Director Torsten Hoffmann Shares How To Win at Distribution on Episode 3 of the Forward Filmmaker Podcast
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker Podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews award-winning documentary filmmaker Torsten Hoffmann. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation. Also note that this interview was conducted in summer 2021, which makes Torsten’s advice to “buy some bitcoin” all the wiser.
Max: Welcome to Forward Filmmaker, a podcast from Filmhub. I’m Max Sanders. You may know me from my podcast Buzzn’ The Tower, where I discuss my favorite eighties films, but this one is different. The film industry is changing and filmmakers must adapt. On Forward Filmmaker, we’ll be talking with directors and producers about the pains and opportunities facing the modern filmmaker. Joining me today is Torsten Hoffmann, Torsten is an award-winning filmmaker with a background in distribution and entrepreneurship. Having lived and worked on four continents, he is passionate about where technology meets art and media. His current featured documentary, Cryptopia, has won 16 international festival awards, and is available on VOD and large broadcasters.
Max: Torsten, how are you today?
Torsten: Very well. Thank you so much for having me!
Max: I’m excited to learn all about the crypto field. Your films — Cryptopia, and Bitcoin: The End of Money as We Know It — tackle these really dense subject matters. Where does the passion for explaining such complex topics come from?
Torsten: I think my passion is about these topics, first and foremost. My first film, that was my first try to explain things that people have been asking me. Right? Or that I asked myself researching this. I guess I got a little bit better along the way. My newer film, Cryptopia, is five years later, and hopefully I would have still learned a little bit more, with bigger budget, better animations.
Torsten: I think that’s where it comes from. And nowadays, there are so many good YouTube tutorials, or even like things like Explained on Netflix. I don’t know whether you know that series?
Torsten: There’s so much good explainer-type of content out there. And I’m sure I probably took some tricks from experts.
Max: Going into these movies, did you have a plan for getting these intricate topics and diluting them down to the basics?
Torsten: So let’s maybe take a step back. In 2013, I find out about Bitcoin, and the penny drops, and I kind of get it. Because of my financial background, I might have gotten it a little bit faster than other people. Because usually when you first hear about it, it’s, “Must be a scam, it can never possibly work. What is this crazy internet magic money?” Along the way, it became clear that I actually needed to make a documentary about money, and how money works, or doesn’t work. About how the banks kind of screw us in some cases, or about central banking, how money’s created out thin air. Only then does Bitcoin make sense. So I try to break that down in my first film.
Max: So did you find, by the second film, you had more in your repertoire when it came to graphics, music, and explainers, in terms of what worked better?
Torsten: For sure. But at the same time, things got more complicated because the first film is just explaining Bitcoin, which is complex enough. And the money creation. And the second film, five years later, this whole blockchain economy appeared. There are millions of other coins. So it’s like, “Okay, how does it actually work? What is a smart contract?” The topics got more difficult, but at the same time, hopefully my toolkit also improved a little bit, the budget improved, and I was more collaborative on that project as well.
Max: Did you test it on any sample audiences that didn’t know about Bitcoin?
Torsten: I did. I tried to do it scientifically. The marketing people always use these feedback forms, and then you get the score. The more likely you get certain scores, the better it performed. And I think Hollywood does this to a higher degree. I tried to do this a little bit and also have like a circle of, I don’t know, 10 or 20 people I always check back in with about the script, and then the animation, and then they’ll say, “Look, I didn’t quite understand this and that.” But that one wasn’t quite as sophisticated. It was more like five of my friends giving me feedback.
Max: You have such a unique background. Where did you get the inspiration to get behind the camera?
Torsten: I had started a distribution business in 2012. So at the time, 2014, 2015, I would’ve worked with content makers from all over the world. And what struck me is, being on the distribution end, some films perform super well, other films do not perform well at all, right? And then also, what does the market want? What does a Netflix acquire? What does a broadcaster in America, or in Europe, want? So I thought my unique angle is, “Okay, I think I can make something that an audience might actually watch.” That was the beginning. And then, with Cryptopia actually, that is the next evolution. It’s not like what the marketplace, the broadcasters, want, because I found out that’s actually only a small part of the pie, right? The big money you can make on the digital platforms. I use a Filmhub, but there’re others as well. So you have to create an audience yourself. And target someone – hopefully a big audience – who really is totally attuned to what you’re making.
Max: Did you find at the core of your filmmaking, distribution was a more important focus than normal creative directors?
