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Meet Big Couch – a new platform politely disrupting indie filmmaking

Anyone who’s ever dared step into freelancing waters knows that working for yourself (in PJs), stretching flexi-hours and never having to do a coffee round for the entire office does not come free. Holidays quickly become as elusive as unicorns, compulsory dry-spells are as tiring as 20-hour days and NMW laws simply don’t apply. Those freelancing in the arts are often asked to work for free or next to free: budgets are shrinking, belts are tightening and producers sometimes choose between no-pay and no-project.

Enter Big Couch, a new platform conjured up by Maria Tanjala and Irina Albita, determined to make the freelancing reality easier for film professionals and the indie film world more sustainable and appealing. Big Couch is grounded in reality of indie-budgets; instead of empty promises, it’s putting forward the idea of crewfunding. For film professionals it means agreeing to lower rates but getting legally-binding profit points and precise deferred payment plans; for producers it means access to professional crews invested in the film. Like crowdfunding, but with payment instead of t-shirts!

This new way of making freelancing fair got our attention, so we tracked down Maria Tanjala, a director/producer with background in features, documentaries and short films, to get the deets. Over to her!

Run Riot: Tell us about Big Couch - the origin story and the idea behind it!

Maria Tanjala: Irina and I have known each other since the age of 5 as our families are friends. We reconnected 5 years ago when we both moved to London for our MA programmes. Irina has been very supportive during my freelance years as a Producer / Director and she was interested in the film industry – as you know, it has a certain glam to it. Her background is in Management and Finance but she didn’t want to follow the usual steps and work in a corporation, so she put her efforts in setting up previous tech start-ups, which was a fascinating world for me as well. In the summer of 2014, we decided to join forces. UKTI (UK Trade and Investment) was running a competition to finance around 15 start-ups for a year without taking equity, which seemed like a very good opportunity. We got in, set ourselves up in the Google Campus and Launch22 in Shoreditch and we’re 10 months in the programme now. We conducted a lot of research to understand the needs of the market, pivoted a bit our business model and got to something we’re really excited about. It was a good year. 

Run Riot: What has the response been so far, from institutions, funders, and most importantly film professionals? What’s next?

Maria Tanjala: We spent a few good months contacting organisations and introducing ourselves to the community. It was very important for us to “do things right”. We got in touch with Creative England, Creative Skillset, the unions, industry lawyers, other start-ups in films etc. Most of the time, we weren’t specifically asking for something, just wanted to say “hi, we’re here” and get their feedback on what we do. Generally, the response has been very positive from both the film & media industry and the start-up community. It was humbling to see how some very senior people were replying to cold emails and setting up meetings just because they genuinely wanted to hear more about what we do. To be honest, being a woman, a foreigner and 27 years old, never seemed to be an issue. Which is really encouraging, if you think about the society as a whole.

Run Riot: Big Couch is supported through tech-oriented initiatives and accelerators. How has start-up thinking influenced the project? Has it changed or shifted the way you consider Big Couch ideas?

Maria Tanjala: It was a challenging year for both Irina and myself, as we both dived into completely new worlds. She had to quickly catch up with the complex mechanisms of recruitment, production, financing and distribution in films. I had to pick up on business, marketing, sales, investment and tech languages. We both learnt that things take 3 times longer than what we expected, but it was a great learning curve. Nothing that we adjusted our brains to has changed our ethos or our goals. We stand for the same values from the beginning and if investors don’t really go with our business model, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not going to work. We are constantly looking for bold mentors and board advisers who endorse disruption and think out of the box.

Run Riot: Big Couch calls its concept ‘crewfunding’. What about crowdfunding - how has it changed filmmaking? Is it a force for good or a flawed mechanism?

Maria Tanjala: The concept of “crowdfunding” definitely paved our way. It’s a great shared economy concept that defies hierarchical structures. It was quite revolutionising when Spike Lee crowdfunded $1.2mil on Kickstarter for his film. It was a manifesto. He said: “I’m an Indie Filmmaker and I will always be an Indie Filmmaker. Indie Filmmakers are always in search of financing because their work, their vision, sometimes does not coincide with Studio Pictures” which pretty much sums it up.  

We wanted to take it to the next level. People donate and get a t-shirt in return, which was not what we were after. So we looked at the crews. These people are necessary in the filmmaking process. Without them, the films could not be made. At the same time, budgets are shrinking, 89% of films made in the UK have budgets under £10mil – which for a film, is really not a lot. So we said, if crews accept reduced rates anyway, why not get them even more involved in the process – as they share the risk, to also share the profit. Crews need to be invested in films they work on and processes that will incentivise them to be more involved, spread awareness and connect with each other. If you add a layer of transparency and legal safety to it, that’s a win-win situation.

Run Riot: What are the biggest obstacles for emerging filmmakers and professionals, both when it comes to trying to make a film and trying to make a living?

Maria Tanjala: It’s tough. BECTU had a good debate this year, it was called “low budget, high ethics” – how do you mingle the two? As a Production Manager, those were recurrent challenges I was facing – find qualified, professional crews, pay them decently and fit the budgets I was given from producers. It’s a fine balance. Everyone needs to pay bills and freelancers really deserve decent rates for the levels of qualification that they have. Needless to mention, some months of the year are dead – there’s very little work coming in. At the same time, there are massive cuts in public funding, IdeasTap has closed down, and it’s a shame because talented writers & directors can no longer make their films or they have to rely on private investors looking for commercial projects - all these elements certainly don’t encourage the indie film industry.

Run Riot: What’s the first thing you would do to make the indie life better/easier, if you were given the reigns of cultural policy-making or big institutions?

Maria Tanjala: I wouldn’t put myself in the shoes of the big institutions. The improvement should come from the many people working in the industry. As I see it, disruption in a regulated manner and better communication could really encourage the arts sector. New ways of distribution, new ways of financing, new deals with rental companies, a tighter relationship between the members of the community and the film audiences could lead to a thriving film scene.

Run Riot: Let’s talk about your summer plans: you’re forsaking beaches to make a documentary in Paraguay. What’s the story that made you get the plane ticket? How did the project come about?

Maria Tanjala: My holiday plans have been indeed wiped off. I haven’t had a real holiday for about 3 years now so it doesn’t really matter. I kept on thinking about a story that kept me awake for a few nights. In Paraguay, a 10-year old girl has been raped by her stepfather; she is now pregnant and she has been denied abortion by the government. On top of this, stats indicate that around 683 girls between 10  and 14 have given birth last year in Paraguay. That’s an insane number. This seems like an endemic problem of child abuse in a society with strong conservative views. So I decided to start researching, contacting NGOs in Paraguay, gathering funds for the film. We’re half way through now and I found a marvellous Paraguayan producer to work with, so I’m quite overwhelmed to see it all happening. We’re currently focusing on raising finance, so we can leave for Paraguay in mid August. Tight deadline but I am confident it will happen.

Visit Big Couch.

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