Making a movie has never been easier.

Making a movie has never been easier.

The year was 2006. I didn’t have a smartphone. iPhones hadn’t even been invented yet. But I had a story I wanted to tell. I watched as a Green Party candidate got slaughtered, illegally, by the Democrats, for standing up for his right to run in an election. I learned that politics is a dirty sport and Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli was a persona non grata in the US Senate race. So I made a film about it. I had just turned 21 years old. I’d never picked up a video camera before in my life. The camera work is rather clunky. The film today looks dated. But I am so proud of this work, because A. It tells a great story and B. It’s still relevant 10 years later.

Watch Ain’t Easy Being Green for FREE here.

Yet today, a decade later, there are even easier ways to tell stories. If you own a smartphone, you can tell a story with a beginning a middle and an end. Stop making excuses. Get off your butt. Get out there. 10 years ago, dozens upon dozens of students and young people would have killed for a machine like a smartphone. And today, you have one. But remember: you need a great story to tell first.

Koch Brothers Project Announced!

Koch Brothers Project Announced!

I’ve long been fascinated by one of America’s wealthiest family dynasties: The Kochs (pronounced like Coke!)

Proud to report the following news, first reported by Variety:

“Amanda Knox” producer Stephen Robert Morse is launching development of projects based on the book “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”

Morse has teamed with veteran producer Max Peltz to option the rights to create both fiction and non-fiction projects based on Daniel Schulman’s 2014 book about David and Charles Koch, the owners of Koch Industries. Morse is producing through Observatory LLC and Peltz through Cavendish Pictures Ltd.”

Additionally, as Deadline added:

“This is the most definitive story of a true American dynasty, and with so many potent political issues at the forefront, it is as relevant today as ever before,” said Morse, adding “I worked with Daniel Schulman over a decade ago at Mother Jones magazine. I knew he was talented then, and I’d read his book a while ago. I asked my trusted partner Max Peltz to read it, as the Koch brothers were on my mind again and again. Max was absolutely floored.”

“We learned that the rights were set to expire from the hands of an A-list director who has five Oscar nominations,” Peltz explained. “We quietly waited in the wings for months to option the material as soon as the rights became available.”

The Chicken and Egg of  Finding The Money To Market Your Documentary

The Chicken and Egg of Finding The Money To Market Your Documentary

In Documentaryland, there is rarely ever enough money to make your film. Therefore, to think about investing money into marketing it would be absurd because until you have an excellent film, nobody should or would want to market it. You can’t put the proverbial cart before the horse.

Once we understand this premise that independent films are (relatively) expensive endeavors and that crews are generally underpaid to make them (because they're oftentimes passion projects), why then do film funds and grants frequently require you to answer detailed questions about how you plan to market your film — even when you’re applying for production funding? The answer is simple: THIS MAKES NO SENSE.

If you had enough money to make and market your film, you wouldn’t be applying for film funds and grants. Enough said.

But alas, if you do have to market your film to take it to film festivals, it is expensive. Here’s a breakdown of some costs — none of which most teams will ever be able to pay for without a generous sponsor, philanthropist, non-profit, or or impact producer attached to the project:

  1. $2,500 to apply for film festivals — assuming you apply to 25 and they cost $100 each.

  2. $10,000 for a festival publicist to ensure your film is seen by critics who attend festivals.

  3. $1,000 to $2,000 per film festival for travel, depending on festival location relative to you.

  4. $3,000 to design and print posters, flyers, and other materials.

  5. The costs of creating an impact campaign ranging from a web site to actions that must be taken — that start with getting the festival seats filled.

Alas, you shouldn’t think about marketing your film until it is a film. Your focus as a filmmaker has to be laser- focused on making the best film possible. Sales and marketing is a very important side of the coin, but until your film is made properly, you shouldn’t be thinking about this coin. I’ll explain more on this in future posts.

Then, there’s the Hail Mary commercial option: Yes, if you make a commercially viable film and then sell your film to, say, Netflix, they will happily pay for you to attend a few festivals as it’s good publicity that their publicity teams can support in big ways, e.g. my film AMANDA KNOX launching at TIFF in Toronto in 2016 or Icarcus playing at the 2017 Sheffield International Documentary Festival. But again, this is a BEST CASE SCENARIO and likely won’t happen with most film projects.


How to divide your film project: the many benefits of a 50/50 split or even partnership

How to divide your film project: the many benefits of a 50/50 split or even partnership

I am frequently asked by filmmakers: How do I split my project between me and my director/producer, directors/producers, or others who are involved heavily in the project? My answer is usually: Split things 50/50, or 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, or 25% each. The reason for this is that if you split something by any other means, someone will be angry. Someone will do more work and someone will do less work, and things might not seem equitable, and thus will likely go downhill very quickly.

