The three years spent at GCI, London fueled Lee’s desire to work behind the camera as a producer that eventually evolved into a relocation to Los Angeles in order to educate himself about the inner workings of show business.
On arrival he set about trying to understand a film’s market value and solicited a job as International Acquisitions Manager alongside industry veteran Laurie Woodrow at Trans Pacific Media, an independent film distributors rep who represented 13 of the biggest independent distributors around the world. During Lee’s tenure he facilitated the purchase of many films including Slumdog Millionaire, 3:10 to Yuma, Twilight and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Working the film markets time and again really helped him understand the inner workings of how films are bought and sold, the value of each, the relationships that contribute to the deals and the inherent qualities that consistently lead to a sale, or a pass.
Lee then went on to take a crash course in independent distribution alongside another industry veteran, Seth Willenson. Under Seth’s consultancy and guidance, he managed and executed a limited theatrical release for Sundance Award Winning documentary, FUEL. He gained a valuable working knowledge of film marketing and distribution, both mainstream and to affinity groups around the world. Lee also utilized his connections to secure international distribution for the film as well as a domestic DVD deal.
Since that time, and prior to Yekra, He founded his own marketing and distribution consultancy, Waterworth Enterprises, through which he applied the knowledge and experience gained on this journey to work on the distribution of Oliver Stone’s South of the Border and Philippe Diaz’s The End of Poverty? to name but a few. This lead to an offer to head up the distribution effort on THRIVE: What On Earth Will It Take, which he accepted and has been tremendously successful having had over 5 million views worldwide to date since 11/11/11.
Startup Addict had a chance to grab a Q&A with Lee about his new startup Yekra.
SA: What inspires you about entrepreneurship and innovation?
I recently made the conscious decision to spend as many of my working days investing my effort into endeavors that align with my core values and that add meaning and purpose to my life. Endeavors that hopefully, one day, will add value to many more lives too.
Honestly, I have never once wholeheartedly enjoyed working for working’s sake. Despite making the choice to do that for the majority of my life, I believed that was the only way to pay my bills and afford the lifestyle of consumption I’d tricked myself into thinking I needed. It’s not that I don’t like working – my fiancé will happily confirm that I’m nothing other than a workaholic, whether working for myself or someone else, much to her chas grin – I just really enjoy innovating so much more, painting the vision of new possibilities that could make other people’s lives easier and more fruitful.
Entrepreneurship and innovation allow me to transform these far-reaching ideas into reality and there’s no thought or opportunity more rewarding than that for me. The opportunity to make a change is the biggest inspiration of all and where all of my efforts will continue to be directed.
SA: What got you started and when did you get “bitten” by the entrepreneur bug?
I believe it was at about 8 years old. My aunt and uncle had an old record case that they didn’t want anymore. I rescued it from the bin and transformed it into my “office” having spent hours watching my aunt busy at her desk and found myself wanting one too. Once I had arranged a stack of classic car and guitar magazines in it (my papers!) I got my aunt to take me to WH Smiths where I managed to convince her to buy me a pad of blank invoices.
Over the next few weeks I started to write up invoices for my fledgling operation, Waterworth Enterprises – no job too big or too small. I spent my spare time during weekends and holidays carrying out odd jobs at our house, my relatives’ houses and eventually family friend’s houses – washing the dishes, polishing teaspoons, hovering up, gardening, whatever was required yet preferably avoided – later on I even diversified my offering to include 30 minute foot rubs! I just saved, saved, saved, with distant dreams of leaving my hometown and visiting this mystical and magical place called California, a place that my aunt had visited just a few months prior and that she had told me so much about. It was the home of Mickey Mouse for goodness sake. Now, here I am, but the interest in Mickey has wained slightly over the years.
SA: How is Yekra setting the stage to disrupt the entertainment industry?
Ah, so many answers to this question… At the most basic level, Yekra puts the power back into the hands of rights holders, democratizing the process of digital distribution. The platform offers full control of content for the first time ever, providing a direct interface for marketing and sales direct to consumer, offering everyone the ability to cut out at least one middle man.
