Berlinale 2018: Why VR Can be Your Best Storytelling Tool

Berlinale 2018: Why VR Can be Your Best Storytelling Tool

International journalists-turned-VR filmmakers NowHere Media share tips from the field.

As a traditional non-virtual reality filmmaker, I have long been fascinated with the VR form, but it seems like there are smaller audiences, greater technical challenges, and less money in this medium, so for these reasons I have never ventured into it. However, two old friends from journalism school, Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran have blazed a trail into this nascent industry through their multimedia studio NowHere Media—and I was fortunate enough to meet up with them at Berlinale to learn more about their amazing work in VR cinema.

NowHere Media just returned from Fallujah, Iraq, where they are producing a room scale experience as part of the Oculus VR for Good program.  They don’t only work in hostile environments, but do frequently explore taboo human rights issues. Their recent VR experience, Is This Love? about intimate partner violence in India was shortlisted as a finalist for the Social Impact Media Awards and, more importantly, NowHere managed to strike an unprecedented partnership with the Delhi metro allowing for installations in several metro stations in the city. Over 10 days, more than 5,000 people saw the piece.  

“With VR, we were able to transport our audience to the center of the story.”

Both Gaedtke and Parameswaran were talented journalists prior to embarking on their career (Felix as a photographer and Parameswaran in radio), but the pair is now firmly rooted in the wonders of full-time VR work. When we met, the Berlin-based pair shared their latest adventures in VR filmmaking and some of their learnings along the way.

NFS: Tell me about when and why you formed your company.

Gayatri Parameswaran: We started out working collaboratively as journalists and documentary filmmakers back in 2011 and we founded the NowHere Media in 2014 shifting to more multimedia and long-form reporting. But the ‘real’ shift came just under two years ago when we discovered the potential of VR and fell in love with it.

Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran set up a 360 rig.Credit: NowHere Media Facebook

NFS: What made you decide to focus exclusively on VR?

Felix Gaedtke: For many years now, we have been reporting from hostile environments. We covered conflict and human rights issues in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Central America, India, Myanmar etc. We also worked under other physically challenging conditions in the high altitudes of the Himalayas or in the Arctic circle. Bringing back photos or videos or even in-depth reports from these places was amazing. But with VR, we were able to transport our audience to the center of the story, to a place or environment they would otherwise never get to experience. It gives them the agency to explore for themselves as well as presence in another place. Interactivity is also something that makes VR very attractive to us, depending on the story we are working on.

“Even an iPhone can be turned into a photogrammetry tool.”

NFS: What kind of equipment would a VR filmmaker need to get started?

Parameswaran: That really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. One can start with a fairly simple 360 camera,  if you’re looking to produce a 360 video. Cameras like the Samsung Gear are getting cheaper and cheaper. Another option is also to rent professional cameras for specific productions such as a Nokia Ozo, or for a smaller budget an InstaPro 360 or something similar.

But VR can be more than “just” 360 video. Even an ihone can be turned into a photogrammetry tool. There is also the possibility to rely on game engines such as Unity or Unreal to develop a virtual environment to tell stories, or combine several or all of the above. In general, the techniques as well as the gear are getting outdated very fast. So I would recommend anyone wanting to get into VR filmmaking to read up what is there, be creative and just have fun learning new skills. I learn something new almost every day in the field and that it is one of the reasons why I find VR storytelling so exciting.

A NowHere Facebook post from Fallujah, Iraq: "Our very protective military guard scans the rooftops for snipers before we are able to begin the photogrammetry process."

NFS: You have been all over the world making VR films; what is the craziest place and why?

Gaedtke: We just got back from a production in Fallujah, Iraq. For several reasons, this has been to most challenging experience we worked on so far. One, we were working with photogrammetry, stereo billbording and 360 video—a lot of technical things to do for our small crew. And on the other hand we were trying to do this in a war zone. We constantly got stuck at checkpoints with all of our suspicious gear.

Parameswaran: Security of course was an issue and most of the time we were moving with a unit from the Iraqi army, which was very pushy (for obvious reasons) not to stay out too long after sunset. It was difficult to explain the locals what we were doing exactly. Like in any conflict, I have worked in, the most difficult part was it to hear so many stories of misery, of people who have gone through so much. At the same time, this is also the part that keeps me going. Why? Because when you see someone, with a life much more difficult than most of us can imagine, having hope—that makes me hopeful.

“Everyone is still learning, and if we learn together, everyone will profit from this.”

NFS: What advice do you have for aspiring VR filmmakers?

Parameswaran: Have fun, read a lot, exchange ideas and collaborate with others. You cannot do everything yourself. You need a team of people specialized in their skills. The scene is growing very fast but everyone is still learning and, if we learn together, everyone will profit from this.

NFS: How has VR changed in the past year?

Gaedtke: I believe the technology is changing very fast. That means filmmakers and storytellers are able to use these tools much more efficiently. For e.g. volumetric motion capture is becoming more and more feasible. Haptics, although not really there, will soon be a reality. Moreover the sophistication with which storytellers are using these skills is getting better and better. Compare festivals like Sundance a couple of years ago and now and you’ll see the difference.

A NowHere camera set up in the field.Credit: NowHere Facebook

NFS: You have done a ton of work for nonprofits. How does a VR experience help a nonprofit get its message across?

Parameswaran: NGOs often want to achieve specific goals with their campaigns. They might want to target specific decision makers, diplomats, CEOs etc. To bring a high fidelity VR experience to an extremely targeted audience is very strong. A VR experience can sometimes move them to an extent that it that an impact on their decision making.

UNICEF reported that they doubled their donations with a VR experience.

NFS: Which technology developments in VR are helping you out the most now?

Gaedtke: Having better pipelines for 360° production—stitching is getting easier and better with every year. The quality of the cameras is also getting better. I’m waiting for the day when we can have really high resolution 360° experiences. Wouldn’t it be amazing to wear a headset and not be able to see these ugly pixels!? Not a very new development, but I am excited using photogrammetry for storytelling at the moment.

NFS: How long will it take for VR to go mainstream? And what is stopping this from occurring now?

Gaedtke: More and more headsets are being sold each year. I think there are two factors to this. One: The chicken and egg thing with the content, if are only a few people watching content there is no budget for more and therefore there is not enough content to attract more people. The second point is about the technology, even the high-end headsets still require cables, and computers and are for many people still difficult to set up.

"UNICEF reported that they doubled their donations with a VR experience."

NFS: What capabilities does VR filmmaking have that regular filmmaking doesn’t have?

Parameswaran: That is a difficult question. A good regular film, even a book for that matter, can be immersive and take people to another world. What makes VR experiences special is that you can trigger more senses and you can do that in a different way. You can give the user the agency to explore a story for themselves in a very personal intimate way. As VR filmmakers you don’t think in terms of frames and for us the camera has a role. That might all sound very strange to traditional filmmakers, but I think for example theater directors have always had the challenge to make the audience interested in one area of the stage, this is very similar to what VR creations have to take into account.

NFS: Who is a spectacular VR filmmaker that you recommend we watch?

Both: This is so difficult, but we personally like the works of Nonny de la Pena, Zach Richter, Gabo Arora, Felix and Paul and many more.      

Featured photo by Felix Gaedtke.

