Interview with Legion M – Jeff Annison & Terri Lubaroff
At San Diego Comic-Con 2016, The Tokusatsu Network interviewed Legion M‘s president & co-founder, Jeff Annison, and Terri Lubaroff, head of content acquisition to ask about their unique, crowd-funded entertainment company and their planned roster of content.
Legion M, a new entertainment company based on a unique crowd-investment model, has been appealing to geek fandoms since 2016’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, offering a “seat at the table” in Hollywood productions.
I sat down with the president / co-founder and head of content development to discuss the ideas at the heart of Legion M and their hopes for the growing Legion.
So, we’re here at San Diego Comic-Con. You were saying it’s your first?
Jeff Annison: This is my first, [Terri’s] a pro.
TokuNet: How many years have you been coming, Terri?
Terri Lubaroff: My first was in 1999, so it’s been a long time.
Annison: Have you been continguous since then?
Lubaroff: No, no. I’ll go for three or four years, then I’ll take a year off, then I’ll go for three or four years, then take a year or two off.
TokuNet: Nice! So, what are your personal fandoms, your geek loves? The things that get your geek going, as it were?
Lubaroff: I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I love all of the Marvel movies, the new Marvel movies. I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan – anything he does. And E.T. is my all-time favorite movie. I think that’s what gets my geek on.
Annison: I would totally agree on the Star Wars, and it’s funny, I was like a huge Star Wars fan and now that I’ve got four daughters and the new one came out with Rey – it was just perfect for me. It was perfect – a strong, female superhero – and my eleven-year-old is now the biggest Star Wars dork you’ll ever meet!
I’ll come home and she’s watching all of the conspiracy theories about Rey and she formulated her own opinion, which I thought was fantastic, which is “what if Rey were a descendant – like a grandchild – of the Emperor, Emperor Palpatine. How interesting would that be? If the lineage of the Light Side was now the villain: Kylo Ren, and a descendant of the Dark Side was now there to protect us. I thought that was pretty good, for an eleven-year-old to come up with!
Lubaroff: We should talk with her, come and chat!
TokuNet: Yeah, you guys should have some development talks! By the way, what’s the M in Legion M stand for?
Annison: Glad you asked! Why don’t you take this?
Lubaroff: So, there is a bar over the M, so this is the Roman numeral for one million. The aspirational goal of Legion M is to have 1,000,000 investors. One million fans. One million people who are emotionally and financially invested in our films.
That gives us kind of a movable audience, so every film project, every TV project, virtual reality project – whatever we’re doing, that audience is going to benefit from its success. So, the goal is that they’ll be evangelizing that project just as much as we will.
TokuNet: So, would you be developing projects for that one million or for segments of that one million? Not everyone will be pleased by the same material.
Annison: Yeah, you can’t please everyone, so we expect to have a slate. We’re building out a slate of 5-10 projects going at any one time and what we hope is that there’s a little something there for everyone.
The Legion is also going to have a big role in helping us both find new properties and help us select which ones to do. That’s part of what you get as an investor – you’re truly a co-owner of the company. This is your company.
TokuNet: I remember, from the [WeFunder] pitch video, “the value of the Legion is the Legion.”
Annison: Yes! That’s right.
TokuNet: So, how early in the process will the Legion be involved? Are they at the pitch level, a sizzle level, the pilot level? Or even earlier?
Annison: That’s a really good question and I think it could be, literally, as early as possible.
If you think about it: we have this enormous Legion of people, who are emotionally and financially invested in our company, right? Studios have to pay big money for scouts to go out and take the temperature of the crowd. We’ve got a crowd that we can go to and say “What are you reading?” Like, “What’s really cool right now?”
In a perfect world, what we envision is a way where the Legion is providing a lot of the raw material. Whether isn’t finding an up-and-coming YouTube creator or telling us about a book, or a graphic novel, or something like that that they really love.
We can use the Legion to evaluate these sorts of things, weigh in with their opinion. “The cream will rise to the top.” We see that as, ultimately, a very powerful position for us to be in.
TokuNet: Going back to the [“I am Legion M”] pitch video, it has a lot of phrases like “we’ve been locked out,” “the system is rigged,” “how things are and how things ought to be” – there’s…not for nothing…but a little Trump-y sort of vibe to it?
Annison: No no no! There’s no “Trump-y” in there. Bernie, maybe. “Trump-y,” no!
Lubaroff: I think [the video] was actually written pre-Trump.
