Advice for a High School Filmmaker

An eighth-grader approached me for advice on making movies and getting started at his age. Here’s what I shared with him:

The first and most important thing to do is get started. Pick up a camera, any camera, and practice. An iPhone is way better than the first camera I started with, so use whatever you can and never be ashamed. It’s about storytelling more than the lights or gear you use, so focus on telling great stories. Pick editing software you are comfortable with and learn (I started with Adobe Premiere and use it to this day). There are many helpful tutorials online. The more movies you edit, the better you will understand the software.

Find friends you like hanging out with, can rely on and who like making movies. Beyond the core group with whom I always made movies, filmmaking helped me become friends with hot girls, nerds who knew how to animate 3D models, shady stoner kids who owned fake realistic looking weapons that looked great on camera, class clowns, incredible artists and everyone in between. It was amazing who I was able to connect with by just asking, “Hey, do you want to be in my movie?” It helped high school be a great experience for me.

Start simple with your first movie, then make it more complicated as you go. My first film ever was 1 minute long in my backyard. By the time I graduated high school, I was making 30 minute films with action and visual effects. You’re capable of this and so much more, especially with the tools available these days. But again, start small. It’s incredibly motivating to see your finished work – and then want to do better the next time.

It also helped a lot to find teachers who supported my interest. I made sure to get into every media, theater or film class I could and made friends with those teachers. Sometimes, I got away with making movies for classes instead of writing papers – it can never hurt to ask! To this day, I still hang out with some of my teachers who supported me ten years ago. It may not be cool in high school to be a “teacher’s pet,” but you’ll be laughing at your peers later when you get farther in the world than they did. For example, I got a job right out of college working for one of my professors who enjoyed having me in class. You never know!

Most importantly, have fun with it. You will make a ton of mistakes and learn a lot. None of your films in high school will go to film festivals (no offense, but it’s true), so don’t stress about any of it. Keep your head on your shoulders, keep an open mind. The more fun you have, the more you will learn and the better your movies will be.

Oh, and needless to say, watch a lot of movies. Television is cool these days, too. I spent an entire summer watching all the best picture academy award winners and many more. I wish I had Netflix back then – take advantage of it! I also took notes on what I liked or didn’t like about each movie, which helped inform choices I made when I made movies.

Long story short, go out today and make a movie! Good luck.

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Consolidating the Online Content Experience

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Marvel’s The Avengers raking in a $200M+ opening weekend leaves little room to tell Hollywood that they are doing it wrong. The 40-year old blockbuster model continues to pay for the movie business. In the early days, the cinema experience was not far removed from attending a Broadway show: dressing up and cozying into ornate movie palaces staffed by ushers and orchestras. To expand the experience, multiplexes cropped up everywhere. To augment the experience further, Hollywood learned to tentpole a film, merchandise it and open theme park rides. The cinema experience is larger than life.

While all of that may work for three or four titles, hundreds of motion pictures barely scrape by each year. The internet and a proliferation of choice in the new millennium continues to threaten the sustainability of the movie business. The entertainment industry as a whole keeps falling behind the times. They still depend on Nielsen‘s myopic ratings and surveys to make strategic market decisions. They collect little to no data on their viewers to leverage repeat conversions. They build no intimate relationships with their customers and create few opportunities outside the theater to communitize their content. They embrace an antiquated scarcity model by rolling content out onto different platforms across rigid windows weeks and months apart, thereby eliciting content access demand and piracy. Merchandise still sits on retail shelves or on random websites online, far from the experience of seeing the movie itself. Without update, these practices may be fatal. While box office may be up (due largely to increased ticket prices and 3D or IMAX premiums), attendance is down – even more painful when considering population growth.

All of these issues could be solved by incorporating a thicker web layer into and consolidating the filmgoing experience under one roof – literally and figuratively. By converging merchandise, community and content into a digital or real world platform, Hollywood could make all facets of their business more accessible and leverage entire catalogs toward a more scalable, niche-friendly or cost-effective practice. Loved the movie you just saw? The theaters should make it as easy as possible to leave the theater and impulse buy a plush or action figure of your favorite character. Imagine if you could buy merchandise from and connect with other fans on a movie’s page in Netflix? Organize public screenings or petition for a sequel with the masses online? The community layer would add to the consumer experience and give filmmakers a platform to understand how people engage with their work.

I love the movies. I love the theater. I want the industry to succeed. These issues are reparable. If the industry can recruit key talent from the web tech sector, surrender a century’s worth of logic around brick and mortar business practices, build relationships with consumers online and put storytelling first, there may be a glimmer of stability and hope for film professionals and moviegoers alike. We’ve got work to do. There’s plenty of stories to tell and opportunities to make a living by producing great content.

Inspiring Your Team to Do Well [Film Friday]

Leading a film is a lot like leading an army, except without the discipline. Hollywood is loaded with egos, agendas, and hard drugs. Everyone wants to make their rate, see his or her name in lights, eat well, and live the good life. It is extremely difficult to wrangle all the different personalities and angles. Getting everyone on board is very difficult most of the time, especially in low budget or strenuous circumstances. Even with genuine people, it is challenging to arrest their full attention.

There is one tried and true tactic for getting everyone on the same page. The same tactic will inspire people to work day and night to get the job done. The same tactic may even convince your team to cut, defer, or waive their rate entirely. Very straightforward: tell a great story.

