Every film ever made is a startup

Working on a startup in the film and video space over the last few months has got me thinking about what a startup is, and what else it is like.

I have a background in film and video creation and can’t help but see a similarity between making a film and making a startup business.

One thing some people forget about filmmaking is that it should be at least 50% business, and 50% art. Much like a startup: when you begin and don’t know what's going on or what to do, it seems like it's all about making a great product, throwing it on the internet and watching the money roll in. This is how a lot of filmmakers work. They focus an intense amount of time, energy and passion into making a film ‘just right’, and forget to find their audience, test the market, create demand etc. What usually happens is the film is released on Vimeo, about 100 people look at it (not all the way through) and that's about it. I’m talking here about short films, but this also applies to feature length. If we were to apply the same logic to a startup company making and selling something, we would be laughed out of the building by any business person worth their salt.

It seems only recently that the film world has started to see this issue of ‘making something for no-one’, and people are now scrambling around on the net trying to get Twitter followers for their film, releasing teasers, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the creative team. This is all well and good, but what about market validation? What about customer segments? What about go-to-market? What about channels to market?

The more I learn about startup businesses, the more I realise each and every film ever made is a startup.

One could argue that film is a creative art and the more you try to please everyone, the less ‘honest’ the film will be. I agree that the principle of a ‘creative committee’ is a failure, but I don’t think it is a failure to actively validate your audience before you’ve made the film. It's like spending 18 months creating a product and then releasing it to the world, not knowing if it works for the crowd you are aiming for (if you even know who they are).

What I’m advocating in filmmaking is first finding your audience, the people who will respond to what you make, and then making films for them. I think the age of mass audiences is coming to an end so people will no longer have mega budgets to spend, but by the same token they won’t need mega box office to break even and maybe turn a profit.

I’m also advocating the filmmaking team create themselves as a brand for people to follow and consume their product. Don’t tweet from the account of one of your films, tweet from your own account about one of your films. If we look at Apple for example, they are a brand with huge awareness. They then release products with different names under the umbrella of their brand. Film studios do this too, but I think this is a dying system and with the rise of HD video on the internet, and more connected lounges (who really wants to watch films on a computer?) people are able to consume what they want from whoever can upload it to the net.

So, although a single filmmaker won’t be making huge $100M trade sales as every startup is trying to do, they will create a loyal customer base (if they make good films) that will pay for the creation of the films and keep the filmmakers in hummus and craft beer.

A good example of this is Edward Burns, who manages to make his small talkie films on a shoestring budget and entertain people enough to cover costs, pay his cast and crew and have a little leftover to carry on with the next project. I think he is successful at this because he has found his market and is making product that sells, in a channel that works.

A recap on the similarities of film and startup businesses

They both start with a killer idea, you then tell everyone to gauge response, then you write it all down and start to look for people to join you on your quest to make the thing (film/product). At this point you need to be a hustler to get people to join ‘nothing’ based on an explanation. With that passion you go ahead and create the first iteration. In film, it's a script with a few mood boards, maybe a storyboard. In startup its an MVP (minimum viable product) which you then test on people to see what works. In film the script is taken to readers and consultants who give notes for changes. Then it's the first ‘product’. This happens one of two ways. You either raise the money and move towards having to pay it back (investors), or you ‘bootstrap’. In the film world, bootstrapping is doing the film on a micro budget and calling in favours, in startup it's keeping your day job and doing the startup work after hours.

Then the two part ways for a while. The film is edited and post-produced in seclusion, away from the ‘customers’ as the director and team make what they think is a great film (the product), whereas the startup involves the customer in every iteration along the way, validating that every feature is necessary and desired. I can see how it can start to look like ‘commitee filmmaking’ if you let the audience make choices, but as with the product from the startup, it is only feedback you are looking for. Imagine if you were able to share your film with the crowd along the way to gather feedback, and that was the entertainment? I do find it sad that films are worked on in seclusion then released to varying interest (sadly, most often negative).

And then the two come back together. The product is released, the film is released and then it's all about spreading the word and encouraging people to get involved with the product/film.

What I've suspected over the last few months as I've been in startup mode is that filmmaking could have a much higher success rate if it adhered to a couple of the lean startup methodologies: validating your market and the product–market fit.

Startups could learn the reverse: don't forget to create something beautiful.

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