Integrating Entrepreneurial Training Into Graduate Film Programs

I was excited to learn recently about how entrepreneurial skills are in integral part of the University of Central Florida MFA filmmaking program.  I gave a talk at LAFF on "The Rise Of  The Artist Entrepreneur" and find many filmmakers woefully under-equipped to navigate the demands of both survival and creation in today's world.  Randy Finch helped start UCF's innovative program in 2005 and I asked him to explain it a bit further. This is his guest post:

Not all filmmakers want to know about writing business plans, entity formation, the uses of social media and DIY distribution strategies. The MFA program at UCF is not for everyone. Our program is designed for a small group of microbudget digital filmmakers. If you are not prepared to do everything (including raising your own financing) that it takes to get a feature made and marketed for under $50,000, we're not for you. While I agree with Ted that financing, distribution and marketing should be woven into today's independent filmmaker's education, I also understand the recent backlash from filmmakers who have no interest in these subjects. The reason most of us got into this was not to become experts in distribution, marketing or finance. But in the 20+ years since I first became an independent filmmaker, I've been compelled to learn about VHS deals, sale leasebacks, foreign presales, negative pick-ups and all sorts of other arcane (and now mostly useless) business practices.

As far as I can tell, being an independent filmmaker has always meant hustling to get the money and an audience. So teaching my students about the new models of distribution, transmedia storytelling, forming an LLC and the like - is not really such a stretch. Just like all the other parts of the filmmaking process, the entrepreneurial stuff independent filmmakers must navigate today are just skills that can (and, I think, should) be learned. Of course, you can choose to ignore what happens with your film after you're done with the editing - just as you can choose to ignore visual storytelling, sound recording and the intricacies of post-production workflow - but the more you know about all aspects of the filmmaking process, the better.

I'd be lying if I said that the students in our Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema MFA track all happily accomplish every task we put in front of them. The two classes they are required to take in UCF's Business School (Entrepreneurship and Business Plan Formation) are generally not their favorites. And the paperwork they are required to submit to get their degree (after they've written, budgeted, scheduled, financed, insured, pre-produced, cast, crewed, directed, edited, and mixed their own microbudget feature) detailing everything they've done and how they now plan to release their film, always seems excessive. (I tell them that we require less paperwork than the delivery requirements of most distribution companies, but it never seems to soothe them.)

But now that their films are starting to circulate, and our graduates are starting their own careers, the results are very positive. Last time I checked, everyone who has received an MFA from UCF Film is working in the film business. And the first three graduates from our program have all launched their films on the festival circuit, where they all have won awards (including: Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Gasparilla International Film Festival, Best Feature Director 2009 LA Femme Film Festival, 2009 Silver Crystal Reel Award for Best Feature $1 Million and Under from the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association, and Best Feature, Best Score and Best Cinematography at the 2009 Bend Film Festival in Oregon).

So, in addition to a finished feature length film and an MFA (a credential that will allow them to teach at the University level), everyone who completes UCF's graduate program in Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema has been exposed to ALL parts of the filmmaking process - including film financing, marketing and distribution using online tools. Whether they want to use all the tools when they get out is up to them. But, by the time they graduate, all our students really know what it takes to make and market an independent feature.

-- Randy Finch

The New Skills Needed For Participatory Culture

Okay this is old news, but it is still DAMN F'N relevant! In 2005, via the MacArthur Foundation, Henry Jenkins released this white paper, pointing out that:

Schools as institutions have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture; the greatest opporitunity for change is currently found in afterschool programs and informal learning communities. Schools and afterschool programs must devote more attention to fostering what we call the new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.These skills build on the foundation of tradi- tional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

What Jenkins goes on to point out is needed among students, is also very much needed by anyone working in the film business, or desiring a full appreciation  of today's film culture.

The new skills include:

Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.

Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

I want to make sure my son has all these skills in his arsenal as he starts middle school.  That said, if I ran an undergrad film school, this training would be part of the core curriculum.  At the grad level, it would be an entry requirement.

38 American Independent Film Problems/Concerns

Okay, I think it's obvious that I prefer to look at the opportunities and solutions before us, as opposed to the problems and concerns, but I am afraid this post may obscure that just a tad.

