Lessons Learned: The Creative Entrepreneur

Over the past 11 or so months, I’ve been studying entertainment business through a degree program hosted by Full Sail University. Surprisingly, my business approach took a shape vastly different from what I started with.  As it is with creativity, inspiration very rarely reflects in exactness.  Instead, it often manifests in better form.

IMDb:Lone Ranger (1949)

What I’ve learned is that there is tremendous creativity involved in conceptualizing, articulating and creating a strong and solid foundation for a business.  As a creative, I’ve had to seek out various types of professionals for help in wrapping my head around a foreign subject.  Some were related to the entertainment industry, but many were not.  Business is the same whether you’re creating a manufacturing company that produces hot and spicy widgets or planning for world domination through filmmaking.  Even though it’s been a feat of great difficulty to force my right brain into compliance, I know learning “the business end of the rifle” is monumentally important to making a living making art.

In my last blog post I quoted a few professionals that have helped me better understand the relevance of learning business and how to effectively make it happen.  From Jim Cones I learned the difference between a Producer’s Package and a Business Plan.  The Film Method broke down the business of film into terms a creative person could understand.  Michael Berger has created a phenomenal business-coaching platform around his book, The E-Myth.  No matter the professional, they have all opened my eyes to how much I do not know.  But that’s okay.  Some of the most important keys to selling oneself and one’s business are, as Jayson Whitmore, co-owner of the design and media production company Royale says, humility and the willingness to learn.  I’ve always said that once a person becomes prideful they stop learning, growing and progressing.  A forward-thinking entrepreneur can’t afford stifling due to arrogance.  Some may make considerable strides, but I wonder just how much more they could’ve gained or grown without succumbing to pride?

One of the most important things I’ve learned from studying business and industry leaders is, as I’ve stated above, the fact that business building can be a very creative process.  Jennifer Lee wrote for Ladies Who Launch saying, “Your artistic gifts can actually help you find fresh solutions to your business challenges and enable your ventures to grow in ways you would’ve never dreamed possible.” She goes onto list “10 Tips for the Creative Entrepreneur,” encouraging ‘creatives’ not to compartmentalize their attributes but to fully embrace and apply them to every aspect of the business creation process. Tom James of Escape From Illustration Island says running a smart business will give an artist “more clarity and freedom to create your next masterpiece.”  Inevitably the dependability trait uncommonly possessed by artists will blossom.  Clients will gain confidence and repay in kind.  Consequently, commitment to these principles has the potential to incite a variation to the world’s eighth wonder: compound interest through referrals. Repeat business produces profits, which results in achieving the goal we all have in mind: to make a living making art.

Film as a Business: The Business of Film

You’ll hear freshly hatched film students and budding filmmakers say their creation is out of love for the work.  But many would, at best, like to make a living at it.  Still, few view filmmaking as the monetization of a high-demand commodity.  I say high-demand because of the proliferation of Video On Demand and other streaming channels.   The increasing numbers alone indicate a growing desire and/or need for fresh cinema.  Cinema is the number one export in the United States, and now with Federal recognition as a viable business entity, a filmmaker can and should approach the long-term track of their work with more precision and direction.  But it’s less about planning the route of their commodity than the importance of managing a ‘corporate structure’ surrounding the commodity.  Focusing solely on the object leads to, what Michael E. Gerber says in The E-Myth Revisited, an Entrepreneurial Seizure.  He continues in saying even though a product may be phenomenal and, in the context of movies, a beautiful example of cinematic expertise, weak support structures will burrow the product into obscurity.  “Indeed, the problem is not that the owners of small businesses in this country don’t work; the problem is that they’re doing the wrong work.  As a result, most of their businesses end up in chaos – unmanageable, unpredictable, and unrewarding.” Louise Levison, author of Filmmaker’s & Financing: Business Plans for Independents says, “many filmmakers lose interest when they realize that writing a business plan takes work.  The impulse is to think, ‘I have a good script, just give me the money.’” But doesn’t work like that anymore.

