Don’t let the 90 screenings at Savannah Film Festival fool you. Savannah College of Art and Design’s week-long celebration of film is about more than art. It’s about the transactions and preparation that make it possible for us to experience the art. It’s about business: the elephant in most festival venues this week. Or if you’re film student Yang Xiao (M.F.A., film and television student), it’s the spaceship.
Yang participated in one of the many intimate meetings between students and industry that transpire during Savannah Film Festival. He shared pictures of the spaceship set he built for his thesis movie, TROY, with the co-founder and director of the SXSW Festival Louis Black and Austin media mogul Robert Walker.
Yang’s bold gesture wasn’t uninvited. It was an opportune illustration of what Robert and Louis, who helped established SXSW as of one of the world’s most successful platforms for music and film, were there to discuss: entrepreneurship. Robert, Louis and other heavyweights in the business came to SCAD to tell these emerging filmmakers not how to get a job, but how to make their own. To them, the spaceship represents the kind of hustle, savvy and radical ambition it takes to make it big in the film business today.
SXSW co-founder Louis Black with SCAD film students Tristan Aronovich and Amanda Maya.
A huddle with a founder of SXSW
The striking thing about what Louis did by turning SXSW - a small music festival started by a few friends - into a multi-media juggernaut generating $300 million in revenue for Austin, Texas, is that there were more barriers to success back when it was getting started. There was no crowdfunding, no Facebook, no smart phones. They solved their problems of having zero money and zero patrons with innovative solutions that are instructive for film students. Even though it’s easier for this generation to make their own empires, and maybe even inevitable given how technology has revolutionized filmmaking, aspiring directors, writers and producers can still learn from the old fashioned practices that turned Austin into the little film empire that could.
Lesson: Ingenuity first, money second
Chief among the lessons from the case study of Austin’s rise in the film industry is that, as Louis and Robert tell it, money makes it easier, but having no money makes you hustle. In their experience, low cash flow ultimately stimulates a more successful outcome because you have to maximize your resources.
When you’re starting out and you don’t have money and you want to make things happen, you learn lessons that stick with you your whole life.
Robert agreed, “I’m not knocking cash, it’s good. But it’s easy to cover up mistakes or to just be lazy and pay someone to do what you should be doing yourself. It kind of zaps your creative abilities sometimes if you’re not careful,” he said.
Because the pair has had plenty of experience improvising, Robert and Louis still let their ideas, not the financing, direct how they approach a project. For example, when they were in need of a larger workspace recently instead of plunking down a bunch of cash they set their sights on a 50-thousand square foot building that the Texas National Guard was preparing to abandon. By working their relationships, they snagged the gem of the property for a whopping ten dollars in monthly rent.
Louis summed up his stories about building SXSW by telling students, “My one skillset is that I know how to visualize.”
Clearly vision doesn’t obviate the need for money, but as these lessons from Austin demonstrate, money is not to be pursued at the expense of it.
Vinca and Steven at the panel "How Films Recoup."
Show Me the Money
The title of entertainment lawyer Vinca Jarrett’s book and web series, Show Me the F$#!KING Money, would seem to fly in the face of this lesson of vision before money. But actually, according to Vinca, vision and planning are essential to making the money part possible.
Vinca and her business partner, manager-producer Steven Adams, have made it their mission to teach how movies get financed. They produce the web series because the film business has the highest attrition rate of investors, and their goal is to turn that around by creating Warren Buffetts of the film industry: educated investors who understand where they’re putting their money and how movies get made.
In addition to investors, they target rising filmmakers who are looking to break into the business, like the SCAD students who shot five episodes of their educational series at the university’s studio during Savannah Film Festival.
Vinca and Steven had seen enough of their young clients commit career-ending mistakes while making movies, like bankrupting their parents, which could have been avoided if sound business practices had been in place from the start. Here are two of their best practices.
Lesson: Document your partnership
One of the biggest mistakes when starting out, says Vinca, is to rely solely on spoken agreements. You may share a creative vision with your team, but these individuals are still business partners, and you need to formally define that relationship, roles and responsibilities in writing. An absolutely essential first step is to put a deal memo in place, no matter how simple.
