When people rent a movie to watch at home, they’re usually “just looking to be entertained,” says filmmaker Marc Erlbaum. But sometimes a film has the power to inspire or provoke an audience as well. In that case, what might spur viewers to get off their couches and engage with the content of the movie? “You may watch an inspiring film and say, ‘I want to do something about this.’ But if you don’t have any immediate way to take action, you just go to sleep,” Erlbaum says.
Eflixir, a for-profit start-up founded by Erlbaum, aims to change the storyline by offering a broad menu of uplifting or cause-related movies that viewers can stream in their homes. “What no other [video] platform has done is build community around content,” Erlbaum says.
Erlbaum is also the founder of Nationlight Productions, which aspires to make movies that (in his words) “change public discourse and popular culture through more positive, inspiring media.” Nationlight films include Café, with Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell. Erlbaum says that the relative success of those titles demonstrates that there’s an audience for movies “that appeal to people’s higher instincts.” With Eflixir, he aims to achieve a wider reach. “We can have greater impact by curating content that’s already out there and putting it in one place,” Erlbaum says.
Eflixir, based in Philadelphia, launched in December. The company delivers content through the Amazon.com streaming service, and its revenue comes from being an Amazon affiliate. By early spring, the Eflixir catalog included about 3,000 films, ranging from romantic comedies (About Time) to documentaries (Food, Inc.) to the latest Academy Award nominees (12 Years a Slave). “They aren’t all what you would call ‘cause films,’” Erlbaum says. “They’re entertainment about people trying to make their lives better.”
A portion of each rental fee goes to a nonprofit cause partner. (The current partner is Free the Children, a charity that promotes youth empowerment.) Erlbaum hopes that the fee-sharing policy will help build brand loyalty. “Right now, people might watch something on Amazon tonight, iTunes tomorrow, then Netflix or cable the next day. There’s no reason to have allegiance to any one of them,” he says. “We hope that people will make Eflixir their place to watch movies, because of the experience around the viewing.”
Erlbaum has coined a term to describe his vision of the viewing experience: “entervolvement.” It’s the ability “to be entertained and simultaneously involved,” he explains. At the Eflixir site, every film listing includes information about thematically related nonprofits. (For Everything Must Go, which features Ferrell as a recovering alcoholic, the site presents links to Alcoholics Anonymous and the Betty Ford Center.) Eflixir also offers social media tools and online forums that help audience members connect with each other. The goal is to turn isolated viewers into an engaged community. “After you’ve watched and been inspired by a film, you have the immediate ability to do something,” Erlbaum says.
Eflixir is a recent entry in the media-for-good field. Participant Media, a production company founded by philanthropist Jeff Skoll, also creates online campaigns to support cause-oriented films. “What they do is tremendous,” Erlbaum says. “But they create campaigns for only the 6 to 12 films that they produce in a year. There are thousands of films out there that nobody has created any kind of social action around.” Participant Media moved into television last year with the launch of Pivot, a cable network aimed at engaging the millennial generation in social action.
Media channels like Eflixir and Pivot allow viewers to vote with their eyeballs, argues Renee Hobbs, founder of the Media Literacy Lab and founding director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island. “People can make viewing choices about the kind of world they want to live in,” she says. Such services offer counter-programming to a mainstream entertainment industry that favors crowd-pleasing fare such as “sex, violence, children, animals, or UFOs,” Hobbs adds.
Erlbaum has big plans for Eflixir. By 2015, he predicts, the company will be “acquiring independent films out of festivals” and even producing films that will be “exclusively available on our platform.” Meanwhile, he says, Eflixir will focus on distributing “good films that are not getting the exposure they deserve.”