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Fast Forward Awards 2024: Danny Fisher — Leading the AVOD/FAST Pack Media Play News

March 3, 2024

It’s lunchtime at the Beverly Wilshire’s THE Blvd restaurant, and Danny Fisher hustles in with the look and mannerisms of a film director straight from Central Casting. He’s stylish and hip, with a shock of red hair, designer glasses and sport coat, and jeans.

He sits down and immediately beckons the waiter, ordering a hearty egg breakfast that remains untouched the entire 90 minutes we’re there. He’s here for an interview, and he’s laser-focused on telling his story — and explaining the “secret sauce” that he’s used to build FilmRise into what he says is the largest provider of AVOD content and syndicator of FAST channels in the world.

Since launching the company in the basement of his Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone in 2012, shortly after filing for personal bankruptcy, Fisher has grown FilmRise from a DVD distributor of forgotten TV shows such as “Forensic Files” and “Unsolved Mysteries” into a global enterprise with 100 employees, a library of 25,000 titles and a network of nearly 400 FAST channels — as well as a proprietary AVOD service comprised of a growing number of apps that typically mirror FAST channels, such as FilmRise True Crime and FilmRise Western. He won’t say what the privately held company is worth, but speculation is that annual billings are approaching $200 million — virtually all of it from ad revenue shared with such major AVOD and FAST platforms as YouTube, Amazon’s Freevee, the Roku Channel, Tubi and Pluto that regularly turn to FilmRise for content.

Fisher is being honored this year with the sixth Media Play News Fast Forward Award, which is presented each year to people, technologies, organizations, products or services that move the home entertainment industry forward.

And moving forward is precisely what Fisher excels at, from that fateful day more than a decade ago that he took a deep dive into social media and other metrics and came up with a unique way of discovering movies and shows “that people want to see, versus what the industry thinks people want to see.”

“When we started the business, the whole concept was to identify content that people want to see,” says Fisher, an Israeli by birth and New Yorker by choice, and one of three sons of Holocaust survivors. “So we figured out a data analytics methodology that allows us to do precisely that.”

Simply put, this analytics methodology — FilmRise’s secret sauce — consists of analyzing social media and other chatter about old TV shows and movies and comparing it to that of hot new series and films to identify unrealized demand.

“The heart of what we do is find under-the-radar content that performs so much higher than what people expect,” Fisher says. “And since we operate under revenue-sharing, we don’t want a license fee — we want roughly half, 55% or more, of the advertising revenue, and it aligns so well for us because the platforms know we can predict what the viewing is going to be and they basically say, ‘You’ve given us something we’ve never even heard of, and it’s blowing away our originals.’”

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One of FilmRise’s first deals was acquiring the rights to “Forensic Files,” a TLC documentary series about how forensic science is used to solve violent crimes, which is now one of the most popular, and most ubiquitous, FAST channels in the world. “When we first surfaced, honestly, nobody wanted it,” Fisher says. “So when they approached us, I went on Twitter and, with a stopwatch, counted how many times people tweeted out something about ‘Forensic Files.’ Then I used, as a control group, some big, popular HBO show. And I found that every five minutes there was a tweet about ‘Forensic Files,’ while for this big HBO show there was only a tweet about once every hour. I thought, this tells me the interest in ‘Forensic Files’ is so much greater than this big comparative HBO show, so I took that and used other types of social media sentiment and other metrics, pretty much open source research, to figure out what people really want to see.”

Initially brought to market by FilmRise through Amazon’s disc-on-demand service, “Forensic Files” became a huge hit, both on disc and, later, on YouTube, through the early Partner Program. So did another vintage TV series, “Unsolved Mysteries,” launched on NBC in 1988 and hosted by Robert Stack.

