I’ve been blogging since September of 2006. When I started, it was mostly for myself. To try out a new medium, to capture what I was thinking—and also to connect, to share, and to have a conversation with a group of friends, most of them made on the internet.
To bring back the lightness, I’m going to return to blogging of that ilk. What’s on my mind, what I’m thinking about and doing. I hope it will start some good conversations! And I think it will be good for me, too.
Some recent news —
Because I’ve focused on tech and investing for the past few years, filmmaking was forced to take a back seat. And last year, if I had to think about how I could bring film back into my life and contribute to film, joining a board wouldn’t have crossed my mind.
But by happenstance, I was asked to interview to be on the board of The Sundance Institute, which is like Y Combinator for the film world. While it may be best known for the annual Sundance Film Festival, Sundance also has the vitally important Sundance Labs, which brings in talented independent filmmakers and supports them across their lifecycle via writing/directing labs, along with grants for editing, TV, and VR. Not only does Sundance help artists in their journey, which is often very lonely, but it also provides them with connections to agents, managers, and other players in the industry who can help them. The Labs help identify talented filmmakers and set them on a path.
Sundance was started in Utah in 1981 by Robert Redford with the explicit goal of supporting independent filmmaking, and it was the first true creator community. They launched the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Kelly, Darren Aronofsky, Debra Granik, Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Dee Rees, and many others.
Covid has been hard for all film festivals, but Sundance pivoted to offer online festivals in both 2021 and 2022. This year, it will be both in-person and online in the second week.
Sundance has been a driving force in independent film. I’m excited to dedicate some of my time to helping the organization think through the years ahead.
It was the summer of 2012, and most of the class was on draft 63 of their soon-to-be perfect first feature script. But before that, we each planned to submit draft 79 to all the prestigious film labs. There, we would get input from auteurs we admired. Then, we’d make the perfect film, it would open to acclaim at the perfect festival, and get acquired and released nationwide. That was the plan.
That same summer, Charles and Sarah-Violet (SV) had a very different plan. Instead of perfection, they decided to create immediately. They cranked out a feature script. They each borrowed $40K through student loans. Knowing they were on a tight budget, they wrote about a world they knew (deep Brooklyn), with only a small handful of locations (all in NY), and very few characters. They didn’t submit the script to any labs. They didn’t apply for any grants. They did not wait.
They planned the shoot. They cast fantastic actors, some of whom they’d known for years. One of our classmates was the cinematographer.
They shot their feature. They edited their feature.
They did it all on a total of $110K. Tiny, even by indie standards.
One year later, they submitted it to festivals. The movie, FortTilden, premiered at SXSW. It won SXSW. And that set SV and Charles on a different trajectory. They were writers on the Netflix show Wet Hot American Summer and now have their own, very successful show on TBS, Search Party.
I share this story to share the power of ignoring gatekeepers. There are a few big steps in making a feature film: write a script, prep and plan the shoot, shoot, edit, release. Every step depends on funding. You could wait for funding at each stage—basically asking for permission from someone else to make your film. Or, you can do what SV and Charles did — make the best movie within the constraint they faced and the funds they were able to access. No waiting, no permission needed.
Don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not an easy or guaranteed path. I spoke with SV recently about her story, and she said, “(Taking out those loans) was still a huge insane risk I wouldn’t exactly recommend for everyone. But it felt right. So I’m always very careful to say, ‘Look, this is how we did it, and it worked out for us. I have some success but I also still have student debt.’ That said, I do NOT regret it. Not everyone would be comfortable with the position I put myself in, but it was right for me. I had a lot of clarity in the process and risking the money didn’t scare me. Waiting years and years to find funding or someone to approve of my voice was a much scarier fate.”
If you follow the SV & Charles model, you will have a real, live product. A product which people can see and enjoy. A product that people can evaluate and say “hey, they won SXSW on a tiny budget.”
Given the choice between being constrained, but still making something, versus waiting for the “ideal” situation, what would you pick? While most of the class was dreaming of the perfect first feature, SV and Charles made their first feature. That was enough to launch them into a world that is very hard to break into.
Breaking into tech is easier because angels and early funders (the gatekeepers) are willing to fund first-time founders. But it’s not always easy to raise your angel or pre-seed round.
Look at the funds and skills that you have. Decide how much risk you want to take — each person has their own comfort level and you should be the one that decides what is best for you. And then, design and build something using your skills and your budget. If you build something people love, you will have a little success. And that little success can propel you onto your next opportunity. And then onto the next opportunity. And each project or startup could get better. The gatekeepers will then come to you (and I say that as a venture investor).
In my film school class, every single person had ambition, most had a great idea. But SV and Charles just did it. And they went from strength to strength. You can, too.