In film production, the business plan is an extension and articulation of the producer’s package, while the producer’s package itself is primarily used to seek for distribution and industry support.  Many experts believe creating business plans around a film attracts not only serious investors, but also, as John Cones writes, may useful in “identifying founding shareholders for the initial corporation.” A successfully positioned film will lead to greater monetization, thus creating momentum towards the making of another film.  Isn’t this the goal independent filmmakers have in mind?  Then forward-thinking ambition is required.

Business owners turned investors will view incorporated films with business plans as focused and professional.  Investors will appreciate the respect this extends, and will respect the forethought of a filmmaker as well. “Your business plan is your first impression,” says Cindy Freeman of the Film Method.  “Make sure it reflects you, your project, your passion and your professionalism.” It’s a paradigm shift for filmmakers, I know.  But if you think about it, incorporating a film as an LCC (or other) makes sense for many reasons.  The film becomes an entity entitled to legal protection; crew positioned as employees or individual contractors will increase validity; and doing so will help a film acquire clout and reputation beneficial to the marketing of the film.  The moviemaking climate in the industry has progressed in ways very different from the past.  Independent filmmakers are more empowered with control over their work, and therefore their future.  For indie filmmakers, the industry is ripe for harvesting.  Make sure the seeds of your “small business film” are planted well.

Specific business plan resources to review:

John W. Cones: How Filmmakers Can Avoid the Business Plan Scam

Louise Levison: Business Strategies blog

Jason Brubaker: Filmmaking As Your Small Business

A Watched Pot Never Boils

No doubt every filmmaker wants their film projected to the big screen in front of a large audience.  We dream about it every time we sit watching someone else’s film, thinking, “Surely if they could do it, then so could I.”  That is 100% true.  You can and should.  Your film deserves it.  Every film does.  The big screen is where it’s meant to be.  But it may not happen in your time frame or in your way. It may take years for your film to reach even one theater, and often at a financial loss rather than gain.  The ‘screen’ may not even be the screen you envisioned.  The odds for a marketed film in the U.S. to generate financial gain is roughly 3%.  “Wow.  Thanks for being such a Debbie Downer,” you may say.  “Why don’t we tuck our tails between our legs and call it a day.”  But let’s get real: The San Diego Padres have roughly a 0.0% chance of making it to the playoffs, and the Colorado Rockies are close behind.  Odds say they should hang up their cleats and shut the team down.  The Padres haven’t entered the World Series since 1984.  Then again, the Padres went to the World Series in 1984.  So did the Rockies in 2007.  Who’s to say they won’t again?  But besides that, what keeps a ball player playing when the odds seem stacked against them and the years between keep stacking up?  The love of the game.  And even if they never made it to the World Series again, the teams keep playing games because, for one, their fans keep paying.

So how does baseball have anything to do with filmmaking?  Nothing.  And everything.

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“A League of Their Own”

We live in a magnificent time of opportunity and versatility with regards to exhibition and distribution.  Your film’s ‘premiere’ doesn’t have to wait for funding or the opportunity to theatrically release.  Instead, outlets like IndieFlixDistribber, and Distrify provide platforms for streaming play and instant download, equating sometimes to instant revenue.  Aggregators such as these branch out to major players like Hulu, iTunes, Amazon VOD and other streaming services, delivering your content to a wide spread audience.  You could approach the outlets individually, of course, but that’s your preference – your prerogative. This isn’t a new revelation, but a reminder that the resources exist to, quite frankly, eliminate excuses.  Men all over the country, including Major League ball players, were called away during WWII.  Did that mean baseball stopped? No. The league worked with what they had to “get done what they had to get doing.”  It was about the game – not about the player.  Here, it’s about the film – not the venue.   Some day you’ll have your theatrical release.  It’ll be amazing.  Your twenty-dollar tub of popcorn will have never tasted so… buttery.  But in the meantime, “get to doing what you gotta get done:” show your film.  Because, “There’s no crying in baseball.” (Columbia, 1992)

Crowdfund in 30 Seconds: The New Wave “Elevator Pitch”