“Go away and write the ten things you want to accomplish with each other,” Vinca instructs, and then write the things you’re each going to do to accomplish those things.” An attorney can put your intentions into a deal memo so the partnership has rules to abide by. Then, of course, you must actually play by these rules.
It may seem obvious, but even before this step, Steven and Vinca are quick to point out that filmmakers – just like any other smart person in business- must know or investigate who they’re entering into a business relationship with. The wrong team member can sour a potential movie deal because of a bad reputation or track record. So do your homework.
Lesson: Know your rights
In addition to formalizing your partnership, Vinca and Steven say it’s absolutely critical for filmmakers to secure the rights to the movie they’re making. A lawyer can help you understand the rights you need to secure. You can navigate some of this process on your own - like obtaining a copyright – and then hire a lawyer to do the rest.
Recently her former intern brought her a TV concept and Vinca gave her this advice: Make sure the rights are in the public domain. If they’re not, do a deal with the executive who’s interested in your concept so they can’t steal the idea. Then document the full extent of your idea so that you can copyright it. Even if you do this part by yourself, it’s wise to know when to bring in an attorney to make sure you have a sound foundation of ownership before moving forward with your project.
From left to right, producers David Paterson, Susan Cartsonis, Jane Goldenring and, far right, Alison Owen.
Producing: Tricks of the Trade
The next lessons come from some of the very people who consult Vinca and Steven’s series: movie producers.
The festival’s annual coffee talk series kicked off with an installment that answered a very common question: What do producers do? The answer - provided by a panel of award-winning producers of films like What Women Want, Bridge to Terabithea, The Giver and Hocus Pocus – was that producers are really the ultimate entrepreneurs.
From inception to distribution a producer’s single focus is working all the factors behind the screen to get the movie made, which requires a ton of improvisation, ingenuity and grit, as any start-up would.
So what can we learn from them? A couple recurring themes emerged that clearly are factors in their success and trademarks of smart entrepreneurship.
Lesson: Be tough and take authority
The perception that the producer is responsible for everything behind the scenes and the director responsible for everything on the screen is generally accurate, shared The Giver’s executive producer Alison Owen. But on a movie, as in business, things don’t always remain this tidy. The panelists agreed that in the cases where the lines of authority blur, it behooves the producer to be tough and to preserve those boundaries in order to maintain their responsibility to investors and to the overall quality of the film. This principle for success is in the vein of ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ And it’s certain these producers would say, so too will your film fail if you don’t create the parameters within which the film can be made and stick to them.
It’s good for film students in particular to practice toughness and authority while they’re still in film school, even if the context in which they make their films doesn’t mirror a real world set. Case in point, Headlong Entertainment producer Susan Cartsonis noted that in most film schools the director maintains the purse strings and the producer’s authority is often eclipsed by that power imbalance. So practice sticking to your guns while you're still in film school, especially if you're an aspiring producer.
Lesson: Wear many hats
Precisely because filmmakers must have a keen sense of authority over their project in order to guide its success, it serves them to borrow another tenant that good entrepreneurs and good producers follow, which is to do everything. Or, at the very least, know a little bit about all of the areas you’ll be managing on your project, even the technical ones.
Bridge to Terabithia producer David Paterson uses the example of how he learned to build sets when he was starting out as an actor, which not only gave him invaluable insights for his movies but, in the case of smaller films, he didn’t have to depend on someone else in this area in order to get the film made.
In other words, a lack of knowledge can make or break your project. So don’t allow a lack of interest on your part to isolate you from learning certain technical aspects of filmmaking. Bringing it back to finances, especially when it comes to the money, all the producers agreed that the line producer should not be the only one who knows their way around a budget.
Finally, in addition to knowing how to do multiple things on a set, a page out of a successful producer’s playbook is to have multiple projects going at one time in order to beat the odds against a project getting made.
The democratization of film, whereby first-time filmmakers are able to leverage social networks and advances in technology to fund and shoot films that can rival those by big studios, means that more films will get made. But it also means there will be more competition. Hopefully these lessons from some of the sharpest business minds at Savannah Film Festival will help your project come out on top.