they also put their content on 'Fearless'. So there is some crossover there but for the most part the members are not necessarily filmmakers. So, reaching those people typically are the kind who would go to film festivals and that's kind of how we started. Networking at the beginning to let people know that it existed. 

Which film festivals, did you approach. Can you remember?

Yeah, so we're located in Toronto, so we were mostly working with those festivals in the Toronto area. We also work with one festival in Oklahoma, who worked with one in the UK. So we spread ourselves out a little bit. At the beginning that first year we had no money so we were just doing whatever we could and it was mostly within the Toronto area. 


One of the many Independent Film Festivals supported by Fearless
In terms of identify then how did you differ in the the market from the bigger platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime who fund and screen their own small selection of independent films. Do you think that those platforms, helped you tap in to the taste for more independent content?

That's a great question. I'm not sure whether it did or not. The truth of the matter is that the the types of content that those platforms bring on in terms of independent content is generally the more premium or high budget project now there are exceptions, and there are some titles like 'Okja', for example, I'm not sure if you're familiar with that one, in which Netflix funded the project so they had quite a bit of control over it. However, I'm not sure if that made a massive impact or not. I think, to some degree, those big platforms are putting out this kind of content because they want to win awards. Yes streaming platforms don't currently qualify for all the awards so they're trying to push the industry forward so that streaming platforms are on par with the companies that are releasing movies in theatres. I think right now with COVID and everything that's happening it's just giving them more reason to say "listen there's no difference between an online release or a theatre release at this point."

So in terms of the content of 'Fearless' then, what sort of titles what sort of kinds of films are you attracting and making available to your members?

At the end of the day we're here for indie film, and we're also here for film that breaks boundaries and and increases inclusivity. Our content spans across genres. There's definitely titles that are more politically charged or that are more controversial in nature. And then there are other titles that are quite similar to what you might expect from the mainstream networks. At the end of the day we love the fact that the filmmakers themselves don't have to change their vision to fit our mould and that's really the most important thing to us. Now you mentioned earlier how the different platforms have original content which they fund, that's something we've actually tried to avoid because a lot of times when a network funds content they actually change the filmmakers vision, or they may be watered down. They may even provide more feedback and influence than may be necessary and had the filmmaker been able to just create the content that they planned it might have been a stronger piece.

No plans on a purely financial level to just start backing the work of filmmakers and even lay down a mandate that you would not interfere creatively? 

Maybe, at some point down the road if we look at investing financially in content we may within those parameters put something in place, exactly what you said, that creative control must remain with the filmmaker as that's something we're not willing to compromise on.

After three and a half years of meeting challenges and rapid growth how is 'Fearless' doing now?
  
We're doing great. Now when we first started we were in US and Canada only, and now we're in seven countries; we've added the UK and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa a big chunk of the English speaking world. Our platform is really only English we have a few that are non English titles, but really our audience is English. We can't be everything all at once. So we're doing great and now we're at the point where we have enough content to attract members, and also there's no qualms from a filmmakers point of view. At the beginning filmmakers would say, "Well I'm a little worried because you don't have a lot of content" or "you don't have a lot of members." That's just not a factor these days now that we've built our library up to a much larger catalogue. It's pretty exciting and I love the content that's coming out right now. I've seen some submissions from some filmmakers who have made content in quarantine which is kind of neat. We haven't launched any of those titles yet but it's something we may do. We approve every title - Amazon Prime is a great example because the filmmakers put up their own content and as long as it meets Amazon's technical requirements it goes on. No problem. We don't do it that way, everything on 'Fearless' is curated so we have a team of curators that review every single title submitted. We kind of make sure that it fits both our technical and our standards in terms of inclusion and and pushing the world forward in positive ways.

Sounds good. So what's the feedback you're getting from filmmakers from members, or causal visitors, and reviews?

I think the general feeling from the point of view of members and filmmakers is very positive. Many members like that this is an indie service that we don't have to sift through because with other indie related things sometimes there's what some may consider junk mixed in with gems. So what we do is we kind of filter that in a way where we hope that everything on 'Fearless' is something that is likely to be enjoyed by our members. It doesn't mean that everybody's going to like every title of course not. What it means is that we've watched every title with a fine tooth comb and we've made sure that no anti - inclusion topics are placed in films in ways that we deemed to be inappropriate; so for example we actively make sure that racism and homophobia, etc. are not included in non LGBT titles or non.  We ensure that these inclusion elements are part of every title, and if they're not part of the title that they at least don't create a downslide from the progress made on other titles.

So anything that kind of excludes those voices (for example 'Mississippi Burning' has been accused of omitting the stories of African Americans, portraying the FBI agents as white saviours) I would imagine  you would be very hesitant to put that on the platform?

We might. We review every title on a case by case basis but all of this is extremely subjective which is why we never allow just one person to make decisions, it's always decisions by committee and so we let the majority rule. If one person feels it is not quite appropriate but the rest of the team thinks it is a good choice to put it up then we may put it up and we may put in an advisory with it. As you know, what may not be appropriate for certain viewers can sometimes be quite powerful.

I see so what titles that are currently streaming have grabbed your attention that you would highly recommend?