Additionally, people can be paid more or less in salaries later on once a full budget is clear. This “split” is only for the backend — which, in the film business you are unlikely to see much of anyway unless you have a rare runaway hit. For example, even if you and your producer split your project 50/50, but your producer doesn’t go with you when you have to live with a Native American tribe in Northern Alaska for 2 years, you can still pay yourself a salary for the 2 years of work you have put in on top of the 50/50 split. And your producer can pay him/herself a salary for raising the budget. Again, negotiate this upfront and identify who is responsible for business and creative decisions. Also negotiate how you will resolve any impasses that may occur.

Every negotiation is a conversation. And every negotiation requires trust. If all members of the team aren’t doing top quality work, you can bet your bottom dollar that the project is unlikely to happen. So you must trust that your teammates will do an excellent job by following through with their obligations, and sometimes picking up the slack for people who don’t.

However, it should be noted that if one or more people are either paying for the project themselves, or raising the financing for the project, they may demand more ownership over the project. Depending on how badly you want this project to happen, you will have to either accept or reject this offer, or negotiate something different. Sometimes, a bad deal, or a deal you don’t think is totally fair, is better than no deal at all if it means making your project hapen.

My modest proposal for BLIND SUBMISSIONS to documentary festivals, competitions, and more!

My modest proposal for BLIND SUBMISSIONS to documentary festivals, competitions, and more!

This is a big idea, that, if implemented, may change the future of documentary for the better.

Background: I've had documentaries accepted to film festivals and pitch fests; I've had them rejected from film festivals and pitch fests.

Yet for every competitive endeavor I’ve ever applied to, I am obliged to list my name, my team’s names, and who has supported the film financially. Yet, from my perspective, this doesn’t make sense.

Imagine a world where no names or other background information were attached to competitive submissions, where work could be judged based on its own merits, where outside factors (e.g. who you know or don’t know) played zero role in the selections of projects for film festivals. This is the world I want to live in, as this is a meritocracy.

Why doesn’t such a world exist? I don’t know, but here I am, inquiring. I’m sure there are good reasons for wanting to know who is on a team (e.g. to make sure that under-represented minorities are selected) but my theory is that MORE, not fewer, underrepresented minorities will be selected for documentary film festivals if names and background information aren’t attached to competitions. This should also help early career filmmakers (of all ages) with less experience too. Let work speak for itself. Let the people who create the BEST work rise to the top. Let the characters in stories be of interest to audiences, not who the filmmakers are themselves.

Sure, I know what you may say: sometimes you can see or hear a documentary maker in his/her film. This is true. And it can warrant a special category. Most people don't appear in their films and are unrecognizable by their voices if they are heard asking questions in the background of a documentary.

I’d love for people to adopt this idea, but if they don’t do it soon, I’m happy to start a film festival myself that is based on this concept! Who out there is with me? And who disagrees? I’d love to get a conversation started!

Review of Ed Catmull's Creativity Inc.

Review of Ed Catmull's Creativity Inc.

I’m probably five years too late to this party, but it isn’t often that I read a book that profoundly affects me for good or for bad. In this case, this book, Creativity Inc. affected me negatively, in part because I had some inside knowledge that the author doesn’t know that I have.

Background: Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar. He comes from a computer science background and I have no doubt he is very smart. But, because of my insider knowledge I know he can’t be trusted. Why? Because when you look at the Oscar Nominations for 1995, you’ll see that four people were nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Their names: Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, Joss Whedon, and Andrew Stanton. Yet only one person, Stanton, who has had a long career at Pixar is named in the book. Even Whedon, a talented celebrity in his own right, is not mentioned a single time.

In Catmull’s either deliberately schlocky or straight up lazy retelling of the story, he made it seem that Toy Story was his brainchild and John Lasseter’s. Catmull has the balls to not mention 3/4 of the team that created this project that took Pixar from a failing film studio to the global behemoth it is today.

My inside knowledge comes from Alec, as I was lucky enough to have him, a talented and kind working writer, as my screenwriting teacher over a decade ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Alec taught our Advanced Screenwriting class many valuable tips about the practical ins and outs of the trade, from story to character arcs to act structure, and he did this with complete humility. And, among his other stories, he told us how he and Joel Cohen, his long-time writing partner, came up with the original characters and concept for Toy Story — the same characters that have grossed Pixar billions of dollars in the past two decades.