 

How the ‘MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.’ Editor Crafted 700 Hours of Footage into a Fest Favorite Doc

How the ‘MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.’ Editor Crafted 700 Hours of Footage into a Fest Favorite Doc

Note: Behind every amazing documentary there is an amazing editor, or, more likely, a team of them! I was astonished when I watched festival darling MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. so I wanted to inquire how editors Marina Katz and Gabe Rhodes were able to do this. Lucky for me, Marina was at the Berlinale at the same time as me. I wrote the following piece for No Film School!

Editor Marina Katz had the huge task of distilling the story of a global pop phenomenon from 20 years worth of video footage.

As a documentarian, I am fascinated when the subject of a film spends time behind his or her own camera. It is a joy when a documentarian has a treasure trove of footage with which to build backstories, enabling directors and editors to use the passage of time to let characters become so much more complete. Even if it only took a year to make a film, home video adds so many layers to any story.

The new documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., which premiered globally at Sundance last month and made its European premiere at the Berlinale, about the groundbreaking singer M.I.A. (born Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) takes this to a whole new level. We learn in the film that, before she was a bona fide music star, Arulpragasam was an aspiring documentarian herself. Thus, this film shares tons of stories of her youth from the mundane (joking around with her sister while drinking alcohol) to her stint as the official documentarian of ‘90s rockstar Justine Frischmann from the band Elastica.

When a character has created a lifetime of video, it means that filmmakers can take many liberties to construct a stronger and more complex story; there are so many fewer holes that need to be filled in. Of course, this also means that there is more to be done in the editing room. For this film, the editors had the Herculean task of distilling 700 hours of footage down into a 90-minute final product that shows M.I.A. as much more than the pop star and Tamil activist that many know her as. It’s an excellent take on how to make your protagonist appear genuine, interesting, flawed, and human.

“There was a lot left on the cutting room floor. Some of it was hard to part with.”

The filmmaker, Stephen Loveridge, a school friend of the protagonist, and his team clearly had to make difficult choices and cut important parts of Arulpragasam’s life out of the documentary. And yes, that apparently irked his subject, but the editorial decisions were made thoughtfully. It was just as beautiful—and far more relatable—to see M.I.A. talking about singing with her grandmother when she was 18 than it would have been to see her on stage 10 years later or have Jimmy Iovine talking about her work.

No Film School sat down with Marina Katz, an editor of MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., after the film’s Berlinale premiere, to discuss how those decisions were made, the challenges of telling a distilled story about a complex person, and more.

 

'MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.'

 

No Film School: What happens when you start with 700 hours of footage? How do you whittle it down to 90 minutes?

Katz: I had a somewhat unusual start because I inherited the project. In earlier iterations, other editors, assistants, and the director, had made their own selects and cuts. At first I was culling from what had already been worked on. But then at a certain point it became clear that I needed to go back and watch the raw material because I kept finding moments I loved that hadn’t made it into the selects. So I went back and watched raw footage for about a month, maybe a bit more.

You have to really trust your intuition and have a good process in place. I built long reels with my favorite moments and scenes from each period of Maya’s life. Then I cut those reels down more. Then you see what you have and what’s worth putting into the first assembly.

I had a hypothesis for the narrative of the film based on conversations with Steve (Steve Loveridge), the director, but at the beginning it’s really hard to know where you are going. It’s about putting forward your best guess while building a catalogue of favorite materials to draw from when that first guess inevitably doesn’t work out. Then the fun of iterating and reiterating begins and you start to see where the footage leads you.

"Initially, we tried to make a linear film. It seemed to make sense given Maya’s story and our material. But it didn’t work."

NFS: The film was non-linear. Can you tell me about that decision?

Katz: Initially we tried to make a linear film. It seemed to make sense given Maya’s story and our material. But it didn’t work. Among other issues, the beginning of the film felt bogged down by home movie footage. It also took too long to get to Maya becoming a musician. So we started to play around with non-linear versions. What can we bring to the front of the film to break up the archival material? How can we relate the present and the past?

When Maya was in her early 20s, before she became a musician, she took a seminal trip back home to Sri Lanka, the country she had fled as a refugee. She documented the trip extensively; we had about 40 hours of footage from that period alone. And the footage was very rich with ideas, moments, and scenes. In the chronological version of the film, we had a condensed version of the trip right before she started making music. When I started playing with the non-linear versions, I placed the trip later in the film, once she had already achieved fame. Because as much as the trip connects to her lyrics and artwork when she first gets into music, it also informs her art, activism, and outrage later in life.

We were still struggling with where to place the trip when Gabriel Rhodes joined the team [as editor] and, after watching the cut, suggested we return to Sri Lanka multiple times in the film. We tried and it clicked! It was liberating. Then it was all about figuring how many times to flashback to the trip and what we would learn with each flashback.

 

Film Subject Maya Arulpragasam a.k.a. M.I.A. and Director Stephen Loveridge attend the World Premiere of MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. by Stephen Loveridge, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: photo by Tiffany Roohani © 2018 Sundance Institute

 

NFS: What was the greatest challenge you faced in editing this film?

Katz: Towards the end of the film Maya asks, “As a first generation immigrant, who lived through a war, came as a refugee, and is now a pop star, what are the goalposts?” The same could be said for the edit. Maya’s life is exceptionally layered and complex.

This is a music documentary about a fierce and uncompromising artist, but it’s also a film that grapples with what it means to be displaced, to try and assimilate in the West, to be connected to a “back home” that most people in the West don’t care about or understand. It’s a film dealing with censorship and a film dealing with fame. All of that and I haven’t even mentioned that Maya’s dad was the founder of the Tamil resistance movement! Weaving all of the elements together in a balanced and entertaining way was a delicate act.

Still, there was a lot left on the cutting room floor. Some of it was hard to part with (like the scenes with Peaches! She was a big inspiration for M.I.A.) and some of it wasn’t. The director never made it a priority to delve into Maya’s romantic relationships. They are in there a bit, but we don’t linger. It’s refreshing! I think there’s an expectation when it comes to female subjects, and especially female celebrities, that you delve into the details of their romantic lives. We were able to avoid that and give screentime to deeper and more interesting themes.

“You’ll spend days trying to put together something you think logically will work, and then you spend a couple of hours trying a ‘crazy’ idea and suddenly that clicks.”

NFS: How do you work with another editor? Tell me about your process.

Katz: This was my first time working side-by-side with another editor and it was very fun to edit with Gabe. We worked collaboratively. We would usually talk about a strategy for the week and then decide on which sections to tackle. We often passed sections back and forth. Gabe had the advantage of fresh eyes and I had the advantage of knowing the material inside and out, having had worked on the film for almost a year.

We are both very direct people and had really good communication from the start. Neither of us were precious with the material and we were very open to trying each other’s ideas.

We used Trello, an online software, to storyboard. Our edit suites were pretty small and we didn’t have space to put up index cards outlining the film. Also the director was in London and this made it easy to pass our storyboards to him for feedback. We also had a great consultant editor, Geoff Richman, who had access to Trello and could give chime in on the storyboards as well.

 

Home video footage of a young M.I.A. in Sri Lanka from 'MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.'

NFS: Isn’t all editing experimentation?

 

Katz: It’s a lot of experimentation. You’ll spend days trying to put together something you think logically will work, and then you spend a couple of hours trying a ‘crazy’ idea and suddenly that clicks.