Torsten: I think so. It’s always hard to compare, but for me, the creative comes last, and the audience building, and the positioning, and the marketing, and the pitching comes first. As a filmmaker, you have to start with an idea, with a pitch deck. I did two Kickstarters. So, it is kind of like a lot of entrepreneurial steps anyway. And then you also learn and adapt and see what works. So relatively early, you kind of, I think, find your niche, find your story, and then you just execute on that.
Max: So you have this background where you’re ready to market, you’re ready to distribute. Where did you learn to write, edit and direct?
Torsten: Yeah, well, that is maybe on paper, my weak point. I’ve watched a lot of films, I’ve represented other filmmakers. So what I did is, I partnered with what I thought was the best filmmaker in my circle. And Michael is kind of a genius at this, and he co-directed, and he edited it, and he coached me writing the first one. The second one, he again is a co-director, and I increasingly take a stronger role and am able to do more and more. I’ve never done the editing myself. So that’s still not my part of the role. But writing, producing, and directing very much so.
Max: Have you reached out to other directors and asked for help?
Torsten: Yeah, I probably have, two or three times. Or talked to someone at a conference. But to be honest, out of a hundred little bits of inspiration, you can watch it on the screen. 98 percent of what you see on the screen, you can kind of replicate, or understand what it is. Maybe in two percent of cases you want to know, “Okay, how did they actually do this?” Or, “What was the budget behind that particular shot?” I think you don’t actually need to have this kind of mentorship with a dozen directors in order to direct yourself.
Max: What movie, when you saw it, you got that 98 percent, and helped you with your films?
Torsten: There were so many. I mean, every other day you watch a documentary and think, ‘Oh, this was clever.’ Looking back, for sure, Inside Job, which won the Oscar, about the financial crisis. There were two other Bitcoin-related films that I went a complete different route from, but I think those kind of types of content, or even podcasts, help with, “How do you explain Bitcoin? How do you explain blockchain?” After listening to 50 different explanations, I found I was like, “Okay, I think I’m going to go this way.” And I’m bringing my own experience as well.
Max: In 2014 and 2015, when you made your first movie, was there a market for these crypto documentaries?
Torsten: Yeah. Good question. I mean, there were two or three, and one was very much focused on the American landscape, which was interesting and very well made, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. At the time, I was based in Australia. I had lots of production in Europe as well, so I wanted to tell an international story. Then there was another one that was focused on mining, the mining of Bitcoin. My first film is really about money, right? And that doesn’t change, because the history of money is like thousands of years old, or hundreds of years old. In my second film, I think suddenly this whole industry had emerged – thousands of projects around this whole technology had emerged. So I wanted to cover that wider ecosystem. I think both films, in that way, were kind of unique, and I was making my own niche.
Max: So you talk about making it an international story. Were you always set on that?
Torsten: Maybe I should say something different first. There are different kinds of filmmaking, right? I just watched the three-parter documentary about uranium. It’s called Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Fantastic production. And they went to Chernobyl and Japan, and all over, America, everywhere. It was an Australian production actually. And literally every little sentence was pre-scripted and very well executed. So basically they were shooting to script, right? You can do that, and they did a fantastic job. My process is slightly different. I went to the first conference in January 2014 in Miami, and I finished maybe a year later in, I don’t know, Tokyo or wherever the last shoot was. Along the way, I keep learning, I keep meeting new people. So I kind of keep evolving. When I start a project, I kind of know, “Okay, most of the action is in America.” Or, “I want to talk to these agents.” But I don’t actually know in advance. So that’s the first part. The other part of the answer is definitely the international angle. Even though America still represents the largest audience – I think in terms of VOD, it’s probably 80 percent of the audience – for TV, I mean I’m just looking at my chart here, for Cryptopia, and we have, let’s see, Slovenia, Croatia, Norway, Hong Kong, Israel, Australia, Poland, South Korea, Germany – that was a pre-sale – Russia, and then Al Jazeera English and Arabic. That’s starting from small to the biggest broadcasters. With hundreds of millions of people, and you don’t find a single American broadcaster there, right? So would those broadcasters have acquired the film, licensed the film, if I had only made it in America for Americans?
Max: How did you get these two projects off the ground so that they could be shown all over the globe?