Over the past 5+ years, ambitioning creatives and entrepreneurs have sought funding through a historically different platform.  In 2008, Time Magazine titled the method ‘crowdfunding.’  Being that it’s not a new development, floods of campaigners have cast their nets widely and indiscriminately.  Unfortunately this creates glut, distracting backers from finding serious projects worthy of contribution.  So how does one grab attention quickly and effectively?  It happens in the first 30 seconds.  Kissmetrics presents an infographic detailing the importance of a well-crafted video. The first 30 seconds of any video set the tone and answer the question, “Why should I keep watching this?  Why should I care?”  I bring up video in conjunction with crowdsourcing because you cannot reach your full potential without it.  Plain and Simple.  A video is essential to your crowdfunding success.  It’s kind of like online dating.  The ones who haven’t posted a picture are quickly, if not instantly through search criteria, filtered out.  It’s not important how I know this, only that I do.  Let’s just say that I’ve done my research.

‘Net surfers lack the patience for long, drawn out introductions and pitch feeds. If a campaign doesn’t grab within the first 30 seconds, the audience will move on.  This doesn’t mean a campaign isn’t any good, but that the package lacked attractive wrapping and alluring accouterments – not to be mistaken with frippery or ostentatious adornment.  But the invitation for contribution must be palatable and savory, at best.  It’s the first thing backers see.  You only have one chance to make a first impression, and so it better be solid – it better be good.  Here are some “goodness” rules of thumb:

1.  Pick the Right Platform.

Some of the crowdfunding sites out there are: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Kiva, Peerbackers, ChipIn, Sellaband, and Pledgemusic, to name a few.  Each has its own unique niche. For example, Kickstarter leads the pack with over $100 million in contributions towards filmmaking alone. Peerbackers was created to help business owners garner funds for startup or expansion costs, and Kiva works intercontinentally with microloans to “help people create better lives for themselves and their families.”  In theory, all three could be tapped for, say, a documentary on the effects of Kiva, empowered by a newly created small business venture.  But Nicole Fende on a podcast called, “SmallBizFinance,” suggests narrowly focusing your campaign and driving it forward through strong marketing strategies.  It’s important to research which option will be the right fit for right now.  Start with one platform and diversify later, if need be.

2.  Research Other Campaigns (competition).

There are 42 pages of campaigns on Peerbackers; 5 categories of film and video on Kickstarter; and Sellaband has helped over 80 artists or groups through more than $4 million from investors.  Crowdfunding is a big deal – and a successful one at that.  Know what you are up against.  Listen, watch and research what already exists or has achieved success.  The only way to stand out is to know where you stand – and what stands next to you.

3.  Script. Plan. Practice. Polish.

The newness of the platform does not negate the need for quality and detail.  Developing your presentation is no different than preparing a pitch.  Gordon Firemark of Entertainment Law Update reiterates the importance of preparation and due-diligence, saying:

I am often consulted by film and stage producers who tell me they are ready to start work on raising the financing for their films/ plays/ musicals, or what-have-you, but often as not, as we get to work, it becomes clear that they’re not as ready as they think.” 

Package yourself for success.  Assuming you take yourself and your project serious, treat the preparation of your campaign the same.  Remember: first impressions will never happen again.  Get it right the first time.

Additional Links of Interest

Sen. Brown Law Proposal:

http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/11/scott-brown-next-steve-jobs/2/?utm_source=Contextly&utm_medium=RelatedLinks&utm_campaign=Previous

Craig Newman: Crowdfunding fraud??

http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/12/crowdfunding-big-thing-fraud/

Nat.l Endowment for the Arts:

http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/02/the-nea-responds-to-kickstarter-funding-debate.php

Film Crowdfunding Success:

http://www.boiseweekly.com/Cobweb/archives/2012/03/01/crowdfunding-responsible-for-31-films-at-austin-festival

Entrepreneur Magazine “How To”:

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/222813

Five Successful Crowdfunding Campaigns:

http://exclaim.ca/Features/Spark/five_successful_crowdfunding_campaigns

Small Business Trends:

http://smallbiztrends.com/2011/04/small-business-financing-sec-eases-crowdfunding-regulations.html