For instance, we never thought we would have Steve, the director, in the film. Even though we had archival footage of him and Maya from when they were in film school together, using it felt problematic for many reasons. But months in and after a few very frustrating weeks working on the beginning of the film, I tried a quick, two-hour experiment. I interviewed Steve on my iPhone and then put together a scene with his voiceover. It worked. It gave us fresh momentum and helped to unlock a piece of the puzzle. We were then able to iterate on that idea—by bringing in more voiceover, then removing it, then changing it, etc. until we got it right.

NFS: And your advice for aspiring editors?

Katz: Try to balance any assisting work with editing projects. I learned so much and honed my instincts by continually editing small projects on the side, even if they didn’t pay much. Also, if you are in New York, connect with The Edit Center! I got my start with the six-week editing course but they have plenty of shorter classes and the most kind and helpful alumni network.

NFS: What didn’t I ask you about that you want to share?

Katz: Sometimes when I talk about the film it sounds so serious! Although it deals with serious themes, it’s still a very entertaining and fun film. It may not always be obvious when you read the press, but Maya has a great sense of humor. Plus, when I edit I’m always on the lookout for funny moments and scenes. It’s been great to hear a lot of audience laughter at our screenings.      

Berlinale 2018: Why the Blockchain Could Fundamentally Change How Business is Done in the Film Industry

Berlinale 2018: Why the Blockchain Could Fundamentally Change How Business is Done in the Film Industry

I recently wrote this piece for the film community at NoFilmSchool.com.

A new company is using the blockchain to help eliminate waste (and shady people) in the film industry.

[Author’s note: Prior to reading this article, it is advisable for readers to peruse the Wikipedia “Blockchain” entry or the briefer definition of Blockchain in Investopedia.]

Technology and the film industry have had a historically rocky relationship. 20 years ago, Blockbuster ruled the at-home video market and famously (or infamously) rejected the opportunity to purchase Netflix for a mere $50 million. Today, Netflix has a $120 billion market cap and is poised to dominate the film industry for years to come.

Yes, market leaders like Netflix and Amazon are surely experimenting with algorithmic programming and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in attempts to take humans out of the screenwriting equation to give viewers what the companies think they want. But there are other forms of technology that can help improve the independent film business and even have the possibility to revolutionize how films are made—and more importantly, how production staff from actors to directors to below the line crew are paid. 

Enter FilmChain, a project started by BigCouch co-founders Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala. The goal of FilmChain is to increase accountability and transparency in the murky independent film financing world by using blockchain, the underlying technology behind Bitcoin. However, during their presentation at the Berlinale’s European Film Market startup pitch event, the pair were quick to debunk the myth that blockchain and Bitcoin are one and the same. Let it be known, they aren’t! As an oversimplified way to distinguish them, Bitcoin is a digital cryptocurrency, and the blockchain was developed as a decentralized way to record and account for Bitcoin transactions which has now expanded to use for a variety of commercial applications.

FilmChain is a revenue collection and allocation platform operating on blockchain technology that aims to service film and digital content creators by collecting revenues and automatically distributing them to stakeholders. If successful, FilmChain will mean that one can say goodbye to loads of middlemen who take a piece of the pie during the filmmaking process. 

The benefits of the blockchain to help film distribution processes are many: global transactions are typically costly, frequently people don’t get paid for the work they do, and the accounting books on numerous independent productions either is non-existent or riddled with errors.

Manuel Badel of Badel Media in Canada discussed other strong points of how blockchain technology can improve the film business:

  • IP protection - proof of ownership
  • Digital rights management - registration, tracking, royalties
  • Contracting - automation and smart contracts between stakeholders
  • Collaboration - scriptwriting and product design
  • Micropayments - tokens, crypto, crowdfunding, royalties, recoupment
  • Content distribution - decentralization, trust, and disrupted distribution. 

Who will gain?

Who stands to benefit from this FilmChain technology? Anyone who works on a production!

What makes “smart contracts” revolutionary is that they are triggered automatically. For example, say you are a screenwriter based in America and your contract says you will get paid $10,000 on the first day of production of a film produced and set in China. Once that first day of production happens, your $10,000 will automatically be triggered and you will get paid. Contracts could be set up such that, for instance, three individuals confirming that production started on a specific day would be all that is necessary to send an instant payment halfway around the world. 

Who will lose?

And who stands to lose from blockchain technology being implemented in the film business? Shady film financiers who don’t make good on the payouts they owe, therefore stealing money from others who rightfully deserve it.

Of course, shady film financiers may never voluntarily utilize a system such as this one, but if FilmChain (or similar platforms) become the norm, then staff members on productions that do use this technology would stand to benefit. Film financiers would benefit too as the myriad bank transfers and other international payments they send would become much less expensive as the systems become automatic and tech-enabled.

FilmChain won’t be implemented overnight. But it and similar projects surely present a hopeful future. Anyone who has ever been screwed over by a shady financier or producer, or even has just waited far too long to get paid for freelance work, stands to gain if blockchain technology is implemented into the film business. 

 

 

9 questions to ask yourself to see if you should kill a film project (and how to kill them effectively)

9 questions to ask yourself to see if you should kill a film project (and how to kill them effectively)

At times it is necessary to "kill your projects" or "murder your darlings" or "trim the fat from your development slate." All three of these things mean the same thing: you've wasted time, money, and energy creating a project, and now isn't the time for it to come to fruition. I've seen too many friends get obsessed with projects that are doomed for failure. So listen to this advice!

9 questions to ask yourself to see if you should kill a film project:

1. Is the team you're working with less motivated about the project as they were on day one? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

2. Is your project moving along much more slowly than you had planned? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

3. Are you now realizing you will face several costly legal challenges to get your project off the ground? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

4. Did a key subject drop out of the project? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

5. Has the conflict eroded from your project? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

6. Is another team, perhaps with better access, further along on a similar or related project? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

7. Have you lost interest in your project? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

8. Has the market for your project gotten significantly smaller? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project.

9. Are you working on better/faster/stronger projects? If the answer is yes, consider killing the project

And of course, if more than one of the above questions is yes, REALLY consider killing the project.

Finally, here is a practical guide of how to kill a film project:

1. Ethically, it is proper to tell your participants you are killing the project. This may free them to work with other filmmakers. You should also let them out of any exclusivity agreements you have.

2. Pay anyone who has done work for you who you owe money to. (Write this off later.)

3. You needn't write a public obituary for your project, as you may want to revive it later on. So move on, don't kvetch about it, and know that deep down you saved yourself a heckuva lot of time, money, and energy to pursue other projects.

 

 

5 types of people to avoid when making your independent film!

5 types of people to avoid when making your independent film!

Film is a business unlike many others: You can write a book on your own, you can make art on your own, and you can compose music on your own, but film will always be a team effort. Yes, you likely need a visionary person to kickstart the film. This is typically the director, producer, or writer, but you will also need help from hundreds of other people along the way, whether they're your subjects, actors, financiers, assistants, musicians, interns, and dozens upon dozens more.

Working on a film is like being in the army: you'll likely become super close with many of your colleagues, pulling late nights, early mornings, and spending hours in the freezing cold or blistering sun. And you'll love these people. 

However, film also draws its fair share of horrible, really bad, disgusting, worst-of-the-worst people. These people take on different forms: 

1. Narcissists are the worst. If you've ever met one, and I'm sure you have, you know. It is unfortunate when narcissists make films, but quite frequently, they do. (I won't name names, but in this industry, it is generally known...)  Many narcissists are drawn to film for the fame and/or fortune but don't want to do any of the hard work to get there.

