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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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.

Want More Millennials in Office? Then It’s Time to Ditch the Two-Party System

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If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial, there’s a high chance that you’re a a political independent. A plurality (45%) of millennials identify as independents, compared to 33% who identify as Democrats and 23% who identify as Republicans. I am proudly a member of this 45%. And this isn’t because I’m uninterested in politics, but because I am uninterested in the two political parties that I have to choose from.

At different times, I have felt disgusted by both political parties. Yes, there are certainly some smart people who accept their party’s faults and work within them to make changes… and then there are the slimeballs who we see on TV every day. It seems like most millennials would prefer to run the other way from the rats.

If America had a parliamentary system, like the UK or Australia or Canada, life would be very different, and I can almost guarantee that our generation would already have a strong political presence in Congress. But instead, the two-party system is dominant, and that has made life horrible for anyone trying to work from outside the political system to break in. The American political system has been carefully designed to screw over outside contenders from third parties and political independents, so that Democrats and Republicans gain instead.

Only in rare cases have independent politicians made any strides in America. Sure, George Washington is the most notable example, but it’s been all downhill ever since. Yes, we have Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) used some trickery to run (and win) under the Connecticut for Lieberman Party after he lost the Democratic primary in 2006, but that’s about all we’ve had at the national level recently.

But what happens when you try to run for office from outside the system?

For example, take Carl Romanelli, who was almost the Green Party’s 2006 United States Senate candidate for Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, to even get on the ballot, the cards are completely stacked against you if you are not a Democrat or a Republican. In order to qualify for the ballot in Pennsylvania, the major parties have to submit only 2,000 signatures, but third-party candidates have to collect 20,000 or more signatures.

According to Pennsylvania law, candidates who are not Democrats or Republicans must collect signatures equal to two-thirds of the number of votes that the highest vote-getter received in the last statewide election. This is complete and utter nonsense for anyone who wants to run as a third party candidate. (I made a feature-length documentary about Romanelli’s plight that you can watch for free.)

America also creates a system where there are many candidates who literally never face an opponent in elections: In the 2012 elections in Pennsylvania, of the 203 state House races, 96 were unopposed, and nine out of 25 candidates were unopposed in state Senate races. This would never happen in a parliamentary democracy, or in a society that values its citizens’ opinions.

As Melissa Daniels writes on Watchdog.org, “in many unopposed races, a strong party in one region may deter its opposition from putting up a candidate. For example, the majority of the House delegation running this year in Philadelphia is unopposed Democrats, and in northern Pennsylvania, incumbent Republicans run unopposed.”

So what is the real Step One in terms of how to create a true democracy in America? Change all of these laws that favor the ruling elite and prevent newcomers and those affiliated with third parties or no party at all from running in elections. Because right now, millennials are prevented from running for office our way, as independent-minded people who are not affiliated with the two major parties. And yes, in this case, Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame.

Millennials, It Was Your Moment, And You Failed

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Millennials, I love you, but you’ve failed. The government shutdown should have been your moment to shine, but instead, what did you (we!) do? We took to Twitter and kvetched, we took to Facebook and moaned, and we didn’t do a single thing to actually take political action. But there’s still time to change this.

It seems like it was just yesterday that the Occupy Wall Street movement gained tons of traction, but I, like many others, was not wholly on board with the movement. Perhaps it was because its “leaders” were a bunch of (dare I say…) dirty hippies, and people who it seemed like never had jobs to go to, and didn’t really want to do much other than complain. At least that’s what it appeared to be for me when I witnessed these events in New York and London. They weren’t the intellectuals, the elite members of our generation. But now, as all of us are getting screwed by the U.S. government, it’s time to do something.

Here, before us, we have 100 Senators and 435 Representatives (plus a few non-voting reps from Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.) who don’t want to work. But what will we do when the 2014 election cycle comes around? We will, in all likelihood, re-elect most of the people we are currently referring to as douchebags, scumbuckets, and lazy-ass mofos.