I am going to be on the Fox Business News network's "America's Nightly Scorecard" (630P-730P EST) tonight and I thought I would put my mind to what issues are affecting indie film right now. Off the top of my head I came up with a few issues that we need to solve to return to the glory days of years passed.   I am sure with your help, we can come up with some more too.
I don't have time to rank them so maybe you can let me know how you feel.
  1. Too many leisure options for film to compete without further enhancing the theatrical and cinematic experience.
  2. Too many "specialized" films opening to allow such films to gain word of mouth and audience's attention.
  3. Too many films available and being distributed to allow films to stay in one theater for very long, making it more difficult to develop a word of mouth audience.
  4. Lack of access -- outside of NYC & LA --to films when they are at their highest media awareness (encourages bootlegging, limits appeal by reducing timeliness).
  5. Distrib's abandonment (and lack of development) of community-building marketing approaches for specialized releases (which reduces appeal for a group activity i.e. the theatrical experience).
  6. Distrib's failure to embrace limited streaming of features for audience building.
  7. Reliance on large marketing spend release model restricts content to broad subjects (which decreases films' distinction in marketplace) and reduces ability to focus on pre-aggregated niche audiences.
  8. Emphasis on upfront compensation for star talent creates budgets that can't reasonably recoup investment.
  9. HP&W fringe levels at too high a level to allow low-bud production to benefit from know how and talent of union labor.
  10. Lack of media literacy/education programs that help audience to recognize they need to begin to chose what they see vs. just impulse buy.
  11. Collapse of US acquisition market requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
  12. Collapse of International sales markets requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
  13. Foreign subsidies for marketing of foreign film makes reduces buyers' acquisition appetite for US product.
  14. Foreign subsidies for foreign productions contribute greater budget percentage than US tax rebates do, allowing foreign productions to have larger budgets and thus more production value and expansive content -- thus making it harder for US product to compete.
  15. Recession has reduced private equity available for film investment.
  16. Credit crunch has reduced ability to use debt financing for film investment.
  17. Threat of piracy makes library value of titles unstable, which in turn limits investment in content companies and reduces acquisition prices, which in turn reduces budgets, which in turn limits the options for content -- so everybody loses.
  18. No new business model for internet exploitation at a level that can justify reasonable film budgets.
  19. Lack of community embrace of new creative story expansion models that would facilitate audience aggregation and participation (to seed, build, drive audiences).
  20. Emphasis on single pictures for filmmakers vs. ongoing conversation with fans has lead to a neglect of content that helps audiences bridge gaps between films and that would prevent each new film to be a reinvention of the wheel for audience building.
  21. Panic due to the 15 year promise of crystal clear downloads over internet despite the reality that it still has not developed -- allowing the fear to move to a business practice of inactivity.
  22. Bootleggers have developed a platform that allows audiences to simply download whatever they want where ever they want whenever they want -- something that the film industry has yet to do.
  23. Loss of job for newspaper based film critics reduces curatorial oversight which lessens word-of-mouth and want-to-see.
  24. Reliance on synopsis style reviewing fails to provide enriching cultural context for film and thus reduces audience satisfaction.
  25. Lack of marketing/distribution knowledge by filmmakers limits DIY success.
  26. Indie filmmakers mimic Hollywood's obsession with regurgitating past success models, by regurgitating past festival hits' story-lines or navel gazing. Cinema is 100 years old but we still tell the same stories in the same ways.  Audiences get bored, move on, play video games.
  27. Amer-Indie filmmakers are only recently starting to look at non-US-centric stories that can "travel" into international territories.
  28. America has no funding for the arts so filmmakers have to develop material based on pre-existing markets instead forward thinking inspiration.
  29. America has no co-production treaties (other than Puerto Rico's Letters Of Understanding) that allow filmmakers to access foreign soft money subsidies.
  30. The specialized distributors force exhibitors to program for full week runs, preventing them from developing local community audience or niche programs on off nights.
  31. The truly independent exhibitors are not yet developed into a collaborating organization that would allow true independent features to be easily booked nationwide.
  32. There is no independent collection and disbursement agency that could allow DIY distribution to take hold.
  33. Filmmakers still believe that festivals are first and foremost markets and not media launches.
  34. The ego-driven approach to filmmaking vs. one of true collaboration generally yields lower quality of films and greater dissatisfaction amongst all participants.
  35. Lack of real role models who represent integrity and commitment to the craft (in order to inspire others).
  36. Corporate hierarchy and access that is driven foremost by privilege (college, connections, class) limiting diversity and new content and approaches.
  37. Inability for filmmakers to influence iTunes editors to promote their work.
  38. Lists like this make the foolish despair.

Ted's note: I wrote a sequel the next year.  Here are 38 more problems.

Hope For The Future pt. 9: The List #'s 35 -38

35. Film schools are waking up to the need to educate students on how to survive – it is not enough to know how to direct or produce, graduates must have real world skills too. Jon Reiss is developing a specific curriculum on this, and I have heard from others who are looking to do the same.

