– Using AI to drive fan engagement

Over the past few years, fan engagement has become a huge area of focus for the sports and entertainment industry. Yet, despite this massive potential market, it was not immediately obvious to Andy Doyle, founder of Filmily, that this was the direction he should have been looking in when the germ of the idea first came to him.

That was until Ian Kenny, who was to become co-founder of Filmily with Andy, came up with a bigger and better idea. Kenny, a fellow digital entrepreneur and self-confessed sports fanatic, thought that the opportunities presented by the world of sports were far, far greater. Sports clubs, he reasoned, would jump at the chance of being able to offer their fans a permanent and individualised video record of their own personal participation in a marquee sporting event. Doyle took Kenny’s advice and switched his attention to the burgeoning sports fan engagement market.

Doyle, who is based in the Southwest of England, was heavily involved in the local tech scene, which was how he originally came across Innovate UK. He applied not just once, but twice, for a Smart Grant for funding to develop his idea into a fully-fledged business. Neither application was successful, however. Fortunately, for Doyle, that was not the end of the story, and despite failing to make the cut in what was a very competitive year, the Innovate UK panel was highly impressed, not just by the concept, but the fact that the business had a very clear idea of its strategic direction. Innovate UK got back in touch to say that they still believed the business deserved another chance and suggested Doyle apply for an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund grant. This time, the application proved successful, although there was one more hurdle to overcome. “A condition of the grant is you have to match the funding from elsewhere,” says Doyle, “and that was something we had never done before.” With support from friends and family and a handful of angel investors, Doyle nevertheless managed to pull the money together.

In common with other beneficiaries of Innovate UK support, Doyle recalls that the funding was one thing, but there was also a lot more. Part of the package involved being introduced to Innovate UK’s national business growth and scaling service, Innovate UK EDGE, which helped them become investment ready (and ultimately let to them getting outside investment) and introduced them to the Department for International Trade.

That relationship opened doors for Filmily to go on a number of international trade missions, which helped open their eyes to the global potential of the business as well as providing valuable intros to potential clients. “We not only proved the use case but proved that it was ideal for export.”

They also became real friends with their mentor, Carolyn Hooker, the regionally based Innovation & Growth Specialist at Innovate UK EDGE, and still remain in contact. “She was great. She was always in touch asking us if we’d seen this opportunity or that one, educating us on the other types of government support that were open to us.” 

Unfortunately, just as things were poised for take-off, COVID hit. As Doyle tells it, Filmily found itself, like many entertainment related businesses, facing what was tantamount to a near-death experience. Fortunately, in their case, it was more a matter of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  As events got cancelled or went on-line, they decided to make the most of the downtime to work on the product. As a result, when events started up again, they were ready to make the most of the opportunity. “That we as an events-based company survived at all, was in itself an achievement. We kept our core business small, and during that period improved our product massively.”

When things began to re-open, one of the first major sporting events to take place in front of a live crowd was the 2020 US Tennis Open. It was a golden opportunity to prove what Filmily was capable of. Over the two weeks of the tournament, Filmily received and processed 36,000 fan films and created 9,000 unique movies on behalf of fans in 120 countries. Each film was turned around in just a matter of minutes, thanks to Filmily’s unique AI driven process, which is able to use information from around 75 data points to package the material in such a way that each fan becomes effectively the star in their own fan movie. Things like a fan’s age, race and gender, their emotions, the brands they’re wearing or consuming, their location, how much the camera is moving and even their altitude in relation to the action taking place on court or on the pitch is used to splice the raw footage in minutes to deliver a professional quality video to the fan’s inbox. Could that have been done without AI? Says Doyle: “It would have taken thousands of human editors and would have taken weeks.”

Today the business is looking to the future with confidence. Covid may have put its plans back a year or two, but profitability this current year now looks well in reach. As an AI based platform, Filmily has virtually unlimited capacity to scale without requiring massive increases in staffing or overheads.

Filmily now counts some of the biggest sporting names in the world as clients including big name football clubs such as Ajax in Holland, and FC Köln in Germany, with big markets such as Spain also in their sights. The US, where fan engagement is much more advanced than in Europe, has proved particularly receptive, with the Dallas Cowboys, and The San Francisco 49ers numbering among the early adopters from the world of American football. Other sports, such as Formula E and E-sports, are also starting to show interest. “The US is our first focus because they really get what we are about.”

Another promising market is music, particularly music festivals. Visitors to the June 2022 David Bowie World Fan Convention in Liverpool were able to treat themselves to a dedicated app courtesy of Filmily. This allowed them to create personalised Virtual Tickets as souvenirs for those who attended, along with a Digital Scrapbook and the chance to be on the huge screens at the event as part of a Mosaic of Fans.

Now that weddings are back on, it looks like Doyle’s original idea may once again have legs. The business is talking to hotel companies and other wedding venues about offering access to the Filmily platform as part of the package they can offer to couples. Other ideas on the drawing board for the future including supporting the creation of NFTs. 

While Doyle currently sees no-one on the horizon who can do what they do, he is not complacent.  One of the other things that Innovate UK Edge facilitated was an intellectual property audit in conjunction with the Intellectual Property Office. This led Filmily to apply for and secure patent protection covering the UK, Europe and most crucially the US, where the patent, is quite broadly drawn, offering a much higher level of protection than they, and their lawyers, initially thought possible. “Fan engagement is a competitive market,” says Doyle, but, for the time being, he adds: “We are a couple of years ahead of the curve.” 

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