“There are two types of conventional analyses where people analyze a movie or show,” Fisher says. “One is where you get a committee together, look at the content, and then people make subjective decisions — ‘Wow, I really love that’ or ‘I really hate that.’ We don’t do that. Another method is a financial analysis — how much money has this made over the last five years? We don’t do that, either. We don’t feel how much money something has made means anything in terms of how much money it’s going to make in the future — it might have made lots of money on cable TV or broadcast television, but we’re in a whole new world.”

Time and time again, Fisher says, FilmRise’s proprietary data analytics methodology has helped the company strike gold. “It’s taken Netflix, up until a few months ago with ‘Suits’ really blowing up, all these years to really understand what we’re able to bring to the table,” Fisher says. “I was at a luncheon recently and was incredibly flattered when two major studio executives came up to me and said they used to sit around at these think tank meetings and say, ‘How do we do what FilmRise is doing?’ I hear that a lot. Honestly, the platforms and OEMs are always calling me and saying, ‘What are we missing out on? What’s going to be the next big thing?’ People have really come to respect FilmRise for what we’ve done.”

One of FilmRise’s most recent acquisitions is “Death Valley Days,” an anthology Western TV series that ran in syndication from 1952 to 1970, was executive produced by Gene Autry, and counted among its hosts Ronald Reagan. “You wouldn’t think of that as a ‘Squid Game’ or ‘Succession,’ but I can tell from the kind of consumer sentiment we’re seeing that it’s going to be a blow-away hit,” Fisher says of the series, which FilmRise will begin rolling out through the first quarter of this year. “It’s never been on AVOD — only SVOD, on Starz, I believe. And it’s just one more example of this boutique kind of content we find. We’re looking in a different place, and most of the time we’re the only bidder in the room. Seriously, can you see Netflix picking up ‘Death Valley Days?’”

From time to time, Fisher says, one of FilmRise’s investors will question this strategy. “They’ll say, maybe your audience is going to die out, because this is kind of like nostalgia stuff,” Fisher says. “But take ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’ There was a study last year of the most popular FAST channels by demographic, and for the youngest demographic, 18-24, the No. 1 FAST channel was ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’ That tells me these shows that FilmRise has — ‘Dick Van Dyke,’ ‘The Rifleman’ — are picking up new audiences.”

Early to the AVOD Table

Content alone, however, isn’t the only factor behind FilmRise’s steady rise. While the company began in the DVD sellthrough business, it soon steered toward digital distribution, becoming an early mover in the ad-supported streaming space — a lucrative market that according to Digital TV Research estimates is expected to generate a whopping $69 billion in global revenue by 2029, up from $39 billion last year.

“We identified the AVOD opportunity at a time when everyone was focused on SVOD,” Fisher says. “I remember years ago talking to people in the industry, investors, and everybody thought I was insane. They were like, ‘What are you talking about? There’s pennies to be made.’ Well, I never look at the pennies. If something makes one penny, and then the next month it makes two pennies, I don’t say I’m in the penny business, I say I’m in a business that’s doubling every month.”

Fisher foresees further growth in AVOD, particularly on the international front. That’s why expansion into other markets, which now account for less than 10% of FilmRise’s overall revenues, is critical — and at the top of Fisher’s to-do list.

“I think AVOD is going to blow everything away,” he says. “Let’s take a worldwide perspective on AVOD. How many people around the world can afford even a low-tier, ad-supported SVOD subscription, let alone 10 of them? You can’t beat free. Cheap is not free — free is free. Sometimes I wish we could go back to the days of Milton Berle and just three networks — no log ins, no credit cards, no privacy issues — you just turn on and watch. The U.S. market is more mature than anywhere else, but there are something like 200 countries and territories and in the vast majority of them people are less well off than we are and they simply can’t afford to pay for SVOD.”

Danny Boy

Fisher was born to Holocaust survivors Alan and Esther Fisher in Haifa, Israel. His parents had moved to Israel shortly after it was established in 1948, and soon had three boys, Joseph, Jack and Danny. “My mother had been in Auschwitz when she was just 16,” Fisher says. “And the fact that they had survived the Holocaust informs every sense of my being. I don’t take anything for granted, and every time I hit hard times, even when I went bankrupt, I think of what they went through and I think, ‘Oh God, this is nothing.’”

