Originally aired on December 15, 2021 @ 12:30 PM - 1:00 PM EDT
This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!
This session features Samenta Agee, founder of Sparxs Holdings.Originally from Monterey California, Samenta has lived in several different cities prior settling down in Austin. Feeling at home with the RC nature of the city, she started taking her passion for writing to the next level, creating her first short film. As for Director, Producer, and writer of Seeking Women $$$, she learned firsthand how to make a film from scratch.
It was during the process of making best film that she realized her love for production was beyond writing. With Seeking Women $$$ placing at the Lift-Off Global Network Festival as well as the Denton film festival (and winning a silver Remi award at the Worldfest Houston International film Festival), Samenta is riding the momentum to build an inclusive studio dedicated to giving opportunities to exceptional Austin based talent. With Sparxs studio she plans on at night in a spark within the local community to expand the Texas film industry.
to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more! Founder Spotlight hub Hi, everyone, and welcome to another segment on Cloudflare TV. We are in the midst of Founder Spotlight week, and I'm back again. My name is Fallon Blossom. I'm the Senior Strategic Program Manager on the Cloudflare TV team, and we are telling stories and shining a light on founders and their companies all week long and all over the world. So today, I am here with another amazing founder. Do you want to introduce yourself and say a little bit about your company? Yeah, sure. I'm Samenta, and I'm founder of Spark Studios and IndieSparks here in Austin, Texas. We are the only woman-owned entertainment and technology company in Austin. Wow, that's amazing. Yeah, it was really exciting. So on our production side of things, we have Spark Studios, and we're all about creating diverse stories. We are getting deep into a lot of historical dramas and documentaries right now. We do have an idea for a scripted show that's coming out soon, hopefully in 2022, but our big project is our technology side called IndieSparks, and that's our distribution channel. Basically, what we like to call it is that it's a fast promotion channel for indie creatives to be able to promote their work in ways that are currently unavailable to them. Okay, so yeah, we'll talk about that a little bit more. I don't want to give all the details. Yeah, no, no, no. We're going to build suspense in this narrative that we will create over the next 30 minutes, right? This is a drama. So take us back to the beginning, right? Again, this idea of drama. So tell me, what's the origin story of Spark Studios? How did this all start? Yeah, well, my road to getting into entertainment was a long one, I would say. Started when I was a kid. My mom used to take us to the movie theaters all the time. So I think out of all of my friends, I was the one that went to the theaters almost every day. So I grew up in the movie theaters. I grew up loving stories and cinema, and we watched a lot at home as well. So I knew that I wanted to do something with that, but I wasn't exactly sure what that could be. And I fell in love with, I was a prolific reader at a young age, and I love reading. So I started writing novels and stuff, just amateur things. But then I started wondering, well, what if I actually started to get into the movie business? What would I do? For me, I didn't like to be in front of the camera. I liked all the behind the scenes stuff, crafting the story, doing the production design, all these different things. And luckily in 2016, 2017, I got the opportunity to be in Los Angeles. I did a lot of work for AFI. I did some stuff with the Universal and Warner Brothers prop houses. Did some work with Warner Brothers and HBO and Amazon Studios. And from there, I fell in love with it. But of course, everybody knows, it's no secret that California is very expensive. So it was a little difficult for me to stay. So I came back to Austin. And from there, I was like, well, I would love to be able to capture what is out in Hollywood, to be able to bring that here to Austin for people like me, who maybe can't afford to go out there, but really want to work in this industry. And that's kind of how Spark Studios was formed. I did my first short film, Seeking Woman. It was supposed to cost $16,000, but I did it for two. That's like a lot of hats and everything, but I won a lot of awards. Yeah, I won a couple of awards for that. I wrote it, directed it, produced it. And from there, I was like, yeah, this is great, but where am I going to put it? And that's where the idea of IndieSpark came. So they kind of go hand in hand. As an indie creative myself, I know the significant struggles, especially in the industry from people that I've worked with, as well. It's hard when you put your heart and soul into a product, and then your only options are kind of just to put it on a place where it doesn't really have life. So I thought, why not create a space for indie creatives where their work will not only have life, but they'll also be able to expound, move from being a filmmaker to being a filmpreneur, think about their business in a new way. And so we're carving a space in the creator economy for independent filmmakers. Yeah, I think I've heard of the idea of authors and people who write books writing the