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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How to Quit Your Job and Live the Dream

how, to, quit, your, job, and, live, the, dream,

Reinvention is one of America’s most overused terms.

But reinvention defines some of the best things that have come out of America in the past decade. Yes, celebrities have reinvented themselves: Betty White, Jon Stewart, and Ellen DeGeneres, to name a few. But the rest of us, plebeians, also have the ability to reinvent ourselves, and it has never been so easy.

The most inspirational and functional guide for personal reinvention is certainly James Altschuler’s Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Reinventing Yourself that he published in Tech Crunch in October. His words are inspiring and the message is clear: A lot of hard work combined with laser focus and you can become one of the best in whatever your chosen field is.

Lately, I’ve been feeling the burden of tech, as it seems like America truly has start-up fever. When even our prisons are hosting start-up accelerators — and this isn’t to say that prisons aren’t strong markets themselves for start-ups — we either are in the midst of a very serious start-up bubble, or are enabling anyone to live the American dream (or some mix of the two.)

But what if you didn’t want to create a tech start-up? What if you wanted to get your hands dirty in something like product manufacturing? What does that really take?

My friend Michael Paratore quit his job at a law firm to become, in his words, a “peddler.” Yes, being a peddler doesn’t sound as lucrative as legal work, but Michael wanted to seize his opportunity that came when he accompanied his wife Michelle on a trip to India.

Paratore once found himself wandering around Bombay’s backstreets. It was there that he met a shoe peddler who would change his life. Michael discovered what he describes as the world’s most comfortable shoes, and he decided that he should manufacture and sell them in America — and around the world.

And now, one year after his journey began, Michael’s dream has come true.

His Mohinder’s Kickstarter launched, and I happily bought a pair for $50, knowing that they’ll probably the first ethically made pair of footwear I’ve ever owned. Mohinder’s will also likely help the Indian village cooperative comprised of second and third generation shoe-making artisans who manufacture his products. (The cooperative was set up by an Indian NGO that uses a micro-credit style model to ensure artisans are paid fairly and can “break the cycle of poverty” while helping the artisans build valuable business and entrepreneurial skills.)

Whether you need a few hundred grand to create the “first open sensor for health and fitness” on IndieGoGo, or $34,000 to create a funky and eco-friendly YogoMat (I’m still waiting for mine because of production problems), the internet democracy has enabled entrepreneurs to reinvent themselves. I don’t know if the guy who invented the open sensor was a garbage man, a science teacher, or had a PhD in physics before he launched his crowdfunding campaign. I don’t know if the guy who invented the YogoMat has ever done yoga in his life! C’est la vie. I, and millions of others, are helping people to reinvent themselves every single day.

We should all feel lucky that we live in a society where reinvention is completely acceptable. A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t find many people — unless they had just committed some sort of heinous crime — attempting to reinvent themselves. Now, it’s as easy as putting in some hard work and putting up your wares on a crowdfunding site.

If there’s an interest, then, BAM! You’re in business.

Is there a startup accelerator bubble or is the startup accelerator model simply a nascent and fast-growing industry?

As a Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I am one of 16 lucky new media entrepreneurs who have access to world class mentors, financial opportunities, industry leaders, venture capitalists and like-minded thinkers. It is difficult to classify the program as a seed accelerator (because no seed funding is provided from the get-go), an incubator (because of the aforementioned relationships and opportunities that go beyond free office space), or an intrapreneurship for in-house academic experiment (because we have no obligations to continue our relationship with the university after the program ends).

What I had not considered before embarking on this adventure was that a major benefit of having the Tow-Knight Center housed at CUNY is that all intellectual property that my colleagues and I create is our own. We don’t have to fork over any percentage of future revenues that we may derive from our forthcoming ventures to the institution or our advisers. I consider us lucky and rare to have this combination of resources without the potential of buyer’s remorse if a project grew but some equity was already distributed.

This morning, I read an interesting INC article that provides an insider’s look into TechStars, the popular and fast-growing startup accelerator. While TechStars and YCombinator are generally considered the Harvard and Princeton equivalents of the accelerator world, I wonder whether the rest of the pack, essentially startups themselves, has equal value. While I enjoyed the INC piece, I was disappointed to learn that some TechStars applicants are accepted because of their relationships with the organization’s leaders, despite having severely underdeveloped or non-existent products. But on the other hand, I recognize that this is the way the world works. In private business, democracy has a very limited role. And merit may have even less. In the startup world, a frequently heard maxim is that venture capitalists invest in personalities and founders, not companies.

