Kai Hasson | Co-founder of Portal A

NMR looks to introduce you readers to the top-tier talents of the evolving new media community. Right after we shook hands with last week’s feature in Venice Beach, we hightailed it to the Pacific Theaters in downtown Culver City to bring you the creative genius behind Portal A Interactive, Kai Hasson. Kai is one of those OG veterans of the pre-YouTube days. He has witnessed how the online filmmaking game has evolved from accidental one-hit viral videos to strategically planned hits. We sat down at the savoury gastropub City Tavern, where Kai challenged us to think beyond the scope of online video. When you’re playing with new media it’s not enough to get millions of eyeballs to digest your viral hit. It’s about getting those viewers to reach that “Ah-ha!” moment and then doing something with it.

Fun Facts:

What takes up most of your time right now?

Kai: Most of my time right now is spent communicating with a bunch of different members of crews with different projects. At any given time we have seven or eight projects going at the same time so our team gets bigger or smaller depending on how many projects we have. There’s a crew working on one project so I’ll be communicating with them, and there’s another crew working on another project so I’ll be communicating with them. When you’re working on all these project, sometimes one project will have a crisis. Sometimes there will be no crisis. Sometimes there will be two crises on the same day. A lot of the time, honestly, gets spent on the phone talking to people about how to problem solve or how to get ready for a shoot or how to get the postproduction done. I spend a ton of time on the phone, quite a bit of time thinking about concepts and how to make videos better, and then I do a fair amount of directing and editing too.

 How many hours do you think you spend talking on the phone or at the computer?

 On the phone now it’s like three hours a day or something. The rest of the time I’m either writing e-mails, in meetings, or actually doing my own creative work brainstorming. I try to carve out a great three hours a day where I can just zone everything out.

 What is your guilty pleasure?

 I have a few, but the biggest one is definitely sports. I’m an avid fan of sports.

Are you a Lakers fan?

No, I hate the Lakers. I’m a Bay Area guy so I’m a Warriors fan–we never win–Giants fan, 49ers fan, Cal Bears. I know all the players. It’s a way for me to get away from the job. I also play a lot of video games when I can. I spend an hour at the end of the day just zoning out. I just finished Skyward Sword Legend of Zelda.

Any pet peeves?

I have a lot of pet peeves. I’ll just name a couple, the ones that have happened recently. I don’t like when people say, “Can you do me a favor?” and then pause and wait for an answer without telling me what the favor is like I’m supposed to agree to the favor before I know what it is. When I get that I’m always like, “Tell me more.” Another one is–this one is more substantial when it comes to my work–compromise; when you’re creatively working on something and someone has one idea and the other person has another idea, this idea that compromise is a good thing. Oh, so if I cut my idea in half and take half of your idea, we got something great? Sometimes it works, but usually it’s a recipe for disaster. I think it’s more important to recognize that maybe both of our ideas are good so let’s go full on your idea or let’s go full on my idea and not compromise. I think too often in our line of work we compromise on the original idea. We work with a lot of other people who are creative, and we’re also working with clients. A lot of people want to have their say. You compromise so many times, and you get to the end, and you have something crazy that was never intended.

YouTube, Vimeo, or BlipTV? Which one do you prefer?

Well, there are very strong uses for each one. If you had to pick one, you’d pick YouTube. If you made a video, and you were thinking, “Am I going to release it on Blip, YouTube, or Vimeo?” you’ve got to ask questions like, “Am I trying to build an audience? Do I want to use YouTube to build an audience?” I find that 9 times out of 10 the answer is “Yes.” YouTube is a great way to go. Blip is great for web series because the people that go to Blip are used to web series. Blip really supports web series. They give you a lot of options with how to customize your ads. You get a higher CPM so Blip can be great when you’re making a web series. I think Blip is only good if you have a way to generate a viewership. If you don’t, if you can get a high CPM but if people aren’t watching your videos then what’s the point? Vimeo is only good for showcasing your work to clients. There’s a type of Vimeo video, a style that if you’re making that type of work then it’s good to put on Vimeo, and you can get people to watch it. Otherwise, if you’re not making that kind of stuff I don’t see why you would put your video on Vimeo.