Torsten: I might be different here to other filmmakers. I really am very much focused on that kind of entrepreneurial way of filmmaking. So I put my own money first, my own time, maybe six months sometimes, and create a trailer, at least, on my own dime. There’s maybe two or three production days. At least I have some content. I have a rough idea. And then in both cases, I went to Kickstarter. Kickstarter’s a full-time job for two months. I can’t do anything else. And in both cases I was successful. I had another Kickstarter as well for another project, which was successful, and one other failed one. And what I learned is the more you have in the can that you can show, the more successful it will likely be. And then you have to have a large platform and people who will help you spread the message. And then with the second one, it got easier because then I had the first one to prove, look, there’s an audience, I know how to reach that audience and people respect me in that community. And then for the second one, I was able to get Screen Australia funding. I don’t remember how much, maybe a third of the funding came from them. I had a German broadcaster, a pre sale, that might have been, I’m guessing now, maybe 15 percent of the budget. So, you just add on this capital
Max: In the second movie, is that how you got such larger-than-life big presences in the crypto community? You had the creator of Litecoin. Did you use the experience from the first movie to get in the door?
Torsten: Yeah, for sure. I was lucky twice. So in 2014, the industry was so small, nothing was covered in the mainstream media. Everyone wanted to talk about it and sell me that vision that Bitcoin is going to replace the US dollar in 2014. So it was easy to get people back then, right? But then by 2020, these guys are all billionaires, so it’s hard to get interviews. But I could basically prove, “Look, this film has reached 12 broadcasters” or whatever that number was. It was very big on the Internet, on many platforms. So it was kind of easy for me to convince them to join my next film.
Max: Did you have any favorite interviews?
Torsten: Oh, I mean, all these guys are super smart and very friendly and nice to meet. One of my favorites was Laura Shin because she’s also a journalist. She’s a podcaster, very knowledgeable, and I got to pick her brain a little bit about how she manages to kind of remain neutral – friendly, but neutral, you know, not too friendly with people. So I really like that one. She shared some great stories. She’s a very respected journalist, and she has uncovered some big scams and big stories in the crypto community.
Max: You’ve diluted this material down so that the normal person can understand. Who do you create these films for?
Torsten: Yeah, so directly picking up from my last answer, a podcast, or a vlog on YouTube, is a weekly summary of what’s going on. So it’s like live reporting on something. What we as documentary makers make is almost the opposite. Right? We spend two years on making something that’s hopefully still accurate and valuable two years later. Or even now, my first one is now six, seven years old. So, you need to really think about the story, and what are the main trends and philosophies behind it – stuff that doesn’t become outdated after a year or two. And especially for Bitcoin and crypto and blockchain, that is stuff that moves so quickly. So you have to be very careful about that. And to answer your question, I mean, I know this community, I’m part of this community. I’m really part of this group, and I can imagine these people trying to, for the 100th time explain to their friend or partner or a colleague or roommate or whatever, this topic. And I kind of imagine that the community I know is going to be kind of like my inner circle of people who then bring it to their circle. You know what I mean? They are my evangelists, so to speak. That’s how you reach an audience much larger than the actual crypto community.
Max: So do you think that applies to pretty much any kind of filmmaker? Just find those people around you that are your apostles?
Torsten: I think that’s a general rule for online marketing for sure. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how a horror film, or, I don’t know, a food documentary works, but I would imagine it’s very much similar, yeah. And again, the more global these people are, the better. And the more well connected and influencers those people are, the better. Right? Because some of the folks in my film have, I don’t know, two million Twitter followers. It gets easier that way.
Max: So do you feel like filmmaking’s marketing is unique to itself?
Torsten: Different aspects of the industry work differently. The B2B side of the industry, so to get a deal with a German broadcaster, I mean that’s a relationship business, and I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and I actually have a sales agent who’s doing a phenomenal job at this as well. So that’s one side of the business. Then there’s another side of the business, which is kind of like the TVOD model, right? When you launch a film, you have a product to sell for $10, let’s say, right, and you can do the standard marketing tricks and run ads on Twitter and Facebook and all that. And I’ve tried, and I have all these metrics. So, everyone I talk to, whether it’s my PR agent, they’re always impressed by how much metrics I have. Even Amazon now allows you to advertise. Right? And I can literally put a value on each click, on each visit. You can do that. But I think what you are really asking is something else, though. So it’s not like selling it as a product. What you’re really saying is like the branding, right? So how does Cryptopia stand above thousands of hours of other crypto-related and blockchain-related content? And that is difficult.