In 1959, the Fisher family emigrated to the United States, settling first in the South Bronx and then moving to Brooklyn. Alan Fisher worked in the garment industry; Esther was a teacher.

As a boy, Fisher had a split personality of sorts. On the one hand, he was a math whiz, placing third in a citywide math contest while in the 11th grade at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. But on the other, he developed a keen appreciation for the creative arts, taking up stone sculpture and regularly taking the subway to the Museum of Modern Art to marvel at the works of Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist who is considered one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century and a pioneer of modernism. “I would just look at [Brancusi’s works] and say, ‘Wow, this is perfection,’” Fisher recalls.

In the end, the creative side won out. “I was offered a free ride to MIT, but I didn’t want to do that,” Fisher says. Instead, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Binghamton, studying psychology and spending much of his free time tooling around with an 8mm film camera his father had given him in his freshman year.

“I had this fear of speaking in public, this phobia about speaking and getting in front of the class, so I decided to make films — any term paper or presentation could be a film,” Fisher says. “I got straight ‘A’s in college because nobody had a projector to watch this stuff — they just figured, ‘This guy must be brilliant — he made a film.’”

After college, psychology degree in hand, Fisher decided he wanted to become a film editor. “I knew I’d be good at it,” he says. “I knew some people who had film editing shops, all union shops, and I went to visit them and said, ‘I want to get into the union — will you sponsor me?’ And they said no, you’ll never get in, you can’t get in. Well, when people say no, when people reject me, when they say you can’t do this, you won’t do this, you’ll never do this, all that does is fire me up. So I got depressed, I got angry, I hit my head against the wall, and a day later I said, OK, you know what? They said no, and I’m going to make it a yes.

“I looked up who was the president of the film editors union, and I went to their headquarters at 630 Ninth Avenue and walked right up to his secretary and I said I want to speak to the president. She asked me if I had an appointment, and I said no, but I’ll just wait in the waiting room. And that’s what I did. Eventually he comes out and he’s looking at me like ‘Who is this guy?’ so I told him who I was and that I really want to be a film editor and he said, ‘You’re in’ — just like that. A week later, he called me and said, ‘I got you a job at ABC Sports.’”

At first, Fisher thrived at his new job, but he soon tired of the routine. “I worked on the Olympics, a lot of sports films, the movie The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, but I never became a big-shot film editor — and do you know why? Because I realized I didn’t want to. So after six months I went to my boss and said, ‘I’m quitting,’ and I told him that with all this overtime I was making a lot of money but it’s not my thing to punch the clock. He offered to double my salary, and as I was walking out the door he said, ‘What if we tripled it,’ but it really wasn’t about the money. I remember thinking this might have been a dumb move, but I had saved up a lot of money so I didn’t work for half a year — I got married, traveled, and only then started thinking about what comes next.”

Danny Fisher as he appeared in the 1984 documentary ‘A Generation Apart,’ a film about his Holocaust survivor parents and their descendants.

What came next was a partnership with brother Jack in directing and producing movies. The two made what Fisher calls “some pretty fantastic films,” including A Generation Apart, a film about their own family and the impact of the Holocaust on both survivors and their descendants. The film, shot in cinema verité style, was highly praised by critics as well as fellow filmmakers and was even shown on PBS.

“We didn’t make it for money or fame — we made it because we wanted to express what our parents went through and what our family dynamics were,” Fisher says. “Our view of success would have been showing it to 16 people in our garage. Instead, it went on to PBS and theatrical showings and we even heard that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were admirers, saying, ‘Wow, this is an amazing film.’” (A Generation Apart is currently available for free viewing on Tubi and as a $3.99 digital rental on Amazon’s Prime Video service.)

