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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.

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. 

 

 

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.