Dogfish Accelerator, 3RD RAIL, and Answering the Question 'What's Next?'
Hot on the heels of a long overdue update about my feature MANCHILD, I'm happy to share that the production company I co-founded with Zack Lieberman, EXIT STRATEGY, is one of eight companies selected for the inaugural class of the Dogfish Accelerator program (that's our ridiculous team photo at left). Dogfish Accelerator is the first seed accelerator for film production companies, modeled on startup incubators like TechStars, and is co-founded by producer James Belfer (Like Crazy, Compliance, Prince Avalanche). We publicized the program here on No Film School, as that is one of our missions with this site -- to share opportunities that may be potentially career-changing for filmmakers -- and Zack and I felt it represented such an opportunity for us and our long-germinating interactive project, 3RD RAIL. This post is long overdue, as we're already two months into the three-month accelerator, but that's what happens when you juggle projects and responsibilities -- something that is a must in the film industry. Ridley Scott, for example, currently has 11 projects announced, in pre-production, filming, or in post-production. This is a good opportunity to talk about Dogfish and how MANCHILD and 3RD RAIL relate to the art of stacking projects, otherwise known as having an answer to the question every filmmaker is asked when a project garners recognition: "what's next?"
To get us started, here's a podcast I recorded with the good folks at Screencraft, Tom and Ygal, wherein we talk about the things I'm about to riff on in this post: MANCHILD, AMATEUR, 3RD RAIL, and the Dogfish Accelerator (as well as some other things, like The West Side and the in-progress No Film School redesign).
Caution: it is long. We talk about a lot of things, including NBA basketball and the films Short Term 12, Elysium, World War Z, and Out of Sight. You can also download the MP3 on this page for on-the-go-while-you're-doing-stuff listening.
3RD RAIL is a project Zack and I came up with when we got rep'd by the talent agency UTA after winning the Webby Award for Best Drama Series for our web series The West Side. We pitched 3RD RAIL to a bunch of Hollywood studios and took a lot of meetings about it, but it was ultimately a victim of the financial crisis -- several folks we pitched to lost their jobs soon thereafter -- and it was also ahead of its time. 3RD RAIL is an interactive murder mystery designed to be watched on iPads, game consoles, computers, and set-top-boxes.
However, when we were originally pitching it in 2009, guess what didn't exist? iPads! They wouldn't be announced until the next year, and even then many people thought they were "just a big iPhone." I felt differently, and in one of my few guest posts elsewhere, I wrote as much at FreshDV. We also took 3RD RAIL through IFP's No Borders program in 2010 (more on that experience here), but even then the timing still wasn't right, as no one was making any money on web series, and the ads on YouTube were restricted to select partners and severely limited compared to today. Also, there are now 170 million iPads in the world and the Playstation 4 and Xbox One are launching this month. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Yahoo have all started funding exclusive content. The entire landscape of online video consumption has changed! Thus we thought the timing for 3RD RAIL -- which we wrote years ago in a beach house in Costa Rica, because why not -- is right. Thankfully, the folks at Dogfish agreed, and here we are working out of midtown Manhattan again (Zack and I met at MTV, where we worked together from 2006-2008).
3RD RAIL is actually the reason No Film School exists
Zack and I took 3RD RAIL to the London-based project forum and conference Power to the Pixel in late 2009, and were finalists in (but did not win) a pitch competition. I remember thinking, rightly or wrongly, that if we had gone with the pitch I originally wrote we'd have walked away with the prize, but instead we hedged our bets and went with something less showy. Losing the competition became a wake-up call to the realities of the film business as well as the shortcomings of my own career, and that night, I wrote on this site:
I’ve done much of what I set out to do when I started this blog in 2005, and that is get myself to New York City, work hard on do-it-yourself projects, and turn the resulting abilities as a writer, director, shooter, and editor into a something resembling a career. But I haven’t been very prolific as a filmmaker, I haven’t been very aggressive as a networker or marketer, and I haven’t really put this blog to work as an effective social tool. My tasks in the immediate future are to address these issues from a focal standpoint, and retool this site as a useful place for anyone who pursues an independent, creative career.
