Viewing entries in
Film Production

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.”

"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.”



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. 

 

 

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! 

 

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

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

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

Similarities: 

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

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

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

Differences: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Our bold attempt to create an asset class of documentary films

Our bold attempt to create an asset class of documentary films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

 

4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

4 Facts of Documentary and Film Production

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

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

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

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

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