Since joining Vimeo as VP of content acquisitions and business development in 2014, Sam Toles has vastly expanded the video hosting platform’s content slate. The theatrical marketing vet (New Line Cinema, Warner) has filled its library with both acquisitions (Spike Lee’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,: Hal Hartley’s “Ned Rifle,” Alex Gibney’s HBO doc “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”) and original series such as “Con Man,” “Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures” and “Parallax,” the latter two via a deal with New Form Digital.
Now, in the wake of today’s announcement of Vimeo’s acquisition of the OTT platform VHX, Toles has a new toy to play with, as the platform slowly morphs into something resembling a YouTube/Netflix hybrid.
VideoInk: What has been your most impactful deal over the years?
Toles: While I’ve closed many multi-million dollar deals over the course of my career, the most meaningful to me was licensing Joss Whedon’s “In Your Eyes” within weeks of joining Vimeo. When I met the film’s producer, he expressed a desire to do something that would break the rules and forge new ground — and we collectively decided on a surprise announcement at the film’s world premiere at Tribeca. It was the first time a film had ever been released worldwide on any platform immediately following its festival premiere and was a huge risk for both film makers and Vimeo. It’s success demonstrated to us the power of disruptive direct distribution and provided the early learnings for a roadmap which we still follow today that focuses on continuously challenging ourselves to innovate around the production and distribution of content.
VI: Congrats on that deal! Has anyone shaped how you do deals? Or someone you’ve looked up to?
ST: There are a few people I need to mention here. My three direct bosses at FremantleMedia, Pete Kalhan, Olivier Gers and David Ellender each gave me incredible gifts during my time there. David taught me the value of incredibly high quality content and about building deep relationships with creators and respecting their needs and point of view. Olivier was a wizard at identifying opportunities in new sectors and challenged me to think about monetizing content in new and creative ways. Pete was, and remains, the best negotiator I’ve ever known — his reputation for being a fair and honest deal maker is legendary among those who have done business with him and that level of respect is something I continue to aspire to. Finally, Bill Sondheim and Greg Clayman who both personally mentored me and eagerly shared their experiences in problem solving at the highest level which I was able to apply in real-time negotiations while under their supervision.
VI: It’s often easier to look at someone else’s deals and think, “damn, I wish I had done that deal.” Any that you thought were standout in that way?
ST: I think Sony’s release of “The Interview” proved out of a very difficult situation that a studio could be successful releasing a title day-and-date on VOD and generate significant returns without needing a traditionally windowed theatrical campaign. The uniqueness of the circumstances, North Korea’s threat to attack anyone who released the film, forced Sony to find an innovative solution to recoup their considerable investment in the film. The threat provided flexibility with exhibitors and yielded a $40 million VOD haul within the first 3 weeks of release.
VI: And anything you think is holding the industry back?
ST: The biggest issue is the combination of the sheer volume of content created and the incredible sums of money new platforms and traditional players are paying to compete for that content. Everyone is racing to secure eyeballs and dollars from audiences at a time where consumer choice has never been greater. Networks struggle to show value to advertisers as audiences migrate to digital while digital players seek to compete with traditional networks to accelerate their growth. The nature of “on demand” media further complicates this as consumers not only have access to a flood of new content, but to the entirety of film and television history at their fingertips. This paradigm requires us to pour an enormous amount of thought and research into our content decisions and to structure deals that aren’t simply competing with Netflix, Amazon and Verizon’s billions. We win our deals by creating better opportunities for emerging and established creators alike — providing total creative control and unparalleled upside.
VI: Vimeo has been in this game a long time. You have as well. What do you think is a newer trend changing how you approach deals?
ST: The trend surrounding branded content. Vimeo has worked with a number of brands, including Samsung, Olympus, to create non-traditional brand funded short films that give control to the worlds best filmmakers to create meaningful short films to tell a brands story. Two of the films we did were just nominated for Tribeca X Awards (part of the Tribeca Film Festivals) and we’re excited to see this trend continue to grow. Its a great opportunity for filmmakers to pursue their passion projects — funded by brands.
VI: Vimeo has a creator-driven business, a talent-driven business. What do you think the opportunity is there given they are more empowered than ever as indie creators?
ST: The nature of the relationship between creator and audience is changing among younger viewers due to the emergence of social media. Since the inception of media, gatekeepers have provided a one-way pipe of content to audiences. With the advent of sharing platforms like Vimeo, creators can bypass traditional gatekeepers and present their work directly to audiences. The audience and creators engage with each other, which influences the content and deepens the connection to a point where audiences are willing to pay a premium to support their favorite creators. We see real evidence of this in both the crowdfunding phenomenon, the success of Vimeo On Demand and projects like “Expelled” and “Laser Team” which exploded on iTunes and other platforms. Further evidence of this will come through the explosion of interest based streaming channels which provide audiences a direct path to content they passionately support.
VI: In wrapping up, what would you say is the biggest misconception you hear about the industry?
ST: Simply making a quality piece of content will yield audience and financial success. There are thousands of young adults graduating film schools, being taught how to hone their craft and creative amazing narrative works. Among this generation will be the next Steven Spielberg or Joss Whedon. That creator, whomever she (or he) is, also possesses an innate sense of creating for and communicating directly with their audience — developing influencers among their constituency who will share their work across the infinite landscape of social media and by doing so, develop deep followings to support their craft. They’ll likely begin by uploading their student project to Vimeo — and it’s my sincere hope that we’ll play a role in realizing their dreams.