There is a series called 'Giving me Life in the Land of the Deadass'. It's about people living in New York City, a group of friends, and each episode of the series points the lens on a different member of that friend group. It really kind of dives into elements about each one of them and shows you how within any situation in life seeing different perspectives can be extremely valuable. I think that has some some artistic merit to it. There's a film from Bulgaria called 'Getting Fat in a Healthy Way.' It is a sort of a futuristic film in which the idea is that we've destroyed our planet to the point where gravity no longer works as we expect it to today. So If you're not a heavy enough person you will actually float up into the sky. So then people are starting to make themselves much more heavyset in order to keep their feet on the ground. It's kind of a social commentary on our inaction in keeping our planet safe and healthy, and at the same time it makes some statements on obesity, anorexia and eating disorders in general. I think it has a few different angles, and different people watching it may perceive one of those elements and not the other which I think that's the beauty of it as well.  There is a film called 'Is it just me?' It's quite campy, and it's what you'd expect of a camp gay romantic comedy, but it's from 10 years ago, and it's still very popular today and quite interesting how the filmmakers have made something that despite its campness -and while sometimes it's good to watch something new - has stood the test of time. A lot of film makers consider that to be quite an achievement if it be enjoyed many years later. So I think that's a title where if you like camp it's a great option if not then it's probably not the title for you.

So what's the plan moving forward in terms of - not just  expanding membership and content, - but any plans to diversify the 'Fearless' brand, to maybe include a festival or a film award of sorts?

We have sponsored a couple of film festivals, and we love doing that, we'll continue doing that. In terms of us offering our own kind of awards of any kind, we just feel that there are so many wonderful film festivals that we could support instead of creating something like that of our own that we'd rather just support the ones that exist and help them flourish. At the end of the day I think we're a platform where people come to enjoy content. Although we're a curated service I would never want to provide awards to specific titles, it's not something we're interested in, but supporting film festivals definitely another angle of things we're trying to do. We call our company 'Fearless' for a reason, we want to try and be innovative, try new things, and some of them may work, some of them may not and that's okay; we're willing to take risks. One of the things we're working on right now is a couple of pieces of some content that's a bit different than what you might expect. We also have some titles coming out that are audio only, you may compare them to an audio book, perhaps but they are more character driven so they have multiple voices of actual voice actors voicing them, similar to what you might expect from a radio show but modernised, or a radio play. We're also trying to bring forth some interesting options for example, our mobile apps are the bread and butter of what we do. Apps like 'Quibi' that just came out are offering vertical viewing and that's something we're developing as well so we're working with a couple of filmmakers that are going to be offering vertical entertainment, actual shows and movies that are shot 100% vertically as opposed to horizontally.



That's interesting. Now the independent film market really has grown exponentially over the last 10-15 years. What is it you think about independent films that has people flocking to various film festivals and screenings and to your streaming service?
  
I think at the end of the day independent films tend to have very unique story lines and characters in ways that are sometimes watered down in Hollywood projects. I think people flock to the independent projects sometimes because they're not always perfect they're not always polished but they tend to offer some really visceral reactions or emotions, and I think that the thoroughness of it. That visceral element I think maybe is the number one reason that people enjoy independent films.

And it's platforms like yours allow for these stories to be told. I guess if it was just down to the cinema market these films wouldn't get a look in would they?
  
Yeah, exactly. We built our app in a way that is very similar to the other streaming services, it's very similar to what you'd expect from Netflix or Hulu in terms of how the app looks and functions. However the content is very different and that's the area where we want our app to be easy to use for anyone whether they consider themselves indie film lovers or not they can pick it up and know how to use it. It's easy to use but we hope that they'll be exposed to some things that are new to them. Sometimes the challenge with that is you open the app and you go "well I've never heard of any of these," but hopefully the kinds of people who enjoy independent film love the idea that they can check out something that they may know nothing about.

There is something quite appealing isn't there about a film with a director you've never heard of a writer who is probably in their second or third project, like a cinematic magical mystery tour.

Absolutely and the interesting thing about indie film as well is sometimes there's a director or a filmmaker who has such a strong vision that they'll actually pull someone that you do know on board. Sometimes we see one of the actors, a quite well known actor that will join in this indie project, and those kinds of things are really cool too. We have a bunch of films on 'Fearless' that feature a well known actor in indie projects and I think that's quite neat.

I don't suppose you want to name the title of the film and the actor?
  
Oh sure I can -  there's a title called 'The Key' on 'Fearless' which stars David Arquette, and Bai Ling. The film is quite experimental, it's a little bit art house and I think it's neat that those two, thought it was a great project and wanted to jump on board.

Obviously filmmakers hopefully reading this will want to know how they can be involved and how they can submit projects for streaming. So could you go into a little bit of detail for them?

We have an online submission programme. All filmmakers can submit a film, it takes  less than 10 minutes to submit. From there our curators review each title if it's approved then we send a contract their way. They then send us the deliverable and then it gets a release date set. It's pretty much that simple and we've tried to make it as simple as possible.


For more information on how to sign up as a member or to submit your film;

Website:        https://fearless.li/
For creators: https://fearless.li/forcreators/
Twitter:         @watchfearless
Facebook:    watchfearless
Instagram:   watchfearless
YouTube:     fearlessnetwork

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