If history teaches us anything, and I can thank Mr. Kohut at Oceanside High School for teaching me this during my senior year, being re-elected to the U.S. Congress as an incumbent is one of the most sure things out there. Even with the “Tea Party Revolution” of 2010, some 87% of Congress was re-elected. And that’s just pathetic, since Congress had an approval rate of 13% that same year, just months before the elections! We are all fools though, because we decided to give these creeps a second (or 25th) shot!

But why do we keep doing this? Has the internet finally tipped the scales in favor of electing individuals who are not crazy, criminals, or otherwise incompetent people?

John Catsimatidis spent $419 per vote in his failed bid for New York City Mayor, and Anthony Weiner spent $190 per vote, and of course they didn’t get elected because neither man would have been competent enough to fill the role! These politico-wannabes are pathetic. And we knew it, in part because of the power of the internet. Anthony Weiner’s “Carlos Danger” scum-mongering alias flew around the web faster than he could pull off his pants! These failed candidates couldn’t hide their nonsense from anyone, because the age of transparency is here. (Yes, we can thank social media for this phenomenon!)

So what don’t we the people have? We don’t have money from special interest groups, that’s for sure. We don’t have cozy relationships with the lobbyists who throw suitcases full of money at us every single day. Nope. But we can fight that.

We do have crowdfunding, as President Obama’s campaign team showed us. We have the power of the internet. And we have tons of ideas. We have undiluted brains that are fed up. And we have lots of complaints, because there’s so much that should be changed.

If this shutdown mess taught us one thing, it should be that we need to elect new candidates in 2014. I’m talking to you! Yes, you may be 25 or 30 years old. Yes, you may not have political experience. But when we’re talking about a room full of criminals, you’re probably just as smart as they are, more willing to compromise, and have better ideas about how to run the United States of America.

Let 2014 be the year that the people rise. Let 2014 be the year where Congressional re-election rates plummet like never before. Let 2014 be the year that millennials make their way to the United States Congress and every other deliberative body in this country. (I’m talking state senates, assemblies, city councils, and even school boards.)

Yes, it is very easy to sit back and let the Baby Boomers (and their parents) run America into the ground. It’s very easy to say, “This blows!” and continue to kvetch. But why should we do this? Why should we not fight the idiots who made things bad, the people who won’t even show up to work to govern this country? We shouldn’t have the attitude that I know so many Europeans have, that they accept their governments are corrupt and inept institutions.

No, that’s not the American way. And it will be up to millennials to put our brains where our mouths are. Let’s all make a pact to run for some office in 2014, if only to ensure that the bozos in power now make sure they know we’re watching them. And you never know, you could very well win.

The One Thing That Makes a Country Work — and That the U.S. Will Never Have

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first read the statistics in Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece in The New York Times Magazine last weekend: Malaria-related deaths in Rwanda plummeted 85% between 2005 and 2011. And average life expectancy has increased from 36 to 56 years since 1994. While Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame, may deserve praise for implementing the changes that created these astounding figures, I attribute them to something a bit less remarkable: Rwanda’s small size.

Rwanda has a population of approximately 11.5 million people, which is a small enough number that small changes in policy have led to long-term changes that positively effect people’s lives.

While Rwanda certainly doesn’t have the high quality of life that Denmark (which was once again recently ranked the “happiest country on earth“) has, its improvements should be lauded and policy advisers should take note.

When one looks at the list of countries with the highest per capita GDP, small countries come out on top:

1. Luxembourg (population 540,000)

2. Macau (population 590,000)

3.Qatar (population 1.9 million)

Plus, there are some serious advantages to being a small country, specifically when it comes to life expectancy: Among the top 10 countries in this category are San Marino (population 32,000), Singapore (population 5.3 million), Andorra (population 78,000), and Iceland (population 320,000).