Max: Not everything applies to everyone, but what life hacks have you found in filmmaking where it’s like, “Oh, I had to go A to D, and now I can go A to B?”
Torsten: I don’t think I’ve learned hacks. The basic tools are still the same: strong trailer, strong key art, right? And you want to have a Screen Australia, or maybe a broadcaster, attached to it and to get famous people in it. None of this is superb hacks or anything. Sorry.
Max: You just gotta keep grinding.
Torsten: Yeah. That’s true. And every filmmaker, every film is different. And I’m sure you’re going to ask me about that as well later on. But I think I’ve just found my way of telling a story, and my audience, and my niche. And it kind of works.
Max: If you were talking to a young filmmaker, and you had to give him one piece of advice, what would you say?
Torsten: If he or she has never done anything before, then just start. And starting might be a TikTok channel or whatever you want to call it. But one thing to take away from this is really that positioning, and finding your niche and finding your audience and then relentlessly focusing on that. Because if you’re making a horror film, then it’s like, okay, you are one out of 250 this year. So how is yours going to be different? But if you’re one out of two bitcoin movies, that is different. Right? So, the smaller your niche, and the better you know that niche, the better, I would say.
Max: So finding your niche in crypto, did you ever plan on being in front of the camera?
Torsten: The first film was a relatively low budget. It was a lot of stock footage, and it was my first try. With the second one, we had a proper production crew, proper production budget. And then Michael, my co-director – and he was so right, it was maybe the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten – he said, “Look, this is your story, because you you’re telling the story from when we did the first film to now, the second film. What did you learn?” People want to know. People want to identify with someone. I was reluctant for a long time, but it kind of does make sense. And now when I do my next film, it gets even easier, because now I have not only a track record of two films, but I also have a reputation, and a brand myself. So it does become easier. And if you look at a lot of successful documentaries of late, you will see that the filmmaker actually put themselves as part of the characters in the film. Even sometimes it’s just behind the camera, one crucial question comes from the filmmaker. But that makes a difference. Even Inside Job, the documentary, there’s like two times where the filmmaker actually does some something journalistic, and that sets him apart from just a regular financial documentary, I think.
Max: So what’s the next movie?
Torsten: Yeah. I’m working on something even bigger. It’s not the crypto community, but it’s another tech sector, a new industry that’s emerging. Again, I’m covering a global story, and a controversial industry, and the financial and business and economy parts behind it. I’m super excited about it actually, but it’s not quite ready to be shared.
Max: That’s fair. That’s a nice teaser. People will be excited about that. Do you think this explaining of complex materials, and really bringing it to the masses, is that going to be your niche for the next 50 years?
Torsten: I mean I can only think about from one project to the next. I don’t know about 50 years. But I do think that kind of works. Because now I have an audience large enough to make it self-sustaining, right? I’m not sure whether Kickstarter is still the way to go. Maybe NFTs or something else takes its place. But at least with those two films, I have something, I’ve built some sort of an audience.
Max: Yeah, and you mentioned before, your TV reach, and possibly bringing your movies to TV. Is that kind of a new field when it comes to these documentaries? Selling to TV and whatnot?
Torsten: Well, I think it’s the other way around. Documentary TV has been around longer than the streamers. So that’s how it started, and there are these different recipes and different ways to produce a TV documentary. And now we think that everything is streaming, but actually it’s the other way around. I think the trick is actually to do both at the same time. Cryptopia managed to do both. And again, I think that might be my playbook for the future. You have one feature documentary that is for that online audience, but also have a TV cut that is appealing to an international TV audience.
Max: Let’s go back in time a bit. If you had a time machine and could go back and tell yourself one piece of filmmaking advice, where would you go and why?
Torsten: So first of all, if I had a time machine, I would just buy Bitcoin. I would be a very rich man, which I’m not. But filmmaking advice, look, I think at the time of the first one, I didn’t have the budget to do anything much better. And given my constraints, that was perfect. And I think Cryptopia is, I’m very proud of it, but watching it now, there are those two or three little things that still bother me. So I think I would just be a little bit more of a perfectionist about it. And hopefully my next film will be something that is, frame-to-frame, the way I wanted it.
Max: You can definitely see the development from the first movie to the second movie.
Torsten: Thanks. That actually means a lot to me because not many people have watched both, or they forgot about the first one. It was a huge difference. It was also like eight times bigger budget or something.
Max: Let’s talk to you as a movie fan. What’s your favorite future-based movie, where it’s like a dystopian apocalyptic kind of world?
