DramaFever, the US-based VoD platform for international content, recently received major backing from AMC and Bertelsmann. Its co-founder Seung Bak tells Andrew McDonald about its expansion aims.
New York-based DramaFever launched in August 2009 in what co-founder Seung Bak admits was a “classic bootstrapped start-up type of situation,” though impressive growth, with a content offering that currently consists primarily of subtitled Asian Drama, has won the firm some big-name supporters.
This month the firm announced that it had topped up its US$4.5m Series B round of founding, which had initially closed in March, to the tune of US$1.5m. Investment came from cable network AMC, Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and NALA Investments – a firm that manages investments for the Diez Barroso Azcarraga family, which founded US Hispanic nets Televisa and Univision. Machinima co-founder and CEO Allen DeBevoise and LowerMyBills.com founder and CEO Matt Coffin also contributed, while former Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow joined the firm as a strategic advisor.
“This wasn’t exactly planned,” says Bak. “Financially the company is very strong, it’s just that we had an opportunity to partner up with some really good media companies and it was less about money and more about building relationships with long-term strategic partners.”
This partner interest was piqued by a strategy that Bak admits is “counter-intuitive.” Operating in a market infamous for its dislike of subtitles, where drama formats are routinely remade rather than imported and transmitted in their original language, DramaFever has made a point of targeting a native North American audience – rather than expat communities – with foreign content.
“We’ve demonstrated success with an approach that is quite unconventional in many respects,” says Bak. “What’s really getting people excited is we’ve built an audience that’s largely non-Asian, with Asian TV content. Our audience today is about 75% non-Asian. So what people are realising is ‘Imagine what they can do with content from Latin America, great shows from Europe and other parts of the world.’ We’ve demonstrated an ability to build a whole new audience for our content owners.”
With DramaFever now attracting some two million monthly unique visitors, it’s unsurprising that the likes of AMC are interested in what the firm might be able to offer.” AMC are very big on TV drama and they’re excited about the possibility of us building an interesting international distribution platform for content in general,” says Bak, unwilling to divulge any specific details about what the network might be planning.
With cash in the bank, DramaFever’s plan is to now broaden out of its content offering. Launching in more countries and on more devices is also a major focus for the firm in the coming year.
DramaFever already has deals in place with the likes of KBS, MBC, SBS, CCTV and Shanghai Media Group, offering what Bak claims is practically simulcasts of popular Asian shows, such as A Gentleman’s Dignity and Gossip Girl-style series Boys Over Flowers. Shows get updated to the service within 24 hours of their Asian broadcast, often subtitled into English by DramaFever’s crowd-sourced team of 50 to 100 professionals, helping the firm to compete with pirated content.
The firm has now set its sights on bringing Latin American content, Asian pop music videos and Bollywood film to the service, though it is unlikely to stop there. “What we look for is content that has global storylines, formats that could carry over very well, regardless of language or culture.
“Korean dramas have certainly demonstrated that, particularly in Asia and other parts of the world. We see similar potential for Latin American telenovelas, and then as we look into the rest of the world, there’s great content getting made in Turkey right now that we’re probably interested in,” says Bak.
Distribution is also a major consideration. Though DramaFever runs a curated spot on Hulu for Asian drama content, Bak claims that this generates only roughly 20% of the firm’s traffic. With this emphasis on its own platform, it is looking to looking to polish its cross-platform credentials.
“We’re just rolling out our device applications,” says Bak. Though DramaFever is available in the US on Roku set-top boxes, the firm has only recently developed iPhone and iPad mobile web options, with an Android product still in beta.
“Our goal is, over the next 12 months, to make sure that we’re integrated into the big TV manufacturers’ latest TV sets, and we want to work with the games console manufacturers over time to make sure that DramaFever is available really for anybody. Part of the reason why we raised capital was, frankly, so that we could go hire a lot of engineers to build the applications on all these different devices,” says Bak.
This also ties in with the firm’s business model. Though DramaFever is primarily focused on its free, ad-supported content offering in order to encourage user growth, a US$9.99-per-month premium subscription option gives users an ad-free version and faster access to content on mobile devices,
In terms of international focus, the firm aims to grow outside its current markets of the US and Canada and hopes to launch in “Europe and/or Australia” early next year. “Part of the reason why we’re excited to partner up with Bertelsmann is because they obviously are very well entrenched in Europe, and we think they’re going to be a great partner as we build a market there,” says Bak.
With TV content, particularly drama, becoming ever more international in terms of production values and themes, Bak believes DramaFever is well placed to capitalise on this global opportunity. “We’re at the forefront of making sure that that content becomes available to people all around the world in the language that they understand.”