Your favorite Harrison Ford movie, and why?

Probably the third Indiana Jones. I’ve been arguing that Harrison Ford is a good actor for 20 years, and I can never win that argument. I’m starting to realize that he’s not actually a good actor. One thing that is true about him, the one thing you got to give him is that out of all the actors ever in the history of film, he’s the one where if he gets punished you believe that he got hurt. He’s so good at getting punched in the face. I think that’s why the Indiana Jones movies are so good; he gets punched so many times. He gets wounded, he gets shot. It’s so convincing. You just feel like, “Oh man, that sucks.” He’s the perfect adventure movie star, someone that gets slammed up against trucks. He’s going to dive off cliffs. All great for 3D, but he’s old now. He hasn’t aged that well, and now when he’s acting and he’s angry, stressed out, and even when he’s happy, he’s kind of this runt and does this thing with his face. He’s not a great actor–fine, I’ll admit it–but he’s a great adventure star.

 What is the longest you’ve gone without sleep, and why?

I guess it was 36 hours. It wasn’t totally insane but it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was travelling with my business partner, Nate, in Asia. We had just done a six-month motorcycle trip, and we had just sold our motorcycles in Hanoi, and we had taken a train up to Beijing. We were at the train station, and we could have gotten a bed, could have gotten a soft seat; instead, we decided to save a few bucks to get the hard seat. Horrible mistake. We get on, and the seat is a 90-degree hardwood bench, a thousand times worse than airports because you feel the thing like a car with hundreds and hundreds of people. As we were travelling on this trip, people were asking us, “Where are you getting off?” We’re the only ones who were making a trip. Everyone else is going from one stop to the next getting off treating it like it’s a public bus. We’re the only ones who were travelling for over a day. We were like, “Are you kidding me?” The bathroom in two hours gets filled up with stuff. Unusable after two hours. Thirty-six hours – no bathroom, no sleeping. It was bad.

What is your favorite YouTube video?

That’s a tough question. I’m not sure. It’s really hard to say which one is my favorite. I can’t even tell you what my favorite movie is either. I can tell you that back in 2006 when the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy” came out, I watched that music video a ton. I thought it was so well done. That was one of the first times I went back to a video over and over to watch it on YouTube. I just kind of figured out how they made it and what the different images were. That is one that I definitely think about.

Give us a fun fact about yourself.

 A lot of people wonder what my ethnicity is. The answer to that is my mother is Japanese. My father is a Sephardic Jew, although not very religious. When I travel in Asia, everyone wants to claim me as one of their own. In Vietnam, they were like, “Oh, you’re Vietnamese, right?” and in Cambodia they are like, “You’re Cambodian,” and in Japan they were like, “Oh, you’re Japanese.” Only in Mongolia they were like, “Oh, you’re from Kazakhstan.” Then a lot of people were like, “Oh, Kai. You do look like you’re from Kazakhstan.” I guess people from Kazakhstan are fairly tall, they look like they’re half Asian, and a lot of them have facial hair.

Just to introduce you to our readers, what is a typical day for you? What do you do for Portal A?

My official job title for Portal A is creative director. I’m in charge of making sure that we make really good videos that represent our company and our clients, and fit into our brand. Within that, I manage people in post, and I’m directing most of our shoots, and if I’m not, then I’m managing the director. I am working with the rest of the team to do pre-production even though I’m technically the producer on any of our videos. I’m an entrepreneur. Portal A is kind of a start-up company, although it’s 3-years-old now so it’s fairly old. There’s a lot of business stuff that needs to get done and relationships and meetings.

So you’re kind of wearing multiple hats then?