And yet, at a certain point, Fisher says, “I realized that as much as I wanted to be a director, a producer, a creative, I would never be a Coen Brothers or Spielberg or Tarantino. So I found my strength more as an entrepreneur — I was good with people, good with investors, so the reality is I just went with that.”

Bright Lights

The Fisher brothers opened their own company, City Lights Media. “We took on editing jobs, commercials and eventually corporate video jobs like training films or films for financial firms and brokerage houses,” Fisher says. “Our third brother, Joseph, joined us at a certain point — he’s an artist, a talented painter — and we eventually got an office and opened up a post-production facility.”

City Lights soon moved from corporate films into creating and producing television shows and movies. “We created 63 TV shows that went to the pilot stage, 20 of which went to actual series production — including ‘Chopped’ for the Food Network, which is still a massive hit,” Fisher says. “And our movies include The Ten, with Paul Rudd, Jessica Alba and Winona Ryder, and A Dirty Shame, from director John Waters.” City Lights customers included ABC, Disney, MTV, Lifetime, The History Channel, Oxygen, AMC, and others. The company also moved into distribution, licensing dormant TV shows and pitching them to syndicators and other potential buyers. Another revenue stream was webisodes for TV networks and sponsors, including “Book Obsessed” for Barnes & Noble, which won the company an Emmy.

But then came the Great Recession, and almost overnight, the heavily leveraged City Lights went bust. “On the macro side, we weren’t alone — everybody was going out of business,” Fisher said. “But on the side that I could have controlled, I should have done a better job managing the overhead. We had 400 employees and $25 million in annual revenue; now, with FilmRise, we have 100 employees and my annual billing is many, many, many times more — so we have much greater revenue and a quarter of the staff.”

As City Lights began its swift descent into insolvency, Fisher took a look at the content the company had produced and distributed over the years and noticed an interesting discrepancy: There were movies and shows that had cost millions to produce that wound up tanking, while some of the licensed series he had acquired for peanuts performed almost as well as the company’s biggest hit productions.

“I saw niche shows we bought for $50,000 were making as much money as something that cost us $5 million to produce,” Fisher says. “And I said to myself, ‘You know what — there’s a disconnect somewhere.’”

He dove into social media and other available research and put his math skills to use to figure out a methodology to predict consumer demand and identify content people wanted to see. He tested the model over and over again, scribbling on the back of envelopes and entering data on spreadsheets.

“I had a lot of investors who were crawling around and freaking out, and I approached them, saying, ‘Look, instead of closing up shop I have this idea — here we’ve spent millions of dollars on content, and here is some very small, niche content that’s making the same amount of money. I see a business model in finding content that doesn’t cost a lot of money but that people want to see. But my existing investors were like, ‘Oh, great,’ and then they thought about it and said, ‘Danny, you’re losing us a lot of money, we’re just not interested.’ And then the company just kind of imploded.”

Fisher had personally guaranteed some $15 million in company debt, and City Light’s collapse sent him into personal bankruptcy — and brother Jack onto his brownstone basement couch. Fisher was left with $1,700 in his personal checking account but managed to maintain a positive attitude.

“When I filed for bankruptcy, a lot of people called me and said, ‘Oh, God,’ and I just said, ‘It’s nothing. It’s, like, OK. There was money, and now there’s not — but we kept the house, my wife was still working [as a psychologist], and there’s food on the table.”

The brothers took on odd film editing and production jobs to support themselves. “We basically hustled,” Fisher says. “I called up people I knew and said, hey, I can make you a commercial for $5,000.”

Fisher also turned to Facebook in an attempt to restore his tarnished reputation. He friended everyone in the entertainment business he could think of, then friended their friends, and soon reached Facebook’s 5,000-friend limit. He started writing about his new business model and the demand metrics he had developed, and before long one of his prior contacts, Alan Klingenstein, a producer with a background in investment banking, contacted him.