Here’s the nitty gritty of this book; there are precisely 4 pages worth reading, and these are the tips and tricks for managing creatives on the last 4 pages of the book. The rest is a myopic retelling of stories, in 2020 hindsight (a term that, ironically, Catmull claims he loathes), that details nothing more than Catmull’s version of events of how Pixar became great. But I suspect Pixar, like Apple, became great because of Steve Jobs’ sometimes questionable leadership decisions. Jobs knew when to gamble and how to fight. Pixar could’ve been closed or sold many times in the decade prior to Toy Story, but it wasn’t. This book, save for its last 4 pages, is nothing more than a history of Pixar from one person’s perspective. It doesn’t say a thing about how to be creative if you’re a normal reader — it says things about how to be creative when you are bankrolled with hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus, young and/or aspiring creatives won’t get a thing out of reading this book.

"How I accidentally changed the way movies get made..."

"How I accidentally changed the way movies get made..."

Do you know the story of The Hollywood Blacklist? No, I’m not talking about the one from the anti-Communist era, I’m talking about the list of Hollywood scripts that don’t get made but are some of the hottest on the market. Well, if you don’t know this story, learn from it, as it shows the power of thinking differently from everyone else in the crowd.

As TedX writes, “How does Hollywood choose what stories get told on-screen? Too often, it's groupthink informed by a narrow set of ideas about what sells at the box office. As a producer, Franklin Leonard saw too many great screenplays never get made because they didn't fit the mold. So he started the Black List, an anonymous email that shared his favorite screenplays and asked: Why aren't we making these movies? Learn the origin story of some of your favorite films with this fascinating insider view of the movie business.”

EUROTRUMP called "an intimate documentary biopic" by The Hollywood Reporter

EUROTRUMP called "an intimate documentary biopic" by The Hollywood Reporter

Americans, please watch #EuroTrump, now on Hulu.  If you would like to watch "an intimate documentary biopic" as The Hollywood Reporter just called it, you've come to the right place. Here's a sample from the review: 

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders gets a chance to defend himself in this feature documentary from Nicholas Hampson and Stephen Robert Morse.

Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders makes for an affable commentator on his own life in EuroTrump, a studiously evenhanded look at the anti-Islam populist and the rising nationalism that is his stock in trade. Following Wilders in the run-up to 2017's Dutch election, the film hops between interviews with the man himself and with a series of pundits, most of them skeptical of his agenda. The latter's criticisms are never directly put to Wilders, who instead gets lobbed a series of softballs and word association games by the filmmakers. Nicholas Hampson and Stephen Robert Morse's conventional but snappily engaging documentary should nevertheless prove catnip for political junkies when it arrives on Hulu June 30, after premiering at DOC NYC last year.

Appropriately enough for a feature that's partly about the power of technology, specifically Twitter, the pic opens with direct messages from the filmmakers flung up on the screen, soliciting Wilders' participation. The directors and their subject go on to exhibit a relaxed enjoyment in each other's company, with the Party for Freedom leader narrating a potted history of his political formation and rise. Living in Israel as an 18-year-old, the young national serviceman was struck by the hatred directed at the country by its enemies, which he clearly attributes, then and now, to extremist Islamic beliefs. One of a series of photographs the filmmakers present to him sees the imperious teen getting his trainers polished by an Arab shoeshine. The photo is politically incorrect, the adult Wilders admits, but he still likes it.

Praise for EUROTRUMP from Newsweek

Praise for EUROTRUMP from Newsweek

Great news: Newsweek gave EUROTRUMP a remarkable review! The film appears across the United States on Hulu on June 30th, 2018.

Here are some highlights from the piece: 

"The “EuroTrump” team gained unprecedented access to the otherwise seclusive politician, who, despite never shunning media attention and maintaining a busy social media presence, is rarely seen letting his guard down."

"The resulting 90-minute documentary, set to premier on streaming service Hulu later this month, is titled “EuroTrump.” The reference to Trump is somewhat ironic, Morse told Newsweek , as the two leaders have little more in common than their distinctive hairstyle and inward-looking perspective at the world. “Wilders is actually much smarter than Trump, when you compared the two of them,” Morse said. “Wilders is strategic, he thinks slowly, he knows what he's doing and he knows how to influence people,” he added.

If you'd like to write about the film, please get in touch and OBSERVATORY will send you an advance copy! 

NoFilmSchool Podcast: Featuring Stephen Robert Morse

NoFilmSchool Podcast: Featuring Stephen Robert Morse

I recently sat down with the wonderful Liz Nord of NoFilmSchool to discuss how to make films more efficient:

No Business School: How to Save Time and Money on Your Films

Yes, you can make great films without breaking the bank.