book that they needed to read. So I think, kind of like I'm listening to you talking, it seems like you created the company that you needed as a creative, or that you would like to see as somebody who actually cares about storytelling and narrative and like actually creating and owning your content. So I think that's like a nice segue to talk a little bit more about your mission, right? It's to enable filmmakers to live off of their work. Why is that important to you? It's important to me because before there was TikTok, Instagram was a big king, you know, and I was just looking at like how, you know, reading about how these influencers were making so much money, you know, from YouTube or Instagram. And I'm thinking to myself, you know, I'm looking at my friends who I've helped with their productions, and they are amazing filmmakers. And all they really need is just the shot and the chance to really show their work. And I mean, even with musicians, singers, you know, you hear about it all the time, like, oh, I got discovered singing in a club or somebody heard my SoundCloud. Like there's platforms out there where, you know, you have a chance to be discovered. But for filmmakers, it's not so much, you know, they're kind of having to really kind of shrink down what their whole vision is so that they can do short form content, put it on YouTube or, you know, or TikTok. And, you know, I remember I was watching an interview from Beyonce, and she was saying that people, you know, they're only listening to singles, and people don't really listen to a body of work anymore. And I feel like that's kind of creeping into the film industry as well. You know, nobody's really like taking a full look at a project. Now everybody kind of wants it in like three minutes, you know, or like 15 seconds. I was going to say less. Yeah, even less, you know, you're trying to get to the story, you know, and I think that's like molding consumer behavior. But for film, you know, as we all know, like that doesn't necessarily work. You need time to be able to paint your vision, to be able to tell your story, and to be able to make money off of that. And I know that there's like a lot of problems. I'm pretty sure we all heard it. You know, there's issues with like, creators being like pushed down and by the algorithms, the algorithms kind of running on its own the algorithms learning bias. So you have these diverse creators that have amazing content, but they're not even getting their fair share. It's, they say it's a meritocracy. But when you really look at the data, not really, it just depends on like, who you are, you know, per se. So I just wanted to try to create something that is different, you know, that combines machine learning with human learning. And I think that that's kind of what's missing. And a lot of these big tech companies that it's all automated. And you're, if it's all automated, you're going to miss the heart of it. And you're not going to truly know what people want, you get a generalized idea. And then that leaves some people out in the dust. So yeah. So I mean, thinking about the idea of like machine learning, and the marriage between kind of like tech and creativity, I think does that show up in the discovery engine that you have with spark studios? Like, how can you like walk me through specifically how you're using tech in your production company? Yeah, so I can't get into a lot of specifics yet, because we are, you know, we're, we're just starting out. But I will say that what we're doing, the idea is to combine is to basically let your friends information, the information from where your friends are showing you or what you're sharing with your friends. That is what's feeding the machine instead of a pre existing bias, that's kind of like a pre existing code that's in there, the machine is learning from the interactions that's happening on the site instead. Oh, that is interesting. Well, because when you think about like the idea of content, I know for me personally, my friends are the people who suggest content to me the most, oh, have you seen this? Have you seen that? And so that word of mouth is a lot more effective when it comes to consuming content and sharing that around. Um, I don't know, that's just my like, kind of lived experience. So it's cool. When you look when you really kind of think about how you met your favorite show, it always had to do with something that your friend was doing. It wasn't really so much the machine. I mean, the machine is suggesting it to you, but you're not like clicking on it on your own. It's not until your friend physically tells you in some form or fashion, like, yeah, do this that you're actually going to, you know, click the button, do that action. Oh, yeah, because it's also the idea of FOMO. Like, you don't want to be on the outside of the joke when everybody is talking about that scene or that comment or that thing. Yeah, yeah. Yes. And yeah, sorry. Good. No, no. No, yeah. And we did a lot of research as far as you know, what the consumers were saying. And that is the thing. Consumer behavior has shifted because of so much content being like out in the world. From our findings, we see that seventy eight percent of people want to continue to watch independently produced content. A lot of them like prefer that as well. So very interesting. I think that the studios have kind of ignored a little bit there. They're kind of, again, just going off of the