With seed accelerators proliferating all over the world, one wonders if the talent pool at each individual accelerator will become severely diluted. Though it is impossible to gain data about the success of companies grown from seed accelerators that have not yet had the opportunity to flourish or flop, one can surmise that more startup accelerators will mean fewer success stories from each specific program. When YCombinator had less competition, it meant that they got their pick of the litter. Nowadays, founders may not want to schlep to Silicon Valley if they are confident that they can still make it in their home cities or countries.

Jed Christiansen, a London-based American who works at Google, keeps track of seed accelerators through a spreadsheet on his personal blog. He defines seed accelerators as follows:

The following are required to be a “seed accelerator”

  1. Open application process; anyone with an idea can apply
  2. Accelerator invests in companies, typically in exchange for equity, at pre-seed or seed stage
  3. Cohorts or ‘classes’ of startups; not an on-demand resource
  4. Programme of support for the cohorts, including events and company mentoring
  5. Focus on teams, and not individual mentoring

Examples of what isn’t a seed accelerator:

  1. Programme where the startup pays for mentoring
  2. Incubator where the startup pays (discounted) rent in return for equity and/or discounted business services
  3. Programme where applications are restricted to certain groups (like students from a particular university)

Because of the rapid growth of seed accelerators, now would be an ideal time for someone (an academic, perhaps, hint, hint) to create a more comprehensive database that keeps track of the success to failure ratio at each of these accelerators. I can already guess that firms that are only given $20K in seed funding in exchange for 7% of their company won’t have the same advantages that firms who are given $100k for an equal stake. In this sense, it will also be important for entrepreneurs to report back on any seed accelerators that are disorganized, don’t deliver on what they promise, or steal intellectual property — all issues that I foresee arising in the near future.

At the end of the day, one must think about Facebook, YouTube, Google, and countless other uber-scalable companies that weren’t working within any set of rules at a seed accelerator when they launched. Investors flocked to them when their products had true growth potential and superb execution.

While some people wonder, what comes first —  the chicken or the egg —  I wonder what comes first — the seed or the flower that creates its own seeds to spread.

Startups that are trying to create marketplaces that monetize video content. But how will they get people to the market?

I have been researching startups that offer opportunities for original video content creators to monetize their work, oftentimes by creating marketplaces and platforms. Here are some of the more interesting companies I have discovered. (Please add others in the comments section.)

Note: I am not writing about companies that work in music monetization or companies that are video advertising solutions.

1. PlaceVine (Acquired by social video syndicator Alphabird in 2011)

About: “PlaceVine is a service that bring passionate content producers together with marketers and their agencies to create socially engaging branded video experiences. Today, the basic Placevine service enables producers to showcase their concepts and content for brands, and enables marketers to provide talented producers with brand integration opportunities.”

2. Koldcast.tv

About: “KoldCast TV, a division of KoldCast Entertainment Media, LLC, is an international television network which distributes programming to entertainment consumers around the world via the KoldCast TV Network site, found at www.koldcast.tv, via set-top boxes, connected/smart TV’s and mobile devices, and via unique relationships with broadcast and cable TV networks and other television distribution venues around the world. Our programming is largely created by independent television producers and filmmakers from the United States and countries across the globe. The phenomenal growth of independent programming allows KoldCast to be highly-selective in its programming choices. Unlike online video distribution sites like YouTube and those that have followed them, KoldCast specializes exclusively in professionally-produced programming. Our programming slate does not combine user-created videos of cats and dogs playing the piano or riding a lawn mower.”

3. Blur Group

About: “Blur Group has built and operates the world’s largest Creative Services Exchange™. With 14,075 creatives and exchange staff, a unique business model and advanced technology, it radically alters the marketing services space. CMOs, marketing directors, VPs, creative heads and innovation leaders buy the best, most cost-effective creative services from expert providers around the world. The biggest global brands, the coolest startups and all points in between choose this transparent approach for the most cost-effective, real time and relevant design services, marketing campaigns, content programs, original artwork and innovation partnerships.”

4. Talenthouse

About: “Talenthouse provides life-changing opportunities for the creative community. It’s a place to participate in projects with leading artists and brands, gain recognition and virally grow your audience. Talenthouse embraces artists at every level of their career, as well as all supporters of the arts. Attracted by the potential for discovering, collaborating with and mentoring emerging talent, many global brands and acclaimed industry icons are involved with Talenthouse by hosting Creative Invites. Brands choose Talenthouse to engage in a dialogue with their audience in a targeted, relevant and credible context. Talenthouse currently focuses on film, fashion, music, art / design, and photography.”

5. Videolla.com

About: “You simply upload your video to Videolla and set price for it or insert ads into the video. Its simple and free. You will not need any coding skills. Just register, upload your videos and pick if you want to sell them or place ads.”

