Sundance Film Festival

From STARTUP Failure to Sundance Dealmaker

Kaleil Isaza Tuzman’s first trip to Sundance—or, at least, the first year he spent significant time here—was in 2001 for the release of STARTUP.COM. Anyone who has seen that movie, which chronicles Tuzman’s failed startup company (govWorks.com), can imagine his mixed feelings about coming to Park City that year. To his credit, though, he kept coming back to town every January—but in search of business opportunities.

“I used to be ashamed and hope that people wouldn’t make the connection because STARTUP.COM, as many docs do,” ended in bittersweet disaster, he said. “Baring yourself—how difficult that was for me personally—and coming to terms with it over the years, coming to peace with it, gives you a kind of sensibility.”

The sensibility, perhaps, to be a Sundance dealmaker? That’s what, ironically enough, has brought Tuzman to this year’s festival. The CEO of KIT Digital, which helps distribute content online (everything from independent films to Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Comedy), Tuzman is looking for new clients.

Three or four years ago, people weren’t interested in digital distribution. “They would basically want to talk to the next person,” said Tuzman. This year, though, “something was different in respect to digital media, some breakthrough has occurred.” Instead of discussing digital distribution in the context of the entire package, he explained, “now almost everyone talks about it separately. That’s exciting. I think it’s going to be a while before it’s the number-one moneymaker, but it’s sound money.” (I couldn’t agree more.)

But having been on the other side at Sundance, Tuzman says he’s perhaps “a little less mercenary” than some other dealmakers in town, and that money isn’t always of utmost importance.

“I did the documentary without a monetary upside,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on. It isn’t always a financial equation. Sometimes it’s a secondary or tertiary goal.”

In about two months KIT is rolling out set-top boxes—an internet-connected box that plays digital content through your TV—aimed at the Arabic and Spanish-speaking diasporic markets. An Ecuadorian man living in New York City, for instance, will be able watch programming from his native country that, because cable and dish companies considered the market too small, had been previously unavailable.

Though I think set-top boxes are an intermediate technology—merely bridging the gap between cable TV and internet TV—it sounds like a sound business model. Of course, so did govWorks.com, an experience that’s never far from Tuzman’s thoughts (even though KIT’s revenue is between $3-$4 million a month).

“It’s been a periodic and constant dose of humility,” he said, referring to the documentary in which he starred. “I’m superstitious now about anyone saying things are going well. I avoid that, and I like having STARTUP.COM out there because it’s a sinecure for me. I can’t avoid it. It’s in celluloid. And that keeps it real, so to speak, and helps keep me more grounded.”