If your team believes in the project, they will fight to the ends of the earth for it. A great story helps make a 20-hour day okay. A great story helps you accept the low pay or terrible catering. Of course, telling a great story is easier said than done. The best way to tell a story is to believe in it first. If you do not believe in it, no one else will. When you do, find a way to communicate to everyone why and convince them to believe in it, too. With enough love and passion, you can inspire others to help you bring the story to life. Perhaps they will fall in love with it, too.

Is New Media For You? [Film Friday]

This is my fifth and final post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I resolved a “New Media” definition that I am happy with: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drive traffic or revenue online.” The key here is the distinction between passive and active viewership.

It is important to contemplate the best way to tell your story. Ask yourself: how long should the story be? How many people should watch it together? How involved should your audience be? As I have said before, we need to knock down the silos of Hollywood. They have no worldly business dictating our storytelling needs anymore. We should choose the format that best suits our characters.

Many people are distracted by the pizzazz of the Internet. Do not get carried away. Before you produce video for the web, ask yourself why. Is your story better told at an audience’s fingertips? Think hard about what role your story can play on the web. Does it belong there? Or does it really belong on a bigger screen?

The Difference Between Evolutionary and Revolutionary

There is a general cynicism lately about human progress in the cultural, commercial, physical, and spiritual realm. This week’s South Park had a brilliant (albeit gruesome and disgusting) commentary on contracting the disease, “cynicism,” where everything starts looking and sounding like “shit.” Many individuals (not just me) watch in angst as large companies roll out recycled shlock and menial improvements. A lot of the criticism directed at all companies showcasing video games at the E3 gaming conference this week sang to the beat of “It seemed more like a catch-up game than something completely different.” Nintendo and Playstation announced entirely new gaming consoles, and yet they came off as incremental and uninspired updates in struggle to catch up to the aggressively expanding mobile games market. Only sequels gained traction at the conference, no original game-changing titles. I hold the same criticism of Apple’s latest products: iPad 2, iCloud, OS X Lion, and iOS 5 boast only minor improvements to the user experience that update on and catch up to some superior features of competitors in the computing space. We live in a world farming updates, too distracted by the noise around us to make meaningful, poignant change.

Our world is evolving quickly, but do not mistake evolution for revolution. Evolution is a slow, gradual, step-by-step process that takes time and energy. Revolution is a leap, a blindside, a change that catches us all by surprise. Evolution is differentiation. Revolution is different. Evolution is a hybrid transition between new and old. Revolution does not look back. Evolution is missing the letter ‘R’ at the front, and that letter ‘R’ means business. I have not seen a revolution in the cultural, commercial, physical, and spiritual realm for some time.

Revolution is a modern virtue. How can you build something revolutionary? Use the Reference Test: can you or anyone else compare your creation directly to another creation already existing?

Hollywood pitch culture is a perfect example. Somewhere in the early nineties, producers made the habit of pitching movies as “this” meets “that.” “Terminator” meets “Home Alone.” “Cool Runnings” meets “Blade Runner.” “Veggie Tales” meets “Godzilla.” The problem? Mixing old shit together does not make it new. It simply makes it old shit mixed together. Can anyone compare your movie idea directly to other films already in existence?

If your work comes off as a hybrid between this and that, or an update to something already in existence, then you have not pushed the button hard enough. Push harder. Twist your perspective. See the light. Open your mind. Forget the world around you. Look deep inside. Be true to yourself. Be human. Be real. You are capable of inventing something the world has never seen.

Stop at nothing to change the world. Start a revolution.

Film Friday: Power to the Theaters

A Certified Fresh logo.In the good ol’ days, content was king. Producers and publishers thrived off of the complexity, scarcity, and cost of generating and distributing entertainment. Very few people could publish a book, record an album, or produce a theatrical feature film. Times have changed. Through the commodification of consumer production tools and publishing platforms, content generation and distribution are easier than ever. The result? Far too much noise. Public discourse is completely cluttered by personal voice. To whom should you listen?

Ears and eyeballs are in high demand. Seth Godin said, “We don’t have an information shortage; we have an attention shortage.” Content is no longer king. Attention is king. Those who command the respect of the masses command the value of entertainment product. Content Producers are less powerful than ever. Content Curators, like companies and critics who drive discoverability and promote entertainment traffic, are taking the cake. Warner Bros. demonstrated a progressive value in discovery platforms through the purchase of Flixster and Rotten Tomatoes. Systems like Netflix, Pandora and YouTube that navigate consumers through targeted entertainment are dominating the market. As the library of public content continues to grow, so too will the value proposition of these companies.

Platforms are the near future. Traditional theaters need to wake up and smell the opportunity. As it stands, film exhibitors are little more than the leashed pets of the movie business – completely at the whim of their masters. If theaters take liberties to curate, program, and leverage alternative product against the studios, their value to the average consumer will increase tenfold. The quality of entertainment will increase, revenues will increase, and cultural sophistication will increase. Theater owners know their communities well and should play an active role in curating entertainment. Curator Exhibitors (theaters) need to earn the respect of local audiences by consistently screening top-notch entertainment and communitizing outside Hollywood.

My Ten Favorite Films

I find the following films well-crafted, recommendable, consistently impactful, personally timeless, and definitively influential to my own life. In no particular order:

Favorite Filmes

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

United 93 (2006)

American Beauty (1999)

Se7en (1995)

Minority Report (2002)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Heat (1995)

Blade Runner (1982)

My list will no doubt evolve as my tastes evolve. But for now, these films have lingered in my heart as favorites for a better part of the decade.