TokuNet: Ah, OK! I was listening and thinking “some of this seems–”
Annison: Oh, no no!
TokuNet: OK, well in terms of – forgive me – “Making geek culture great again,” what is your ideal version of geek culture? What do you think the Legion could do to better it, or change it?
Annison: Well, I want to address the Trump thing, then I’m gonna let Terri [Lubaroff] answer the second part of that.
The part we’re talking about, about being locked out of the system, it’s really almost more of an Occupy Wall Street vibe. Because the JOBS Act is truly revolutionary. It’s overturning laws that have been on the books for 80 years.
So, if you were next-door neighbors with, say, Mark Zuckerberg and he comes to you and he’s like “I have this great idea,” and you’re best friends, you know this guy. And you’re not a millionaire, but you’ve got a couple grand to give him, and he needs the money to start this company – you were legally forbidden from giving him that money.
You were not allowed to invest, unless you were an accredited investor – which means the top 3% of the population qualify, from an income level, to be an accredited investor. So, the rest of everybody else, no matter how much you believed in that person, no matter how much you wanted to give them that money, you were literally forbidden.
And so what happens is that there was this kind of system, where you look at a company like Facebook: it goes from a valuation of zero to a hundred-billion dollars and then it goes public. So, from a zero to a hundred-billion dollars, all of the wealth that was created through that whole arc was the exclusive domain of the top 3%. They were the only ones who were allowed to invest in projects like that.
Once [Facebook, the current example] got to a hundred-billion dollars, then they could go public and the public could get in. And from a hundred-billion to a hundred-and-twenty-billion, it’s “oh great, we made 20% on our stock,” or fifty, or maybe it doubled, but the people who got in [at the start] were getting a thousand-times return on their money! And, again, that was completely locked out!
There were good reasons behind that. These laws were written in the ‘30s, where people had less information in their lifetime than we have access to on our phones. It was designed to protect unsophisticated investors from getting ripped off from charismatic, unsavory CEOs.
Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now, but really that’s what we’re talking about. It’s the fact that what we’re doing it truly revolutionary. It’s revolutionary in entertainment, but even in the broad context of the American economy, it’s revolutionary.
We happen to think that entertainment – you know, when you’re looking at companies to crowd-fund like this – we think that entertainment is the prime example. In entertainment, having your audience invested in your product is hugely important.
Having an audience when the next movie comes out? That’s critically important. Our whole premise is “What if you start with the audience?”
We’ve got the opportunity to introduce new properties and create new franchises because these people are invested in the process. They help us select the IP and then they’re along for the ride every day as we developed it.
Lubaroff: But I think you touched on it, you asked “what is our version of fandom?” And we’re fans of the sequels that Hollywood is doing. We’re fans of the Marvel movies and the DC movies. But we’re also huge fans of original voices. Original content.
And Hollywood studios are really risk-averse because if they’re putting 100-to-200-million dollars into a movie, they have to have a guaranteed return on investment. Our model’s a little different.
We need to make money, the movies and TV shows have to have a return on our investment, but we don’t need the level – that return on investment – that the studios need, because they’re driven by Wall Street.
So, even if their stock is worth $200 today and they had a movie that people had a good time at, but it didn’t break box office records, and the stock is still worth $200, to them it’s a failure. To us, it’s great, because we’ve given people that great experience.
And that’s part of our value proposition for our investors. The idea is to bring forth new types of properties and franchises that haven’t been seen before. Allowing new creators to get in and get opportunities and footholds in the Hollywood process that would be locked out otherwise.
TokuNet: That kind of covers a lot of my other questions, actually.
Lubaroff: Job done! We’re out!
Annison: Drop the mic!
TokuNet: You answered three of my questions there, but in the pitch video there were a lot of corporate-owned characters and CBS has all those new fan film guidelines. I’d ask “Are you stuck in the realm of parody with that stuff?,” but you’re already talking about developing new material.
Lubaroff: Right, this isn’t fan films. And a lot of people asked “Are you doing fan films?”
No. We’re not gonna do a fan film Star Wars, we’re not gonna do fan film Star Trek, but our fans might be fans of those, so we’ll find material that will appeal to them.But we’re not gonna do an actual fan film.
Annison: I get that question a lot on Facebook and my answer is “Just because we’re a fan-owned company doesn’t mean that the fans are making the movies.” Like I said before, I think there will always be a place on our slate for something that’s coming from the Legion.
