A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

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. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the LEAN principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. 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 over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 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. This means 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. We thought all was good. 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 1.

4. 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 get rid 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 free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time.

More observations coming soon…

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It’s been a long, long time

Hello Blog World,

I realized I haven’t posted in about a year. It’s been a busy one. I’ve been in Oxford, working on my MBA at the University of Oxford and that is now nearly finished. It has been an exhilarating and amazing experience every single day to live in this beautiful city. One reason that I haven’t written much here is that I have been blogging about my experiences on a regular basis at the Financial Times.

On a professional front, I’m proud to report that Skillbridge was sold to TopTal in April. It was a great experience to grow a company from almost nothing into something much bigger. And I was able to work with super talented people along the way. I’m gonna miss that.

My other big announcement is that a film that I have worked on for over 5 years has now come to fruition. Catch AMANDA KNOX on Netflix as a Netflix Original starting September 30. And if you’re in Toronto earlier in September, come check it out at the Toronto Film Festival where it will be premiering. It is so gratifying when hard work pays off.

I’m also happy to report that my passion for healthy living is still in order. I was lucky enough to have the Green Templeton College gym in my backyard this year, eliminating my need for ClassPass. I feel as good as I ever have.

As much as this is a time of endings for me (Oxford, Skillbridge, Amanda Knox), I am excited about many new beginnings. I don’t know where the world will take me next, but I’ll be sure to update you as soon as I find out.

Talk soon,

Stephen

 

Celebrating 30 years old: 1 year on Classpass, 30 pounds lighter, and way stronger

One year ago yesterday, I joined Classpass. It has truly changed my life. I originally joined as a gift to myself. I had just turned 29 years old and felt like I should be in better shape. I swore I’d look better at 30 than I did at 29.

In the past year, I have become a fitness addict, and now feel younger at 30 than I did when I was 21. I realized that physical limitations I thought I had because I was an uncoordinated kid from the suburbs are meaningless. Today, I rock fitness classes and feel like I can compete with anyone, regardless of age.

I wish I’d known when I was 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years old that I had it in me to be an excellent athlete. That said, watching people around me age, I recognize that the combination of eating well and participating in physical activity on a regular basis are the keys to healthy living. When I look at my 85-year-old grandfather, who has always been a fitness buff, and watch as he does his daily routine of situps and walks, I know that I’ve got at least 55 amazing years ahead of me.

Classpass, built for the ADHD-millennial lifestyle, allowed me to try tons of new fitness classes. I’m not sure why it worked, but it did, perhaps because I’m cheap and wanted to get the most out of the unlimited plan, just like I like to get the most out of all-you-can-eat sushi binges.

Now, as I head to England for a new adventure, I know that it is my own responsibility to stay fit. I plan to teach spin classes at Oxford, row on the River Thames, and continue to kickbox. I’m sure I’ll play some soccer, tennis, and run too.I know my most fit years are ahead of me, and fitness is as much about the mind as it is the body. I believe that I have now sent many of the ills I did my body during my first 29 years into reverse.

And of course, I must thank all of the amazing fitness instructors who made my mind and body transformations happen — losing 30 pounds while building tons of muscle. From cross-training to Aqua cycle to spin to kickboxing, thank you Melissa, Anne, Halston, Tarek, Kevin, Moses… the list can go on and on… for both correcting my form and pushing me to work harder every single day.

My sister and I, after we became Schwinn certified spin instructors.
My sister and I, after we became Schwinn certified spin instructors.

Broken glasses theory

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Last week, I attended an event featuring three Democratic US Congressmen and one Democratic US Congresswoman. The event celebrated the launch of “Future Forum,” a way for Congress to connect with Millennials to work on issues that matter to young hard-working Americans. Amidst an assembly of New York tech entrepreneurs, the event, held at District CoWork (a co-working space), opened with a cocktail hour.

I signed in, popped on my name tag, headed straight to the bar, grabbed a glass of wine, and was shimmying over to a person I wanted to speak with when the unthinkable happened: My sleeve brushed against someone else’s wine glass, set atop a table , and SPLAT, the glass tumbled to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces.

Within seconds, a hundred faces turned to stare at me. I immediately started to clean up the mess I made. Then, I noticed a man helping me. He’d grabbed a plate and started to pick up large shards of glass with his bare hands. I noticed the man’s lapel pin, denoting him as a Congressman. This was Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Long Islander, who I’d never previously met.