36. Filmmakers are recognizing that film festivals are more of a launch platform than a marketplace. More films have trailers available prior to Sundance than ever before. Some wise filmmakers even come to their festival premieres armed with DVDs to sell. Will this be happening at Sundance? Are there any filmmakers reading this who plan to? Let us know.

37. Cultural institutions are stepping into to fill the void left by mainstream media’s abandonment of the art film space. MOMA in NYC now schedules films for regular runs. If we want to see art, why not go to a museum? We need shrines to see beautiful projection and I hope there are many other institutions picking us MOMA’s lead. It could become an actual circuit.

38. The fight to restore integrity of the producer credit continues. The PGA continues to lead the charge here and looks poised to step it up. The recognition of the need to a specific financier credit is becoming part of the conversation – namely that the Executive Producer credit should not be used for line producers but preserved for those who help finance. There is so little dignity left in the role of producer, one hopes that the rest of the industry recognizes how they are all vested in restoring integrity to the credit. Granted there are times when more than three individuals truly are producers on a project, but twelve? Wouldn’t it be a great world if even the distributors committed to stopping over-inflated credits? If an organization like the PGA actually went after the individuals and companies who push for such false credits? Real producers are always in a vulnerable position when looking for cast and financing and a soft position will not get this done. Why does a distributor or sales agent seek such credits anyway?

Reel World Survival Skills: Reiss' CalArts Class Goes Viral

Jon Riess returns to TFF!:
I developed and teach a class at Cal Arts that addresses Ted's concerns about making a living as a filmmaker. It's called "Reel World Survival Skills: Everything I Wish I Had been Taught in Film School". I developed the class because I as the title suggests, I would have been greatly served at the beginning of my film career had I been taught some very practical skills while I was attending the UCLA film school -at that time in my case - pitching.

While teaching for the past 8 years at LMU and I Cal Arts I noticed that the curriculums were still not teaching skills to prepare students for making a film career once they left school. So I developed this class - in addition to pitching it covers literary rights optioning and development, basic film contracts, financing, LLCs and web fund raising, grants, getting a job out of film school, writing resume's and cover letters (which most people are shockingly deficient in), music videos, commercials and webisodes and then of course the fun wide world of film distribution - making a career from the films you make. The distribution component includes an overview of old distribution models but then leaves those behind for the new hybrid approach to distribution including: new film festival strategies, DIY theatrical and non theatrical distribution, DVD distribution, digital rights, traditional and non traditional marketing, Web 2.0, and most importantly new strategies for developing audiences - for your film and the film community at large.

I am currently in the process of writing a book based on this class - which I hope will be out next year. I am also preparing a weeklong crash course to offer to film schools based on the class and weekend seminars to offer to non film school folks. For the class I have assembled a ton of documents, contracts and articles that I give out on CD Rom. I am actually going to start posting these to my website by the time my 2nd article comes out in the next issue of Filmmaker Magazine. You will be able to sign up and download these documents for yourself. If you have any interest in any of this drop me an email at jon@jonreiss.com. You can also sign up for the mailing list on my website www.jonreiss.com to be notified of when the documents will be loaded, when the book is coming out or any seminars.

- posted by Jon Reiss

"I am committed to destroying the myth of the starving artist"

In reading the recent NYTimes article "Shifting Careers - Making Artistic Careers Lucrative", it feels like a revolution is taking place in the art school curriculum -- a transformation akin to what will transform the Independent Film Community into a Truly Free Film Culture.

I have wanted to start an ongoing column "If I Ran A Film School...".  I had been thinking I would post it over at LetsMakeBetterFilms since a lot of my concerns are on an aesthetic level, but truth be told you can never separate the art from the commerce when it comes to filmmaking.  And further, and more to the point, I just haven't found the time.
That said, where is the film school that is going to start to provide courses designed to enable this step to Truly Free Film?  Any film school that doesn't have mandatory classes on DIY marketing, entrepreneurialship, cross platform cohesion, and basic Web 2.0 skills is just not preparing their students for the real world.  In fact, if you ask me the whole general film school curriculum needs a drastic overhaul.
I love the sound of what Larry Thompson (that's his quote titling this post) is doing at Ringling College of Art and Design.  I would love to see what that class structure looks like.  To start with, it sounds like the film schools should try to adapt it for their students.  It's also great that they are in Sarasota; I got to visit the film festival there last year and was very impressed with the programing and community support.  With forward thinking institutions like this in place, you have to imagine that a vibrant film culture could grow there.  But I digress...
Regardless of the film schools though, stories like this, of Claudine Helmuth, are an inspiration and we should look at them for clues for not only survival but transcendence from having to create for the current mainstream outlets and demands.