So, I was talking to a friend of mine who owns and operates a production company in Chicago and I was blown away by his staffing needs. He needed three Assistant Directors for a shoot he had coming up. This gave me pause because usually there are only two units on a film and he was filming a short film. I did not understand how he could possibly need three ADs for this shoot. He informed me of his management philosophy which to this day just blows my mind. He explained how he usually has around forty people on set and that every member of his staff has an assistant. Now, keep in mind that we were both guerrilla filmmakers once upon a time, but we wound up going in two very different directions. I took my talents and developed a decent screenwriting career whereas he wanted nothing to do with Hollywood and bolted out of town as soon as he had the chance. Ten years later and we’re both doing our own things, but we’re doing them in very different ways.
We both run independent production companies. We’re both around thirty and are dedicated to our respective businesses. He’s been doing this for a decade now and he asked me – like it was a serious question – why he wasn’t making money. I looked around him and started pointing at all of the people, all of the equipment, their huge studio and their B-list actors that were sucking up his budget.
“That’s what you need to do in order to be successful” he said.
“That’s how you go broke,” I said matter of factly.
He just shook his head and told me that I didn’t get it. You’ve got to spend money to make money I kept hearing, but the problem was that he wasn’t making any money. He had the spending part down, but his overhead was unsustainable. I explained that I wasn’t exactly the best person to ask for business advice. I’ve been in business for about six months, but he insisted that I must have some fresh ideas, so I laid it out for him. I gave him my philosophy and explained how we go about making movies. His first thought was to laugh and call me a sell out, which of course is true, but the difference between the two of us is that we have a strategy for making money. We want to completely change how Hollywood does business. We want businesses and artists to work together not have one work for the other only to have both sides disappointed in the end. He was convinced that my thinking was a pipe dream, yet somehow he still wanted my advice.
I remembered an old quote from Churchill because I’m weird like that. Churchill said: “the farther back you can look the further forward you can see.” I asked my old friend to think about why he started his business. What was it that he was going to do differently? His answer was that he was actually going to make good movies, which is what everyone says.
“That’s not good enough,” I explained emphatically. “You need to have something that you do that no one else but you can do. For me it’s the ability to write copy for advertisers, write a story for the project that the advertisers are going to be involved in and manage the project so that we get the product that we want.”
He stared at me for a minute before diagnosing me as too idealistic to succeed in any business. I explained in one very simple scenario how we can make money and why he will still be in the red.
“Think of a company like Geico,” I said. “We could easily integrate a company like that into our film.”
He laughed, presumably at the idea of a huge insurance company investing in our relatively low budget film about flyball, but I was quite serious.
“Just think of the thirty second ad: a guy walks his dogs and explains that he just saved a ton of money on child care by getting a dog.”
That was off the top of my head, but we’ve got lots of these ideas that can work with any company because our current slate of projects spans three major genres at the moment. We offer a ton of opportunity for any company, but especially for companies who want to reach a specific demographic and want to have a mutually beneficial online relationship that can result in great publicity for both companies. Testimonials are how they sell things on informercials because it’s the best use of their time. Testimonials serve the same important function for a business like ours. That mutual testimonial is what makes this strategy work. We can both help each other because we both endorse the other company and their product.
This is the kind of unfair advantage you need to have in business and this is precisely what my friend didn’t understand. He has two things working against him. For starters he has way too many employees. There’s no way that he needs more than fifteen people to do the project he’s doing now, but he insists that he needs a bloated crew in order to make it happen. Filmmakers always think that they need more than they have because we’ve all been in the editing room thinking that we didn’t have the right footage. Our error there in the editing room is thinking that our inability to get the right footage means that we didn’t get enough footage total. You never get all the shots you want, but you make it work. That, I explained, was what he needed to do: figure out a way to get the shots he needed and then slim down his production staff when he finishes production. Not only does he need to figure out a way to shoot more with less he also has the problem of thinking he needs too much to do even the most ordinary shoots because this is how he’s been doing it for ten years. Do yourself a favor and work with what you have until you have the money to get what you need. You’d be surprised what resources are available to you if you can just ask for help. Asking, however, is always the hardest part.