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Looking for Diversity in Film? We Talk to Sarah Tierney, Founder of We Are Colony

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So far this year, the trending word on everyone’s lips is ‘diversity’ – it unsurprisingly has a bunch of hashtags to boot; #diversity #diversity2016 #diversityandinclusion. The Oscars were heavily criticised for the predominantly white nominees, and the film industry is being urged to produce content that reflects its vast spectrum of audience members. This, amongst other key factors is at the heart of Video On Demand platform We Are Colony.

By focusing on content for an identifiable audience, offering target genre and talent driven films and having user experience at the forefront We Are Colony achieve wide appeal. We spoke to founder Sarah Tierney about her journey so far and her plans with the company.

Sarah studied  Marine Biology at university, which may not seem like the most logical route to film production and distribution, but it is if you want to go into Natural History filmmaking. She then went on to set up a production company, Clarity, at 23. After completing her studies and a stint TV running in Australia she returned to the UK, working on live broadcast, drama and social purpose documentary – something she loved. One of the first things she did was a feature documentary about child homelessness in Ukraine.

“Film gave this amazing opportunity to give a window on the world and reach a big audience”

In 2004 Sarah set up Clarity, a production company dedicated to current affairs and social purpose film. They produced for Channel 4, BBC and independent films, spanning the world, including making films in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and South Africa. The shift of value from the major broadcasters towards independent production companies had greatly impacted the market but there were still gaps and potential avenues to exploit.

“The broadcast and film sectors weren’t catching up fast enough to the opportunity around digital”

Being offered a role as head of content at digital start-up Twig in 2010 gave Sarah the opportunity to merge her experience in traditional production with her new acquired skills in digital distribution. It also gave great insight into scaling a global VOD platform. This range of experience converged in 2013 with the launch of We Are Colony.

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“Many of the smaller VOD platforms have launched fairly cheaply off licence tech and failed fairly cheaply. One of the cornerstones of We Are Colony is that we can outcompete on technology”

Since launching they’ve raised 1.4M through angel investors and funds, including Seedcamp, have registered users in 115 countries and released 60 films last year. Now some of you may be scrolling through Netflix with their vast catalogue thinking 60 films, is that it? But We Are Colony offer specially curated titles with a bundle of behind the scenes footage and extras such as interviews, storyboards and even scripts. Although their volume currently can’t match that of their competitors, the quality of film on offer and exclusive extras makes them a great option. All of this comes with no subscription fee. You just pay for the film and extras you want to buy or rent.

Sarah recognised a wider global opportunity around younger audiences and fandoms. She decided to focus on a more mainstream play, rather than the arthouse appeal of platforms such as Mubi, Curzon on demand and BFI player. Their early catalogue featured talent such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Whishaw, Karen Gillan, Judi Dench and more. It now features titles with Kristen Wiig and Elizabeth Banks.

“We try to put users at the heart of everything we do around the product”

Having an identifiable audience and tailoring content around their needs means the available content truly reflects what the customer wants. We Are Colony works with filmmakers, production companies and traditional territorial distributors as well as doing wider deals with international sales agents to acquire additional content. Their model is to work closely with the content owners to help them create the extras, which can be anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes of additional content, thus gaining exclusivity.

“It’s no longer about volume, I think, it’s about curation and quality”

We Are Colony work with over 40 licensors globally. They choose content based on whether it’s a quality film; these will  often be talent driven or have a strong genre that audiences can identify with. Extra content must be available for them to use and the films must be accessible to a wide number of countries.

By focusing on these key areas We Are Colony are able to curate for the market and not just a few individual tastes. For their latest round of funding they have made a concerted decision to use crowd funding. Aside from the high-ticket investors, Sarah is excited that some of We Are Colony’s members might buy a share and be a part of their journey.

“We see the opportunity to create ambassadors in the market for us”

They are currently raising £500K+ with a focus on scale. Product-wise, they plan to develop data and marketing intelligence tools, focusing on the loyalty/community elements of membership as well as working on a next generation video player and ensuring accessibility across platforms and devices. They hope to acquire 100 titles this year and expect modest growth within the team.

Posted 09th Mar 2016
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