A classic movie projector blinks rapidly in the entranceway of ZEFR’s second story headquarters. The digital network’s logo flashes against a blank wall washed in sepia directly beneath a vintage piano. All of it, the piano, the projector and the cracked leather armchairs in the waiting area, are callbacks to classic Hollywood. Turning a corner though, ZEFR’s image changes drastically. A row of computers line the room’s main hub, which is surrounded by several equally teched-out offices. It’s a purposely antique-meets-tech-revolution aesthetic, and although jarring at first, it couldn’t be more fitting to what ZEFR is all about.
When the social media boom changed the face of entertainment permanently, Hollywood had a big problem. Pirating was bleeding media companies dry as the need to pay for cable subscriptions and movie tickets quickly became null with the advent of torrenting. It was then that Hollywood took on the shoot first, ask questions later stance towards licensed content online. Big media became the enemy as any content — fan films or otherwise — were taken down on YouTube and across the web in droves. It was among these legal battles and copyright disputes that ZEFR was born.
“We build tech solutions for big enterprise content owners or brands on YouTube,” Zach James, a co-founder of ZEFR, tells me in his sunlit office directly above Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice California. “Tech solutions,” to James, a former investment banker specializing in new media, means ways for big media companies to understand how and where their content is being used. “We work with movie studios, music labels, TV networks and sports leagues to help them navigate through YouTube.”
ZEFR as a digital network is simply dedicated to the idea that if curated with technology, both media companies and fans can win. “Our mission is that we want to advance the power of the fan, both evangelize and curate content. What we want to do is literally give freedom to the fan and harness that power,” says ZEFR co-founder Rich Raddon.
As a longtime director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Raddon understands the dilemma that big media currently faces. “Media owners struggle with this idea of ‘Should I let fans distribute my content? How do I deal with this?’ Our theory is, if you really want to embrace the future you’ll allow the fans to distribute this content and harness that power.”
But before ZEFR and big media could embrace the future, the old rules of what constitutes piracy needed to be rewritten. James explains ZEFR’s ultimate goal for redefining traditional piracy: “If we stop piracy if we figure out a business model that also includes the fan, that is progressing media. Allowing the fan to promote distribution, allowing it to spread. Then we believe it will be better for the whole ecosystem.”
The business model ZEFR has come up with is simple: Decide what type of fan made content could be beneficial to media companies then work with those companies to help them understand how best to support and monetize that content. This way, media companies’ content (music samples, movie clips, etc.) is being used in a way that the fan can keep up their movie review or mashup and the company that owns the content within it gets a cut. “Enabling fans is a good thing because it drives consumption of content and it should drive commerce for these media companies,” Raddon explains.
It’s a model that’s working, as January’s comScore numbers report that ZEFR ranks as the 5th most-viewed YouTube partner channel right underneath Warner Music and Maker Studios. For self-described fanboys James and Raddon though, it seems to be about more than cashing in on a mammoth Hollywood problem that needed a solution.
“We believe in the cycle of making sure that content is valued,” James says, explaining that their ultimate mission may just be to help media companies keep making the movies, music and shows they love so much. “There is the virtuous cycle that says if we can make sure that content is valued on YouTube or digitally, then those who are creating content are going to have business and be able to put more into the budgets to create more content.”
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