That was in October 2009. Three months later I would relaunch No Film School as the site it is today. This site was averaging 39 views a month when I relaunched it; now it's averaging over 2,000,000. It's come a long way since then and I've definitely been successful at remedying this part: "I haven’t been very aggressive as a networker or marketer, and I haven’t really put this blog to work as an effective social tool." However, I have NOT been very successful at remedying this part: "I haven’t been very prolific as a filmmaker." While I couldn't be more proud of my new short AMATEUR, it takes more than talent and creativity to forge a sustainable film career. You need to understand the business of it, and that's where Dogfish comes in.
What exactly is an accelerator? Here, I'll let Wikipedia define it:
Seed accelerators are a modern, for-profit type of startup incubator. Through an open application process, they take classes of startups consisting of small teams. Seed accelerators support the startups with funding, mentoring, training and events for a definite period (usually three months), in exchange for equity... accelerators are privately funded and focused on mobile/Internet startups.
There are no shortage of seed accelerators focused on mobile/Internet startups -- there are 174 listed here -- but Dogfish is the first to apply the model to film production companies. Unlike grant programs and creative labs, they do not focus on giving you feedback on your script, or workshopping a rough cut; instead, they are focused on the business side of the equation: pitching, putting together a business plan, seeking investment, financial modeling, etc. They are literally investing in the teams they select, so it is also in their best interest to make the connections that help you get your project made -- and made profitably. And oh boy have they made connections for us -- they've brought in countless mentors for all of the teams to meet with, and given film is very much a business based on relationships, there's no way to put a price tag on those meetings.
Not every project is right for an accelerator, however. Zack and I are participating with 3RD RAIL, and Zack is also taking his graphic novel/feature film/video game MAX & CHARLIE through the program, but I am not taking MANCHILD through it. Why? MANCHILD is far enough along -- and, thanks to so many of you who backed the Kickstarter campaign, it already has some of its financing in place -- that we're filming this coming summer regardless. Therefore it was not in a place where I wanted to give up additional equity by placing it into the context of a slate of projects -- I've built the project from the ground up myself, it's out there in the world, and it's (almost) ready to go. Therefore it is less in need of acceleration!
Also, Dogfish awards each team $18,000, and if we split that three ways, $6K of that would've gone to MANCHILD -- which in the context of an $125,000 crowdfunding campaign does not move the needle substantially (and takes away from the other projects). As an entrepreneur I think the clearest calculation of whether you should take a project through an accelerator is to ask this question: is your project going to get made regardless of whether you participate in the accelerator? If the answer is yes, then you have additional thinking to do (about the valuation of the equity, what investment potential you have at present, and what the connections the accelerator is going to make for you are worth -- and not just for your current projects, but long-term). If on the other hand your project is not already going to get made, then you should definitely take your project through the accelerator. That's my $0.02. But after years in the film industry I think the largest obstacle many of us are facing is access to financing and business known-how, so for the vast majority of projects, the accelerator represents a tremendous opportunity. And not just to raise money and meet mentors, but to establish relationships with the other teams (more about, or from, them in the future!).
Additionally, Dogfish was an excellent chance for Zack and I, after making The West Side and then each of us working on our own solo projects, to re-form like Voltron:
Wow, that would've been a lot less exciting with only two of us to form the robot. But that brings us to the other reason to take a project through an accelerator: team-building. Being part of the Dogfish Accelerator brings with it not just a bunch of new connections and would-be investors, but also potential board members and hires (or at least, connections to hires). Need a talented _____? A good way to find one is to be part of a selective accelerator, which gives you not just a larger network but also credibility.
That's my spiel on Dogfish for now. We're incredibly busy running around taking meetings and putting together business plans, and that's on top of the rest of the things on my plate -- writing MANCHILD and moving toward production (not to mention recently taking MANCHILD through IFP's No Borders program, which I haven't had time to write about), and overseeing the redesign of this site as well -- but I will also be sharing what we learn in Dogfish whenever I can find the time, and I'll be asking some of the other teams to share what they're learning along the way as well.