5 Business School Lessons That Will Help You Make Films Faster
Whether we like it or not, filmmaking is a business.
I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs, and we've already made and broadcast a feature film, EUROTRUMP, about the "Dutch Donald Trump" Geert Wilders, which is playing this week at DOC NYC. But we think it can be done even faster.
At Oxford, we agreed that the staid, old, complex film industry—especially with documentaries—needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing. So, armed with the LEAN principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, which essentially have to do with creating more value for less money, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. We started a company called OBSERVATORY and, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.
"It took nine months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television."
Making good films faster
It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for my previous film, Amanda Knox, until it was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took nine months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could've had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.
Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months:
1. Run simultaneous processes
At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. Start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, "Show, don't tell."
2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal
The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was by far the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn't know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn't happen that way.
3. Always be closing
As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don't sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you'll have an audience of one.
4. Mind your budget
If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you've made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you're very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.
5. Hire slow, fire fast
During the past year, we've had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It's been a major ride. I'm grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to let go of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch.
There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone's incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to go with your gut. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you've got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel freer. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time.
If you're in New York, check out EUROTRUMP at DOC NYC on Friday, Nov 10, 2017 at 9:15 PM.