Yeah. The company is very small. There’s three main partners: myself, Nate Houghteling, who is the executive producer, but what he does is that he’s in charge of lead generation and he produces. Then there’s Zach Blume, who’s our managing director, and he’s running the show behind the scenes and dealing with the business end of things and operations and managing clients. We’re a good team because we all know our role. There’s a lot that goes into running a company and making videos, so we have to wear a lot of hats but we’ve figured it out. What we do on a day-to-day basis; we start out by checking in with each other. Each of us have our own work to do but we start by checking in figuring out what we’re doing. Sometimes I’m working very closely with Nate. Sometimes I’m working very closely with Zach. Sometimes there’s a crisis for one of these projects where we’re trying to put out fires. Other days I’m on set shooting. Other days I’m looking over the shoulder of an editor or I’m editing myself. It really does vary, and that’s what’s nice about it. It’s not like we show up and it’s the same thing everyday.

Give us a brief history about yourself. You graduated from Yale in film studies, then you jumped to Hanoi, Vietnam to make “Huge in Asia,” and then you’ve also started your own company, Portal A, and in 2010 you did “White Collar Brawler.” What were the signs to give you the go-ahead to start producing online videos?

Back in 2004 I was a film studies major at Yale, which wasn’t that cool. It was kind of like a literature major. You watched a lot of movies. A lot of theory. The one cool thing about it was that we had a lot of really amazing speakers come. A lot of the film industry went to Yale so a lot of the people were coming back and talking to us. One of the messages that was consistent back then was, “You guys should really think about the Internet and how that can affect filmmaking. Things are changing. We don’t know how it’s going to change but look out.” 2004–this was before YouTube–I was kind of like the only one in my class to take that to heart. I think a lot of other people just decided to do regular film, and if you look at their careers now, a lot of my classmates are doing traditional film. In 2005, I made my first web series called “Bathtub Yoga,” and I tried to convince everyone in my class, those that were film studies majors, to come help out. “This is the new thing. You guys will make the film, and if 50 people see it then I’ll make my show. I’ll get 1000 people to see it. Isn’t that amazing?” It didn’t really catch on to them but I really enjoyed it. That’s when Nate, who was going to Harvard, started writing for my show. We knew each other from kindergarten so when we graduated and we got some money saved up, we decided to buy a Canon GL2 and go make a web show in Asia, and that’s how it all begun. The belief was that we were on the cutting edge. It’s time to become masters at internet video before anyone else does so we’re well-positioned when the shift happens. We weren’t necessarily correct in all of our thinking, but that was the general philosophy back then. “White Collar Brawler” took place on Twitter, and a lot of it took place on Facebook. It wasn’t just about the video itself. I think what we try to do is you have your video, you’re making a web show, but you want to think larger. You want to think, “I’m making a property.” The property at its core is the video, but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s happening around it. There’s events, there’s merchandise, there’s the characters on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a brand that can now be ported to the cellphone, it can go to TV. Now all of sudden, you’ve created something that’s hundreds of times more valuable than just the show itself. If you’re thinking about it from a business point of view, which I think most people seriously doing web video should think about, you’ve got to think of your show as a property. A lot of times you can’t monetize web video. You can monetize the things around it though. “White Collar Brawler” monetized the events.

Kind of piggybacking off of how you said that people involved in web video should think about the businesses of things around the video, a lot of people say, “Hey, can you make me a viral video?” For that, specifically, is there a benchmark of number of views that a viral video should hit and the amount of mainstream press it gets? How do you measure whether or not this viral video did well or was this even a viral video?