What started off as us working together to expediently clean up the mess I made quickly turned into a conversation. He asked me about my work at Skillbridge, and I explained to him what we are trying to build. We ended up speaking for a while, and when the conversation concluded, he said to me, “Here’s my business card. Give me a call when you’re down in Washington.” Steve Israel’s act of humility — he didn’t have to help me clean anything up — may be why he is in Congress today.

This incident immediately jogged my memory back to a similar one from 2011: I was taken out to dinner by the CBS news crew who were covering Amanda Knox’s trial in Italy. Who saddles up next to me at the table? None other than Peter Van Sant, the news anchor and 48 Hours host. Peter’s an ace: he’s won four Emmy Awards, three Edward R. Murrow Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, and more.

A dozen people at our table split a couple of bottles of red wine. And then, after a toast, I put my glass back down on the table, directly on the spot where, under the tablecloth, two tables of unequal heights met. Boom! The red wine spilled all over Peter.

Yet Peter Van Sant faced the red wine with humility. Despite his deeply stained white shirt, he insisted it wasn’t a big deal at all. A precursor to my more recent incident with Congressman Israel, Peter and I ended up talking and laughing all night long.

The lesson is that broken glasses and spilled red wine can be the world’s best icebreakers — and they give larger than life people opportunities to show that they’re human too.

Practical note: An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm taught me that, immediately applying club soda and salt to red wine will remove all stains.

Your body is stronger than you think: Notes after two months on ClassPass.

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I am not a “gym guy.” Other than a very brief stint on an elliptical machine as a sophomore in college, and a second brief stint on a stairclimber at Crunch Fitness in LA in 2008 (conveniently located across the street from my place of residence), I haven’t been to a gym in years. I have always preferred outdoor sports – cycling, flag football, hiking, and tennis. Part of this is because I’m an unabashed germaphobe, and I feared what microorganisms were waiting for me in various locker-rooms and workout machines.

I have never been able to motivate myself to work out regularly: I had a small belly that for years I couldn’t get rid of. Eating and drinking right is — or was — easier for me than partaking in fitness regimens.

During the summer of 2014 I heard about ClassPass from my friend Anastasia Leng. I was intrigued by ClassPass’s value proposition, but I didn’t immediately join: I figured that with so many weekends away in the summer, it wouldn’t be worth it.

However, at the start of Labor Day Weekend, on my 29th birthday, I had a mild existential crisis and thought it would probably be better if I lived to 100 instead of 75. So I joined ClassPass. I decided to plunk down $99 per month to go to dozens of gyms (3x maximum each per month). Yes, this sounds expensive at first, but for me, it was a lifesaver.

What do I love ClassPass? It is perfect for Millennials — especially Millennials with ADHD. There is no commitment to one gym, and every day is different. Sure, some classes I love more than others, but all have value in improving the body.

And I’ve realized: The locker-rooms and machines at 90% of the gyms I have attended are sufficiently well-cleaned so my germaphobia was misguided!

Here are some of my favorite ClassPass classes:

1. BCL Fitness (Prospect Park and Central Park) – Melissa Carter is a lovely person and inspirational teacher. This is a simple boot camp held in Prospect Park or Central Park. You are drenched with sweat after it is over, and it feels so good.

2. Swerve Fitness (at 18th and 5th in Manhattan): I love that this is a cycling class with built-in sprints and competitions. I have become (psychotically?) competitive  – I scored an 809 here recently and was #1 in class. Halston is my favorite instructor here, but the others are equally inspiring. I also love that Swerve emails you your scores 15 minutes after class ends, making great use of data.

3. BFX (at 17th and 6th in Manhattan) – From boxing classes to cycling, this (new!) gym is great. Helpful instructors all around.

4. AQUA Studio NY (78 Franklin St – Tribeca) – This is cycling (spinning) in a pool. Yes, the concept is a bit crazy, but it is an intense workout, but it works wonders after a stressful day/week at work.  Anne K. is my favorite instructor as she doesn’t stop pushing you to your limits.

5. FlyWheel (Multiple locations) – Ah, FlyWheel, the redheaded stepchild of SoulCycle. The teachers here (I have had many) are all special and do such an amazing job of motivating you. One small problem: Waiting in line for the showers after class. Oy!

After two months, I have noticed significant changes in my body: My stomach is flat, my legs feel lighter, my hair looks thicker, my disposition is cheerier,  and either I now have delusions of grandeur or I really feel like I can conquer the world. Despite the unending stress of startup life, I am dealing with it far better than I did previously.

