5 Lessons for Film School Entrepreneurship

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At VideoBlocks, we know a thing or two about entrepreneurship in filmmaking. Almost ten years ago we were an army of one; Joel Holland, our founder and CEO, sold his stock video footage in VHS bundles through eBay. This eventually became the inspiration behind our company as Joel looked to provide easily accessible and affordable stock footage. Today we’re more than 60 strong with an expansive digital download library. Though Joel’s vision was specific to his goal of building a stock video company, his enterprising attitude is something that he holds in common with the rest of the filmmaking community, taking part in a much larger entrepreneurial tradition in the industry.

Today’s student filmmakers will soon join this global community of self-made men and women, which has been over a century in the making. Both popular culture and film textbooks tend to romanticize the path to gaining membership, and it’s not hard to understand why. From the bright lights of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the radical appeal of French New Wave, our delight and fascination with the big screen frequently overshadows the realities of the picture business. And yet, the brass tacks of becoming a filmmaker can be just as inspiring—while also far more empowering—than any Hollywood Cinderella story.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of five of the most important lessons film students can take from the entrepreneurial world.

1. You Are Your Own Brand

Charlie Chaplin. Orson Welles. Stanley Kubrick. When it comes to making movies, name recognition is everything. Each of these directors built their careers around their own iconic styles, and although they may have evolved their techniques or experimented in different genres, they always retained certain trademark elements in their films. In doing so, these directors made sure that their movies remained distinctive, which is a highly bankable trait in the film world.

Perhaps even more important for fledgling filmmakers than defining a certain “look” or “feel” to their work is the value of a positive image and self-brand. Though established directors can afford reputations as eccentric or tyrannical, in the early stages of a film career, the importance of gaining and keeping the goodwill of colleagues and financers cannot be overstated. The nature of shoestring production budgets means that crew and cast members are working for little or no compensation; gratitude is the chief currency of student films, and a student filmmaker will have great difficulty finding helping hands if they’re known for being flaky or unreasonable. Likewise, developing a reputation for being unreliable with money or deadlines is a surefire way to lose financial backing for current and future projects.

2. Make Educated Decisions

Being entrepreneurially minded means minimizing risks and maximizing rewards, even in a profession dominated by creative vision. This can mean everything from smarter budgeting to polishing a screenplay with audiences and box office returns in mind. One of the ways student filmmakers achieve this, as we discussed in a recent post on the use of big data in Hollywood, is by using box office and market data to help develop their projects.

Still, it’s important that student filmmakers not confuse smart choices with safe ones; while the former relies on research and practicality, the latter can cripple intuitive genius out of fear of failure. From George Lucas to Richard Branson, entrepreneurs inside and outside the film world agree that sometimes the riskiest venture can have the greatest payoffs.

3. Know Your Funding Options

Though student filmmakers’ potential avenues for revenue have increased in recent years due to crowdfunding platforms and other social media fundraising, it can still be hard to know the best way to bankroll a project. Recently we wrote about the advantages of crowdfunding for film students and covered the ins and outs of the three best crowdfunding sites for small-budget films.

For students looking for a single, direct source of revenue for their project, crowdfunding may not be the best option. Film grants can give students the dedicated investment to their project that they’re looking for. There are a wide variety of programs that new filmmakers can apply to, including grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Tribeca Film Institute, and Film Independent—these grants can vary from federally or privately funded, and from local municipal grants to international campaigns.

4. Think Outside the Box (and Outside of Hollywood)

For most of the history of film education, film schools have emphasized two overlapping yet distinct approaches to filmmaking: one geared toward the practicalities and aesthetics of Hollywood, and another that grew out of post-modern film movements and criticism. Though both approaches have updated themselves for contemporary technologies and aesthetics, they both reflect a Eurocentricism that is increasingly out of place in global film markets.

One of the biggest emerging trends in box office headlines has been the surge in revenue for international releases; though international releases have been an important element in major studio revenue for years, film industry trades are publishing record-breaking grosses in China and India on an almost weekly basis. The role of the Chinese box office, in particular, has become so important that studios have begun shooting additional scenes for blockbuster films featuring well-known Chinese actors, including Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, to cater to Chinese audiences.

Although working on an international summer blockbuster may seem like a distant reality for many student filmmakers, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t already be thinking about audiences outside of traditional domestic markets. The big takeaway from these recent box office trends is that the balance of power in global filmmaking is shifting such that American audiences are no longer the first and last indicators of success—nor is this trend likely to change. With the increasing ability to distribute media to global audiences through YouTube, Vimeo, and other social media, emerging filmmakers have access to larger and more diverse audiences than ever before.

5. Start Networking in School and Never Stop

Networking has always been paramount in the film industry, but what many students may not realize is that they should start doing this from the first day of classes. More to the point, students should make sure that they don’t limit themselves to connecting solely with potential investors or distributors—a good network is one that a student can tap into throughout their entire filmmaking journey, from brainstorming and ideation to drumming up publicity when a project is finally completed.

It’s a little-publicized yet almost universally acknowledged truth in the industry that directors and producers are more likely to hire film crews that they’ve previously worked with rather than hiring unknowns. The relationships often form in film school or in the early days of craft apprenticeship but can last for an entire career. Friends hire friends, but more than that, smart directors pick crew members based on the quality of work, as well as their familiarity with that work. Though many students may only see their first student production as a chance to experiment or learn the ropes, they should also realize that the relationships they form with their classmates now will be relationships that they’ll be tapping into again and again throughout their filmmaking careers.

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