What Do You Need To Be Successful? by Chris Weigl

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.

All About That Base by Chris Weigl

Much of our series Living History revolves around politics.  The premise is based on a man impersonating George Washington for political gain by running for office.  The idea came about during the 2011 Wisconsin recall election.  People talked about how great Scott Walker was and one strategist remarked that she was more satisfied with Walker as a candidate than she would have been if they were running George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  It seemed like a peculiar statement.  Both Washington and Jefferson had higher approval ratings than Walker, but this opinion came from a Republican strategist.  Her point was that Walker energized the base of his party more than any hypothetical candidate could.  It was a bold assertion.  One that raised the question of whether a moderate candidate could win a base election in today’s hyper-polarized environment.  What people don’t realize (perhaps because they don’t want to believe it) is that America has always been a very polarized nation.

People forget that a large segment of the population remained loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War and that a high percentage of American soldiers actually deserted during the war as well.  We like to think that we’ve always been a very patriotic nation and that we’ve been much more unified that we actually have been.  If you look at American politics historically since George Washington’s decision to retire after two terms in office as President you see that America has always been a nation split between two parties.  The parties may have changed over the years, but the division in American politics has largely remained the same.  We are a nation that loves nostalgia though and if we think that our past is better than it was then we can feel free to believe that the future can be brighter than it actually can be.  Narrative elections are much easier to win than base elections.

Today we are in the midst of a large number of base elections.  From 1980 to the present if we look at midterm elections they have almost always been base elections.  The lone historical caveat would be 2002 – a year that Republican trounced Democrats on the issue of homeland security – because it was the first election since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 Republicans were able to make easy work of Democrats who attempted to balance being strong on national defense without compromising civil liberties.  Otherwise we’ve been remarkably consistent in terms of how midterm elections unfold. 

The party that is not in control of the Presidency always does much better than the party that controls the White House.  Democrats won a majority of midterm elections during the Reagan administration.  Republicans did extremely well during the Clinton and Obama administrations.  Republicans have also done a good job in recent years of consolidating their power in state legislatures by coordinating local elections with state-wide Governor’s races.  By energizing their base during midterm elections however Republicans have created unrealistic expectations of their mediocre Presidential candidates in general election years.  Strategists on the right don’t plan for a regression towards the mean during general election years.  General election voter turnout tends to be much more moderate than during midterm elections where the base drives the party that is not in control of the White House to huge victories.

Elections are not nearly as complicated as pundits make them out to be.  You have to ask yourself one simple question when it comes to politics and that is: what and what is setting the narrative?  If the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had lost to challenger Allison Grimes that would have set the narrative in the 2014 midterm elections.  It would have been the lone caveat that Democrats could have savored despite suffering victories on all other fronts during the night.  When a Republican strategist said she would rather have Scott Walker as her candidate than a founding father that sets a narrative.  It makes you think about what world we living in that a clear political partisan would be preferred over a historical figure that had such a great impact on our history that they are depicted on one of America’s most recognized national landmarks: Mount Rushmore.  That is the kind of crazy idea that needs to be made fun of and this is the kind of world that we are replicating in Living History.  The world is such a crazy place that people believe that their partisan ambassadors are better at their jobs than national icons.  Someone needs to take them to task for this and we’re excited to be the ones entrusted with this endeavor.