As an entrepreneur in the throes of building a company, I always find myself looking for inspiration in terms of what it takes to do that successfully. So when I was invited to sit down with both established and emerging filmmakers at the Sonoma International Film Festival this past spring, I couldn’t have been more excited to pick their brains about their craft.
From my conversations with Hollywood veteran Bob Yari (producer of films like Crash, The Illusionist and Hostage) to emerging filmmaker Laura Sheehy (Chasing the Win), I quickly learned that many aspects of bringing a film to life are synonymous with building a company: pulling together a stellar team, committing to the vision, working within a budget (often limited) and ultimately learning from your failures in order to create something truly unique and often groundbreaking.
Ultimately, great filmmakers and entrepreneurs possess a number of the same qualities. Here are a few things I gleaned from these fascinating conversations.
1. Success takes time.
"Hollywood," actor Kevin Hart told Oprah in an interview, "has a way of making everything seem like an overnight success.” The same could be said for Silicon Valley. But anyone who has built a company and seen it succeed knows it takes more than a few toddler years to “make it” to a comfortable, if not yet profitable, place. Same goes for films.
Director/producer Chris Million’s documentary film Jack London: 20th Century Man took 10 years to complete, although he’d begun researching the subject years before. He shared, “The average time to complete an independent documentary these days is about seven years, unless it’s a topical story that needs to get out there quickly.”
Film directors Chris Ghelfi and Laura Sheehy spent six years producing and polishing the film Chasing the Win, a documentary about an imperfect racehorse, its owner and a rookie trainer who collectively took a surprising win at the Dubai World Cup.
The message: With both entrepreneurship and film production, you’re looking at least half a decade of work (if you’re lucky).
2. Major problem-solving skills are a must.
Yari Film Group’s Papa Hemingway in Cuba recounts the story of a young journalist who travels to Havana, Cuba, during the Cuban Revolution to meet his writing idol, Ernest Hemingway. Though the film won several awards, including Best Narrative Film, at Key West Film Festival, and Best World Feature at Sonoma International Film Festival, those honors didn’t come without a fight and a lot of work.
Yari Film Group producer Amanda Harvey shared a few challenges she and Bob Yari faced when filming in Cuba: “Producers are problem-solvers," she said. "As a producer in America, you have everything at your fingertips. Make a call, send an email and anything can be fixed in 10 minutes.
"In Cuba there is no such concept. Once you walk out of your hotel, you have no Internet or cell phone reception. You are completely disconnected. You learn to find solutions within your bubble and make effective choices based on the resources in front of you. The Cuban crew taught me how to be effective, with limited resources.”
The message: Whether you’re an entrepreneur working to solve customer problems or a film producer making an outdoor scene work in the rain, it’s all about putting out fires as you go.
3. Perseverance and persistence are crucial.
Setbacks in business are inevitable, but those who exhibit the ability to persevere and persistently get back up to bat are the ones that cross the finish line (whatever that means to you).
“There are many times during independent film production when others suggest you tell the story in a different way," said Million, the director/producer. "Funders will question your approach and refuse to fund you; collaborators will disagree or drop out of the project; and that editor you had your heart set on may not ‘get’ the project.
"You have to keep going, believe in your idea, and recognize that these setbacks are experienced by everyone in the industry.” .
Added Harvey, the producer: “Never take ‘no’ for an answer. Giving up is not an option.”
The message: Entrepreneurs, does Harvey's advice sound familiar?
4. Flexibility keeps the ship afloat.
In business and filmmaking alike, there’s always a level of uncertainty; Where will your next round of funding come from? If your new editor or marketing director doesn’t work out, what then? Commented Ghelfi, the director: “In documentary filmmaking you have to be open to uncertainty. There will be so many things that are out of your control. If you are able to accept this, or even better -- get excited by this -- that excitement will be evident in the final product.”
Million echoed that thought. “There will be times when you have to change your plan in order to improve your film and its chances in the marketplace," he said. "It doesn’t mean compromising your artistic vision, but rather recognizing that your approach may not fit your budget or audience(s) as time goes on."
5. Audience is everything.
For entrepreneurs and business owners, customer data informs how brands interact with them at every touchpoint along their journeys. In filmmaking, obviously, audience is just as important.
Said Million: “With independent film today, it’s all about finding your audience. I’ve learned that you have to figure out who your core audience is for every film, so you can embrace them and market to them. This is more critical than ever in this day of multiple-viewing platforms and narrowcasting."
He added: "It’s important to find those audiences early on in the process because they can help you spread the word, gain funding and get potential viewers before the film is complete, whether through crowdfunding, social media, etc.”
6. Collaboration is key.
Two heads are clearly better than one. And whether you’re building a company or producing a film, a whole group of heads is needed. As Million said, “It’s virtually impossible to do it alone. You need to identify good people to work with, who share your vision and commitment to the project. They may not have the exact same working style as you, but as long as they’re good at what they do and are dedicated to your shared artistic vision, they can help your film.”
This goes for everyone from the actors to the set designer. Ultimately, those involved have to be fully invested in creating a stellar "product" and collaborating with the entire team. You know what they say about one bad apple? Needless to say, it's a univeral truth.
Ghelfi commented: “I learned that collaboration is a gift. If you find someone with whom you have chemistry, take advantage of that. It's like having four-wheel drive. You may not need it all the time, but when you get stuck in the mud, you'll be so glad you have it.”
The road to success can be full of potholes, which is exactly why not everyone takes the risk of entrepreneurship -- or filmmaking. But those who do pursue these aims do so because not doing it just isn’t an option. Not succeeding is not an option.
As Harvey put it, “Most people equate success with how much money your business or film makes. I think 'success' means trying your hardest and grabbing opportunity when you see it.”