Richard Botto, “consolidation and M&A isn't speculation, it's a certainty"

The evolution of social media over the last decade is hard to ignore.

There is no doubt that social media platforms are transforming; creating a space where colleagues can network is not something new, but meeting the needs of different industries is.

That's where democratizing the enterprise comes into play. Providing a platform where professionals who work in the same industry can connect in a career-influencing and collaborative way is the first step in leveling the playing field.

To discuss this subject and more, we spoke with expert Richard Botto, founder, and CEO of Stage 32 – a welcoming and productive environment for all film, television, and theater creatives to educate, work, and connect with other professionals in the industry.

How did the idea of Stage 32 originate? What has your journey been like so far?

Stage 32 originated out of a need. As an actor, screenwriter, and producer, I understand the importance and value of social media. But, when talking to so many of my colleagues and asking them what they were getting out of the broad-based social media platforms from a professional standpoint, many had the same answer. I kept hearing time and time again that the results weren't worth the time invested.

When I asked the same people if they would find it more valuable to have a niche social network dedicated to people working in film and television, which included an educational element and a marketplace element, the answer was a resounding yes. That's where the embryonic idea of Stage 32 came from. Once we built the first iteration, the people I queried not only became members but were happy to stress how much they were getting out of their time investment in being a member.

There's been a massive evolution over the last 12 years. Nonetheless, the core idea of democratizing the film and television industry by leveling the playing field for creatives and professionals worldwide was the mission from Day One. It remains the mission today.

As it relates to the journey, it's been rewarding as hell. To be able to help so many people from all over the globe. To be able to provide them with world-class education taught by industry leaders. And to be able to get them beyond the gatekeepers by providing access to the decision-makers and shortening their path to success. That all gets me out of bed every morning, and I go to sleep with a smile on my face every night.

Can you tell us about the core services and expertise offered by Stage 32?

We have what we call the three pillars of Stage 32. The first pillar is social media. It's free to set up an account on Stage 32 and all film and television creatives and professionals are welcome regardless of experience or success. Unlike other social media platforms, especially the broad-based social media platforms, you have to stand in front of your own name on Stage 32. Also, unlike the other broad-based social media platforms, Stage 32 is completely dedicated to people working in or hoping to work in the film and television industry.

The second pillar of Stage 32 is education. Over the last 12 years, we have amassed a world-leading education library of over 3000 hours of film, television, and industry-related webinars, classes, and labs. It was important to me to have education on the platform. Because, when I was looking for webinars to help me with writing, producing, and acting, it was difficult to find professionals immersed in their chosen field. Especially right now as opposed to years and years ago. Or, it was hard to find qualified professionals to teach a particular subject.

Our educators are people in the trenches right now. They consist of Academy Award winners, Emmy Award winners, BAFTA winners, CEOs of major production companies, and other respected, industry-leading professionals. In short, we bring in the best of the best with the mandate that they provide actionable information relevant to the business and market as it exists in the present.

The third pillar of Stage 32 is our marketplace. This is where we connect content creators with the people making the content. Or, we connect the content creators with managers and agents.

The whole goal of the marketplace is to help uncover undiscovered talent and material. Production companies, networks, and streamers will come to us looking for particular material and we will do our best to play matchmaker. We've gained an amazing reputation within the industry for being able to nurture and develop new voices within the community. As a result, hundreds of professionals depend on us to help them find material.

Can you discuss the benefits and unique opportunities that offers to aspiring filmmakers, actors, and other industry professionals?

Well, having the world's largest education library is unique. The world is changing. Film school is very expensive. Not only can’t many people afford to go, but there's limited capacity. What we provide is a film school at a fraction of the cost. What's even more unique to standard film school is that we also teach how to navigate the business.

We're quite business-focused. It's not enough to be great at your craft these days, it's vital that you understand how the business operates. More so, we're seeing more creatives who want to learn many crafts. Such as, how to produce, how to raise financing, and ultimately how to control their own material. In that respect, we're offering something no one else on the planet offers.

Our marketplace, of course, offers tremendous benefits. It's an incredible aspect of what we do at Stage 32. You could be a phenomenal talent. But, if you don't have access to decision-makers if you can't get beyond the gatekeepers, you're only operating in a vacuum. To be able to provide people with access to managers, agents, producers, casting directors, financiers, and other professionals who can move the needle on careers is something that we see as unique.

We believe the social network aspect of Stage 32 is distinct. We do not allow spamming, trolling, or abuse of any kind. As a result, we're called the friendliest social media platform on the planet. That's something we take great pride in.

The amount of people who have had success on this platform over the last 12 years through organic networking and relationship building is the most rewarding thing of all. If you look at the toxicity of the broad-based social media platforms and the negative impact it has on many participants’ mental health, I think you could understand why my entire staff takes such pride in our mission.

Can you discuss any recent trends or shifts in consumer preferences within the entertainment industry? How have they influenced your company's strategies?

