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…


Bob Dylan of Detroit Sixto Rodriguez Should Be Honored By Kennedy Center

If you haven’t seen the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then consider this a spoiler alert. If you’ve already seen it or you’re not going to see it any time soon, then keep on reading. (But first, take a second to sign this Change.org petition!)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez created brilliant music that was the stuff of legend, but for whatever the reason, his records didn’t sell in America. And he fell into obscurity.

It is rare that a documentary elicits emotions that I carry with me for days and weeks after I have seen it. But that is just what Searching for Sugar Man did. This film tells the story of Rodriguez, whose songs inspired the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and whose lyrics became anthems of change for people around the world.

However, nobody knew what happened to the artist, and ghastly rumors about his demise abounded. In this genre-defining music-mystery, the filmmakers set out to determine what happened to Rodriguez, whose lyrics were favorably compared to Bob Dylan’s based on their insight and calls to action. This led to another question: Why did Rodriguez never make it in America, even though he hailed from Detroit? This question (and many others) are answered in the film, but ultimately Rodriguez emerges as a larger-than-life character who remains humble and true to his roots and beliefs.

After not finding mainstream success as an artist, Rodriguez spent some fifty odd years as a humble laborer in Detroit, remodeling homes while also heading to college later in life to earn a bachelor’s degree. He was never bitter about the twist of fate that prevented him from achieving fame in America. And even while achieving success (due in part to the film) in recent years, he distributes the money he earns to his family and friends.

Any marketing student would tell you that when a customer evangelizes for a brand, that symbolizes the pinnacle of success. And while I rarely see myself as a brand ambassador, I now find myself telling friends to go see this film, listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and even going so far as to wait in line for four hours last week in hopes of scoring a last-minute ticket to see Rodriguez perform live in New York City.

Rodriguez pays great lyrical homage to the downtrodden of Detroit, where he has lived all his life:

Sugar man, won’t you hurry
‘Cos I’m tired of these scenes
For the blue coin won’t you bring back
All those colors to my dreams

But it was his more universal themes that inspired revolution against the apartheid regime in South Africa and the country’s repressive ethos:

I wonder how many times you been had 
And I wonder how many dreams have gone bad
I wonder how many times you’ve had sex
And I wonder do you care who’ll be next

Seeing Rodriguez live, he seemed older, slower, and quieter than he appears in the film. I watched as an assistant escorted him to and from the stage, as he was too frail to walk alone. And then I realized: Rodriguez may not be able to perform for much longer, and while there is all of this fanfare and hype around him and his work right now, what can I, as one of thousands of his fans, do at this moment, to bring him his overdue recognition?

A little research showed that grassroots efforts are an acceptable way to petition Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., to nominate someone for a Kennedy Center Honor (lifetime achievement award). I created a Change.org petition, with a target of 50,000 signatures to get Rodriguez the recognition he deserves. Please sign here, and show that, right or left, Democrat or Republican, you support recognition for a man whose recognition is long overdue, and stands for all that makes America great.