We’ve got a ton of creatives in our Legion. We’ve got a lot of people that want to submit and, in our perfect world, we’d love nothing more than to find a voice–
Lubaroff: –the gem!–
Annison: –within our Legion and break them into Hollywood! But, again, we’re not making fan films and this isn’t a collective or anything like that.
We believe that we can offer opportunities to people, and there’s a lot of people who are interested in getting into Hollywood, and we want to find ways for those people to collaborate. And we want to find a way to educate them, you know?
We’ve got professional screenwriters, one of them, in our executive team. Terri’s spent decades as an agent. We’ve got people that understand Hollywood and we can help educate these people and give them an inside glimpse and take them along for the ride.
But, at the end of the day, we’re ultimately partnering with proven Hollywood creators. That’s where the bulk of our slate is gonna come from.
We’ve got partners. Stoopid Buddy Studios, the guys behind Robot Chicken.
TokuNet: Right, and Alamo Drafthouse.
Annison: Alamo is a very important one for us, because everyone knows them for their national theater chain and there’s wonderful opportunity for us to do events at Alamo Drafthouse, and cultivate our community at Alamo Drafthouse, but they also have a film distribution division.
For a content creation company, having a distribution partner as one of our early – and very close – creative allies is hugely important.
TokuNet: Beyond film distribution, in terms of television or the web, how are you intending on getting other properties out there?
Annison: It’s great, today is like the wild wild west, right? There are so many new opportunities and [Paul Scanlan] and I – our previous company – we co-founded a company in 1999 called MobiTV…we were the first ones to ever launch live television on your cell phone.
In 2003, when we came to Hollywood with our product idea, most people told us we were crazy. Like, literally, “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, nobody’s ever gonna watch a movie on their cell phone!” And, at the time, the screens were [small], they were crappy. Our streaming quality was crappy as hell and they were right, you weren’t gonna watch a movie like that! But, a year later, we won an Emmy award for Innovation in Television.
So, we feel very comfortable in this sort of new frontier. There’s virtual reality and augmented reality, which are new frontiers in storytelling. You’ve got Apple television, which is a huge brand, a nascent market, and their whole vision is that you aren’t going to subscribe to channels ten years from now, you’re gonna have apps.
You’re going to buy the Big Bang Theory app and Game of Thrones and that’s gonna be your world. And that’s really amazing, and very interesting, and very disruptive. You can always go – in today’s day and age – you can go directly to the consumer. You look at places like Comic-Con HQ and Seeso and all of these SVOD (streaming video on demand) services.
We think that there are massive opportunities. With our background in mobile we can tell you, every carrier in the world is looking for content. Go90, anybody in Europe, there’s huge markets! Vodaphone is looking, worldwide, for content that they can distribute. Having access – and experience – to those channels, we feel very confident that whatever product we get in, we’re looking at it holistically. It’s about developing this IP – it’s about developing this great content – and then just monetizing the hell out of that.
That could be an app. That could be a game. That could be sales to a carrier. Or it could be traditional broadcast television.
TokuNet: It seems like you’re still in a funding period now, but when do you think the first Legion M projects will be released?
Lubaroff: Our first project will be announced in the next week.
Lubaroff: We’ll be announcing our first project in the next week, so we can’t say anything about that right now. Our next few projects that we’ll be working on probably will be announced within the next 30 days and some of these are short-term projects that we are going to produce very quickly.
I’m anticipating the first project we announce, we’ll be able to release a little bit of it by Christmas time, maybe. Give or take a month or two.
The other projects are underlying pieces of IP that need some time to develop and package and all of those things, so those are a little longer term.
Annison: So, what do you think?
TokuNet: I’m interested! Certainly excited. I’ll admit that I came in skeptical, but I’m curious to investigate more. I found the site a bit spare, personally.
Annison: It is! That’s actually one of the most common things – the most valid of the criticisms that we get. There isn’t a lot of detail. Part of that is, you have to realize, we’re only a couple of months into this. We just launched this fundraising campaign two months ago.
Two months ago, we had ideas about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t even know if people were going to react. We’re the most successful – these laws are brand new – it wasn’t just that we didn’t know how our offering would be recieved–
Lubaroff: Nobody knew.
Annison: –nobody knew how this whole realm of equity crowdfunding, which is different, and it’s new, and it’s more complicated. But we are the most successful, by far. If you look at the number of investors, we have three times the number of investors than the second place equity-crowdfunded operation.
Lubaroff: Out of thirty companies.