Stephen Robert Morse believes that the film industry is broken. Time and money are wasted at every step of the process, leaving filmmakers less with which to actually make our films. Fortunately, he also believes we can fix it. In fact, he believes this so strongly that, after producing the documentary Amanda Knox for Netflix, he went to Oxford Business School to learn how we can run our sets more like businesses and started the company Observatory to do just that.

"A lot of people think this industry is glamorous and that’s the biggest problem."

Terms like "lean principles" and "simultaneous processes" probably aren’t familiar to most filmmakers, but if you put some basic business sense into place, you can make your films a whole lot cheaper and more efficiently. And if it sounds cold and calculated, remember that ultimately, this is all in service of having your film reach the most people and have the greatest impact possible.

In this practical conversation, Stephen Morse breaks down some business school lessons that we can apply to make our films in the most efficient ways possible.

Listen to the episode by streaming or downloading from the embedded player above, or find it on iTunes here.

4 Rules That Will Change the Way You Network

4 Rules That Will Change the Way You Network

The film industry is based on teamwork, so networking is an unavoidable part of the process.

My approach to networking has changed thanks to a few simple, quite logical observations from Adam Grant that I recently read. Grant, the famed Wharton professor and organizational psychologist, stresses how important doing is to the art of networking—both on the part of the people you’re trying to network with and in your own life, as well.  (Here is the video that Grant made, but I'll summarize his three arguments and then expound.)


1. Ask people who are older than you for advice.

This should come as a no brainer: people love to hear themselves talk. And many people (assuming they have souls and are not horrible, which some successful people certainly are!), like to help younger people. You can also teach older people things (about technology, for example) to reciprocate for their knowledge.

It may feel intimidating to talk to more senior people or tempting to mix with people who are similar to you, but  if you seek out people who've done it before, their wisdom is valuable, and they'll help you get ahead. They're usually happy to share their experiences and may even be more likely to promote you.


2. People usually get where they are because of hard work.

Making films or television series is not easy. Any idiot can have an idea, but ideas are worthless unless you can execute on them. And executing is not easy: from putting together the best teams possible, to managing these teams so you can get the best out of them, to delivering final products that meet technical specifications and are also high quality is insanely challenging. It's not necessarily brain surgery, but there are a bunch of processes that must be perfectly nailed or else, well, you're screwed. And it’s well documented at this point that it takes 10,000 hours to get to a place of expertise in anything. So when you’re following point number one, respect that the people you’re networking with have likely put in those hours.


3. Don’t let the “haves” throw you off-track.

I’m adding this as a bit of a sidetrack from Grant’s list. Despite point number two above, some people “cut the line” and use their wealth and family connections to become filmmakers. This is because filmmaking requires not only 10,000 hours, but also considerable budgets. “Rich kids” are a reality. They're by no means bad people; they've just had advantages in their lives that not all of us started off with.

However, just because people are wealthy, doesn't mean they are intelligent, crafty, artistic, witty, or good at sales and marketing. And remember, you can use the 10,000 hours you need to become an expert to catch up with these people. Yes, you may have to slog it out in low paid film jobs (or a career in another related industry, as I did for five years in technology and three years in journalism), but you will be able to learn during this time, and arguably you will  be better off than people who've had everything handed to them on a silver platter. I say this because when the sh*t hits the fan, yes, you may be able to throw money at the problem, but oftentimes skills solve more problems than money.

What does this have to do with networking? Well, just recognize this reality and, if you end up chatting with one of these types at an event, don’t let them throw you off your game. You are on your path and will probably be better off in the end for having had to struggle and be resourceful.


4. You have to put in the time, too.

Networking is an utter waste of time if you have nothing cool to talk about. So do something cool and then not only will networking be more productive, but people will also come to you to network. Though this point came in last on Grant's list, it is just as important as everything else here.

Why can networking seem so horrible and so boring sometimes, even when you’re with people in the film industry—or who purport to be in the film industry? Typically, this is because the people you network with have very little to talk about. Non-scientifically, about half of the people I meet at film-related networking events are hangers on, people who may have aspirations to work in film but don't have enough drive to do anything productive. It's a sad reality, but it's the way it is in an industry that is characterized in the public opinion as sexy, cool, and glamorous (even though it is usually cool, yet neither sexy nor glamorous!)

So go out there! Do something! Intern for someone! Work as an assistant! Make a film in a weekend! Learn to edit! Create something good!

From personal experience, making Amanda Knox utterly changed my life. Now people not only take me more seriously, but they come to me with excellent projects too. To conclude, inspired by George Orwell's sentiment for his 6 Rules For Writing: Break any of these rules sooner than doing anything outright barbarous.

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.




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

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...