Interview: Mark Vrieling

[This item was originally posted to The Media Drop]

In the ongoing series of interviews being put together for The Media Drop, I’ve mainly focused on members of the traditional broadcast media. This time around, I’ve gone in another direction in getting some great Q&A in with Mark Vrieling, CEO of ScreenPlay, Inc., a purveyor of master quality content including over 35,000 music videos, 6,000 movie trailers, and “hundreds of hours” of interviews and programming. He is also the owner of RainCity Video, a chain of “art house” movie shops in the Seattle area. He was more than helpful in providing some insights not only on his career, but on what ScreenPlay has to offer.

TMD: First off, tell me a little bit about how you ended up interested in a career around film and video?

MV: I guess the two biggest influences on my choice of career are my dyslexia and love of music and video. Having dyslexia has always made traditional learning environments more challenging for me than for most. Although my comprehension has always been very good, my reading speed, spelling and the ability to put thoughts on paper have been a challenge for me. As a balance to that I have always gravitated toward and found great comfort in music and TV/film.

During the late 70s when I was in college I discovered the media lab at my school and I spent hours watching 3/4” video tapes on all kinds of subjects and fell in love with the idea of audio/visual media on demand. Finding out that there was so much more available to be seen on a TV than just what the networks wanted to provide to you at that particular moment was a big revelation to me. I remember thinking how cool it would be if people could have access to a library like that at home. So when video rental stores started getting popular in the mid 80s I decided to start my own – with a twist.

In addition to New Releases I added special interest, deep catalogue, foreign, etc. The predominant model at the time for a video store (and unfortunately still is the model) is that video is a means were you can watch new release movies at home before they are on regular TV. Although it is not uncommon for video stores to hold on to a lot of old movies, the world of possibilities in education, travel and special interest programming never really took off. Even a well-stocked library of classics, foreign or PBS shows is relatively rare. Although providing New Releases is an important part of RainCity Video, our catalogue sections are what set us apart from other stores.

TMD: After finding your profile on LinkedIn, I did a little “look-see” at the ScreenPlay website, and learned a little bit about your company. I could write something myself, but I always find that asking someone what the two/three sentence runthru answer they give to people who say “What do you do?” is very helpful. So, what do you do?

MV: One of the lessons I learned early on as a video storeowner was how powerful an advertising medium the TV can be. I could take a movie that had not rented in weeks and play it on the in-store TV and invariably some one would want to rent it before I had finished playing it. It was not much of a leap from that observation to “Hey, what if I started playing movie previews in my store, I bet I could invigorate demand for movies that are starting to slow down.”

That idea is the foundation of ScreenPlay. We acquire video trailers, music video, video games and other pop culture video content from hundreds of sources throughout the world and produce programs that play on in-store TVs. We started by providing programming for video stores and music stores but over time we branched out to include businesses of all kinds. (Kind of a custom “MTV” for businesses). From there, we branched into streaming trailers on the Internet. Movie studios send us the video they want to be available on the Internet and we do all the encoding, hosting and streaming for them. From here we hope to start streaming music videos on the Internet but we still have some rights issues to overcome. [ed: Aren’t we all!?]

TMD: As a consumer, give me an example of something I might see during my daily errands that is produced by ScreenPlay?

MV: If you go into a video store and they are playing video trailers on their TV – it is probably us; as well as mall based clothing stores that have music videos playing on their TVs. We also supply to bars, nightclubs and casinos that play music videos on their TVs. On the Internet, if you watch trailers on any of the Disney sites, the New York Times, or hundreds of other sites, the streaming file you are watching is originating from ScreenPlay.

[ed: pretty impressive! The “behind the scenes” companies always fascinate me.]

TMD: For a follow-up to that question, how do you go about acquiring new business – I was, unfortunately, not familiar with the ScreenPlay brand before finding your profile – is there any possibility that the name will be out there – much like one of the “partners” listed on your site, Muzak?

MV: We do not market to end-user, so I am not surprised you have not heard of us. We market directly to businesses that we know could use our services. Large video retailers, music store chains, and large retail chains are pretty well defined and easy for us to target. On the Internet the studios find us to be a very useful service so they introduce customers who could use our streaming services.

TMD: Moving back to the “who are your customers” area, are they regional in nature, or has the Internet enabled your company to “get the word out”, so to speak?

MV: We do have some regional chains that we service but for the main part we offer our services throughout the United States and Canada. Yes, the Internet has become not only a market for us but also a major tool. Graphic approvals that used to take days to receive because of mailing time now take hours. We can stream or download questionable content to get instant feedback from customers saving days of production time.

TMD: Who are your competitors? Do they also serve as “partners” in some capacity?

MV: We do not have many competitors because we are so specialized but we do go after the same market that Muzak and others go after on the in-store side of our business. They create audio environments where we create audio / video environments. With Muzak they are both a competitor and a re-seller of our service. Muzak is so much larger than we are I don’t think they really see us as a threat. On the Internet side, our biggest competitors are businesses that set up a division within their own company to do what we do. We are usually more cost effective than doing it themselves but some business are just more comfortable outsourcing then others.

TMD: Some people mention GreenCine, who is a competitor of Netflix in the online-movie rental industry, as being the “indie” movie rental store – would you compare your typical customer to a GreenCine customer? And if so, what does your Seattle based brick-and-mortar store offer to that customer that GreenCine doesn’t?

MV: Sorry I don’t know GreenCine, I will look them up and let you know later. But in general, 70% of retailers make their rental decision the day they rent so I doubt that mail order rental will ever be a huge competitor to brick & mortar stores. Netflix estimates that mail order will not get to be much more than 10% of the industry.

TMD: Your bio lists your goal “to make media affordable and available for everyone – why watch MTV when you can program your own?” Obviously without giving away your whole business plan, tell me what ScreenPlay can do to make this a possibility – or recommend partners you might have where the readers can move towards “programming their own” media?

MV: ScreenPlay has a video library that rivals MTV and is currently only licensed for business-to-business use. What I would really like to do is make that library available over the web to the general public. I would love to let people build play lists and play them back the way they do with their iTunes audio files. Kind of a do it your self on-line MTV.

Personally I like the mixed tapes I get from friends better than what I hear on the radio, it could be kind of like blogs, good video programmers (VJs) would find their own audience. Technically, we are capable of doing this right now. This is very similar to what we provide on a business-to-business basis. The issue is licensing, the music labels need to reform their rules on media uses on the Internet before we could do anything like this legally.

TMD: And finally, what is a trend, product, or occurrence that you see coming in the near future in the overall media world that might not be on everyone’s mind as of yet?

MV: The biggest trend I see is the proliferation of homes with high bandwidth. 56k just doesn’t cut it for media over the web. Sure we can make a herky-jerky tiny picture that moves with a 56k modem, but it takes at least 128 to really do anything. A standard DSL at 256 is even on the low side but at least it is a base that you can start to do something interesting. We have seen an astounding increase in high bandwidth users accessing our content over the last year. At the same time that bandwidth is going up, the codecs are getting better. MPEG4, Windows Media 9 and the latest Real Media and QuickTime codecs are getting really good at making streaming files run smoother and look better at DSL speeds.

Keep your eye on ScreenPlay (literally!), you might be hearing more from them in the future. Being someone that seems like a small player to the casual investigator but turns out to be a much bigger deal and a potential pioneer of sorts in the media channel can definitely work to your advantage. Best of luck to Mark, ScreenPlay, and RainCity in the future!

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