Florida Film Connections for Women (and Men)

Florida is not Los Angeles, and it is not New York.  But that doesn’t stop Florida’s film industry from growing increasingly stronger with the years.  Florida ranks as one of the top three states for tax incentives and, according to the Orlando Business Journal, follows only Louisiana and Illinois.   Additionally, statewide resources well-justify the tax benefits and rebates available to filmmakers.  Renovated in 2010 and located in Sarasota, the Florida Sound Stage touts 20,000 sq. ft. of open space with power coming from three locations. There are almost 60 local film festivals listed in “Film in Florida’s” website, and trade organizations including the Screen Actors Guild, Teamsters and the Writer’s Guild have chapters throughout the state.  One notable chapter is the Women In Film & Television, Florida.  Women In Film was founded in 1973 to represent women in all disciplines of film and television.  In 1989 the WIFT-FL  was established with the goal of increasing and promoting more film work throughout the state – for both women and men.  In concert with both the tax benefits and resources that Florida has, Women in Film stands as a formidable connection point of empowerment.  Joining the WIFT adds nodes of contact by helping members hone skills, expand influence, and enhance careers through mentorship and a supportive network of professionals.  Sponsors enable outreach programs, and association committees represent the organization throughout the community.  WIFT-FL uniquely joins advocacy with 40 other chapters around the world in promoting equality and productivity. Under the umbrella of the Women In Film organization of Los Angeles, filmmakers in Florida can connect through the parent organization’s various programs, classes and competitions.  Mentorship is a key factor of success in any industry, but imperative in the field of film.  As a highly competitive career path, trying to be the lone wolf is suicide – especially in Florida.  Although tax incentives and resources continue to draw talent to the East Coast of America, Hollywood still stands as the loudest voice of cinema.  If filmmakers want to “make it” in the industry, finding some clout to lean on is a necessity.  The Women in Film & Television, Florida appears to be a viable and reliable resource existing for that very purpose.

Who’s Fault Is It, Anyway? Examining Root Causes to the Movie Theater Industry’s Deconstruction

Follow-on to part one of a three-part installment, “Revival of the Fittest: Evolution of the Movie House Experience.”

In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled big film industry control over the movie business violated anti-trust laws.  Because the major Hollywood studios vertically controlled production, distribution and exhibition, the oligopoly prevented competition within the marketplace.  Although loosely enforced (if at all), the divorcement decree still exists today.  With the FCC recently relaxing rules against cross-ownership between television, print and radio, and the new era of digital distribution and exhibition growing strong, there is reason to wonder if the restriction on Hollywood vertical integration is even relevant anymore.  Lifting the ban would allow Hollywood to once again bolster up movie theaters, bringing back the customer base that is waning.

But is it really their responsibility to intervene?  I think not.  After the divorcement of production/distribution and exhibition, the relationship between Hollywood studios and movie theaters compartmentalized.  Production companies draw crowds in by focused marketing on a particular film, while owners of movies theaters are responsible for facility advertising and sustainment.  This relationship passes accountability of the movie theater over to its management team as a separate business entity.  Movie theaters are their own business.  They are not entitled to “bail outs” by the production company.  Their profit-loss margin is just that – theirs.

The truth is that more and more theaters are closing their doors across the country.  But if you look closely at each as a distinct entity unrelated to its product (the movie), you have a service-oriented business that is individually responsible for inventory, advertising and market relevance.  No matter what the business, if that model does not make changes with its industry, their failure is inevitable.  Most movie theaters are not doing much in regards to service improvements, hence the growing number of closures.  We can lament that one of the world’s favorite leisure activities is fading away, but it’s not simply because of changing times.  American movie theaters are fading away because of bad business management and virtually no brand development.  Result: no brand loyalty and decreasing relevance.