bottom line and some things work, but then some things don't, you know. So and we see that with the box off with what's happening in the box office today. That is interesting. So how far along would you say that you are in your startup adventure? Like where is Spark Studios at in its development? So I think we are what I would like to call the bones right now, but we are working on building our our muscle mass. OK, well, we're not building the meat of the matter right now. OK, we're getting there. I'm really excited to, you know, we have a new advisor on our advisory board, which I think is going to be a total game changer. I feel like twenty twenty two is when you're going to definitely start hearing a lot of all about Indie Spark. So I'm really excited about that. That's exciting. So, I mean, speaking about twenty twenty two, because we're all kind of thinking about next year, but I kind of want to be a little bit more reflective and think about this year. So like how has this year gone for you? How have you had to pivot or the business had to pivot or change because of the pandemic and all of the things that have been going on, not only this year, but last year as well, probably for the past two years? Yeah, the past two years, honestly, we we are a pandemic company. We celebrated our first night as a real company a week before the lockdowns in twenty twenty. And from there, twenty twenty started to be really good for us. But twenty twenty one did present as a huge challenge because that's when we started building out the technology. And that was really the hardest part is, you know, and also, you know, less than one percent of VC money goes to black female founders. And that was also a huge challenge. So finding funding and being in this industry as well is a huge thing because there's just so many big players out there that it's kind of like, well, maybe so it is a huge uphill battle. But that's why I say that I feel like because twenty twenty one was kind of, you know, it was a pretty big challenge for us. Twenty twenty two is going to be something different. Well, you made it through and you're still working. So that's a big thing. Can you tell me more about the culture that you created that sparks, right? You know, you have this very unique perspective. You have an ambitious goal and you're trying to create something that the market really hasn't seen. So what type of culture have you developed to support all of that work? You know, I think that our culture is in development still, but I think I've gotten a lot of my ideas from just basically how I've been in my other employers, like how things have been as an employer at these bigger tech companies. And I will say that we are more results driven. I don't try to micromanage people and I just kind of set a deadline and then I let them work whenever because it's a creative industry. So you kind of can't put like a crunch on certain things. I mean, you can, but, you know, you might not get the best results. So and also I learned a lot at my when I was working at Apple. You know, I think that that's probably between Netflix's cultures of having no rules and Apple's culture of like really investing in the creativity of their employees. I think that, you know, it's a little mixed in between. Yeah, that's what I would describe us. Yeah. So I'm now I'm curious of maybe some like anecdotes about some successes and maybe some challenges that you had in doing that. Well, I mean, you know what? It is extremely challenging because when you're an employee at an established business, it's easy. You know, there's a wiki. Yeah, there's everything there. It's already set up, but it is completely different when you're a startup and there's some things that you want to do as a startup because you're like, yeah, I want to, you know, let everybody have like take vacations whenever they want and like, you know, not have, you know, all these different things and just things that you hear of these other companies. But then when you get to the reality, especially when you're starting out, it's like, OK, well, you kind of can't do that. That was a hard lesson I had to learn is like until you are at a point where you're bringing in new and you're like fully functioning around, there's just certain things that you can't do. And and also knowing when to, you know, put your foot down, when to stand up for yourself as a as a boss or when to stand up for your company, when to stand up for your employees. There's not a handbook telling you like, yeah, this is what you do it. So you kind of have to go on the fly. So what I have is that, you know, we treat people the way that we want to be treated. And that just goes throughout the company, you know, treat others the way that you want to be treated and do what's best and what's in the best interest for the company. And those are our two things that I have right now. Maybe we'll check in in a couple of months and see how that's going. But I think the do what's best for the company. I remember reading a book about Netflix's culture, actually. And I think that that was one key thing. It's just like they if I'm remembering correctly, empower their employees to know and feel confident and always doing what's best for the company. And so that's yeah, I mean, look, Netflix is doing pretty well. So I think you're in good company with that. Yeah. So now I want to kind of talk a little bit more about the project that you worked