When we’re typically making viral videos we are working with a client. The client will say a lot of times, “Hey, can I have viral video?” and the first thing we ask them is, “OK, what do you mean by ‘viral video,’ because there are a lot of different definitions out there.” Some people were actually talking not about views when they said that. Some people are actually talking about a style of video. When they say “viral video,” a lot of them are talking about a look, a type of audience that watches them. It’s not always about views. When they are talking about views, we have to kind of define that with them. Back in the day, a viral video used to be 25,000 views. Now, most people won’t say that 25,000 views is viral. 10 million views now is like what 1 million views was three years ago. The bar is always moving. We never like to hold ourselves to a certain amount of views. If you want views, there’s marketing. Whether you’re a brand or a client you can pay for views. There are different ways to pay for views. Some of them are just like, “OK, we’re going to get people in Ukraine to watch our video, and they will never buy our product so those views are absolutely meaningless other than getting you on certain featured lists and what not.” There are more targeted views where you’re using Facebook and you’re using YouTube TrueView to get people in your demographic that you want to hit to watch your video. It’s basically marketing, right? To us, it’s not really about straight views. It’s more about conversion. What is your main goal? Why are we making this video? Oh, you want people to buy sweatpants? Or you want people to vote something on the June ballot? Or you want people to go to your website? OK, that’s our goal then. Now our goal becomes, “We want to get the most people to vote ‘yes’ on the ballot” or “We want to get the most people possible to go to that website.” Now our job becomes much clearer and much simpler. It’s not just about getting anyone to get a view. It’s about constructing content with a driven purpose. How do you make a video that’s going to get a good click-through rate? How do you make a video that’s going to get someone to show up on election day and vote for something? It’s not as simple as making a video and getting a ton of views. You’re actually trying to do something else at the same time.

So at the same time, if they say, “I want a viral video,” that pretty much means, “I want you to make a video that will help my goal be accomplished.”

Right. If they want a viral video, a lot of companies don’t think it through completely. They’ll just say, “I want a viral video.” A lot of companies are very smart though. They know, “I want a viral video because X.” Why do you want a viral video? Tell us why you want a viral video. That is what we’ll try to accomplish. It’s not about getting 10 million views on a video. It has to be a certain video placed in certain places so a certain audience watches it. For example, we made a video for the mayor of San Francisco. He’s running for re-election. His name is Ed Lee. We made a music video with MC Hammer; it was a parody on “Too Legit to Quit.” 500,000 people saw that video. Some ways, that’s not a viral video. If you look at that video versus what Freddie Wong does, every single time he puts out a video, it’s nothing. But that video was seen by people who were voting in San Francisco. That video wasn’t meant to get people all across America or all across the world to get the video. It was meant for people in San Francisco, and a ton of people in San Francisco watched that video because it got a ton of press in San Francisco and it got in all the blogs in San Francisco. The majority of those views were from San Francisco. Ed Lee ended up winning the campaign and the election, not necessarily because of our video, but if you look at the stats the day our video came out–it was about a week or two before the election–Ed Lee and his rivals were mentioned on Twitter more times than they were mentioned on election day. That video actually became a big thing in terms of awareness for the election for people in San Francisco. That’s what I’m talking about. 500,000 is not necessarily a viral video, but it did the job.

Do you believe there is a specific formula to creating a viral video?

 No, there are certain rules you want to follow but you can break them certainly. The more rules you break, the harder it will become. For example, it’s easier for a short video to be viral because viral videos are competing with a lot of other things for your attention. The longer the video, the better the video has to be because every second the video is longer it’s another reason for someone to click off. If you’ve got a 4-minute video, it better be good for every second that video goes. If you got a 30-second video, well, you just need 30 seconds of good. You can break that rule; you can go long. You can make a 30-minute video and be the most watched video on YouTube, but it has to be good, and it has to keep people captivated. I wouldn’t say there’s a formula, but there are rules that you want to use, and you can break them. I think that people who are doing well on YouTube probably have their own set of rules, and it’s really a way for them to create their own brand. It’s not just about “Is there a formula to make a viral video?” It’s about “Is there a formula or a set of rules to making videos that are in my style and have the potential to go viral?” That’s a brand. It’s following your own set of rules to make your own types of videos, and over time you make your videos and you have a type of brand that goes viral.

So you’ve worked with a variety of clients like YouTube, Microsoft, and Mashable. In your company’s about page it states that you combine vision with execution to produce measurable results. Can you elaborate more on this?

