Zack Coffman is an experienced producer who has been making and distributing films since 2005. His latest project is LiveSciFi.tv, a live-streaming ghost hunt that saw 5 million views in just three days last month. He sat down with iMedia to discuss the state of digital video today as well as some of the insights he gained from his latest venture.
iMedia Connection: Can you tell me about your experience with "LiveSciFi -- the Live Streaming Ghost Hunting Show"? Did you have any surprising demographic discoveries? Do you think the show would have worked as well on traditional TV?
Zack Coffman: My business partner, Scott Di Lalla, had an opportunity to go on a ghost hunt with the team as cameraman, and when he got back he said the show really had something new and special so we partnered with the creator, Tim Wood, to produce and distribute the show. Tim had a nice following already, and we felt with the right push and grass roots marketing effort we could take it to a new level. Honestly we never expected the response it got -- 5 million views in one weekend. We knew that women liked this kind of content because a similar demographic had been responding well to our recently finished feature Ouija movie "I Am ZoZo." I guess the fact that it appealed so strongly with teens (male and female) and older women (for different reasons) is what excites and challenges us going forward. I think the live interactive nature of the show is what makes it so fun and creepy. People can text the team with evidence and screen caps of what they witnessed on any of the quad cams, and the team can go over it live on camera. Also there's the whole aspect of being there with the team as they canvass real haunted houses, which is probably not something easily achievable day-to-day for most people.
iMedia: Is there a viral catalyst for digital video?
Zack: I'd say the most important catalyst is content. With all the massive amounts of video content being created these days, in the end compelling content is still king.
iMedia: What are the prime digital audiences? Are niche audiences more valuable online than in traditional?
Coffman: It used to be a much younger crowd getting video online, but these days, older people are finding ways to view content as the barriers are becoming easier to surpass. My mother and father both watch content on YouTube or various homepages. They also stream content through their DVD/BD player. I would say that niche audiences are important everywhere, but it's easier for an independent filmmaker to reach them online since TV broadcast is basically a closed market. We believe very strongly in identifying the specific groups to which our content appeals.
iMedia: How do you make money with digital content?
Coffman: We generate revenue through advertising (as in YouTube, pre-roll, in-stream, etc.), through iTunes, Amazon, YouTube rental, traditional DVD sales, and our own online streaming site StreamTown.tv.
iMedia: What are the big breaks in digital? What can online video producers do to create "buzz"?
Coffman: Apart from scandalous or salacious content, which always generates its own buzz, we try to hit people right where they live. We always say that you should make content that appeals to the heart as opposed to the head; someone will always reach first for what appeals to their hearts. If your content really appeals to people, even in a very particular group, they will help you pass it along, which makes your social strategy that much more effective.
iMedia: Are there "tipping points" (a clip being featured somewhere, someone tweeting it out, etc.)?
Coffman: It always helps to have someone with a lot of engaged followers give a shout out, and that initial burst of energy is really important for a clip to gain ground. For instance, our film "I Am ZoZo" features young actor Caleb Courtney, the older brother of Joel Courtney (Super 8), and Joel tweeted the trailer for us, which helped give it some steam. Some big sites like DreadCentral and About.com also posted it, which helped greatly. It's very important to engage in active PR for any project to really take off. Almost nothing gets discovered completely on its own. "Planning" for your clip to be the next Honey Badger isn't really playing very good odds.
iMedia: With more big names entering the digital content arena daily, what's the digital landscape going to look like in the next six months? The next year?
Coffman: It's very exciting to be on the forefront of the digital scene. We've been actively exploring the space since 2005, so I think there's a skill set that develops -- a "feel" for it that gives us a competitive edge over the big boys coming in and throwing lots of money around. It's still the Wild West and with hard work, good independent content can still have a voice. People need to demand that the internet remain free and open.
iMedia: Where are the richest opportunities in digital video?
Coffman: We're storytellers, so for us it's about telling interesting stories first. I really like all the indie shows popping up and hope the monetizing of it starts to work better as advertisers and sponsors realize that online is as important as or more important than traditional broadcast.
iMedia: What is the most effective way for brands to get involved in digital entertainment content?
Coffman: I really like the branding model that has been getting more weight lately, as opposed to traditional clicks and impressions. Finding organic and creative ways to integrate a brand into a show doesn't lessen the message of the show as long as it's a natural placement or message. People need to eat, drink, wear clothes, drive cars, etc. Showing a good product in a good light is the same as recommending something you like to a friend, albeit 5 million friends at a time. As long as you pursue that path, the brand comes out ahead and the content comes out ahead.
iMedia: Can you envision a digital FCC? Will digital content be monitored in the same way traditional is at some point? How is it monitored now (if at all)? By YouTube's monitoring system? Web hosts?
Coffman: I'm very progressive when it comes to censorship and "monitoring." I believe the monitoring comes from education and parenting or teaching. Speech shouldn't be censored. (However, it should be noted that I do ban racist trolls from our chat rooms because our chat rooms aren't "public"; we want to give our users a fun experience, and besides, life's too short.)
iMedia: What are the benefits to having online content? What opportunities does digital entertainment provide that traditional can't?
Coffman: Online content is much more readily available than traditional; kids watch while walking through the halls at school; adults watch while at work or while multi-tasking at home. The interactivity and immediacy of online is really magical. There's definitely a convergence happening between traditional and online.
iMedia: According to the DCNF website: "The great divide that separated digital content from broadcast media is shrinking. The time people used to spend watching is now spent interacting and what was a simple search engine yesterday is now a go-to source of news, information and entertainment." How do you feel about that statement?
Coffman: Very much agree. It's a wild, wild world.
View Coffman's next airing of a new LiveSciFi ghost hunt on May 29 and 30 at LiveSciFi.tv.
To hear from more viral voices, check out our interviews with Issa Rae, Erik Hoffstad, and Shawn Kohne.
Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.
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