My Start-up Life

My Start-up Life

Photo credit: Phil Chin

Photo credit: Phil Chin
As president of FanTrust Entertainment Strategies, Catherine Warren has spent the past 12 years leading entertainment companies through the shift to a fan-based multiplatform universe. Now her business is a global leader in fan-building for mass media and new media; galvanizing fans from around the world to interact with their favourite TV shows and games through social networking and helping companies create new forms of compelling entertainment.

By Catherine Warren

I remember my first digital experience. I walked into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studio-cum-laboratory where the artist flashed me some 30-foot long, rainbow-coloured, 3D naked body parts. I never looked back.

Not pornography, this was an early taste of holography, one of the first digital art forms where light was the new kind of clay or paint, and a lab set-up with lasers and prisms looked more like my physics class than any garret I had ever seen or imagined. The Holy Grail, said the artist: figuring out how to get rid of the rainbow and replace it with flesh-tones.

Elsewhere on the same campus and in New York’s SOHO district, the digital tones were musical notes. Here I met the early pioneers of computer music, creating “symphonies” from synthetic instruments. Their sound wave analysis was truly brilliant, some of their music less so. But what my ears couldn’t love, I still found irresistible, the creation of audio from what seemed like nothing.

Flash forward 30 years, digital holography has become medical imaging and computer music is good old iTunes. (The first saves lives, the second we can’t live without.) And happily my work is still a mash-up of creativity and technology – and the ultimate business of taking entertainment to market.

I grew up on the West Coast in a family of entrepreneurs. My dad had the patent to the early AIDS testing kit and my mum, CEO of Inside Information, was an online search goddess since before the public Internet. Always lots of talk about financings, closings, patents-pending, new- and mass-media, there was never a whisper of work-life balance. That’s cool, because for me it’s more about “will it blend” than will it balance.

From my parents I learned the thrill of innovation and I still look for it in every deal that I do for FanTrust, our clients and in my board work on the Bell Fund, the United Nations digital media flagship World Summit Awards, and others.

Living and working internationally in my early career, in New York, Geneva, Austin and London, helped me appreciate different corporate cultures and legal systems, while testing my negotiation skills. One job involved setting up a European bureau for a Texas computer-publishing house where the first order of business was getting my UK staff twice the paid vacation of the US CEO. Evidently, even when the law is on our side, we still need diplomacy!

Later, after working with Microsoft to set up its multimedia publishing division with titles such as Encarta, I moved back to Vancouver to find it transformed into a global city with an emerging video game industry and some great broadband innovation. Together with a couple of partners we built a broadcast technology company. In the boom we took it public on the Nasdaq big board, growing it to a $300M market cap with big clients such as CTV and Fox, delivering some of the first 24 hour news on-air, online and on mobile.

There are still far too few C-level women leading publicly-traded companies. So, while I am happy to have been counted in this group, the broad work is not over until group size counts.

These early lessons in “culture brokering”, entrepreneurship and public company finance helped me to establish and build the international business that I run today.

I started FanTrust about 12 years ago with a focus on digital strategy, deal-making and audience building across popular media, including television, games and film. At that time, strangely, the entertainment industry didn’t seem to appreciate the power of consumers: Hollywood counted only bums on seats, broadcasters tracked only Nielsen ratings and game publishers tallied only retail sales. Audiences were certainly not valued as partners, they were invisible!

I set out to lead clients through what I saw as an inevitable transformation: a shift to the fan economy.

Today we see fans playing all sorts of roles in the TV value-chain. As investors, fans contribute 30 percent of all their crowdfunding dollars to media content, about $4M every month on the popular campaign service Indigogo. As your promoters, fans serve as part of your marketing team, linking to your download sales and monitoring spoilers. Social media fans also spend more than other consumers, and they generate recurring revenue – a much better measure than simple ratings. And when fans upload your content on YouTube, that money goes to you. At FanTrust our goal is to get you collaborating with your fans on these activities and everything in between, such as casting and co-production. With all of this effort and devotion, you could certainly call me a “fan-fan”.

We’ve created fan strategies for some of the world’s top TV shows of all time, including the CSI franchise and helped build fan hits from development through multi-season pick-ups, including Sanctuary, Ice Pilots, Kid v Kat, Rookie Blue, Motive and dozens more. Our approach is always highly customized, when it comes to fans there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

We also position our TV production clients to better collaborate with broadcasters on social media and second screen apps. Everyone wants a hit, but the work of hit-making has changed, with both networks and producers playing a direct role in connecting with audiences.

And of course the broadcasting world continues to change. The Emmy Awards, where I serve on the international jury and Academy nominating committee, now recognizes digital productions. Today we guide our clients in pitching original series to Yahoo, Hulu, YouTube and other “new broadcasters” who not only distribute library video, but who now help finance content development and production. When Nokia and Orange Telecom France formed a strategic alliance to identify, fund and distribute new mobile games, they called on FanTrust to build momentum among their premium game developers.

Our international clients also include eOne Television, a leader in acquisitions of all stripes – from companies, to output deals to primetime hits; the Mexican government program TechBA, which uses FanTrust to help open new markets for its animation and game companies; and TV2 Norway, which has a national subscription service competitive to Netflix. Our YouTube business includes advising top talent as well as top multichannel network BroadbandTV, which recently signed a $36M investment deal with European broadcaster RTL.

In many ways our job at FanTrust has become easier with the advent of social networks, smart phones, smart TV’s, apps and YouTube – to name a very few recent developments. But, at the same time, the digital world is now far more complex. So our clients rely on us to sort out the digital sizzle from the steak, to rank and deliver returns when it comes to choosing the right digital partners, technologies, social networks and formats for their rights.

Ultimately, we are the digital bookends, doing the deal-making and the fan-building that gives today’s media properties their underlying value. It can take a leap of faith to negotiate a digital partnership, say between a TV producer and a game developer or a set-top box distributor. And many of these deals involve revenue sharing. Only with the audience, through the lifeblood of the fans, will these deals be profitable for everyone.

This article originally ran in Reel West, page 12, February 2014