6. Bozza (South African)

About: “Most individuals in Africa engage with digital communication, information and entertainment through their mobile phones. Content drives the uptake of technology; yet despite the global increase and focus on the value of content, there continues to be a lack of locally generated, contextually relevant content for the African market. Focused on local made-for-mobile content, the Bozza application offers artists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs a mobile platform through which to distribute their content. By doing so these SMMEs earn revenue and users get free access to relevant, premium content (music, written word and videos) that entertains, educates, informs or all of the above.”

7. Poptent

About: “Poptent is a vibrant community of filmmakers (and actors, comedians, grips, animators and more!) who are connecting to each other and to companies that want to pay them for their talents. Through our passions for advertising and commercials, we are exploring a new way of creating branded messages for the Internet age. Poptent members can show off their work, build a portfolio, collaborate with other creators, leverage our deep set of features, and best of all make money doing what they love. Poptent brands are seeking new ways to reach their consumers and create new audiences. They are finding exciting possibilities that save them both money and time while staying just ahead of the curve of competition. They are, in a word, trendsetters.”

The US Senate passed the JOBS Act: How this legislation can improve the quality of American journalism

I recently blogged about the many benefits that I hope will come to America with the passage of the JOBS Act. Now that the US Senate has passed the JOBS Act, the bill has gone back to the House of Representatives for final approval before President Obama signs it into law. Despite my skepticism about the ability of Congress to pass any legislation in this toxic and partisan political climate, I am pleasantly surprised that it looks like the JOBS Act should go through with bipartisan support.

My general thesis is that if the “people” can now invest in new ventures, then they will be more apt to use products and services that cater to small groups/communities, and more likely to shun products, services, and information that comes from large corporations that are geared for the masses. Of course, it may take a couple of years to see these effects, but I am hopeful that fragmentation can create diversity in spheres of life where Americans now have too few choices.

While other commentators have focused on the overall benefits and drawbacks for investors, businesses, regulators, and consumers, I will list potential ways that the new crowdfunding legislation can influence and disrupt journalism. My theories on winners and losers from the JOBS Act:

1. Communities can rally around creating publications that they control, rather than leaving sub-par newspapers in the hands of publishers motivated by the bottom line rather than creating high quality community content. Watch out Patch and legacy publishers! The potential to revive local journalism in places that are currently without local news sources is the most promising development that I see. But legacy media organizations should be on guard, because disruption born out of frustration may be just around the corner.

2. Niche publications will be able to get off the ground more easily. If a fragmented community of  1,000 people — I’m thinking an online community for this example — who were spread throughout America, wanted to hire one person to work to create content, they could hypothetically each donate $30 to a venture that could create a niche publication with a professional or semi-professional journalist/curator at the helm.

3. Television networks and cable channels should be scared because YouTube is already slicing up the market. Enthusiasts of various types of content that don’t achieve the critical masses needed for channels that cater to advertisers may now have their opportunity to band together to create more desirable programming…and make it profitable.

4. Television news should be a prime target for entrepreneurs at the local and national levels, as it has remained virtually unchanged for such a long time. I foresee new formats developing, and I believe the crowd will control how they develop.

5. Crowdfunded radio stations may destroy the traditional for-profit ones. Watch out ClearChannel. Look out for an indy radio explosion…most likely based on the Internet.

6. Lone bloggers and journalists with strong personal brands — or with the ability to build strong personal brands — will now be able to have investors rally behind them. This may create a major revolution for sole proprietors, ending the struggles that freelancers face in terms of tax burdens. Another advantage is that talented people may now be more willing to go off on their own rather than remain with corporations that underutilize talented journalists’ skills and abilities.

Update: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s response to my recent post

My original post about The Texas Tribune is here.

UPDATE 2: Click HERE for an interesting white paper on non-profit/commercial news partnerships from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

UPDATE 1: Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune just returned my call. And he was angry. At the start of the call, he cited me as having factual errors in my reporting. (In reality, there was only one. Jay Root came to the Tribune directly from the AP, not the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he worked for many years, as I wrote.) As promised, I will give Smith his shot at a fair response right here:

Re: My accusation about a failure to disclose Texas A&M’s contributions to his organization in the recent New York Times piece, he said, “”I think we should have disclosed that A&M is an institutional donor to the Tribune.” He called the incident “a rare lapse.”

Smith then described a December 2010 story in the Times in which a Texas Tribune reporter, Emily Ramshaw, critiqued a Tribune donor, Christus Healthcare.

He said, “I wouldn’t be in the non-profit sector if I was in it for the money. I had a higher salary at Texas Monthly. The reason I raise the money has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the the mission of this organization.”

Smith said that $315,000 is his actual salary, even though it may seem higher on financial reports, because of deferred payments.