2. Hustlers are another breed with little/no talent who somehow never make projects but are always raising big money for something. They're annoying because they take money away from people who really do need it and will do good with it. And they also give a bad reputation to filmmakers when they raise money and make flops. Understandably, it is hard to differentiate between a hustler and a legitimate producer, as when anyone starts off they could fall into any category. It is necessary to hustle in your early years. But as people age, you start to see who's peddling nonsense and who's legit. But after many years, if someone gets nothing concrete done, you can assume they're a hustler not a filmmaker. 

3. Film likely also draws a disproportionate amount of "rich kids" into its mix, because, by the time you're 25, 30, or older, if you aren't independently wealthy, film isn't going to be a profession that you're going to be able to afford to partake in, because it requires a ton of time, much of it unpaid, before payouts come at the end of some very long and challenging roads. A lot of rich kids float around, call themselves filmmakers, do a ton of cocaine, and hang out with B, C , or D list celebrities but have 0 talent or ability to execute. (It is necessary to write that there are some rich kids out there who do make amazing films and are generous with both their time and money. I know a handful of them who are genuinely talented, hardworking, and good people and they are very important people in my life!)

4. Then there are the struggling filmmakers, who are really just lazy folks who never wanted to get a job and like to sleep late, not work much, and be generally lazy SOBs. There are a lot of folks like this running around East London (where I now reside) and Brooklyn (where I formerly resided). You'll likely see them sipping coffees or asking you for meetings and then show up at said meetings without ideas that are thought through. 

5. Interns who think they are god. This is another sad, sad breed of young humans. I've encountered plenty of amazing interns in my day (who have been lifesavers) but just as many cocky, arrogant, bad people who will likely wind up in category 3 or 4 above. In many ways, my biggest lesson is not to hire interns from good schools. I went to the University of Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania, and have hired gems from both places, but I've also had my fair share of arrogant/lazy folks from each institution. 

The real message here is you must work with passionate people who work hard. Unfortunately, the world is saturated with people, perhaps over 80% of them in film, who really are useless and suck. You must fire these people quickly and only keep the talented people who have good work ethics and strong morals around. Otherwise, your life will become hell, and you won't be making movies, you'll just be miserable. I didn't let this happen to me, but if I didn't fire fast, it easily could have happened. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Case Study Puerto Rico: The role of the documentary filmmaker in a natural disaster situation

Case Study Puerto Rico: The role of the documentary filmmaker in a natural disaster situation

I just returned from a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico. It was one of the craziest trips I've ever been on, and I've been to some pretty crazy places! At the behest of Sarena Snider, a long-time collaborator and business partner, I packed my bags two weeks ago today. I set off for San Juan. When I arrived, the hotel we'd booked was dark -- I couldn't even check in. Everything was dark. It had been 40 days after Hurricane Maria had hit the island, and the capital city was still without power. The handful of lights I saw came from diesel-powered generators.  

Puerto Rico remains a mess. Most of the country still does not have power some 50 days after Hurricane Maria. The place went from developed to developing world overnight. And when you don't have power it means that anyone with diabetes, for example, can't get their insulin that must be refrigerated. People are now dying at alarming rates and it seems like most of the media has moved on. Donald Trump gave himself a 10 out of 10 for his Puerto Rico performance, but I give him a 1 out of 10. But more of this later. Let's get down to the nitty gritty... During these 10-days, I learned a ton about making films in hostile environments. Here are some of them: 

1. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Always have a plan and always have a backup plan. For example, I went to Puerto Rico with a ton of canned fish to eat for the week and water purification tablets in the event I couldn't procure food or clean water. Though I didn't need these, it was smart to prepare for the worst. Luckily, I had a backup plan for my place to stay too: Chris, a friend of Sarena's, lived a few blocks away from the hotel that was shuttered. At 10pm, in the pitch black, I called Chris and was able to procure a last-minute place to stay. If I didn't have Chris, I'd be screwed. Your safety and security (and your team's safety and security too) should always come first. In a world without electricity, crime skyrockets. For example, Chris and I, two athletic guys in our 30s, were mugged on my second night in town during our 300 foot walk back to his house from a nearby hotel!

2. You can make a film AND help out simultaneously.

My first mission in Puerto Rico was to make an investigative doc about the relief efforts. But my second mission, as a human being, was to help out as much as possible.

To make a documentary you have to interview multiple people. This allowed me to meet people from multiple sectors of Puerto Rican society and other volunteers (who were American). What I realized was without power, communications became difficult. I also realized that my network of people, made in a few days, was vast. Soon, I started matching people who had successfully acquired supplies with people who needed to take supplies to areas  of the mountains where people were hardest hit and the US government, military, and FEMA are nowhere to be found.

3. You don't always need a fixer, because you must think well beyond the news cycle.  

On my first day in town, I interviewed two fixers who were highly recommended to me. However, I didn't feel like either of them understood what I was trying to do or had a vested interest in my project going well. They wanted to tell smaller stories that could fit into the news cycle. When you make a documentary you have to think well beyond the news cycle. They were also expensive, asking for $350 per day. This seemed like a rip-off. I figured I realized I could find other people to tag along with and still record everything that I wanted to. And that was just what I did. In disaster environments, the normal rules of society are dropped. Most people will let you hitch a ride with them for free! 

 

Assume you will never get funding for your film: my key learning from making films

Assume you will never get funding for your film: my key learning from making films

Documentary funding is scarce or non-existent in much of even the developed world. If you live in a place like Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, you're at a statistical advantage. These are countries haverelatively small populations, a ton of funding for the arts, and each country maintains its own broadcast networks that can both fund and purchase projects done within their respective languages. But most of us don't have the Nordic heritage of our lucky brethren. 

What does this mean for non-fiction filmmakers? Well, there are options depending on who you are.

1. If you're independently wealthy, you're at a statistical advantage. You can fund your own projects and forget about this blog post. If you're among the lucky 1% go make a movie like Jamie Johnson, heir to Johnson & Johnson did in 2003! 

2. If you're not independently wealthy, this is going to be painful, like, very painful. Like, extremely mind-bogglingly painful. If you want to apply for documentary funds, you can do this. But my caveat is: as both a novice and (relatively) successful filmmaker, I have tried to apply for these funds and I have never been granted a dime. Not for a commercial success like Amanda Knox, or for an insanely timely and relevant piece like EuroTrump. I have applied with teams that are made up of women, people of color,  foreign -- it doesn't matter. However, it does help to look at the kinds of films that are funded by such grants as the one by the IDA and by Sundance. (Statistically if you are going for the IDA grant you will have much-improved chances if you are a woman or a person of color, or applying with one: As Deadline reports, of the 11 projects selected, 7 are directed by women, 10 have female directors and/or producers, 7 are directed by filmmakers of color, and 8 are directed and/or produced by filmmakers of color.)

