Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Best Advice I Received While in Film School: Art for Business' Sake!

I credit this pearl of wisdom to Professor Drew Casper, Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Chair for the Study of American Film at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. The Man, the Legend. Let's face it: if you were a cinema major at USC in the past *CENSORED* years, Dr. Casper was the first person to tell you that your knowledge, as well as your taste, in films was pathetic. Guess what? He was right. He's always right. Hang your head in shame. He also taught you a valuable lesson on day one in his "Introduction to Cinema and Television" (CTCS 190) class. Film is an art, but it is also a business.

A business. Artists forget that part. In fact, most film majors forget that one single most important lesson for the rest of the time in film school. I learned about producing because no one else wanted to do it. We preferred storyboarding to boardrooms. MOS to ROI. Ask a film student about incorporation, and he'll say "LL-what, now?" We made fun of business students for having no vision. After all, they will all end up in human cages, colloquially known as cubicles.

When you leave the palm-tree laced campus of 'SC, you quickly come back to earth. Yes, you know how to make a film from start to finish, creatively-speaking. But can you promote it out of the bowels of Development Hell? Do you know how to sell distribution rights? Can you negotiate for soft money or tax reimbursements? What about raising the money for the film's production in the first place?

Not that 'SC didn't remind its students of these things. It's just no one listened. They were too busy memorizing all the cool lingo used on professional shoots, like OTS (over the shoulder) and "dutch angle" (that overused sideways perspective). No one told us the b-school students would be our bosses! And now they are pissed due to the years of snarky comments from artsy-fartsy types, as Temp X and the Anonymous PA would tell you. Because of the lack of business skills and marketing, many former film majors will get frustrated and eventually go to law school when they get tired of eating spam and Ramen for 600 days in a row. Or when they knock someone up. Whichever comes first.

But it's not too late. Remember most people are in the film business to make money (even the ultracool indies). Most films, even runaway budgets, are funded with equity, and your investors want their money back! Now more than ever, the indie filmmaker has to be a salesperson. Making deals is where the money is at! Lucky for us, good businesspeople are made, not born. One good book to check out is The Producer's Business Handbook. It covers everything from gap financing to completion bonds. At least, once you have the business side down pat, you can move up from Ramen to boxed macaroni and cheese. Just remember milk costs money.

Happy Filmmaking.

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