He critiqued my notion that I should be watching over a watchdog by saying, “You’re allowed to have a point of view, but it ought to be based on something. Be a watchdog on the watchdogs. If that’s your place, God Bless.” By my own admission,  I have not done a full review of all of The Tribune’s articles to gauge whether or not they treat their donors preferentially. I simply found one recent incident and wrote about it.

However, I feel that someone must examine non-profit news organizations with the same scrutiny that for-profit news organizations are critiqued. Smith replied, “You haven’t done the work required to rip us a new one.” Admittedly, I worked on this post for a few hours, and I was unpaid for my work. Smith also said,  “There are plenty of places that go into strong stances on issues. We give you the tools to think about things yourself.”

He insisted, referring to donations, that, “None of this ever influences the work that we do. I pointed this out to Howard Kurtz in 2009: The money we got from advertisers at the for-profit publications where I previously worked is greater then what we get at The Tribune.”

Other Smith quotes from our conversation:

1. “If you provide us with the resources to do the work we do, we will get our work in as many places as possible. We will allow the individual corporate and foundations to support us, so that we can make that content available for free.”

2. “We want to help educate as many Texans as possible about the things that happen in the world.”

3. “The goal here is to provide as many news organizations as possible with great content.”

4. “The reason that you know about my salary is because we publish it. We overdisclose. We are not obligated to publish any of this stuff.” I disagree. As a non-profit, they must disclose the salaries of their five highest paid employees.

5. “We ask transparency of others so we do it ourselves.”

6. “My salary gives me a disincentive to ruffle feathers. We have written negatively about our donors. There are countless examples where they will yell at us.”

7. “It is enormously hard work. We take it very seriously. Most of us worked for for-profit media companies, but we believe the mission of The Tribune is more important.”

The Texas Tribune’s non-profit business model is harming for-profit journalism in Texas and Texas A&M’s corporate sponsorship of The Tribune should have been disclosed in a recent New York Times piece

Update: Click HERE for Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s response and additional notes regarding the post below.

My updated conclusion: Led by the success of the non-profit news model represented by The Texas Tribune, the decline of the for-profit news ecosystem is being accelerated by competition from the non-profit world. The role of a non-profit should be to help increase the quality of journalism, but not at the expense of for-profit organizations.

In journalism circles, The Texas Tribune is generally held in high regard for the quality of its content and its ability to lure top reporters from other Texas-based organizations. It is trusted enough to provide reports to the Old Grey Lady.

While I have been impressed by many of the Tribune’s special reports, data journalism, and coverage in general, it never dawned on me until I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest (SXSW) who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas.

Since its formation in late 2009, The Trib has received large donations from foundations and individuals. It has also made many big-name hires: Emily Ramshaw from the Dallas Morning News, Jay Root from the Associated Press, and most recently Aman Batheja, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Batheja recently accepted a buyout offer from the Star-Telegram during its latest round of layoffs, and quickly lined up his new political reporting gig at The Trib.

On the surface, this appears extremely positive, as laid-off Texas journalists may now have a news outlet to call home. The Tribune’s open-source model will now enable other Texas news organizations to access Batheja’s high quality content for free. Therefore, the Star-Telegram no longer has to pay Batheja a salary while still getting his ace political coverage.

Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune
Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune

The ideas that a non-profit news organization is not beholden to interests that affect for-profit news organizations (corporations, advertisers, etc.) is also flawed. Because The Trib is subsidized by wealthy donors, it may not create the type of journalism that could harm its financial future. Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith has a strong financial incentive not to ruffle any feathers: According to The Texas Tribune’s 990 form, filed with the IRS in 2010, Smith made a $320,625 base salary and $13,038 in additional compensation. (I guess it helps that he’s also on the Tribune’s Board of Directors.)

From the Texas Tribune’s 2010 2010 IRS filing.

A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues. Smith himself described membership, major donors, foundations, corporate sponsorship, and earned income as the sources of revenue for his non-profit news organization. However, as the screenshot from The Texas Tribune’s homepage below shows, corporate sponsorship and advertising look to be one and the same:

It’s doubtful that The Tribune would now write a damning report against Texas A&M or Austin Recovery. In fact, four days ago, Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey wrote a glowing profile in The New York Times titled “A Master Carver, at Work at A&M” about John Sharp, the new Texas A&M University System chancellor. While Ramsey admits previously working with Sharp in at the Texas Comptrollers Office in the 1990s, he does not mention that Texas A&M is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune today.

Can a startup non-profit news organization that relies on donors, members, and corporate sponsors for growth also excel at reporting that requires it to be non-partisan, as the Tribune claims to be? I argue that the answer is clearly no.

A full list of Texas Tribune donors and members is available HERE, as well as The Tribune’s 990 forms for the IRS.