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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.

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! 

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 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. 

 

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

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.

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...