No more is a film enough to draw a crowd.  People opt to stay home if all they want to do is watch a movie.  Not to mention films aren’t promising enough anymore to peel people away from their 42-inch flat screen plasma t.v. and endless trips to the snack bar (the kitchen).  Some theaters are turning to outside agencies in an effort to develop marketing strategies. For example, West World Media out of Connecticut specializes globally in exhibitor and venue-marketing services, strategically directing customers back into dimly lit caves of fantasy.  Yet at large, the issues plaguing movie-houses are internally rooted: lack of ownership.  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  The popcorn is still bad.  The floors are still sticky.  The prices are too high in relation to the non-experience movie-going now is.  If more theaters would take on projects like facility overhaul or strategizing with project specialists externally, they might have a fighting chance.  Thankfully some places in America have gotten a clue and are actively enhancing the theater’s appeal. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema employs a chief creative officer solely responsible for creating unique programming events.  Fox Restaurant Concepts marries film and dining into a boutique experience.  Other major chains are following in suite by offering special dinner seating elevated above the general audience.  There are many options available that do not include dependence on Hollywood for hand-outs, and practical business sense eliminates excuses for entitlement.  The success of a movie theater is dependent on the creativity and management of its owner.  But having a handful of specialty theaters will not save the theater experience as a whole.  What other projects can be implemented to “save the clock tower?!”  A problem is only worth pointing out if possible solutions follow.  In part 3 of the “Revival of the Fittest…” series, we’ll talk about infusing the portals of escapism with new life.

50 Reasons Why I love Film Method (and why you should, too!)

Recently I finished listening to all eighty of the Film Method podcasts, a process that took about two months.  This is one of the more crucial resources I’ve gleaned from in preparing for film school.  Within the first couple of episodes I was hooked for the following reasons:

  1.       Emphasis on Pre-production
  2.       Personable
  3.       Conversational
  4.       Humanistic
  5.       Microphone Boxing (“You just microphone-punched him.”)
  6.       Funny
  7.       Wise
  8.       Humble
  9.       Variety (Guests)
  10.       Thorough (Topics)
  11.       Business-minded
  12.       Entrepreneurial Artists
  13.       Energy
  14.       Hot Cheetos
  15.       Pre-production as a priority
  16.       Engaging
  17.       Networking (“Fully Customized Kitchen”)
  18.       Motivating
  19.       Hope (community of)
  20.       Belief
  21.       Breath of fresh air to recession woes
  22.       Encouragement
  23.       Relatable
  24.       Craft-Tastic!
  25.       Genuine
  26.       Pre-production
  27.       Realistic
  28.       Resourceful
  29.       Committed
  30.       Rad
  31.       Groovy
  32.       Tubular
  33.       Bodacious (mostly the babes)
  34.       Dy-No-Mite!!
  35.       Production before the production (AKA Pre-Production)
  36.       Focused yet Fluid
  37.       Thematic
  38.       Respectable
  39.       Professional
  40.       Experimental
  41.       Creative
  42.       Diverse
  43.       Did I mention pre-production?
  44.       Family-Friendly Podcast
  45.       Thoughtful
  46.       Inspiring
  47.       One of the best podcasts I’ve listened to
  48.       Just what I needed right now in my life
  49.       An invaluable resource
  50.       And you guessed it:  OBSESSION WITH PRE-PRODUCTION (rightfully so)

I quickly learned I knew NOTHING about filmmaking, motivating me to devour each episode sometimes more than once.  Sure it’d always been a dream of mine to attend film school and make real movies.  But until my acceptance to FSU Film, it didn’t seem like much of a reality.  My initial response to being accepted was, “Wow, REALLY COOL!”   Then shortly after that came, “I am SO NOT PREPARED.”  And so commenced my search for a reputable resource to help me prepare my mind and attitude.  Fortunately, the Film Method came into sharp focus early on.  Entertaining, yes.  But I was oblivious to all the moving parts associated with making a film.  This podcast helped out tremendously.  I can’t say that enough.  I credit Film Method with my present calm, confident anticipation for school to start.  Thanks Cindy Freeman.  Thanks Jenna Edwards.  Thanks to all of your guests and contributors.  You’ve given me a solid foundation to move forward from.