on. I remember you mentioning something about like historical stuff and documentaries. Yeah. So give us a little bit more information about the type of content you create and the stories you tell. Oh, yeah. Well, so the first thing that's going out is our archaeological docuseries called A World Beneath. And it's completely different than what we have seen before when it comes to archaeology. So this show, we're learning about living traditions and living cultures, you know, cultures that we think have died out, but really they haven't. I was really inspired by these movements from just myself as a black woman to see black people searching for their roots and then going back to those traditions where their ancestors come from and not just black people, but, you know, you hear about Mayan people doing it and Native American people. They're going back to their original practices to feel more connected. So that's really what that show is about, going back, you know, what that is. And our first episode is actually about the Mayans and the Mayan people that are actually still alive. And I'm not sure if people really realize that they are still there. They still have their language. They still have their culture and tradition. And not only do they still have it, they're expounding on it. And it's like increasing more. So it's like these cultures that are, you know, have been thought to be extinct or assimilated. They're thriving anyway. You know, it's kind of like grass growing in the cement. So that's really what this show is about. And like each episode is in a different country, like learning about another culture. And we end each episode with a community dinner because really the biggest part of learning about somebody, like learning a society of their culture is, I feel, through art, through their art, through their food, and through their language. And that's what we cover. Oh, that's a beautiful framework. And so did y 'all go to these different countries, shoot this on location? Like how long did it take to produce? How many episodes can people expect? Oh yeah. So we're looking to do eight episodes right now as a limited series. And hopefully, you know, we're pitching it to bigger networks to kind of help with that funding angle. And so they actually went to Guatemala in October, you know, to do just a little bit. They went to go and interview some professors and kind of like get a lay of the land. We have really beautiful footage from that, actually. So I'm excited. And so in January, they're restarting production because right now we're on the winter break. So we're restarting production like mid- January. They're going to be in Mexico. I think they're thinking about spending about three or four months out there, or maybe two or three. Probably about two to four months out there in Mexico, kind of in Guatemala. So yeah, I'm sorry. No, no, no. It's okay. We, you know, life happens and we all live at work, as I say. And this is also live TV. Yay. Always fun. I know, I know. I'm sure the producer in you is just like, I wish we're going to cut that in post. That's exactly what I'm thinking right now. As I'm looking at my battery life take away, I'm like, okay, yeah. All right. Okay. I might have to move. So just letting you know. All right. That's all right. We will, we'll set up the two shot and then we'll just do that. Right. Exactly. Okay. So let's actually talk about you, right? So you said a little bit about kind of growing up and being into movies, but how did that kind of experience and perspective, like bring you to where you are as a person, right? This founder journey, you know, you said yourself women of color don't get a lot of funding. I know that that perspective and that experience is fairly unique. So can you share a little bit more about maybe how your past has informed your presence? Yeah. Man, I'd have to say that the best thing that I've learned is that you have to kind of, if it's something that you truly I think we might have lost some men. So I'm going to give it a few seconds to see if she'll come back. I apologize so much. That's okay. You're back. Yay. I'm here. Okay. I'm sorry. I know that the question was about where my past, you know, has helped me with the future and I will continue. I apologize to the viewers out there as well. No, it happened. I'm like, let me get back on. But anyway. Yeah. So the thing that I learned is like, if your gut is telling you that this is something you should do, you absolutely need to do it. And I find that like the more that I learn about the backstories of different films that I have loved growing up or that have went on to like be amazing like things for the culture, you know, for American culture, for Black American culture, the more that it just like really sets that in stone. Because a lot of times like our favorite movies that we love, if there wasn't somebody that believed in it enough to do the hard thing, we would never have seen it. And a lot of our favorite actors or actresses would have never tried it. So that's my philosophy in life. And that's what I'm doing with this company. I'm going to try it. You know, I'm going to do my best to represent myself and my vision and my filmmakers. I'm going to do my best to do right by them. And, you know, and no matter how many times I've heard no, all it takes is one yes. And I think that's something that my advisors and any VCs and investors that we do have in our company, that's