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5 Questions for Triller Co-Owner Ryan Kavanaugh

Ryan Kavanaugh Triller Co-Founder

Ryan Kavanaugh shook up Hollywood in the early 2000s with his Relativity Media studio, which used mathematical models to evaluate a movie’s chance of success. The studio produced a string of critical and commercial hits, including “Frost/Nixon,” “Atonement,” “Burn After Reading” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Today, Ryan Kavanaugh is the Co-Owner of Triller, the video-sharing social media app, and Triller Fight Club, a new professional boxing league that combines sports and entertainment and is co-owned with Snoop Dogg.

We sat down with Kavanaugh, who has a history of seeing over the entertainment world’s horizon, to ask him about his current businesses and what he sees coming.

Why Triller? Why did you decide to get into the video-sharing space, especially one that’s dominated by a giant like TikTok?

When we started in 2019, TikTok was obviously starting to grow, but wasn’t quite the size it is now. More importantly, TikTok is a broad business model – “Let me get every single person to do something. Here’s a 13-year-old dancing, or a doctor showing how to pop a pimple.” Triller’s model is – “It’s clear the new generation’s form of content consumption is short-form, fun and from peer-to-peer.” In this world, there is a sub-culture – we call it a “culturegraph,” not a demographic – of people who listen to hip-hop, R&B, and rap. We wanted to create a short-form video-sharing app for the community of people who had embedded themselves in the hip-hop/R&B/rap culturegraph. I want to give Triller co-owner Bobby Sarnevesht credit here. We came up with it together.

Following on that, why the fight game? What new can you bring to this sport, which has remained largely unchanged for centuries?

You hit the nail on the head with the question. It’s what I’ve always done. In most industries, if things haven’t changed for a long time, especially in fields that haven’t changed and have had the same players for decades, it means there’s something awry. Usually, it means there’s a “Good Old Boys Club” created to keep other people out. What I did in the movie business, we’re doing in boxing. What we found out in our culturegraph is that our audience is 17-to-27-year-olds. They’re talking about boxing, but they’re not watching boxing. Why? Well, of course they’re not watching it – it looks the same as it looked 50 years ago. It was made at a time when TV was not the primary form of entertainment – it was made for the front-row spectator. You put all of this together and you realize it’s ready for a shakeup. 

We put the best in music, boxing and showmanship together and shot it like a movie. At Relativity, we made the movie “The Fighter.” We’re using the same lighting with Triller Fight Club bouts. It’s like you’re watching a movie. Instead of plain old boxing, I saw one viewer said, “I just watched a Justin Bieber concert with boxing in it.”

Content is, of course, a platform for advertising. Where do you see digital advertising going?

If Web 1.0 was a pop-up ad that you couldn’t get to un-pop, and Web. 2.0 was swiping through Instagram and having to look at ads between each picture, we think Web 3.0 is about delivering relevant content you want to watch and interact with. For example, a boxing fan in Triller will get a video of Oscar De La Hoya talking about one of his fights. During the video, Oscar might say, “If you want to bet on my fight, use this app.” Oscar can put up his phone number and he’ll text back to users. This is beyond product placement and it gets around regulations on other platforms. We think this way is more efficient.

What about the future of social media? Do you think it will continue to be dominated by Big Tech, or is there room for breakout and niche players? Are you worried about government regulations?

It’s always going to be dominated by big players, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller players that can become big. Fifteen years ago, Facebook was a new player. 

I absolutely do think the government needs to step in. I don’t think we want Big Tech to be the arbiter of truth. I wasn’t taught that it’s up to private companies to decide what can and cannot be told to the public. It’s up to the government to set policies to protect its citizens, but they haven’t changed those policies in nearly two decades. Big Tech allows misinformation and things to come across as headlines presented as fact in the guise of news. They say, “Well, we’re just a platform.” 

We spend millions of dollars to put on pay-per-view events. People have to pay a price for it. Conversely, you can go to YouTube, type in “pay-per-view,” and you can find 10 live streams to watch for free. YouTube says, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” The onus is on us. We have to find [the pirated streams], then notify [YouTube], then they have 72 hours to take it down. People don’t watch a fight that’s not live, so 72 hours is too late. Millions of people have watched it for free on YouTube. The fact that YouTube has no responsibility is a travesty. Let’s say you were selling DVDs and someone came in and took them off the shelf and walked out. The company that created those DVDs would say, “Why didn’t you stop them?” You said, “It’s not our job.”  

In 2014, you predicted that the future of entertainment would be movies turned into TV shows. “Loki,” “Fargo,” “Cobra Kai” and many others proved you right. Why did this work?

That was the keynote speech I gave at MIPCOM, the annual entertainment industry trade show in Cannes. I spent my one hour talking about how the whole future of TV is in movies. My speech was – “Why do we spend so much time and money in the movie business dissecting and calculating who is the audience?” When you’ve made a movie, you’re done and you’re trying to sell the product. It’s like a car. You’ve built the car and now you’re figuring out who’s going to buy it. You found out, “Okay, we thought this car was for females over 35, but actually, we’re finding a lot of 18-year-olds are buying it.” The problem with a movie is it’s too late when it comes out – you’ve already spent all of your marketing dollars. 

We did the very first movie-to-TV production, which was “Catfish.” With “Catfish” the movie, it didn’t do well at the box office, but we had this massive digital following of 15-22-year-olds, skewing female, who were obsessed with it. Part of my MIPCOM speech was that we have so much data from a movie – you know who liked it, what the age group was, same as any other product. So, we asked, “What are 15-to-22-year-olds watching?” MTV. How easy was that? MTV didn’t believe us; they put us on after reruns at 10 at night. Then, we became the No. 1 show on MTV and it’s still on 10 years later. 

When you look at the traditional way of making a TV show, you order a pilot and spend $4-5 million and ask, “Did it get ratings?” Yes or no. Meanwhile, there are so many factors why it may or may not have been watched. I have 10 times the audience data on a movie than I would ever get on a TV pilot. Why wouldn’t I use a movie as the origin of a TV pilot?

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