With Yekra, distributors can set their own prices, windows, and territorial availability for content. The portal also provides a way to monetize back catalogue efficiently. Further, a home can now be offered to many of the films that distributors turn away each month but wish that they didn’t have to because Yekra provides a cost-effective way to monetize without the inherent need for a whopping P&A spend, through intelligent cross-promotion between properties and by having community owners promote films on their behalves.
For the 95% of filmmakers who do not get a distribution deal year-on-year, they now have a top-of-the-line option for digital distribution and one clear path to transparent monetization. Then it just comes down to how good the content is, how hard the rights holders are prepared to work on marketing it within the social space, and the reception the content receives from the public. Good content will naturally rise to the top as crowd-sourcing continues to prove time and time again.
Finally, the really exciting thing for me is that Yekra provides the very real opportunity to offer a true global day and date release, to every connected device in the world. As much as people may scoff at my saying this, imagine if Batman just opened to 400 million screens at a cost $10 per screen, instead of 15,000 screens? Warner Brothers could have potentially blown all records in the opening weekend with a title like that, but I understand that’s too big of a risk for a company of that size to take right now so we need to build up to it. There is no doubt in my mind that this is where distribution model is headed, it’s just a question of when we get there and when the revenue lines cross.
SA: In your opinion, where (what industry segments) are the most opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Well, film industry specific, the cost of producing high quality content is over ten-times lower today than it was a decade ago. Low-budget, independent producers can produce near studio-quality content at ever decreasing costs. Meanwhile online video growth is exponential and shows no sign of slowing. If you’re not in the distribution game, but are interested in production, I think it’s a good time to start rallying the troops. There’s a reason why YouTube and others are diversifying into this. My vision for Yekra to develop a production arm as soon as possible.
Other than that, I believe that as long as you’re bringing a disruptive concept to the table within any industry, it’s going to be afforded more opportunity than anything else.
SA: What are three things that you love about being in the Los Angeles tech scene?
1. Having a base in LA that is so close to and involved with Hollywood really allows our company to straddle the world of entertainment and technology successfully. It’s incredible to see how the tech scene down here has matured – LA is now a legitimate hub for accelerators, VCs, startups and some of the biggest companies on the web, Google and Facebook even have a presence. It’s a perfect scenario for our startup and really offers us the ability to test and learn, ensuring that we can stay nimble on our feet as we grow, allowing us to create the best distribution strategies with our partners as possible, all without even having to get on a plane!
2. I get the feeling that everyone down here is focused on advising, promoting and really helping one another which is a way of living that I can stand for wholeheartedly and participate in.
3. The good old Californian sunshine – there’s just nothing quite like it in England. And the beaches, well…
SA: When things get tough, what keeps you going? What are some of your tricks?
Spending quality time with family and friends – eating great food, trying to catch a wave or two down by the beach when there’s time or heading out to the ACE hotel in Palm Springs for the weekend – that’s a favorite of mine. Oh, and gardening too. I really love being outdoors and in the garden – there’s nothing quite like seeing fresh organic vegetables that you’ve planted and rescued from the heat of the Valley time and time again, bloom, which then brings me back to cooking and eating… I’m a simpleton at heart.
SA: Do you have any mentors that have been an integral part of your success?
As far as mentors go, three years ago I self-imposed myself on a guy called Seth Willenson, who is a distribution and marketing veteran out here in Hollywood. Having worked in the industry for well over 40 years, Seth knows everyone and everything there is to know about how business gets done traditionally in this town. He knows what a film is worth in the marketplace and how best to sell it – information from which elements make it valuable, to the factors that drive the consumer to pick it out of a line of twenty similar products on a Walmart shelf. It has been invaluable for me to develop a relationship with someone who will share what has taken him over forty years of test and to learn from his experiences.
As for entrepreneurial inspiration, Richard Branson is pretty much my hero. I love how bold, relentless and risk-taking he has proven to be time and time again. He’s got a real passion for his companies and a great eye for business.
SA: What is one [surprising] thing about you that most people don’t know?
I used to sing on the west end stage many moons ago – I even donned the infamous Technicolor Dreamcoat for a period of my life!