Is North Philly digital-movie service a giant-killer?

A North Philly film distributor has set up a new company he and his backers hope will turn the video business on its ear by moving movies direct from studios to your home and mobile devices, cutting out the costly middlemen.

"Why can't we stream movies, from studios, to people, right now?" asks Tom Ashley, boss at Invincible Pictures, based at a block-long two-story soundstage at a converted former mail-sorting warehouse at Fifth and Oxford Sts. Ashley’s new firm, FlixFling, sends clients access to digital movies, direct from independent studios, on a per-view or a per-film basis.

Ashley built Invincible into an independent-film distributor by buying movies cheap and promoting local-theater screenings and DVD sales. But the rapid decline in DVD sales, as rental, cable, smartphone and Internet-access firms have quickly made it easier to watch movies online, forced him to look at new ways of reaching fans.

"We saw inherent problems with the Netflix model," Ashley told me. "Netflix, Comcast, Apple, all these companies, they are very big on digital-rights management issues. They look at controlling the world, instead of opening it up. There's too many rules, too many restrictions. For example, to use any Xfinity pictures, you have to be a Comcast subscriber. I think it's a narrow approach.

"So we’re trying to find a path around all that. Let the content live in the cloud,” on public servers, “and create a digital-locker environment,” which gives paid users direct access but doesn’t let them download the file.

They hired a crew of programmers, walled off a dozen workstations in an office within the studio building, and went to work. "We haven't done any marketing,” outside a handful of items in Hollywood Reporter and other film-industry outlets,  “and we've already had 20,000 downloads of our iPhone-iPad version, and close to 30,000 of our Google Android version, and 6,000 registered pay-as-you-go users," downloading movies at a few dollars each, Ashley says.

Ashley’s main investor is Brad Heffler, an accountant by trade and founder of 15-year-old Claims Compensation Bureau (corrected), a Conshohocken firms that manages class-action lawsuits and other legal records. Last year he sold a controlling interest in CCB to Portfolio Recovery Associates, a publicly-traded company from Norfolk, Va.

Heffler still runs CCB, but the sale has allowed him to expand his longtime film avocation, which started in the mid-1990s when he invested in the Gregory Hines vehicle Good Luck. Heffler also backed Connected, a documentary “about love, death and technology” screened at February’s Sundance Film Festival. Heffler met Ashley through Ashley’s sometimes business partner, Philadelphia entertainment lawyer Kevon Glickman.

"Creatively he's amazing,” Heffler says of Ashley. “He needed some business direction. I saw a good fit."

What’s in it for producers? "If they can sell those digital rights to cable, they can sell it to us, and we'll give them another revenue stream,” Ashley says. “They can view the movie, or they can buy the movie digitally, and it goes to this digital locker where you can stream the movie forever." Like video Grooveshark? "Exactly."

Entertainment industry lawyer Tom Ara, of  Los Angeles' Manatt Phelps & Phillips, who has  represented FlixFling, compared the direct-to-consumer  video movement to the advent of home video in the 1980s, the rise of cable TV and other historic shifts.

"Consumers are without a doubt embracing it," Ara added. "Consumers want content when they want it how they want it - at the lowest price. That happened in the music industry, the record companies resisted, and they found resistance is futile, to quote Star Trek."

So video will go cheap, like music? "I hope consumers value movies that just came out more than 99 cents a pop," Ara told me. "This is happening very quickly." Even industry leader Netflix, as it signs deals with big studios and networks, "is leaving room for a lot of competitors" focusing on independent filmmakers. "These guys are doing the right things for the viewers," while remaining "sensitive to the producers, who want to control the pipeline."

They shot their first commercial this week, after signing a deal to promote FlixFling through the Roku TV-on-your-Internet service. "We've been buying quality movies in the last couple of weeks,” Ashley says. “We're ready."

Why North Philly? Ashley gestures around the studio as a couple of skinny tattooed movie techs scuttle upstairs. Plenty of space, plenty of good film people to hire, he says: "We had to do a lot of work on this building, starting with the roof," he told me. "But in New York it would have cost tens of millions."

Ashley's been in film since he was an AV kid at Point Pleasant High School ( '94). He hung around a New York film set that made commercials for Chevrolet and Denny's, and lent a hand on public-service announcements. That got him enough paid jobs to put him through college at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where he met Jerry Raden, now head of Invincible's art department.

Ashley had producer aspirations, but Wawa trade shows at Hershey Park and other corporate jobs paid most of his bills.  Ashley served as relief director on a 2002 "bad-beat horror movie," The 13th Child, about the Jersey Devil of Pine Barrens folklore. When the producers couldn't find a buyer for Child, Ashley calling local chain and art-house theaters to screen the movie as he produced local marketing campaigns. In 2006 he started Invincible and began trolling for million-dollar movies that failed to sign distribution deals.

Services like FlixFling have a giant-killer appeal. Isn’t connecting viewers directly to artists and producers – not to middlemen and their dealmaker lawyers and marketing empires - what the Internet is all about?

If this catches on it’ll get Big Media’s attention. Won’t Ashley and Heffler sell out when they get an attrctive offer? "I see this as another opportunity to grow a small startup company into a real player in the industry," Heffler told me. "I anticipate we'll be approached. But our goal right now is to grow it. And get a lot of subscribers, and have a place for independent filmmakers to show movies they can't get out to the public.”

ALSO IN PHILLY FILM: Jeff Rotwitt, the former Philadelphia lawyer who heads state-subsidized Sun Studios down in Delaware County, recently wrapped a new commercial for the Pennsylvania Lottery. The studio has yet to land a big film, though Rotwitt says he's close: "I've had Spike Lee, I've had the president of Sony Pictures, I've had the top echelon of Hollywood down here," he told me. He doesn't know Ashley and Heffler, but he wishes them well, offering the same he says he told State Rep. John Burzichelli of Paulsboro NJ when Burzichelli worried Sun would strip his own Paulsboro soundstage of business: The Philly-area studios, large and small, are complementary, and "I want everyone to prosper."