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An Interview with Dogfish Accelerator’s James Belfer

By Dennis Anderson

An Interview with Dogfish Accelerator’s James Belfer

James Belfer Kicks Off Dogfish Accelerator Demo Day

Dennis Anderson:  Congratulations on your first Dogfish Accelerator Demo Day 2013.  For those who are not familiar with Dogfish Accelerator, can you describe what it is? What is different about your organization? How does it work? 

James Belfer: Dogfish Accelerator is the first accelerator program for independent film producers and new media content creators. We offer seed financing, mentorship, perks, resources and office space to film and multimedia startups. But most importantly, we prepare participating companies for further fundraising by helping them develop a sustainable business model and go-to-market-strategy for their projects.

This means working with media production companies that go way beyond the traditional call of duty for filmmakers. For example, at our recent Dogfish Accelerator Demo Day, our first accelerator class of eight companies presented 13 films, three marketing and distribution platforms, two multi channel networks, and ancillary streams of revenue including graphic novels, video games, and a fashion line.

DA:  A recent TechCrunch article labeled Dogfish Accelerator as the TechStars for Film. What can the tech industry teach film producers?

JB: The tech industry can teach film startups to break out of the existing mold and find new ways to create and sell. Tech industry startups are not afraid to disrupt. In fact, tech companies like Apple, Spotify and Netflix have disrupted the way we create and consume entertainment content. Every film, new media and entertainment company needs to think like a tech startup. This means, they need to be fearless about challenge the status quo. It means to develop a sound business model to attract investors and generate revenues.  

Following what the entire Internet software industry has been doing for decades, Dogfish Accelerator teams generate revenue streams to investors through direct to consumer and B2C sales. They use multiple platforms to offer entertainment content—and even merchandised lifestyle products—to their audiences. This approach improves valuation on content IP and increases consumer traction, a critical component to secure larger distribution partnerships.


DA: How long will it take for the film industry to change—and move—to a new sustainable (and more profitable) business model?

JB: Small changes are happening every day, but it will take some time for the entire independent film and new media industry to make the switch to a new model. Like in most industries, success cases accelerate the adoption of new approaches. But until someone jumps into the new waters with both feet these success cases will be small in numbers. The beauty about being part of an independent industry is we have the obligation to test new practices and that’s exactly what our teams are doing. I have high hopes for our first class of teams. They pave the way for a new business- and technology-savvy generation of producers.  


DA: How can film producers balance creativity and profit margin goals?   

JB: That’s really the million-dollar question. Right now in the independent film industry the balance is shifted way to heavily towards creative development. As a result, incredible films are being made by incredible creative producers who then rely on third parties outside of the team to handle the day-to-day business hustle of sales. That’s a problem. To put it into perspective, when was the last time you saw a team of software developers with a great idea and product outsource their CEO? 

The balance needs to come from within producer team development, not individual producer development. With stronger teams comes a supportive, not an informative, relationship between heads of departments. And a supportive relationship between art and commerce can lead to social and financial reward for everyone involved. The essence of every project is the story—and the ability to tell a compelling story to as many people as possible across multiple platforms. To balance creative and financial goals, producer teams should look at three things: marketing, distribution and commitment to quality. 

Our teams develop their marketing and distribution strategies at the beginning of the process. Audience engagement starts with production. Marketing capital is part of the total budgets to help with the heavy lifting of aggregating communities and consumers in order to convert them into sales. Our teams don’t wait until the content is ready to hammer out distribution deals.  All Dogfish Accelerator teams have distribution secured right now, making their projects more attractive to investors. Last but not least, commitment to quality is the heart and soul of every successful film.


DA: How did you select the first class of the Dogfish Accelerator program out of 400-plus applications?

JB: We had two main criteria, the entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to produce high quality content. Film producers were asked to submit their companies, not projects. Out of the 440 applications, we picked the ones that had the ideal combination of entrepreneurial mindset and creative storytelling.


DA: How do you measure the overall program’s success?

JB: Our success is based upon the success of the Dogfish Accelerator teams, their ability to finance and produce their projects profitably. Second, we will look at the overall adoption of the Dogfish Accelerator model in the indie film industry, the ability to transform not only companies, but an entire industry. And last, but certainly not least, I want to see more incredible stories out there. I wouldn’t do any of this if I didn’t have a deep love for entertainment.


DA: Your Dogfish Demo speech emphasized the importance of marketing and audience engagement. Can you give an example of how one of the Dogfish Accelerator teams is engaging with their audience differently than “traditional” film production teams?

JB: Our model puts audience engagement up front and center, when you start producing your movie, you need to start engaging with your audience. Your customers, the consumers of the film or digital content, are the biggest assets. The more the production team is connected to them, and their lifestyle, the better they can engage with them and find new ways and platforms to distribute content, products and services.

For example, one of our teams has secured 3.5 million unique eyeballs for content distribution and marketing through strategic partnerships with blogs and online publications related to their film’s subject matter. If they were able to convert even just 5 percent of those people into sales they would generate more revenue to their company than most of the distributors I have worked with. This is the type of work that is typically done months after a film premieres. Our teams are doing this before they even get fully financed.


DA: What’s on the agenda for Dogfish Accelerator in 2014? 

JB: We’ve extended our time with through February but that doesn’t mean things will stop then. Our intention with the next three months of the program is to employ what we’ve been calling a “business studio” model. This was something I began testing the waters with once our teams once we started accepting them in August. Ultimately the accelerator model will act as the front gate for a larger opportunity that will support these and future teams far into the future. Next year, I am hoping that we will be talking about Dogfish Studios.

And of course in March we will start the submissions process for the next round of teams. All I can say for now is expect to see a lot of Dogfish around SXSW this upcoming year.


DA: Anything you would like to share with our readers

JB: The first roster of Dogfish Accelerator companies represents a new generation of fearless and forward-thinking entertainment and multimedia content leaders. They are the essence of what it means to be independent in today’s world of film and media. The secret sauce they all included to make this possible is a combination of fearlessness and empowerment. I hope that what we’re doing will inspire content creators everywhere to follow suit in this way even if they’re not part of our program. At the end of the day all I really want is a more sustainable industry for everyone.


You can watch James Belfer’s opening remarks at Dogfish Accelerator Demo Day here and see more pictures on the Dogfish Accelerator Facebook page. 

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