When one compares these countries to those with the lowest in life expectancy, it is interesting to note that there are small countries on the very bottom of the life-expectancy list (Swaziland, situated within South Africa, has an extremely high mortality rate based upon the proportion of its population infected with HIV/AIDS), but as a general rule, the smaller a country is, the easier it gets for it to solve its problems head-on.

As USA Today reported, “The world’s corrupt nations differ in many ways. Four are located in Africa, three in Latin America, and two in Asia. These nations also vary considerably in size and population. Mongolia has just 3.2 million residents, while Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia are three of the largest countries on the globe, each with more than 100 million people. Based on the percentage of surveyed residents that reported corruption in the public sector is a very serious problem, these are the world’s most corrupt nations.” One can argue that larger countries have greater bureaucracies, and therefore corruption may be more likely to occur since there are multiple levels of governance.

While the Nigerian film industry, dubbed Nollywood, makes more than $800 million per year and is the third largest in the world, it is the Danish film industry that interests me more, as it sells 13 million tickets per year, meaning that each of Denmark’s 5.5 million inhabitants attends 2.36 films annually. Film and television are industries that can thrive and prosper in small countries. For example, state subsidies have caused the growth of the globally acclaimed Danish film and television industry. Denmark puts out more than its fair share of amazing films and television shows, fueling further growth of the industry.

But let’s get back to Rwanda: Yes, having a government that thwarts corruption is certainly important. It is also excellent to have a government that is data-driven in its approach to management. But if Rwanda were bigger, neither of these things would be feasible because of an increased likelihood of corruption, an impossibility of containing problems, and a greater risk of violence.

Will Rwanda continue on its path to become the crown jewel of Africa? I don’t know. But its smaller population is certainly something that gives it a fighting chance.

29 Things I Learned in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

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As anyone who’s been following me on Twitter or is a Facebook friend knows, I’ve been quite obsessive in trying to coordinate relief efforts post-Sandy. I’ve now been to many of the most affected areas of New York, and I know that recovery will take years. In this list, I mix the funny with the serious, hoping that we can laugh and learn.

1. New York State Troopers need a fashion makeover, ASAP.

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2. LIPA is the worst power company on the face of planet earth!

3. Hurricanes don’t discriminate between rich and poor.

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4. There is no shortage of bottled water donations to Sandy victims.

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5. Your and you’re will always be difficult … (especially when trying to stop potential looters!)

6. People have shotguns on my sister’s street, and are ready to defend themselves.

7. People who helped others for many years can find themselves in need.

8. People keep a boatload of junk in their basements.

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9. A petition can be an extremely effective tool for change and media will take note! (Heck yes, we stopped the marathon!)

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10. Minimalism should always be in vogue, because nobody needs so much stuff.

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11. Some people will profit from disasters, but it’s okay, because it’s necessary.

12. Don’t take your favorite local brewery for granted! (We’ll get you back on your feet, Barrier.)

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13. When there is no power, communication goes old school. (I spent time distributing flyers around Long Island with the latest information, and at times, when there was no paper, people even had to act, essentially, as town criers.)

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14. You sometimes need to turn into a press conference into an angry rally to get stuff done. (And for this, I am proud of the citizens of Oceanside, my home town.)

15. People are generally good except for the 0.1% who are absolute scumbags. (People have become known as “regulars” at donation sites, as they’re clearly hoarders who are stocking up based on the goodwill of others.)

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16. If politicians try to place sole blame for the lack of response post-disaster on a power company, they should be booted from office in their next election (or sooner!).

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17. You don’t feel the pain when you’re not in an affected area. (When I’ve been at work in Manhattan, I would never know that 10 miles away there are people who are desperate.)

18. Nor’Easters suck, and so does that mid-word apostraphe.

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19. Rebuilding should be strong and take advantage of technology.

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20. We need oysters to protect us from the next big storm.

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21. Hopefully evacuation orders will be taken seriously in future storms.

