“If Airbnb can help transform anyone’s home into a hotel, why not create a platform that can help anyone turn their living room into a cinema?”
This thought charged into my mind in 2016, while touring my feature documentary Fractured Land, and was the genesis of what has gone on to become Hoovie, a platform that makes it easy for anyone, anywhere to host a film screening.
But actually, if I’m honest, the idea goes back a bit earlier, resulting from an alchemy of circumstances and influences in my life.
It was 2015. Life was busy, and I was stressed.
My co-director/producer, Damien Gillis, and I were preparing to release Fractured Land, a film we’d laboured over for four years at that point. Four long years marked by intimate access to an incredible person and the people and land he brought us into relationship with, all under threat by some of the most significant resource extraction activity in the world. Four long years traveling across Western Canada and New Zealand. Four long years living in debt, sacrificing friendship and balance, working diligently to tell an important story with compassion, art and integrity.
It was intense. And we wanted to make sure the film was seen by as many people as possible.
Fiona Rayher in Tahltan country, filming interviews for Fractured Land.
At the same time, I was also working on a social innovation project focused on belonging and social inclusion. Through this work, we were doing a ton of research about how lonely Vancouverites are. The studies were troubling – and hit close to home. Walking through the city streets, my mind heavy with stats about what social isolation is doing to our health and well being, not to mention our planet, I felt burdened by the loneliness that seemed to hover over Vancouver like a thick fog.
Loneliness, meet obscurity. Obscurity, meet loneliness.
Meanwhile, fear was starting to set in as Damien and I began to confront one of the great challenges of independent filmmaking: distribution.
The whole process of getting one’s film out into the world is complicated, confusing and rife with middlemen angling to get a cut. There are film festivals, theatres, broadcast TV, DVD and online streaming; each has its own licensing rules and timelines, requiring that a filmmaker choreograph a careful dance for their film to go from one to the next without stepping on any toes.
It seemed impossible that we’d actually be able to pay down the enormous debt we’d incurred making the film.
I felt powerless in the face of both the loneliness of the people in my city and the difficulty to connect our film with audiences and revenue.
I wondered, what could I do? Unfortunately, when you’re that overworked and underpaid, the answer is, “nothing.” I wanted to bury my head in the sand and make the world disappear.
Out of the darkness, my light bulb moment.
But then something incredible happened. While standing in the TIFF Bell Theatre in Toronto on one of those incredibly long and boring conference calls, I put two and two together: The solution to the problem of lonely, isolated people and the major distribution challenges faced by most filmmakers? HOOVIE.
Of course I didn’t have a name for it, but essentially I envisioned a platform that connected filmmakers with audiences and audiences with like-minded new friends.
In 2016, my idea crystallized during a second tour of Fractured Land across North America. We were in all sorts of venues: large theatres, community centres, people’s homes, churches, band offices and so on.
Fiona at a screening in the Yukon with Fractured Land star Caleb Behn and co-director Damien Gillis.
I discovered that the most meaningful, fun and social screening experiences – where people engaged most deeply with each other and the film – are in intimate spaces with intimate groups of people. This is where magic happens – in spaces where people can truly connect and get to know one another, using film as a vehicle for conversation.
Building on the idea of Airbnb’s curated spaces, I thought, why not recreate our own version of this for film, so that ticket sales can support filmmakers as well as community builders (aka screening hosts), who do the important work of bringing people together and facilitating meaningful connections.
I thought, “If Airbnb can help transform anyone’s home into a hotel, why not create a platform that can help anyone turn their living room into a cinema?”
As I pushed the idea further, talking to people and researching the concept, I discovered that this model actually exists already in the music and live performance space, Airbnb Experiences and Sofar Sounds being the most popular examples. (Living room concerts!) Also making headway were Groupmuse (classical music), Artery (live performance), Think Olio (lectures) and, more recently, Dan Mangan’s Side Door (music and performance art).
No one, however, was bringing ticketed film screenings into unique, private spaces. So I thought, could I really be that person? Yes, in fact, I could.
Serendipity is real, I’ve come to realize.
After testing the concept for a year, knocking on doors, reading everything I could get my hands on about building a tech startup, disrupting massive industries and raising money, it was around the bonfire at a filmmaker friend’s Labour Day party in Upstate New York when serendipity struck.
One moment I’m introducing myself, the next moment I’m shaking hands with a man who would soon become Hoovie’s first investor. Vallejo Gantner believed in my idea and he believed in me enough to invest the required capital to turn this crazy concept into reality. This money enabled me to hire my first employee, Hilary Henegar, who quickly revealed herself to be the perfect co-founder.
Now, we have custom software that supports a growing user base to host screenings, buy tickets, stream films we’ve secured licensing to, and rate users. We’ve done beta tests in New York and Vancouver, and in 2019 we’ll be in a handful of other cities and towns along the West Coast of Canada and the US.
We have a long, long road ahead of us. And we’re having a lot of fun.
A wild ride.
Life has thrown me a ton of curve balls. At one point, having moved to New York and run out of money, I literally had every single credit card decline while trying to buy two tacos. Three months later, I was back in the black, and then… here we go, I got pregnant.
Another ongoing curve ball has been losing friends. Entrepreneurs don’t talk about this a lot, but it’s definitely a thing. Why? Basically because you’re nuts and people don’t get it. And because you’re literally obsessed with your startup idea, sadly you sometimes forget about your loved ones.
There’s a grieving process that follows the entrepreneur’s journey – one which I’ve come to know very well. And one that is in many ways very close to the experience of having your first child as your life no longer accommodates many of the people and activities it once did.
So now, I have two children, my beautiful little girl Brooklyn and, well, Hoovie.
The thing about wild rides and children is that you need your community. Lucky for me, even as I drop off the face of the earth as far as my friends and family are concerned, I’m not alone. People just keep stepping up to support, cheerlead and pinch hit. One day I’ll write more about these people.
Let’s watch a movie together.
If you’re passionate about building community that is real and authentic, supporting people to share meaningful experiences, accessing quality films and paying filmmakers equitably for their work, then you and I have something in common.
I’d love to see you host a Hoovie movie in your living room, workspace, gallery, back yard, storefront or other interesting private space. Reach out and let me know how I can support you to create a magical experience for your tiny audience!
Fiona Rayher is CEO and co-founder of Hoovie.