Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Net profits can be achieved

By Kate Bulkley

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For Broadcast December 06, 2012

Sundog’s freethinking could pay dividends, says Kate Bulkley

Breaking the Taboo Film poster

We’ve gawped at Felix Baumgartner falling out of space online; we’ve had director Kevin MacDonald stream his Bob Marley documentary on Facebook and cinema screens simultaneously; and we’ve watched established players from Disney to Fremantle Media set up YouTube channels, so it’s safe to say that using online to find new audiences – and how to make a business out of them – is a hot topic in TV. That may mean traditional ideas are tossed aside.

New films usually begin their journey at festivals, then get a theatrical opening, followed by the several pay windows, and finally the free-to-air channels.

But ex-Virgin Media head honcho Johnny Webb and free-thinker Sam Branson (son of Richard) are pushing the envelope around the latest film from their indie Sundog Pictures. They are using feature doc Breaking The Taboo (pictured), about the failed war on drugs, to test the theory that online can give more ‘marketing oxygen’ to a film than more traditional distribution.

So instead of waiting for the film festivals to call, Sundog launched a trailer on YouTube (201,000 views), created online promo videos featuring Richard Branson, Kate Winslet and Morgan Freeman (354,000 views) and a Twitter campaign (679 followers).

It has generated #breakthetaboo tweets from a broad church, including Alan Sugar, Mia Farrow, Jamie Oliver and (of course) Daddy Branson, who is also commissioner for the Global Commission on Drug Policy. All this culminates on 7 December with the launch of the 52-minute doc on YouTube for free.

Free may not sound like a new and exciting way to make money – until you look a little deeper. First, YouTube is sharing the advertising sold around the doc and will ‘spotlight’ the doc on its homepage (a traffic driver) as part of its marketing support.

Campaigning website Avaaz.org will launch a petition against the blanket criminalisation of drugs that will have a link to the online film, and there is a UN screening in New York this week. The plan is to keep the buzz going by creating an online hub for curated information, views and opinions about the issue.

The key to this new business model is creating buzz. Webb sees two kinds of audience: the free, online audience that will create ‘talkability’, leading to more traditional sales to TV channels.

My view is that this is all part of the online learning curve as programme makers try to figure out how to work with the new super distributors: YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Breaking The Taboo could end up as a freemium success story because of its high-profile celebrity champions and because it tackles a big and controversial subject. But the big question is whether the model can be applied to more conventional TV content.

I’m all for ‘buzz’, especially if it helps sell to traditional tv outlets, but let’s hope that digital revenues themselves also start to add up to something beyond buzz in 2013.

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