22. Zipping around Manhattan on a bicycle out of necessity isn’t as scary as it would seem.

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23. There are so many individuals who have gone above and beyond their call of duty, who will never get the recognition that they deserve. (The folks who take care of my grandma, for one.)

24. Suburban areas that are incorporated as villages or cities face an easier time recovering from the storm because they have government and emergency officials on staff. (My hometown, Oceanside, only has a volunteer fire department, a school board, and a library to absorb all of the administrative efforts associated with what will surely be a long relief process.)

25. Tragedies do ignite a strong sense of community that would not exist otherwise.

26. The Occupy Movement has been able to re-brand itself as a force for tangible social good with Occupy Sandy.

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27. Don’t go swimming around here for a while.

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28. Lydia Callis, NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter, deserves a Tony Award.

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29. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is here to help (even though their name is un-PC).

NYC Marathon Cancelled: Why We Had to Protest the Bloomberg Decision to Hold the Race

When I first heard the news that Mayor Bloomberg was planning not to cancel the New York City Marathon, I was completely shocked. When I learned that 40,000 hotel rooms that could be used to house storm victims were allocated for out-of-town runners, I was more than shocked. When I learned that generators would be used for the race and medical staff provided for the runners, as people and thousands of locals businesses are still without power in all of downtown Manhattan, and residents of Staten Island are stuck without shelter, food, and other basic necessities, I was overcome with a disgust that I cannot ever remember feeling.

When thousands of police officers are used to block roads (of course, at overtime rates, shattering the economic benefits of the race argument), and the only methods of transportation from outer boroughs are sealed off completely, it is mortifying that a public health hazard is taking a back seat to a recreational event. People will die because they cannot reach hospitals during this race. Mayor Bloomberg, along with his advisers and the sponsors of the race, will have blood on their hands.

I fear that Mayor Bloomberg’s government has become an authoritarian force that is not acting in the people’s best interests. When government steps on the will of the people, in this case to benefit the few at the expense of the many, it is the job of the citizen in a democracy to stand up and do something. So I created a StopTheMarathon page and a petition (for all of you to sign and spread, my dear fellow millennials!) encouraging the mayor to rethink his poor decision.

(Should the mayor proceed, we should form a human chain to prevent the marathon from being run, but that’s only a last resort if the mayor and his cronies don’t change their decision immediately.)

Supporters of continuing the marathon have cited the philanthropic efforts that are underway to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s quite clear that $500,000 coming from ING (the race’s sponsor) and the rebranding of the marathon as the “Race to Recover” is just corporate social responsibility nonsense which fails to correct a poor decision. ING should cut their losses. But we know why they’re doing it: ING, along with real estate developer Jack Rudin, who donated $1.1 million to the recovery efforts in the name of the race, will happily be claiming their tax write-offs for their philanthropy in a couple of months.

I’m not saying that they should cancel the 2012 marathon forever. But this is the the worst week ever to run it. If the city waited a mere two weeks, the event would have greater integrity, be more safe, and be less damaging to the city.

Of course, Michael Bloomberg lives in a bubble. If you were a multi-millionaire mayor of a major city, you would too.

A large part of New York City is still without power. People are lacking food and water and other necessities. It is a stark reality that critical New York City resources will have to be diverted to permit the marathon to be run. In what rational world can we justify benefiting 40,000 individuals as millions suffer? Imagine if instead we put all of the runners to work helping storm victims rebuild their lives.

In 1980, the United States boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia, because we stood up for what we believed in. Would we have held a marathon less than a week after 9/11? Would we have held a marathon less than a week after Hurricane Katrina? Of course, the answers to the above questions are no and no.

New York will always be a tourist hub. Yet it is unthinkable that there are millions of people without power, and thousands of businesses that are currently closed while a small number of people take part in a recreational activity. Citizens must band together to prevent this marathon from being run. We have 48 hours to make our cause known to the world!