Blowtorch Aims to Burn through Movie Biz

Get ready to put your skeptic face on. A company raises more than $50 million from VCs and hedge funds before even launching a web site. They’re talking about people using their company name as a verb. They’re saying their model is so revolutionary they’ll have spend tens of millions of dollars on content to demonstrate it. They’re even building a companion social network.

Ladies and gentleman, meet Blowtorch Entertainment.

With such high ambitions and so much money there’s definitely a chance for a spectacular flameout here, but Blowtorch is a pretty good idea. The company wants to facilitate young people (18- to 24-year-olds) interacting with and influencing the movies they consume, by having them pitch script ideas and get a say in movie casting, wardrobe, score, trailer, and locations. Viewers will also participate in the site by bringing in videos from around the web, creating parodies and their own takes (a.k.a. “blowtorching” the content), and getting into special screenings of Blowtorch movies. Because yes, with all its money and connections, Blowtorch has already negotiated for its films to be shown in select theaters nationwide and be sold and shown by DVD, TV, and VOD outlets.

Blowtorch, which was incubated and is partially funded by Ignition Partners, is intending to make or buy six movies per year, spending “sub-$10 million” on each one. Its first movie, produced by company adviser Paul Schiff (of Rushmore and My Cousin Vinny), is called You Are Here, stars Bijou Phillips, and will be in theaters next April. (Embedded above is a NSFW clip meant to show that users will contribute videos on a similar topic as a Blowtorch move: the example here is a story about “your wildest night” meant to tie in with You Are Here.) The company has 14 people employed, split between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Rodriques stressed that Blowtorch wants to be a media company, not a content creator. Ultimately, it wants to make money from movie distribution and online advertising, not financing films. “VCs should not be making movies,” Rodriques said. So why are you making movies? “Yeah we’re in big burn mode now, but this is a big and ambitious idea.”

Taking a step back, if we look at all the forms of video content that have been webified, short-form comedy is by far the furthest along (and everybody’s doing it, many of them not particularly well). But other forms of video content have gotten way less attention, especially movies. When people talk about long-form online they mean a half-hour TV show. The best you’ll see for interacting with a movie online is a contest to create a trailer for it. We’ve heard of the “MySpace MyMovie MashUp” — but that ended up being a bit of a dud, when promises of a user-generated roles in acting and production ended up being fulfilled be established professionals.

So what are you willing to cede to users’ tastes and suggestions, and what do you want to maintain control over, we asked Blowtorch CEO Kelly Rodriques. “There is a certain reality of what it takes to make a movie,” he replied. “If you open it up to be completely wide open, could be the movie’s terrible. You could kill your brand, kill the movie, lose a lot of money.” He said, however, that he is adamant that any idea submitted by a user and incorporated into a movie will receive adequate credit and payment.

Probably the most interesting thing the company has done is establish relationships with 600 screens across the country, a mix of multiplexes and independents all located near college campuses. The terms of the agreements include weekend “Blowtorch Nights” in which the company’s movies will be shown. The company also signed a distribution deal with Vivendi that includes things like selling its DVDs in Wal-Mart.

Those are some pretty good assets to dangle in front of would-be contributors. However, the one thing the company won’t do is show its own movies on its web site, due to the terms of its distribution contracts. Customers will be directed to find the movies through iTunes or Netflix, said Rodriques.

I will say that at times Rodriques’ enthusiasm for the youth audience overpowered his knowledge of the tools he’d provide them. “If you’d like to Twitter, we’ve got Twitter networks planted,” he said of Blowtorch’s student theater nights. There’s also talk of “open API widgets” and other such hip things. Not to be nit-picky, but authenticity is very important to his target audience.