We’re a business, and it depends on who you’re communicating to; you need to get across the right thing. That sentence is a bold one, and it’s something that we really pride ourselves on. It’s also something that brands who make videos really want. They don’t just want to throw around money and go make a video and get lots of hits. It’s more than that. They want measurable results. They want data. They want numbers. That’s what the sentence is all about. We come up with great ideas, we execute on them, and then we show them the numbers. That’s what’s been a problem with online videos – it’s been so opaque. What does a view mean? What’s going on here? Do you get paid for that? YouTube is getting better with giving more analytics. BlipTv has great analytics. We use those analytics to communicate with our clients and show them that we’re doing a good job or a bad job. The other piece of that sentence is that when we were making our company we saw a lot of companies that had a lot of vision but they did not execute. Then there were companies that can execute but were making bad stuff. We wanted to get across the fact that we’re going to have good ideas and we’re going to get the job done. Sometimes, execution is more important than the idea itself, especially in the web video space. It’s changing. It used to be like you separate yourself by being able to execute. A lot of people have a camera, a lot of people can press record, but it was hard to make something really good.

How do you define positive results in your industry? Is it the amount of views it gets, the amount of sales, or the amount of social media following?

It kind of goes back to what I was saying. The clients do tell us, and we ask them. We’ve had clients that said, “We don’t care about the views. We want fans on Facebook,” or “We want to get followers on Twitter,” or “We want to get votes on election day.” That’s how we determine it.

What was one of your favorite campaigns that you’ve implemented for Portal A, and why?

I think my favorite was the one I told you about, Ed Lee. That one was just executed so well. Our whole team, every piece of it; Zach, Nate, the people who we were working with, the stars did their job too. Film is obviously a collaborative medium. It’s the same with internet video. I think that people forget that often because you don’t necessarily need a ton of people to get something done in internet video but it still is an art form where you want to use as many people as possible. Give them different roles and have them do a great job. When you’re dealing with internet video, it’s more than “How do we get this production off the ground?” It’s also, “How do we run a Twitter campaign? How do we do those Facebook ads?” With Facebook, we tested a bunch of keywords and a bunch of pictures ahead of time to see which ones get the best click-through rate so that when the video released we knew it wasn’t a picture of Ed Lee that was getting the most click-throughs. It was a picture of Brian Wilson, the San Francisco Giants’ pitcher; he has a huge beard, and he was getting the most click-through rate. When our video came out it was a picture of Brian Wilson that then got us a ton of views. There’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of thought and a lot of people each thinking about their own piece and owning it. That’s why that one was so good. There’s been others, but that one. And Ed Lee won the election.

How do you think new media has changed the film industry, and to what extent? Do you think that web video will go the standard release route of mainstream Hollywood content in the near future?

I don’t know how soon, but as certain things start to happen then there will be more money in internet video, and when there’s more money in internet video, mainstream Hollywood will come and they’ll bring their professionalism and storytelling and what not, and it will be a great day for many people; viewers, I think. It will be a very bad day for some others. Like I was saying, one of the problems with making money on the Internet with video is the measurable, the data, that is slowly being solved. So now when we have the data we can serve ads to our video, and advertisers are more likely to spend money online as opposed to TV ads because it is measurable so more money comes in. There are a bunch of new original shows for Netflix coming out.

What upcoming projects can we look forward to from you?

We have four big projects coming up. We have one for Benefit Cosmetics. They are releasing a lip gloss, and we’re making a music video for them which I think is going to be really cool. We’re making a video for Airtime, which is a start-up company started by Sean Fanning and Sean Parker who did Napster. Airtime is a lot like Chat Roulette but without nudity, so we’re making their launch video. There’s a video we’re making for Yes on Prop 29, which is being paid for by the American Heart Association and Lung Association. At the center of the campaign is this really cool social media plan and the video that we’re making, and we’re fighting big tobacco, which is about to drop around 4 million dollars on TV ads. It’s going to be very hard to win, but we have a plan, and so we’re going to try to do it. It’s really hard to get someone to watch a video on taxing cigarettes. That’s the thing, that’s what makes what we’re doing very hard, and when we’re successful then we’re all very happy and patting ourselves on our back. It’s really hard to make a video about something, anything; a lip gloss, mayor of San Francisco, tax on cigarettes, anything enjoyable to watch, whereas before if you’re not doing something for a client you can make a video about virtually anything; you can be very true to your heart. It’s going to be very hard to do that but I think we’re going to. I really do. I think we might have a chance of winning too. Another project that is really cool is for Mashable. We’re making a 16-episode web series about the startup company taking a product to launch. It’s called “Behind the Launch,” and it’s modeled after our other show, “White Collar Brawler”. Microsoft came in as the lead sponsor.

