Victoria Thomas is the managing director of the Polkadot Factory an independent production company based in Edinburgh, and the creator of Cues, a mobile app designed to help audiences discover new films.
We invited her for a quickfire Q&A to chat innovation, mentorship and going at your own pace!
CED UK: Where did the idea for Cues come from? Was there a demand, or lack in the industry that inspired it?
Victoria: It came from my experiences as a new eager storyteller in the pre-Oscars so white and #MeToo era. Being both female and of African descent, my odds of being given the support to tell stories that reflected my existence were super low. Cues came from me wondering if I could find the audience I was consistently told did not exist and bring them to my films.
CED UK: And where did you begin with the process of getting that up and running?
Victoria: I was in university at the time and live in Scotland where there were lots of opportunities to access research support through Scottish Enterprise. So I managed to get the research and early prototypes funded that way without having to raise equity.
CED UK: And was the idea welcomed, or met with any resistance at all?
Victoria: Because I went down the routes of grants, there were fewer challenges. But I do recall business advisers telling back in 2009 that mobile apps will never take off. It meant I had less enthusiasm compared to students who were innovating in the energy or medical sector!
CED UK: Did it feel as if you were ahead of your time?
Victoria: We were definitely ahead and still are. Because people talk about data in the film business as if it is a preserve for Netflix, Amazon or Apple.
CED UK: How do you overcome those challenges around innovating when it feels like the industry can sometimes be slow to catch-up?
Victoria: I keep going. Since I started I have watched a few indie streaming platforms that had a lot of publicity come and go. Because I can see my research slowly becoming the ‘new discovery’ at film festival panels, I know things are about to get interesting. One of my mentors said to me, ‘figure out a way to stay in the game’. And for me that means running a very lean operation, doing virtually zero publicity and remaining agile enough to pivot when the time is right.
CED UK: Have you pivoted from any earlier iterations?
Victoria: Yes. We started off as a screening on demand platform but quickly realised that filmmakers were not lacking screening opportunities. They lacked eye balls to make the screenings viable.
CED UK: And what are your ambitions for Cues moving forward? Where do you see it sitting in the current landscape?
Victoria: My mission from day one has not changed – the plan is to give every voice the opportunity to be heard. My ambition for 2020 is for Cues to become the loudest amplifier for films from niche groups which is where I also think it fits best.
CED UK: You just mentioned you had a mentor – how important has that relationship been to the development of your product?
Victoria: Incredibly. I am not sure I would have lasted if I did not have a combination of mentors from technology, film and entertainment guiding my strategy behind-the-scenes. Their experience gives me the benefit of a thinking that I am yet to develop.
CED UK: Speaking of the intersection of film and tech; has Cues informed the kinds of stories you look to tell as a producer?
Victoria: No. The stories have stayed the same. Female skewed, Justice system backdrop (I started off as a lawyer). But the market and attitudes towards racial and gender diversity have also changed a lot. So it all feels like things are falling into place, even if not at the pace that I like.
CED UK: Is there anything you’d do differently in hindsight regarding Cues?
Victoria: I would get a tech co-founder before building anything. Once I found one, building and future proofing became so much easier. But then I was probably not going to attract someone that good without a proof of concept.
CED UK: What do you think the film industry can learn from tech?
Victoria: Just do it and let the audience decide what will stick around because they will. And to be honest, I don’t think they even have to go to tech to learn that. We just need to look at the film industries in so called emerging economies. There is an optimism and entrepreneurial energy and access to audiences online, which means so much is happening that is so exciting and inspiring right now.
CED UK: It’s great to hear that positivity. I’m also really interested in the personalised element to Cues, which is definitely something that brands are catching up to. How do you find the line between personalistion and intrusion?
Victoria: Personally I think it depends on how you go about it. If you have a default tick box in a super tiny checkbox that forces me to sign up for something I do not really want, I will probably unsubscribe as soon as I receive your email. But I regularly opt in to hear about things I want to hear about. Personalisation in the content tsunami era also means filtration. In Cues, that is pretty much the brand message. Track films you want to see.
CED UK: I also love the idea that fans become part of the tracking or discovery process earlier on in the pipeline. Have you found that users then become ambassadors for those films?
Victoria: Yes because on a basic level we already do. When a film is announced, when the cast is revealed, when we see the poster, when we see the trailer. How can we as filmmakers stay connected with the people who read our news, see our promos and want to engage further? Black Panther and Slumdog Millionaire did not become phenoms without audience enthusiasm. Technology can allow us to monitor those reactions en masse.
CED UK: We recently published a piece on the site about predictions that people working in distribution and exhibition have for the future. Is there a trend that you think will really flourish in 2020?
Victoria: I think our definition of niche is going to change. 2020 is also the year when the internet traffic is set to sky rocket as there are lots of territories that will have super fast broadband. They will bring their voices, their stories, their markets, their players and they will add to the existing audiences table of choices.
CED UK: And finally, do you have any advice for storytellers looking to innovate?
Victoria: Trust your instinct and work at your own pace.
Funded through Creative Europe’s Promotion of European Audiovisual Works Online scheme, Cues invites cinephiles and influencers to express interest in films by swiping left or right on trailers. When users respond positively, films get added to a personalised queue. Users are then notified as queued content becomes available in cinemas and online.