This business undergoes constant changes. There are days when it feels like distribution models change by the hour. Because of that shift, we're seeing and have experienced over the last few years creatives looking to expand their educational horizons. To completely not only control their material but as much of the process of making a project as possible.

Even if they have to relinquish control along the way, they're putting themselves in a position to understand. To be well-versed in all processes and procedures. This allows them to be able to navigate the aspects of any deal. So, we're seeing many more people engage with our education in a broader, yet more intimate way.

We are also seeing more creatives and professionals invest in themselves through the services offered within our marketplace. Ultimately, anyone who has spent a little time navigating this business realizes that having direct access, getting direct feedback, being able to hop on a call through the services we provide and speak to an expert either in their chosen profession or to discuss material in a particular genre that the expert specializes in - all that is worth its weight in gold. It's a rationalization of investing in themselves in efforts to save time and speed up their path to success.

How did the recent global events affect your field of work? Were there any new challenges you had to adapt to?

Indeed, COVID presented its own set of challenges. We were quick to adapt to the canceling of film festivals by setting up what we called Stage 32 Screenings. It allowed filmmakers who had their physical screenings canceled the opportunity to screen them virtually on Stage 32 to our roster of thousands of executives.

We were very proud to have films that were supposed to play at places such as SXSW and other prestigious, and even smaller film festivals, play on our platform and give those filmmakers, and everyone who worked on those films, the exposure that they deserved. Which was even more exposure than they would have gotten out of a live screening. That was a very successful and rewarding initiative.

But we also doubled up on education during the pandemic. We listen to our community. They felt trapped at home and were looking to learn. As mentioned earlier, many were looking to expand their knowledge base of the industry or learn a new craft. So, we were very active in fulfilling the educational components that were being requested. By providing a motivational environment during a time when people were feeling less than inspired.

Additionally, with both the creators and the executives being on lockdown, everyone found themselves with a ton of free time on their hands. As a result, our marketplace exploded. We were actually able to set up more meetings and foster more successful connections - getting people representation, raising financing, assisting in getting films and shows off the ground - during the pandemic than in prior years. We won a lot of fans during COVID. We couldn't be more proud of that.

What are some of the unique challenges faced by companies in the entertainment industry? How does your organization address them?

One of the unique challenges we faced at the beginning, but have overcome, was the fact that the powers that be in the entertainment industry have an archaic way of thinking. They're entrenched in an old-guard way. Now that has changed quite a bit since we launched in 2011. And we've helped to speed up that change and the way that we're viewed within the industry.

That's thanks to our success, not only with a million members in the community but also with our massive education library, and with all the member success stories that have come through our marketplace. Once someone sees another executive find material through us, of course, the natural reaction is “I want that too.”

What’s also helped a lot is we now have some prestigious education partners who depend on us. This includes Netflix, AFM, Cannes, Canon, and much, much more.

This is a very tribal business. More so than any other business in the world. But it has truly evolved over the last decade. Maybe even more over the last four or five years. We've tried to lead the charge and stay true to our mission. I think that passion, desire, and discipline shine through. So, whereas in 2011 we may have been outside of the tribe, today we're very much operating within it.

Can you discuss the impact of globalization on the entertainment industry? How has it influenced content creation and distribution?

Well, since day one Stage 32's mission has always been to democratize the film industry by leveling the playing field for all creatives across the globe. The reason that was the mission way back in 2011 was because we saw around the turn. We saw that globalization was on the rise and the way that people consume content was changing and evolving.

Now, here you are in 2023, and it's not uncommon to find content from all over the world. Some with subtitles not only stream on the major platforms but also consistently being some of the most popular content on those individual platforms.

So, the thinking has changed not only at the C-Suite level, but on the creative level, and on the consumer level. Globalization has been and will continue to be a huge boon for us. We're beyond excited to discover new talent and voices from all over the world.

In what ways do you think the entertainment industry will continue to evolve in the future? What potential future advancements or innovations do you envision in this field?

On the business side, I have no doubt you're going to see the chess pieces continue to move around the board. Consolidation and M&A isn't speculation, it's a certainty. It's only a matter of who, what, where, and when.

On the creative side, the big concern right now is AI. And it's an understandable one. Everyone's hope is that AI gets used as a tool. Not as a replacement for any aspect of the human element that contributes to creating entertainment.

I do think the globalization of the industry will continue to expand. We're seeing more co-country productions. That aspect of the business will continue to evolve as well. And we're seeing a heavier emphasis on localized education. That's something we're deeply involved with and plan to be for years to come.

What does the future hold for Stage 32?

To be honest, we have more ideas than hours in the day. But, consistent with our mantra to provide access and opportunity for all our members, we have some huge initiatives in the works. One's that we believe our community is going to be quite excited about. Our goal is to present them with even more tools to forge a lasting career in this industry.

In the short term, we've been in discussions with over 100 film commissions worldwide on one particular initiative near and dear to my heart. This is something that will make an impact on creatives and professionals across the globe, not only in people finding work but also in assisting in the global expansion of the business and influencing productions around the world. It’s a game-changer during a time when the game needs to change.