something that they like. You know, they're like, OK, well, she is tenacious. She has incredible business acumen. And really, that's honestly a lot of times really not giving up. Having the audacity to not give up is what has helped me a lot and feeling validated by just different stories of other people who are out there who didn't give up and achieve their goal. So, hmm. Well, so you already answered the question that I have to ask everybody about the advice that you would give. No, I'm glad that it happened. Like scratch that one off, because that's all the advice. It's the idea of perseverance. You know, if you're thinking about like the Obama book, right, the audacity of hope and just kind of being fearless. I think that's kind of like what I'm hearing. Mm hmm. Yeah. OK, so since we're talking about content, I want to know what you're watching right now. And I want like two examples. One is like the guilty pleasure that you probably don't want people to know you watch, but you're about to tell everybody I'll do it, too. And then the other thing is just like, oh, you know, like really interesting, entertaining piece of content. OK, so my entertaining piece that I'm really into right now, and I have to say that, again, I know content. I watch like almost everything. Just saying that I just finished Succession. Love it. Talk about that. Love it. I listen to the podcast like me and my cousin have a weekly call like now. Yeah. Yeah, I just finished that one. But the newest show that I'm watching right now is actually Invasion on Apple TV. It is. Oh, my gosh. I guess I'm normally not a sci fi person at all, but there's some really heroine stories in there and it's crazy. And I'm like, oh, my gosh, that's good. So that's my show that I would say like Invasion is that thing. And my guilty pleasure. I don't know, I don't think I care if people know that I watch it or not, but I love I love selling Sunset. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's because they're in California and they're all beautiful and they're selling all these beautiful homes and having a little drama. I don't know what it is, but I just feel like maybe I should be a well in this awesome market. Yes, ma'am. Yes, you should. And so I don't know if you know, but I think selling Tampa just launched on Netflix. I want to say this week, are you going to watch that? I am. I am. I'm like, well, I was watching Selling Sunset, so I have to go support my girls. I got to support my girls. Black realtor. Do that. Yeah, I want to see. I'm not a Florida person, but I'm like, I want to see what they're up to out there. Also, I'm like, I've seen a couple of episodes of Selling Sunset. That is big drama. That is not a little drama. That is big, big drama. Yeah, but I love it because of like all the fashion and everything with it, too. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know. I love that, too. And then so is there anything else that you're watching or even listening to? Like, are you a podcaster as well? And, you know, is video going to be the only type of medium that Spark Studios is interested in? I know there's a big audio market, right? Yeah, it is a big audio market. But yeah, we do want to kind of get into everything. Our natural we're naturally moving into the music video space. We kind of want to do like an indie MTV of what it used to be. Yeah, I think my company is founded on a lot of nostalgia. And when I look, you know, and fashion trends and just different trends that's going on in real time, nostalgia itself, especially to the younger generation. So I'm like, yeah, I feel like we should do something like that. Bring that back because MTV is actually how I discovered Adele. You know, I remember I was getting ready for work and I used to like watch in the mornings they would have like play like a bunch of music videos. And I saw and I heard like literally the first notes that she was singing of Chasing Pavement. I was like, I think I was late for work that day because I was like, what is this? Like, this is she's amazing, you know, and I've been an Adele fan ever since, you know, that moment. So again, I bring a lot of my consumer behaviors into the company because I know like, there's a lot of people that are like, I'm not unique. Not in that way. Not in that way anyway. So yeah, I think that it'll be great. So yeah, we want to move into music videos. Eventually, my CEO, she's got like a lot of ideas, you know, you know, doing like fashion and a bunch of just different stuff that we're doing. So yes. And podcasts, I don't really listen to podcasts a lot. I'm not like super into that. But I do listen to one on Spotify and it's about cults. So they just talk about different cults. Okay, this is another content overlap that is we share. I definitely recently watched a documentary about cults on HBO that Gwen Shamblin lady. Yeah, I seen that. I finished that. Yeah, I Netflix has a lot of good cult things because I watched the one on Heaven's Gate. I of course watched the Nixxiom one. And then like when Shamblin. Yeah. Yeah. So called a crime. Secret. Yeah. Serial killers. Yeah, just a little light, little light crime. No big deal. So we only have like maybe 10 seconds left. I just want to thank you so much for coming on. I think that you're amazing. I think the work you're doing is wonderful. And folks, please check out Spark Studios and all the amazing things that they have coming up. Thank you.