How long are each of the episodes?

3 minutes. Very quick. You’re trying to tell a story. That’s the thing about short form and internet. How short do we have to go? Is it possible to tell a legitimate story about real characters with feelings and do it in less than 3 minutes?  If you can do it in 2 minutes that will be incredible. In a minute, amazing. To me, I don’t like the idea that all internet video has to be short. If we like characters, we want to connect with them, we want the story to be told; let’s give it some time. Don’t make the job for the video creator so ridiculously hard. We’re supposed to entertain you, get you to learn about a character and feel for them in a minute and a half? It’s just insane. I am happy to see that stats show that people are watching longer and longer videos online. It’s a great thing.

Finally, congratulations on receiving the documentary award for “White Collar Brawler”! In a previous interview you said that it took somewhere around $30k to produce it. What advice do you offer for those who are looking for funding for their own projects?

I really recommend thinking of your project as a business and thinking of yourself as a CEO or a member of a start up company. What we did was that we created a business plan around our web series. It wasn’t just about monetizing the videos. A lot of people have subscribers on YouTube so that’s not starting from scratch. You can guarantee some type of view. For a lot of people you’re starting virtually from scratch. You can’t count on your views creating the money; you need other ways to create money. So what are they? It can’t be as simple as just, “Oh yeah, people are going to be fans of my shows so I’m going to be able to sell them t-shirts.” No one is going to believe that you’re going to sell t-shirts to actually pay for a show or pay back an investor. The way that I like to think about it is like, “What can we give viewers that will enhance the show so that when you’re watching the show the product that you’re selling gets better, and what product makes the show better?” For “White Collar Brawler” it was pretty obvious; it was for tickets for the event. There’s different types of viewers online. There are people who just want to watch your video, there are people who want to comment on the video, and then there’s the uber fans who are willing to shell out 50 bucks because they really like your stuff. Why not give them a great reason to give you money? It was an event, and we sold VIP tickets for 50 bucks, and they sold out like mad because if you were a fan of the show getting there to sit and watch the fight made the show better. Everything just worked. Think about this: you can make a show about cheese, and you’re making a show that talks about cheese, and you’re actually selling cheese. Maybe you have a cheese of the month club for when the videos come out. There’s your “Aha” moment because “Oh! This is why you’re on the Internet because I’m eating cheese and watching a show about cheese at the same time. I’m a fan of cheese. Now the experience of eating cheese has just become more interesting because I’m eating it while watching the cheese-maker take me through a tasting. You got to think like that. Then you go to an investor and say, “This is my business plan. Will you put down some money?” I think that if you’re talking to the right investor and you have a good business plan you’ll get money. For us,–I’ll just plug him right now–Rob Spiro, who I went to college with was really down with “White Collar Brawler,” and he was like, “I will put down a large sum of money to get this off the ground because I believe in it.” We sold him the idea of a property, not just a single season of a web series. We were like, “If we do well here, we’ll have a property that will have events and we’ll possibly go on TV, and it’s been an option for television so he’ll make his money back and more, so you’ll need a business plan. That’s what I recommend.

 How can we stalk you?

 Portal-a.com is our website. @KaiHasson for Twitter. Can I give a plug to my business partners? As the creative director of our team I get a lot of people talking to me because my job is a sexy one – getting to figure out and talk about our videos and what goes behind them. The three of us, me, Nate, and Zach all have a ton of creative input and we’re a creative team. So much has to go into it from a business and producing point of view that all of it is a three-headed monster. It’s not just me.

**Be sure to also check out Portal A’s White Collar Brawler and their new Microsoft/Mashable show Behind the Launch!

Photography by Melly Lee

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