3. But I believe there is a third option for the 98% of us who want to make powerful films, aren't independently wealthy, and won't be able to win a grant from a non-profit organization. You could spend your days applying for grants that you may never receive, but you can also spend your days in the field shooting. If you are making a film in your home city, amazing. You can have a day job (or a night job) and still work on your film. If you are making a film somewhere else, you will be okay too. My advice: First, save up some money while you are doing your pre-production. Second, plan a short trip to wherever you want to go as you must make sure there is a story as compelling as the one inside your head. Third, once you know you've got your story, put your place up on Airbnb and put your job on hold. Fourth, go and shoot. It could be years before you get a grant from the IDA or Sundance. But don't look at this as discouraging. In fact, look at it as a challenge for you to overcome. You're up against thousands of qualified people, so sometimes in life, you have to be a go-getter and reach for things yourself. The money may never come, but you will always have your product --your film-- to stand by. Plus, once you get your project off the ground, crowdfunding your post-production will be way easier. 

 

How to make the kinds of documentaries that will be sold to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vice, Apple, or HBO

How to make the kinds of documentaries that will be sold to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vice, Apple, or HBO

This week, Variety reported that Netflix said it will raise $1.6 billion in debt to fund additional content in 2018. This means that Netflix is now projected to spend $7 to $8 billion on content next year. And with a half dozen other major competitors out there, this should be music to the ears of content creators. However, when we are looking at documentary financing, things aren't all roses for non-fiction filmmakers, especially novice ones.

First, of the $8 billion Netflix will spend on content, one can assume that no more than 3%, or $24 million, of this budget will be spent on documentaries. Yes, other non-fiction content might be highly paid, like Chris Rock's $40m comedy specials, but documentary doesn't work like this. Additionally, other than The 13th, created by an outstanding director with a strong track record, Netflix isn't funding documentary projects from start to finish. It is, inherently more risk appetite than Netflix (or other large companies, other than HBO) are willing to take on. 

Thus far, Netflix has paid $5 million for one documentary, Icarus. And they have paid around $2 million for several more. But again, these are all outliers, films that are in the top 0.1% for sales of documentary films made. You can look at the themes of these films to understand what Netflix wants: Crime (Amanda Knox, Making a Murderer), Sports (Icarus), Justice (Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower).

And Netflix isn't alone: Amazon paid north of $2 million for City of Ghosts (about the relevant issue of the Syrian war) at Sundance last January. Ostensibly they will have paid this much for a few more films during this year, too. 

These stats beg the question, what kinds of films are you making that have the potential to be purchased for big bucks? 

Making films that can be purchased by big companies is the major goal of OBSERVATORY. That isn't to say we don't appreciate artsy films, but they have to be commercial for us to be interested. Amanda Knox, EuroTrump, and Freedom For The Wolf are all shot beautifully. But they also are stories that resonate with millions of people on a commercial level. 

Thus, if you want to make films that are bought by large companies, you need something special: access to a person who has never given access to anyone else, knowledge of a place that nobody else has, an incredible story that only you know about that should be on the front pages. You also need to be relevant. If your story was important when you started your project, but it doesn't really matter today, you're crap out of luck.

The films that are purchased by large companies do have many similarities: they feature bold and interesting characters, are shot well, and highlight some level of controversy. You learn this in screenwriting 101: controversy sells, so don't think you can make a film without this that anyone will be interested in. What you will also realize is every team that has sold a project to a major company has someone on it who knows how to sell. 

More on this in future Observations.

 

Skillsets: Filmmakers are the ultimate entrepreneurs because every film is a startup

Skillsets: Filmmakers are the ultimate entrepreneurs because every film is a startup

As I've said before and as I'll say again, I have a great respect for filmmakers, because they are so passionate about what they do. If you aren't passionate about making amazing films, you shouldn't be in this business because there are so many other people out there who are so passionate about what they do. 

Filmmakers create startups all the time: every new film you create is a startup. Each time you start the filmmaking process you have a different business proposition (whether that's a scripted horror film or an unscripted political documentary), a different crew of people to work with (based on where your film will be shot and edited, among other things), and a different set of challenges to deal with (access, locations, cast, crew, and plenty more). Yes some of these things are scalable (e.g. finding good people and keeping them around for the next project) but there are also many times when you'll have to start from scratch again and again. 

One thing that is relatively similar time and time again is the sales process. But even that is changing as Neflix, Amazon, Apple, Youtube Red, Hulu and HBO continue to evolve. This begs the question: are filmmakers properly equipped for fundraising for and selling films? Is it necessary for filmmakers to be salespeople, or should they just leave that to other professionals? These are questions that I've grappled with for some time now and have thought through in great depth.  And thus here are my conclusions based on different stages of film production:

1. If you have connections at any studio or new media outlet to fund your film, of course use these connections. But in general, especially for up and coming filmmakers, this will be incredibly rare. I'm talking like a 1 in 1,000 chance of getting funding for your project from a studio. (Nobody has ever funded a project of mine!) And that 1 in 1,000 might not even be the most talented filmmaker. It will likely be someone who has a connection in the film business. Like other businesses, nepotism runs rampant in film. 

2. Sales Agents and Distributors exist to bridge the gap between filmmakers and the monstrous corporations that will ultimately distribute your film. However, just because you sign with an agent or distributor doesn't mean that your work is done. It is still on you to promote and PR the crap out of your film. You must create demand for this product as you must for any other product. And getting sales agents/distributors on board is a challenge, but more on this later.

3. If you can't sell your film on your own, find someone who can. The worst tragedy of filmmaking is to think you have put your time, effort, money, and skills into creating a wonderful project that only a handful of people will view. This said, the director/producer team on such a film might not have the outside connections or sales skills to get your film watched by the right people or sold. If you think this is you, write me a note and I'll have a watch to see if I can help you!

More observations coming soon...

 

 

3 Ways You Can Increase The Value of Your Issue Documentary

3 Ways You Can Increase The Value of Your Issue Documentary

There are many documentary genres that are worth discussing: true crime, music, political, and family melodrama to name a few, but today I'd like to put the focus on the "issue documentary." 

If you haven't seen the Netflix Original "The 13th" yet, you must do so immediately, for two reasons: 1. It is a fantastic film. 2. It is what I will refer to as the quintessential "issue documentary" of the 2010s.  The issue in this film is the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution that freed the slaves but also created a plethora of systems from Jim Crow to lynchings to mass incarceration that have made life a living hell for millions of black Americans. The filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, takes a harsh stand against injustices by the American government, putting numerous policies under the microscope. For this, The 13th won the 2017 Emmy Award for Best Documentary. (I'm proud to have lost to this fine film!) 

Al Gore's 2006 "An Inconvenient Truth" and his 2017 follow-up "An Inconvenient Sequel" are two further examples of issue documentaries that have attracted large audiences and potentially earned profits for their producers: The first film was made for $1 million and earned $50 million at the box office. The second was also made for $1 million and earned $4.5 million at the box office. (The reason I say potentially earned profits for the producers is there's no way to determine the marketing budget for these films, as they may or may not come out of the listed production budgets.) 

Many documentary ideas I hear about are issue documentaries. But here's the big difference between Al Gore's issue documentaries and yours: You weren't Vice President of the United States and don't have millions of dollars from Participant Media's marketing department behind you. Furthermore, you aren't Ava DuVernay and don't have a Best Director Prize from Sundance, a Golden Globe nomination, or the power of Netflix's powerful marketing and public relations departments behind you. This is a harsh reality, but let it sink in for a second, because it is true.

