By Jim Probasco
According to co-founder Neal Harmon, “VidAngel lets you watch movies and TV shows however the BLEEP you want.” VidAngel is a video streaming service that applies filters, chosen by you, designed to cut out language, nudity or other potentially offensive content.
Incredibly, VidAngel’s business model makes it possible to watch full-length filtered movies and television shows for as little as $1 per night – thanks to a unique “buy and sell back” program.
Benzinga spoke with Harmon, who shared the story of the founding of the company and how the entire operation works for one of the most innovative video streaming services available today.
Benzinga: Can you share a little of your background and history before VidAngel?
Neal Harmon: Sure. I was co-founder of a company called Orabrush, which was named one of the top 10 YouTube marketing campaigns of the decade.
After that, my brother Jeffrey and I did a marketing campaign for PooPourri that was in the top 10 campaigns for 2013.
We started a marketing agency and, because we have young children, realized some of the media content creators we love don’t share our values in terms of what we wanted our kids to see.
I played with various APIs, building a filter on a movie, and it worked. Nobody else built the product so we did.
When did VidAngel actually become an entity? Was it a fast moving process?
Oh yeah. We’ve had a roller-coaster ride. In October 2013, we built out a proof of concept and in 2014, we launched an MVP (minimum viable product).
We got lots of customer feedback and then after the Supreme Court ruling on Aereo we got the idea for VidAngel. We rebuilt the product in late 2014, started private beta testing in January 2015 and made the product open to the public in August 2015.
So, what is VidAngel and how does it work?
Our tagline is “Watch movies and TV shows however the BLEEP you want.”
That means you can watch any movie you own on any device you want to and customized the way you want to watch it. For example, if you don’t want to see Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars, you can set a filter to cut out Jar Jar Binks.
If you don’t want to see nudity in Game of Thrones, you can cut that out. You have the power to watch the movie however you want.
Is this similar to Redbox, only with filters?
Actually, it’s the opposite of Redbox. With Redbox you rent the movie and pay for it every day. If you forget to take it back, you end up paying for and owning it.
With VidAngel you buy the movie up front for $20. That’s because you have to own it for us to be able to filter your steam for you. After you watch it, you can keep it or you can sell it back. The sellback price is $19 for SD and $18 for HD. So it is essentially $1 per night for SD and $2 per night for HD with sellback.
VidAngel.com New Releases section.
Talk a little bit about the filters. Who creates them? How do they work?
We have a Chrome extension that allows members to create their own filters, but it’s not very well built out. Ultimately that’s where we want to get to. People just tag the movie however they want, create filters however they want and share those filters however they want.
Until then, we have a small community of people all over the country that tag movies in preparation for them to be published on VidAngel.
If you go on VidAngel, you have a set of five tag options including sex and nudity, violence, language, alcohol and drug content and miscellaneous content which includes things like opening credits, ending credits and Jar Jar and all that kind of stuff.
As a member you create your own filter based on those five tags.
What about an indicator or key to age appropriateness?
Our members can use the MPAA ratings that come with the movie. Those ratings are owned by the Motion Picture Association of America so we can’t tell our community to “turn this Rated R movie to PG-13.” That would be illegal.
We can list the original rating and then someone can go in and apply a filter for what they want to adjust in order to show the movie to their families.
In addition, we are collecting data as people finish their movies on what they felt like the age appropriateness was. When we have enough of that data collected, we may start publishing our own age appropriateness ratings.
Do you have any data on how big your potential customer base is? In other words, is there a need for a product like this?
Before we started this business we surveyed general Americans. In addition, we talked to an adviser who owned a movie editing company. He said 48% of Americans would want to watch edited versions of movies. We did a survey years later and found the number to be 47%.
If you charge people to use a filter, the market shrinks to less than 1% of Americans. But if you empower them by letting them own a movie, it becomes a much larger market.
Each movie is a commercial business. They cut different versions of “The Wolf of Wall Street” for China and for the Middle East and for the airlines. VidAngel is a tool for a family cut. Who better to decide what the family cut should look like than the family themselves?
We believe in allowing our customers to watch movies however they want. If you want filters, VidAngel is your place to do it. If you want to watch without filters, we recommend one of the unfiltered streaming services.
How do people find out what movies and TV shows are available through VidAngel?
Just go to the website and sign up free. From there you can see everything available. We have more than 1,500 titles currently and are adding about 60 per week.
We offer the most popular TV shows, movies and classic movies and we solicit and accept customer requests. Brand new movies with over 10 million domestic sales are offered automatically.
Does everything go through the same process in terms of filtering or does it depend on the movie or TV show?
We created tagging training videos to give our community a common language. Such things as “What does graphic violence mean?” I’m amazed, for example, at how many tags there are on the move “Minions” or “Inside Out.”
You would think there is nothing in those movies that should be filtered but there could be someone who objects to body humor or a character talking back to their parents. The tagging community is way more sensitive for content rated for a younger group.
All content goes through a four-stage process – a tagger, a reviewer, a publisher and an internal review before it is published on our website. Those are unique people with no one person doing any two of those steps.
Some tags are labeled “plot essential.” If those tags are applied, the storyline could be affected. People have to make that decision for themselves – whether or not to potentially affect the plot of the movie or TV show.
What about reaction from movie studios and the movie industry at large?
We’ve communicated with all the movie studios about what we are doing about how we make them money about how our system works and the reaction has been professional. So far the studios have not had any complaints.
I’m not sure directors love the altering of their work by individuals but they also realize they don’t have any power to change what an individual does in their own home.
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