When online licensing marketplace Vuulr expanded its international reach early last year, the Singapore-based startup anticipated a gradual rollout. Launched in Asia in 2019, the platform went global in January 2020, thinking it would take some time to convince industry players to move their activities online.
“As a digital platform for licensing and acquisition, we represent a new way,” Vuulr CEO Ian McKee tells Variety. “This was the first year of a new way of doing business, so at that point you would really only expect to see early adopters.”
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That is, until last winter, when the global pandemic shut down travel and nearly all in-person events, thus accelerating a relationship-based industry’s willingness to do business remotely.
“What actually happened was faster growth,” says McKee. “Not only in the metrics but also in [interest] from the bigger and more established players. [We saw] growth in numbers and growth in credibility.”
Since going live, the free-to-use platform has processed 1,400 licensing deals (for which it collects a 10% fee), and currently hosts just over 135,000 hours of content alongside 10,000 registered users, with a touch more buyers than sellers.
With a catalog that runs the gamut from animated shorts to multi-season dramas from nearly 100 different territories, Vuulr has sought the leverage its geographic foothold toward larger strategic goals.
“Our strategy was to be global from day one,” says McKee. “With India next door, we have been able to build a substantial library of Hindi and Telugu-language titles… finding content in one part of the world and finding demand for it in another.”
Emphasizing that connectivity, the CEO notes that Taiwanese specialty streamer GagaOOLala recently used Vuulr to pick up rights to Hindi-language same-sex romance “Romil & Jugal,” and that the Italian comedy “Bangla” recently sold to Bangladeshi OTT service Bongo.
While Vuulr has been a boon to the international niche market – the CEO is quick to point toward a licensing deal between a British sales company and a platform that specializes in horse documentaries – premium American content still accounts for roughly half of all sales, and U.S. buyers the service’s single largest demographic.
And so, when the platform looked to expand, the direction was clear. “We saw that the Americas had jumped on the platform and had really adapted to doing business digitally earlier than other regions,” adds McKee. “We realized that we needed to put down some investment and build a team.”
This past January, Vuulr opened its first U.S. office, naming former Lionsgate exec Thomas Hughes as CEO for Americas. Under Hughes, the Los Angeles-based team will look to strengthen ties with the major studios and streaming giants, fostering relationships with the brand names that set trends across the industry.
Looking ahead, the company has plotted further international expansion, with subsequent outposts planned in Europe, Asia, and India, though the timeframe remains in flux.
In doing so, McKee hopes to position Vuulr to play a larger role in a more globalized business.
“The underlying structure of the whole industry is going through a change,” he says. “Because there are so many more platforms, the quantity of deals will explode but their values will come down.”
“[We want to] remove pain points, making it cheaper and faster to do business so that the money spent can be left in the industry for broadcasters and content creators,” he continues. “After all, you can do the transaction more efficiently on a digital platform.”
For that reason alone, the Vuulr CEO remains confident that the online model will not recede once in-person markets can happen anew.
“Deals on the platform close in 10 days, on average,” he says. “So I think [markets like EFM] will change in nature: As the nuts and bolts of the transaction goes digital, the [focus of] these events will become more about conferences and networking and a little bit less about transactions.”
Asked what kind of inefficiencies his platform could patch over, McKee points to differences in language.
“We need a common definition of ‘territory’ and a common understanding of rights types,” he says. “For example the way the U.S. industry employs the terms ‘theatrical’ and ‘non-theatrical’ and the way a European might use them mean slightly different things.”
“These would be great things to have as common around Asia, Europe and the U.S. I hope we can be part of that journey to standardize a few things… [by building] a platform where the terms mean the same thing to someone logging in from France as they do to someone logging in from Los Angeles.”
“It’s all part of what we’re passionate about,” he adds. “Which is removing friction from the deal.”
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