Torsten: I mean, that one is easy because The Matrix is dystopia. You could also say utopia in some aspects. But it’s also so well made, and it still stands up today. It’s technically brilliant, but also philosophically. I mean, now we are talking about the simulation theory, you know, and all this kind of stuff, and those guys did this, I don’t know, 25 years ago, 20 years ago. It’s crazy. So I think that one would be number one on my list for sure.
Max: What’s your favorite the-world-is-going-to-be-better-in-the-future movie?
Torsten: Yeah, so I would actually, it’s not a popular one among the filmmaking crowd, but if you talk about the technology and mankind, then I think we have to look at Star Trek. Star Trek is, you know, people don’t worry about poverty or social unrest. We are just out there exploring things, we’re all scientists, we’re all explorers. I mean, if that’s the future, I’m all in.
Max: That was a very conscientious movie and theme in general on that TV show. It’s just, like, for the betterment of man.
Torsten: Yeah, and it’s crazy – the first one started in the ’60s, or maybe early ’70s. And yeah, it’s pretty interesting.
Max: What’s the most realistic technological movie about the future?
Torsten: I’m going to give another unpopular opinion here because the film wasn’t really that good, but recently there was this sci-fi movie, Ad Astra, so about space travel and things like that. It’s something I’m very interested in, you know, sci-fi related, and it had one or two scenes about how space travel is becoming almost like boarding an airplane. And it looked like that. This weekend we’re going to have Richard Branson doing his space thing, and then Jeff Bezos next week, or something like that. So it kind of foreshadows that. And it even had a moon base, where I don’t even know what was going on, but it was kind of like that. People were living there, and it’s just like an outpost. So that one. And another maybe counterintuitive one would be Truman Show. I mean Truman Show, again, like foreshadowed this thing that we have la camera on us, and tracking devices on us, and we are all kind of like Truman, in its a weird way, right.
Max: Ad Astra’s fantastic by the way. I really enjoyed that movie. Because, you know, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful. James Gray has a very unique command behind the lens.
Torsten: I do think so. Actually I did like it better than – we shouldn’t be too influenced by just one or two reviews on our Twitter or something, because it had a lot of strength, yeah.
Max: Let’s say you could be on any film set. Where are you going and why?
Torsten: Oh, super easy. So my background, so when I started in 2011, 2012, with my business, it was all about 3D. My company was called 3D Content Hub. So I have that background, and I’m still doing a lot of work in virtual reality, VR and 360 video.And the one filmmaker who has really kind of stood for those kind of filmmaking techniques and innovation, is James Cameron. And Avatar was just, I mean, it’s still the number two movie of all time. And he has been producing Avatar II and III, I think, for the last 15 years. I don’t know if it’s ever going to come out, but they’re going to use, or they are using, some techniques that would be stuff that we will maybe use 20 years in the future, because he’s always that far ahead of the game.
Max: So do you see VR as being something that’s going to come and take a bite of the filmmaking industry?
Torsten: So I’m hugely bullish on VR. I’m still working with a lot of VR filmmakers, and I’m consulting with a few of the big platforms. And it’s already bigger than most filmmakers think. But I do not think that it will replace any sort of traditional film and streaming. I think it’s additional. Just like how computer games are not replacing TV. They’re just a new thing for new generations. So I think it is important for all of us to watch, but I’m not quite sure how it’s going to end up. I think it’s going to be much more immersive and interactive. So sort of like, more gamey, rather than sit back, but I might be wrong on that.
Max: Yeah. We’ll see. I mean, Avatar II will come out and just blow our minds, and everyone will run to do VR after that. We’ll see. So, where can people find your stuff, Torsten?
Torsten: My favorite place to point people to is CryptopiaFilm.com because that’s where I sell the film for a couple bucks, so to speak. But I’m using Filmhub, as I mentioned earlier, and they’ve onboarded the film to many, many platforms, including Amazon. So Amazon is probably the easiest way to get to my films.
Max: Thank you so much for coming. It’s been a pleasure. I feel a bit more educated about crypto, but I just want to say thank you.
Torsten: Thanks for having me, buy some Bitcoin, and watch my film. Thank you.
Max: Thanks for listening. Please subscribe, rate, and review Forward Filmmaker on whatever podcast platform you’re using. On the next episode, we’ll be talking with Sweta Rai, director of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary A Pandemic: Away from the Motherland.