No film is going to be an indie smashing success without millions of dollars of marketing behind it. Of course there are studio films that spend the GDP of small countries on marketing and still flop, but in the indie world, you'll likely only get a mega marketing budget if you're film is awesome.This said, there are many things you can do togreatly increase the value of your indie issue documentary

1. Get celebrities involved: Let's say you're making an issue documentary about colon cancer, and some new treatments for it. Well, simply Googling "colon cancer celebrity" reveals a dozen celebrities who have either had colon cancer themselves or are strong advocates for colon cancer research. Such people include Katie Couric (whose husband passed away from the disease) and former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (whose grandfather also passed away from the disease). Why not reach out to these people to see if they'd be interested in narrating your film or being interviewed for it? That would be one way to inherently boost the value of your production and would make it way easier for you to get distribution down the line. 

2. Target people who care: The goal of your issue documentary might not be for it to reach every eyeball on earth; the goal might be to reach specific eyeballs, namely those people who are deeply affected by the issue you have created your film about. So, using the example above, you could organize screenings in major cities and target colorectal cancer patients to tell them about amazing new treatments that they may be able to use. This would be measurable impact. 

3. Create an issue related blog to build a community, and brand yourself as an expert. Chances are, if you are making an issue documentary, it is because you or someone you know is adversely affected by the issue. Furthermore, from your filmmaking you likely know quite a bit about your subject. Thus, creating a resource where people can go to discover more relevant information about the issue at hand is a natural way for you to build a solid, caring audience for your film.

Every Film is a Startup: a look at the similarities and differences between films and startups

Every Film is a Startup: a look at the similarities and differences between films and startups

I have worked for startups (Seamless.com. Quirky.com, Skillbridge.co) and I have made films (Amanda Knox, EuroTrump, and Freedom For The Wolf). There are many similarities about these environments and many differences too. Here's some high level analysis on this topic: 

Similarities: 

1. A high failure rate: Today there are about 10,000 films made per year. Less than 10% of these films will get released in US cinemas; in 2016 the figure was 736. And about 100 of these films will be studio films from Warner Bros, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony and Universal. While this may seem like a lot, there are 1 million new businesses created every year. Of these businesses, about 50,000 in the United States raise funding from angel investors. But most films and most businesses will be destined to failure. In the indy film world, you are up against major odds. As Stephen Follows writes, "Over the past ten years, 74% of all the money collected at the UK box office has gone to the top 50 grossing films."

2. Dreamy-eyed people dominate the industry: In an era since Mark Zuckerberg first turned tech stars into rock stars, the tech industry has been dominated by dreamy-eyed people imagining Maseratis, private jets, bottles of Dom Perignon, and boating on the French riviera. This was already how most people felt about the film industry. As such, any industry with bling at the end of the rainbow will attract tons of hangers on, talentless people, and wannabes. 

3. You can bootstrap a startup or a film, and it's getting easier: Good news for the film world. You can buy an amazing $2,000 camera, $2,000 worth of lenses, and $500 worth of sound equipment and bing, bang, boom, you're in business to make a movie. And luckily, most Directors of Photography have already made this investment so it won't fall on you as a director or producer to make such a purchase. In the startup world, tools from Squarespace, Gmail For Work, and even Salesforce can now be modified to fit the "solopreneur" budget. 

Differences: 

1. At startups, the sky's the limit; with a film, you have limited upside: This is the most important difference between startups and films. Let's say you make an excellent indie film on a $1 million budget. You may sell it to Netflix in perpetuity (forever!) for $2 million. After you pay your sales agent (15%) of this fee, you're netting $700,000. And let's say you have you only had one private investor in this film who gets 50% of profits. That leaves you with $350,000. But let's also say you as the producer and the director are equally splitting this upside. That's $175,000 each. And finally, say sayonara to 50% of that money because it's going to the tax man. So, at the end of the day, you've netted yourself less than $100,000. However quite frequently, you will also have to pay out other investors, producers, or people working for your film who benefit from the upside. Sorry Charlie, but this is the harsh reality of indie film. 

However in the startup world, if you're decently successful you'll get acquired by a bigger company, and if you're extremely successful, you'll stay private and make a load of cash or go public and make even more cash. 

2. Startups are much more likely to attract heaps of investment: Some 50,000 startups each year receive "angel" funding in the US. This could be $50,000 or it could be $50,000. Either way, there's a heckuva lot more money being invested into independent startups than there is into independent films. 

3. In a startup you can pivot, in a film you cannot: The word "pivot," now frequently parodied on shows like Silicon Valley, is a very real thing, and startups do this frequently. For example, I have a friend who started an online retail company to compete with Etsy. After working on this for a couple of years, she realized that the advertising technology she had built was far more interesting than the store itself. 

Whether you are making a documentary or making a feature film, it is insanely challenging to make a true "pivot" once your project is underway. In a feature film, it is near impossible. And in documentary, if you are going to call it a "pivot" you might as well just say you are starting to make a film on an entirely different topic and not using any of the footage that you've already shot. This said, one example of a successful pivot in documentary is Bryan Fogel's film, Icarus, now on Netflix (an excellent watch!). In Icarus, Bryan starts off his film by trying to use illegal doping mechanisms to give himself Lance Armstrong-like superpowers. Ultimately he "pivots" and reveals a much larger cheating scandal leading all the way up to Vladimir Putin. Of course there's a bit of timing and luck involved with this pivot, but Bryan capitalized on it very well. This said, unless you "pivot" at the start of your documentary, chances are you are then wasting a ton of time that you will never get back. 

 

 

Our bold attempt to create an asset class of documentary films

Our bold attempt to create an asset class of documentary films

A year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I wanted to do something revolutionary: we wanted to turn non-fiction filmmaking into an asset class. Of course, when you are attempting to create an asset class, there should be reasons why one doesn't exist already.

But we remained bullish that the time was right for such an asset class to be born: with Netflix spending $6 billion on content this year and up to $8 billion on content next year, one could argue that there is a gold rush now taking place as Netflix, Amazon, Youtube Red, Apple, Hulu, VICE, HBO, and traditional TV networks all compete for similar wonderful content.

However, Maria and I made assumptions in our initial analysis that were incorrect: 

1. We felt that we could drastically reduce the amount of time it took to make or finish and distribute products from years down to six months.

Yes, we made EUROTRUMP and had it air within 9 months. But for one big reason this didn't happen faster: summer vacations. It seems like the entirety of the television and film industry (especially in Europe!) is on vacation for the summer months. We would frequently call and email people and discovered so many vacation responders. This isn't a critique of the entertainment industry: when I used to work in startups, people would also say things like you have two seasons to raise money, spring and autumn, but I didn't realize howmuch this effects film/TV projects. 

What's the fix for this? Plan in autumn. Shoot in spring. And, if possible, spend your summer months editing. Many people do this as they want to hit the Sundance Film Festival deadline anyway which is in autumn. However, this likely may mean way more competition for your film projects if they fall on a similar timeline to everyone else's. The real reason this isn't a proper fix though is that documentaries frequently take more time than this to shoot. Only very specific, niche projects with clear start and end points can be completed in this strict timeline. 

2. We also assumed that when we invested to finish the projects others had created that they would be used to our grueling pace and also want to get projects out there and into the world quickly.

Unfortunately, the traditional path for independent films to get aired relies on them going on tour through festivals. Many filmmakers like getting respect in the film industry by attending these festivals, but this is a process that takes a year or more. (Again, there are few credible festivals between June and September, so this is yet another reason why summer is wiped off the filmmaking map.)