Annison: And there’s probably been another twenty that have launched since then. We’re killing it. We’re probably twenty times the average number of investors. Again, it just goes back to that fundamental premise, in our case.
I always say “content is king” – everybody knows that – “but it’s also a commodity.” There’s more content out there than any of us can consume and the difference between success and failure, for a lot of content, has nothing to do with how good it is. It just depends on if it’s enough to rise above the noise. And that can be everything from how a movie does at the box office to whether a television show gets picked up.
When the networks are making decisions as to what to put on their air, it’s not a quantitative “this one’s a 7, this is a 7.1,” you know? A lot of it is very qualitative and having a legion of activated fans that are out there promoting and moving the needle as far as numbers and building buzz, can make the difference between a show getting picked up and not getting picked up.
Lubaroff: And we’ve seen that with other shows. We’ve seen that with Firefly. We’ve seen that with Arrested Development. Arrested Development was going to be cancelled and the fans activated, and motivated, and sent in hundreds of letters to Fox and said “please don’t cancel this show.”
TokuNet: You can go back to the original Star Trek too.
Lubaroff: Yeah, exactly!
Annison: That’s absolutely true, so I think that that whole dynamic will be interesting to see. I don’t know, if the Legion was around – you know, the problem with that is it tends to be small, but vocal fan groups.
If it’s the sort of thing where the Legion could adopt it, you know, bring it into our thing, and then potentially, you could have a much larger and vocal fanbase that could really make the difference.
TokuNet: How are the Legion’s voices heard? Is it a polling system? How does that operate?
Annison: There’s a lot of elements to it. We have a private, members-only Facebook group right now, which is fantastic. So we are regularly, like every day, interfacing with our owners. We do a lot of polls.
We had a great example: when we were creating that video you were talking about, the one with the voiceover, we had two reads of that. When we were getting it produced, the production company – the trailer house – that was doing it gave us two reads to select from. One happened to be a woman’s voice and one happened to be a man’s voice.
So, we’re listening to them and our executive team, we were split. Two of us really liked one of them, and two of us really liked the other one, and we’re like “well, let’s put that out to the Legion to decide!” And it was really amazing because this was like 9-o’clock on a Friday night, and I created a quick little poll, put it out to the Legion, we had to make a decision by 9am the next morning.
We had to call the trailer house and tell them which one and, by the time 9am rolled around, we had over 100 people who’d taken the survey and given their responses and we got really interesting data! We found that, for certain demographics, the male voice resonated, and for other demographics, the female voice resonated.
So, we said “well, you know what, let’s get both of them!” And when we do targeted Facebook advertising, we can target those different demographics. So, in that case, the right answer was both of them. But there’s no way, when you’re talking with four people to figure that out.
Lubaroff: We never would have known.
Annison: All we could do is argue and whoever’s more persuasive, or has the most power or whatever, is gonna make the decision. But you go out, and you put that in the hands of the fans, and we made that project better because of the fact that we had the crowd as part of it.
And, again, it’s so holistic. The fact that this crowd are not just a crowd of people, it’s not a focus group, these are people that are invested in the outcome. The time that they spent taking that survey. They got some return on that in their stock price. If that project gets a little bit better, it makes their stock go up a little bit. I think that that’s really beautiful.
So, we’re looking for all sorts of ways to engage with the Legion. And we don’t have them yet, but we’ve talked about having job boards for the Legion. A lot of the people in our community are creatives. We do a lot of polls.
We’ve already had three people create knock-off, for lack of a better term, t-shirts. We haven’t sold any Legion M t-shirts yet. Three separate people have come to us.
The one that Paul [Scanlan, Annison’s fellow co-founder] was wearing was a Teespring, so it was just these guys who were like “hey, do you mind if we do t-shirts?” And we were like “hey, at some point, we’re gonna sell Legion M t-shirts. We can’t get to it right now, go for it.” And three people have made t-shirts and they’re selling them to the Legion.
That’s where this becomes more than a company and it becomes like a movement. It’s a community of people and, if you cultivate it, and give them the opportunity – I mean these people are yearning to find a way to contribute.
Lubaroff: And be heard. And be valued.
Annison: And be part of it.
Lubaroff: It’s a community!
TokuNet: That’s fantastic, and thank you both very much!
Thanks again to Jeff Annison and Terri Lubaroff for their time, and also to the team at KCSA Strategic Communications for arranging our interview at SDCC.
Interview recorded July 24, 2016.