Teach Me How to Startup

DreamWorks Wants to Be ‘a Technology Company,’ Starts With an Instagram for Videos

Jeffrey Katzenberg wants to reinvent DreamWorks as more of a tech company? Paging Nick Denton!

 DreamWorks Wants to Be a Technology Company, Starts With an Instagram for Videos

If Hollywood is going to get into the app game, we’d much rather it be an animation powerhouse like DreamWorks than, say, CAA and its tech-lite celebrity clientele. After nine months of stealth mode, DWA Investments, a separate company incubated and funded exclusively by DreamWorks, is releasing its first foray into the startup world. Ptch, which makes its debut in iTunes App Store today, wants to be a multimedia Instagram.

Long-time DreamsWorks CTO Ed Leonard, formerly director of R&D at Disney Animation, is devoting himself to the project full time as Ptch’s CEO.

“It became very clear to us that the right way to do this is to fill the room with some passionate people whose every waking moment is spent bringing the product to life,” Mr. Leonard told Betabeat by phone. After watching companies like Instagram successfully turn smartphone cameras into a tool for self-expression, he “got bit by the bug” and wanted to develop for mobile. “I asked Jeffrey [Katzenberg], our CEO, if I could go run it and he was surprised, intrigued, and I ultimately convinced him.”

DWA Investments is equity-owned by its 15 full-time employees, Mr. Leonard noted. About a third of the staff came from DreamWorks. “The guys that transferred over, we all took pay cuts, but in exchange we got a material chunk of equity,” as incentive, he said.

The free app lets users mash up photos, videos, and snippets of music, pulling it all together in sort of a more dynamic PowerPoint for the iPhone era. Each story has a 60 second cap and lets users pull from existing social feeds like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Viddy, and–naturally–Instagram. You can pull in comments or tweets from those feeds or add your captions.

Apps like the well-funded Animoto and Muvee offer a similar proposition. But Ptch also offers a remixing element. If the original creator allows it, users can pick out photos and videos from someone else’s “ptch” and use them in their own. (Hence a beta test with concert-footage at the NXNE music festival earlier this year.) It will be available on iPhone 4 and 4S, as well as iPads and iPods.

We have to admit we were a little skeptical, although this “ptch” about a hot day in New York City softened us up a bit. What can we say, every movie preview ever has instilled a Pavlovian response to Florence + The Machine.

Where Instagram has filters to customize photos, Ptch has “styles.” That’s where the monetization potential comes in. Mr. Leonard said he plans on creating a “micro-transaction environment, where people will purchase bite-sized media, versions of clips and movies and styles that make their ‘ptches’ look better.” The idea is emulate the Zynga model, where 99 perent of consumers use the tool for free. Styles wrap around the content users upload so that it can connote a more serious, elegant, or party setting, he explained. “We imagine an open marketplace for those styles, where entrepreneurs can create styles and offer them for share and sale for the platform.”

It surprised us that DreamWorks, with its expertise in technologies like CGI, was going for a broad consumer proposition around video, rather than say a tool for animators or even an consumer-oriented animation app. But Mr. Leonard said creating professional tools was less exciting than the consumer-empowerment bandwagon. “What I thought was cool was that the middle is going away.” He added, “Nobody has the time to sit in front of iMovies, if they have to skill set, to spend a Saturday making something they want to share,” when they can get 80 percent of the same quality making a ptch in a couple minutes.

But pursuing other startups and apps seems to a growing focus for the company. “There’s a lot of ambition at DreamWorks, they’re thinking about how to leverage ambition on the film side and how to reinvent themselves as more of a technology company than a movie company and really leverage all that value,” Mr. Leonard said. “If you get close to what Jeffrey is thinking about in terms of the DreamWorks brand … Jeffrey really believes int he intersection that’s happening between technology and entertainment.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com