What's the fix for this? My approach has been multi-pronged. While film festivals are a lovely way to reach generally elite, liberal audiences in cities, they don't necessarily equal $$$$$. Yes, a victory at a film festival or two might boost the prospect that your film gets sold, but some films like EUROTRUMP, about a controversial politician, are going to be way too divisive to win film festival awards. Yes, my interest is in making money on film sales after films are made, because I have never been the recipient of a filmmaking grant. (Maybe one day that will change, but at this point, I've had to hustle my way through the filmmaking world!) Thus, a fix for this problem is to be selling your film while it is going to film festivals. The two are not mutually exclusive, so long as your sales agent and/or distributor is amenable to this. 

3. We didn't factor in all of the personal and personnel risks involved in filmmaking.

Any film project is going to have major risks. Even if principal photography has been completed, there are still so many decisions from who to hire as an editor, what time frame the team will complete the project in, and how the film will be prepped for sale. 

What's the fix for this? This question, I really don't have an answer to. I wonder frequently, why do some feature documentary projects get completed while others don't? Yes, I presume films that have received mega-funding from grants or donors will get finished, but there are truly a plethora of risk factors. 

What risk factors can we mitigate against? First, we can make sure a team has a strong track record of working together. Second, we can make sure the film is far along its road to being finished before we invest in it. Or, as we learned by doing, we can just create a film from start to finish ourselves. Ultimately, this latter option was the most effective way for us to fight against the team-related risks.

Conclusions

After a year of trial and error, we determined that creating a proper documentary film fund, that would get investors profitable returns, like investing in real estate, the stock market, startups, or other endeavors does not make sense for the non-fiction film industry.

Though I am happy to report that we are in the black on our film EUROTRUMP, there are, quite simply, too many risks to guarantee profits. And the dozens of potential investors we spoke to about our ideas wanted to believe in our projections, but had trouble doing so. This is fair. (And the last thing I'd ever want to do is lose an investors' money!)

This said, like in venture capital, you don't need every film you make to be a runaway success. If you make 10 films, one can be a huge success, two can pay back their costs and then some, and if you have kept your costs under control, the remaining 7 projects can be utter duds. Yes, the above information took us a year to figure out (as we felt that we had to experiment and conduct our own practical due diligence before asking others for money), but we are extremely glad we didn't raise a proper fund on the wrong terms. 

This led us to our next big idea: impact investing in non-fiction films. More on that soon. 

 

4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

There are many myths about the filmmaking process that I hope to debunk as a practitioner. 

1. If you think you can be a filmmaker without being an organized person, you're nuts. You can be the most creative person in the world, but if you can't remember to bring the right lenses, the release forms with you, or the proper drives to your post-production house, you're not making a movie. If you're disorganized you'll drive so many people nuts during the filmmaking process that they'll never want to work with you again. As with many things, organization is the key to success. And it is also the key to being a successful filmmaker who can operate within a budget. 

2. You cannot possibly use every interview that you create in a documentary. In both AMANDA KNOX and EUROTRUMP, we interviewed far more people than we used in our final products. A pair of Dutch journalists recently complained publicly about not making the final cut of EUROTRUMP, but the reality is their English wasn't good enough for us to use and they offered more speculation than facts. (They were also the first people we interviewed so we didn't know we'd have far more relevant interviewees in our final cut.)  It might hurt your interviewees to learn that they don't make the final cut of the film, but because of time limits and other factors this is a reality. In fiction films, there are scenes that will be cut too. The key lesson here is to manage the expectations of interviewees and actors. 

3. When you are done shooting a project, that is only the beginning. So much of a film's creation takes place in the edit, and even more of it will take place in post-production. As fast as I like to make films, I also find myself having to slow down to let the experts in these departments do their work. These processes cannot happen overnight unless you want to sacrifice quality or lose undiscovered gems within your materials. 

4. You don't need a huge crew to make a high quality product. Technology has become so good that these days all you need is a Panasonic Lumix GH5, a couple of decent lenses, and a Zoom H6 recorder. If you have to shoot with these devices alone, you can do it. But I strongly recommend using a 2-person crew, especially in documentary. This enables one person, the Director of Photography, to focus on the shots, while the second person can manage the audio. How you divide up roles between director and producer is up to you and based on your core competencies. 

2016 and 2017: The Years When Politics Reigned King and How That Led Us To Geert Wilders

2016 and 2017: The Years When Politics Reigned King and How That Led Us To Geert Wilders

In late 2016, you didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to look around and sense that politics was the most important issue of the day: If you lived through Brexit in the United Kingdom (I did!) and the election of Donald Trump (yup, was there too!) you knew that every person you talked to had one thing on his or her mind: politics.

The reason for this was simple: though people seemed not to think about it previously, the politics of your leaders truly translates into what kind of a society you live in. Everything from climate change policies to immigration policies to whether to go to war has all to do with your elected political leaders. And with a New World Order leaning in on both the United Kingdom and the United States, the liberal democracies that we knew of since the end of the Cold War suddenly upended themselves.

You can argue for ages whether this is because of Vladimir Putin’s sly interventions or because Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. It doesn’t matter: people care about politics now. And by simply looking at my Twitter feed, I garnered that what was once cat jokes and sports commentary had overnight become politically focused. The world was watching politics now.

I looked at Google Trends and typed in a few keywords and confirmed my suspicions. Politics was all anyone cared about in 2016. So, looking ahead into 2017, Maria, my business partner, and I decided we wanted to make this a year where we made political films.

Given that we are based in London (thanks to a prescient and precious visa sponsorship from the University of Oxford) we knew that to keep costs down we should make our next project in England or Europe.

Let's look to science when selecting a film to make

By this time, it was late November 2016, a few weeks post-Trump’s victory. We looked ahead at the election calendar for 2017 to see which European elections were coming up next. In 2017 there were due to be elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Norway, and Austria among others. The Netherlands was first. And upon closer inspection we saw that at that time Geert Wilders, the far right wing candidate was polling to win about 35 seats in parliament.

In this image, the grey line is how Wilders was polling (this is out of 150 not 100). If Wilders won 36 seats in parliament, he would have the option to build a coalition and form a government if he were able to attract an additional 40 parliamentarians to his team.

 Wilders is the grey highlighted line on these polls. 

Wilders is the grey highlighted line on these polls. 


Thus, we decided we should reach out to Wilders and ask him if we could make a film about his campaign. When we started making our film, all of the numbers pointed to Wilders having great success in this election and he had a fighting chance of winning.

Even today, after placing 2nd in the Dutch elections (and taking the whole country to the right as our film EUROTRUMP shows), Wilders is still quite popular on Google Trends. Hence, I’m confident that we made a strong bet on politics.

 Google Trends results when searching for Geert Wilders

Google Trends results when searching for Geert Wilders

As I mentioned in a previous post, we also invested in another excellent political documentary this year, FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF, that shows the global threats to “liberal” democracy, and explains how many of us really live in “illiberal” democracies. Yes, we chose to double down on investing in politics this year, because, quite simply, this is what the people wanted.

The origin story of our EUROTRUMP film: We can do it better, cheaper, and faster.

The origin story of our EUROTRUMP film: We can do it better, cheaper, and faster.

Origin stories of how films are birthed are inherently interesting and tend to be one of the first questions that people ask you when you meet with them or at film festivals on Q&A panels. But I want to take this origin story a bit further back. 

