Tech startups and filmmaking

2012 October 3
by Emmanuel Goossaert

I am a bit versed in filmmaking, and I recently read “Letters to Young Filmmakers” by UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber. The similarities between the startup world and the film industry are striking.

Making a film, just like making a startup, is about finding the right people for the team, getting the money, executing the idea, and selling the product. For startups it’s about business people, engineers, designers and marketers. For films it’s about screenwriters, actors, producers and directors. Just like startup founders with investors, screenwriters are struggling to pitch their movie ideas to producers. Now I am a lot less surprised to see Hollywood celebrities like Ashton Kutcher investing in startups. But there are majors differences as well. For instance, one can bootstrap a startup with two guys in a garage on ramen noodles, but the money necessary to start a movie project and the number of people involved is by far more significant. Also, while it is relatively easy to try a startup idea in an incremental way with a few hundred thousand dollars and limit losses in case of failure, a film is “make it or break it.” There is always a chance for which the movie will be a failure, but the ways of knowing this in advance are limited. And in that case, the millions of dollars spent for its making are instantly lost.

I have selected a few paragraphs from “Letters to Young Filmmakers” that I am presenting below, in which I found clear similarities with the startup world and great wisdom. I urge you to buy this book and read it from cover to cover. It’s not only for filmmakers, it’s for anybody who ever wanted to get a significant project done.

Becoming a filmmaker

Whether you are a writer, director, producer or other creative person, to a very large extent you do not make a film, you have to get the film made.

Whatever your creative role you do not make a film; you make a contribution to a film. Without the contributions of others, the film won’t come into existence and won’t reach an audience […] I am not just calling for humility, I’m asking you to learn and understand what all those people you have to work with contribute to the process of film.

Strategy and Artistic Freedom

Some people have difficulty with strategizing in advance. But I think all creative people should try to figure out where they’re going. Creativity is like sailing. You can just embark and see where it takes you, which has a certain kind of appeal. Or you can have a destination. You still have the potential for an interesting voyage, but when you’re done you’ll know you’ve arrived someplace.

Active vs. Effective

There is a big difference between being active and engaging in effective actions. Many people in the film industry are constantly active. They’re on the phone incessantly, sometimes eat several partial meals a day while meeting with a variety of people, attend screenings, go to parties, read scripts, newspapers, emails, and magazines, flip from one TV channel to the next, manically search the Internet, and assume that because they’re busy, they’re being productive.

Conflict

When you gather a bunch of heroes together, you’re guaranteed to have conflict because each one knows he’s a hero, and expects to take the lead. Well, artists are heroes of a different kind (just ask them), and the bigger the artist the bigger the ego and the more difficulty they have genuinely collaborating.

Mentors and Models

The most important thing about mentors is not whether they’re younger or older, but whether you really respect them.

Listen to the potential wisdom mentors have to offer, but then transform what they tell you into something relevant to your own life, your own time, and your own personality.

Getting Started as a Director

Actors have to act, writers have to write, directors have to direct. However you do it, you need a portfolio that gives you credibility.

Marketing

The distributor is also primarily responsible for the marketing of the film. As hard as it is to get a film made, it’s equally hard, if not harder, to get people to see you film. I’ve understated it: it’s equally hard to get people aware that your film even exists.

What Determines Success

I’ve never known any [filmmaker] to have an easy life, to be filled with anything other than wild hopes and frequent depression and an underlying sense that they have failed to fulfill their potential. The same could be said about any artist or perhaps any human being who aspires to create something significant.

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