“He took me to lunch at the Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street and said he was really intrigued by some of the stuff I was saying,” Fisher recalls. “He said, ‘You really have it in you and I don’t think you were treated fairly,’ and then asked me how much I needed for a proof of concept. I told him $200,000, and he said ‘if you can find another investor, let’s do this.’”

The Comeback Kid

FilmRise was launched as Fisher Klingenstein Ventures LLC in 2012, three years after City Lights collapsed. Danny Fisher became CEO, his brother Jack was president, and Klingenstein became chairman of the board. They spent the better part of a year refining their business model, hiring staff and acquiring content before officially announcing the new company in an October 2013 press release. By then, the company had already acquired more than 2,500 film and television titles in a wide range of genres, including “Forensic Files,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and We-TV’s “Women Behind Bars.” Film acquisitions included digital rights to catalog titles such as John Landis’ American Werewolf in London and Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love.

The new company was an immediate success, initially earning most of its revenue from online DVD sales but soon transitioning to digital distribution long before the advent of major ad-supported streaming platforms such as Tubi, Pluto and Freevee.

Danny Fisher

Today, Fisher says, “there is no company like FilmRise, and this is not a sales pitch, but the truth is there is no one like us. We’re an incredibly profitable company, perhaps the most profitable company, by margin, in the entire media industry.”

Believing change must be constant, Fisher has recently steered FilmRise into several new directions, including stitching short-form creator content, primarily from YouTube, into 23-minute segments and licensing them as half-hour episodes to AVOD networks, FAST channels, and even some SVOD services and regular television networks.

“It’s a high-growth area,” Fisher says. “Some of these creators have followings of like 20 million, and they are enormously successful as TV shows. One incredibly popular one we have is called ‘Unspeakable’ — he’s the creator and it’s sort of a reality show with pranks and stuff. Last year, ‘Unspeakable’ was one of our top AVOD shows. We also have a lot of game-oriented shows, like ‘PrestonPlayz,’ and more really popular creators and channels. We’ve found incredible success to the point where right now, in some of our top platforms, if we look at our top 10 shows, creator content accounts for three of the top 10.”

Initially, Fisher says, “platforms were very resistant to creator content. They say, ‘We’re producing shows for $100 million and you want us to put on something that somebody shot in his basement with a camcorder? We can’t do this side by side — we deal with premium content, flashy content.’ So I tell them my definition of premium content, flashy content, sexy content is content that people want to see. And it’s taken a while for platforms to understand this — although to this day I get some who say, ‘We won’t touch this — we can’t put this side by side with content on the level of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

As more and more of this creator content racks up impressive AVOD and FAST viewership, Fisher says, he expects this resistance to crumble — particularly since “the quality of some of this creator content has gotten so high that it’s like a regular TV show — you can’t tell the difference.”

FilmRise also has begun producing original content, mostly unscripted television series such as “Bloodline Detectives,” hosted by Nancy Grace, a veteran of CNN Headline News and Court TV. “We like bringing hosts into it,” Fisher says. “We’re working on some other projects with Nancy Grace. We just announced another true crime series, “The Interrogation Room,” with Vivica Fox, and then we’ve got “Meet, Marry, Murder,” hosted by Michelle Trachtenberg, and “Statute of Limitations,” a show in which real life criminals tell their crime stories, which is hosted by The Situation from ‘Jersey Shore.’”

But FilmRise’s bread and butter, at least for the time being, remains the vintage TV shows and movies that constitute the bulk of its huge library.

“Our thesis is we buy content that people want to see, and it tends to be this content has millions of dollars of marketing built into it,” Fisher says. “We have movies like The Illusionist, with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel — how many millions of dollars went into promoting that? So we don’t have to promote it, because people have heard of it. We don’t have to promote ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ or ‘Heartland,’ because people know about them.”

He takes a breath and then, finally, a bite of egg from the dish the waiter has tried to take away at least half a dozen times. Then: “Should we order dessert?”

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