There have been a couple of classes that I haven’t enjoyed as much as the ones mentioned above, but it has probably been a mixture of my personal preferences (e.g. lack of showers or difficult to get to) that have led my to these conclusions. I was excited to learn that ClassPass raised $12 million a few weeks ago and will therefore be around for a while. Give it a shot. I promise you, it will be worth it.

Entrepreneurship is hard, so don’t claim that it’s easy.

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Entrepreneurship has definitely become cooler and cooler in the minds of Millennials during the past 10 years: Facebook was founded in 2004. That gave the Millennial Everyman hope that he too could start a multi-billion dollar business and retain ownership of it to the end. Then, the 2008 stock market crash and the subsequent recession erased the traditional job opportunities that Millennials and others had grown entitled to.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, majoring in English and History. Why? Because I was told by countless professors and mentors to “study what I loved.” In retrospect, I should have probably focused on Marketing or Computer Science in tandem with one of my two humanities choices, but c’est la vie, those days are behind me.

Today, Millennials are unemployed in record numbers, and many see “entrepreneurship” as the only way out of unemployment. Plus, entrepreneurs wear t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops to work year-round, and don’t have to answer to anyone… But let’s get this straight: Being an entrepreneur is hard work. It is far more difficult to run your own company than it is to be a cog in a wheel at a large corporation. There are many late nights, sleepless nights of nervousness, and you never know where you will be in six months time. Plus, working on weekends isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. That’s stressful, and it’s not for everyone, despite what some pro-entrepreneurship organizations would have you believe.

(Yes, many entrepreneurs become depressed from this stress too.)

Before I started SkillBridge, I had worked at 3 funded startups and started 2 of my own businesses. Both businesses “failed” in the sense that they never were acquired by anyone else, but they were both incredible learning opportunities and earned me a bit of money along the way. However, as I wrote on LinkedIn, you are NOT wasting your 20s working at a large company. My article says, “Many of my most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg works for Google and now lives in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for 5 years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives.”

Alas, there is also a grammar problem in the world: You don’t have a “startup” if you are not seeking to scale your business. You simply have a small business, and that is an excellent accomplishment. No, your nut butter stand may never achieve the scale of Nutella, but it’s very cool that you can derive income from it.

There are so many “pre-revenue” entrepreneurs out there, who are great at selling themselves, but once you dig a bit deeper realize they’re all fluff. Putting up a LaunchRock page for your idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur: Go build something, and then tell people you’re an entrepreneur. Go assemble a world-class team, and then say you’re an entrepreneur. Go make enough profit to live off of, and then call yourself an entrepreneur.

Too many people out there are selling this entrepreneurial dream but not detailing the amount of work involved to create it. Sorry kids, there are probably 100 people out there with the same killer app idea that you have, yet having the idea is only the beginning. Strategy and execution are everything.

I wouldn’t change anything about the path that I chose, because I value adventure and not knowing what is around the next corner. However, there have been times when I’ve been ready to turn in the towel. Unless you can tolerate high levels of uncertainty, you won’t go far as an entrepreneur.

ClassPass, Fitness, and Data = The Perfect Storm

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It is rare that I advocate so strongly for a brand (other than SkillBridge of course), but ClassPass is truly amazing for the urbanites out there: For $99 a month, you get to take 3 classes at any of dozens of fitness studios in New York City. Typically, these classes cost $25-$40 each, so if you go 4 times in a month, you’re already saving yourself quite a bit of money. From yoga to cycling to bootcamps, there’s something for everyone on ClassPass.

As a man, I had some reservations about joining, thinking it would be all women in the classes. However, this isn’t the case at all.

Some things that I like about ClassPass: Easy reservation system, synching classes with Google Calendar so I don’t forget about them, and solid descriptions of classes. It’s also very easy to cancel classes, so long as it’s more than 24 hours before they begin.

I love that so many ClassPass classes, such as the ones at FlyWheel or Swerve, take a data driven approach. I’ve hit 300+ as my “Power Score” at all of my Flywheel classes this month and next month I”m pushing for 325.

Another bonus: I’ve discovered great gyms, teachers, classes in and around my neighborhood that I didn’t know about! Hat tip goes out to my friend and fellow entrepreneur Anastasia Lang of Hatch for first telling me about ClassPass and saying how awesome it was.