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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! 

 

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...

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More observations coming soon...