In autumn 2016, my business partner Maria Springer and I were actively looking to start our OBSERVATORY Finishing Fund. We wanted to get other people's movies over the finish line. But movies kept coming in with bigger and bigger budgets. One film in particular, about a Hollywood actor, needed $200,000 to finish off. And the director predicted it would be ready some time in mid-2018. From our perspective this was both too expensive and too slow. 

Maria turned to me and said, "Stephen, How much would it take you to make a documentary from start to finish?"

I ran some numbers and concluded I could make a viable film for $50,000. 

"So go do it," Maria replied. 

And that was the real start of our EUROTRUMP adventure: the confidence that we could make films on miniscule budgets, and that we would be able to sell such films. We decided to not just limit OBSERVATORY to our initial idea as a Finishing Fund, and we began taking on Start to Finish Productions too. 

Due diligence, our thesis about why films don't get finished, and why we won't invest in your project

Due diligence, our thesis about why films don't get finished, and why we won't invest in your project

One year ago, when we were launching OBSERVATORY, Maria and I formulated our thesis as follows: There are plenty of strong documentaries that don't get finished because they run out of money during the filmmaking process. Our goal was to help get these most worthy films get finished and purchased by large distributors while they are still relevant.

However, after a year of trying to prove our thesis, I now must admit that we simplified things way too much. There are a plethora of reasons why "good" films don't get finished. We learned quite a bit about these reasons while conducting due diligence on films that we were considering investing in. Here are the five biggest problems that we encountered that prevented us from investing in otherwise "good" projects: 

1. Egos and trust. Quite frequently, I meet people who call themselves "directors" or "producers" who have egos the size of small countries. Oftentimes, such people have little to no work to show for themselves. This isn't comforting for me. For nearly six years, while I was making AMANDA KNOX, many of my closest friends didn't even know I was working on the project, as I didn't want to over-promise and under-deliver. Modesty is important for me. I know that if I invest in you I will have to work with you and everyone on your team for six months to a year. If people act liked they are Gods, this always rubs me the wrong way. 

Furthermore, I need to be able to trust people before I invest in them. For example, we invested in a project this year called FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF. The people on this team had experience in both filmmaking but more importantly, in other relevant endeavors that gave us the social proof necessary to invest in them: Director Rupert Russell and Producer Patrick Hamm both have PhDs in sociology from Harvard (a relevant discipline for this film). And Producer Camilla Hall, who first approached me about working together, was a journalist at the Financial Times and had already directed a respectable film of her own, Copwatch. These are the kinds of track records that make me want to invest in a team.

The second test that I consider before investing in a team is the McKinsey Airport Test. If I were stuck in an airport with this person or this team for 6 hours, would I be happy, meh, or would I want to run away? Of course you should never invest in a person you wouldn't be happy to be with for a long period of time, because in reality you will have to spend long periods of time with these people. 

2. No financial brains. I need to know that at least one person on a project, ideally the producer of that project, understands how film finance works. I am frequently flabbergasted when at film festivals I meet with production teams and they have 0 financial knowledge. I'm not saying you should go out and get an MBA (but it would be quite helpful!), but when I ask you about debt vs. equity financing, a very simple concept, and you tell me you don't know what that means, I am not going to invest in you, even if your film looks amazing, because I would fear losing my money and/or my investors' money. We are investing in films to make profits, not to fund your lifestyle. Remember that. 

3. The project has already taken on too many investors. Working with other investors are the bane of any new investor's existence. Sometimes, a very worthy project will present itself to us but then we will conduct our due diligence and learn that, say,  the French-German TV channel ARTE gave the film $100,000 in exchange for the right to air the film in in France and Germany. This then means that two large territories are off the table in terms of sales. It also means that the likelihood of selling the project to Netflix, Amazon, VICE or another global distributor is going to be impossible. Furthermore, the deals you likely have already procured might impact how fast and in what order we can get our money out of the project. 

4. Budgets are out of whack. Quite frequently, a producer with an $850,000 budget will come to me and say "We are 40% of the way to being financed through the generosity for 10 different individuals and organizations." Such a high budget goes against my fundamental belief that you will ever be able to pay back your investors unless you're making a film about Lady Gaga or another A list celebrity. Even if you pay your team fairly and have to travel quite a bit to get your film made, it shouldn't cost $850,000. This is where I fundamentally disagree with other investors: I have worked on excellent films that have been made for $300,00 or less. 

5. Irrelevance. All too frequently I have seen projects that might have been relevant a few years ago, but aren't necessarily relevant today. For example, if someone wanted to talk about small town government corruption in the United States before Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, the film likely would have been quite interesting. But today, in an era where there are much bigger fish to fry, that film is no longer relevant. How would I ever be able to sell a film that is irrelevant when there are likely 20 films out there that are relevant? 

More often than not, the documentary projects we came across had more than one of the above problems. You can see how such things would be paired together: e.g. No financial brains and budgets that are out of whack would go together. So would the idea of coming in contact with egomaniacs who have created projects that are utterly irrelevant. If you can solve these problems, you will quite easily take yourself to a position in the top 2% of projects that we look at. 

More observations coming soon... 

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the LEAN principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. And, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.

It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could've had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.

Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months: 

1. Run simultaneous processes: At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. This means start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, "Show don't tell." 

2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal. The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. We thought all was good. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was BY FAR the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn't know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn't happen that way. 

3. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don't sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you'll have an audience of 1. 

4. If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you've made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you're very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.  

5. Hire slow, fire fast. During the past year, we've had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It's been a major ride. I'm grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to get rid of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch. There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone's incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you've got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time. 

More observations coming soon... 

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

If there is one film festival that I love going to, it is the Berlinale. Yes, Berlin is absolutely freezing in the winter, but it is also incredibly cozy. There is a je ne sais quoi about Berlin that I frequently try and fail to put my finger on. First off, it is incredibly less expensive than most other European cities. This means that you can live a bit of a high life for a few days while there. The films I saw, including The Lost City of Z and Viceroy's House, were of course among the best in the world. The film market, was also buzzing with people from all over the world who want to buy the world's best films. And, of course, the parties at night are unlike any other. From the BFI to various Polish parties I attended, a few days in Berlin is just as good as going to a warm, sunny place. 

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As IndieWire writes, "As ever, the annual fest is playing home to dozens of feature films and short offerings, with picks aplenty from both modern masters and fresh faces. The Berlinale often breeds some of indie film’s most unexpected and unique standouts, so if it’s at the fest, it’s likely worth a look."

My favorite documentary at the festival was For Ahkeem, about an African-American girl growing up in St. Louis. Shot over many years, the film highlights many of the struggles of growing up in America. The Berlin Film Journal writes, "For Ahkeem follows Daje Shelton, a young seventeen-year-old girl who is struggling to find her way in a social environment enriched by a feeling of cultural failure and the constant struggle that accompanies the process of dreaming for a better life. At the beginning of the film Daje makes a statement: “People been labelling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it yourself.”

It continues, "By claiming this, Daje sets the tone for the documentary, making the audience aware that her story is unique but also part of a bigger picture of what being young and left behind means. The film begins at the moment Daje gets expelled from school and sent to a court-supervised high school, which is her last opportunity to graduate and get her degree. It’s painful to witness fight -or-flight survival mode Daje can’t seem to escape, however by following her in a conscientious, intimate way, the documentary makes an important point about the cultural trauma of what it means to grow up in a world where it is very likely that you will be shot before you reach adulthood."