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.
My writing professor, the incomparable Mick Casale, would ask, “What is your film about?”
Once he got the answer, the follow up question would be, “What is it really about?”
In The Creative Habit, the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this “the spine.” Take my first short film from NYU for example—In That Moment (5 minutes, embedded below) is about a guy who’s working as a living statue in Central Park and and his encounter with a woman who piques his interest.
But what is the film really about? It’s about the regret chances not taken, moments when fear makes you pick the safe choice, and times when you instantly regret a decision you can’t take back.
If you’re a founder, this question is relevant because you should know what your company is really about. On the face of it, you might be a marketplace—but ask yourself, what is your company really about? You should know that answer.
Nana is “about” helping people get their appliances repaired, but it’s really about providing economic empowerment and agency to blue-collar workers
Uber is “about” getting from point A to point B, but it’s really about changing the way people travel, eat, and work.
eBay is “about” being able to quickly sell something to someone you don’t know, but it’s really about global economic empowerment.
Twitter is “about” sharing what you’re thinking, but it’s really about allowing people to learn, find friends, and challenge their worldview (although it is unclear if that ever happens).
Core is “about” meditation, but it’s really about taking charge of your mental well-being.
What the film is really about is its spine. For a company, the long-term vision is the spine that holds the company up, provides clarity and guides decision making around design, branding, expansion plans, who you’re counting among your competitors.
At the earliest stages, the spine of your company may not be visible to everyone. Tesla’s first expensive sports car was easy to dismiss for both consumers and investors. But what is Tesla’s spine? Making transportation sustainable for the planet while being joyful to the consumer.
The spine is the deeperintent behind what you’re doing. Not every customer needs to understand the spine to use and enjoy the product, but it’s important for everyone at the company to understand the larger vision.
Human beings are amazing. A mere two weeks after the lockdown started, most people had adapted to a remote world. Kids were learning soccer on Zoom, personal trainers adapted, cooking and baking classes moved to zoom—but I really did not expect theater and filmmaking to adapt in this world.
But, adapt they did. Zoomtheater and Zoommovies are a thing now, 4 months into the pandemic—for example, Host is a horror movie, made on Zoom.
Are these pieces any good? Well, it depends — film, which is asynchronous (i.e. shot and edited before the viewer sees it), can be just as good. For theater, which is delivered in real time, the remote version is not as good as when the cast and crew are in the same location. But the ability to adapt, the ability to even try this, makes me optimistic.
For a polished spin on quarantine filming, look at Mythic Quest, which is on Apple TV. They were filming the second season when the pandemic shut things down. This article outlines what the crew and cast did to shoot a “pandemic” episode that is part of Season 1. They used iPhones with prosumer film software, mics, and shot in all natural light, since lighting is one of the harder parts of filmmaking. They then edited it together to make it look like it was shot on Zoom.
On the other hand, some of Princess Bride’s celebrity cast decided to make a fan fiction, and it’s very clear that it’s shot by non-professionals, embracing the reality of shooting in different locations, with no crew.
In a scene with Diego Luna and Jack Black, they create continuity from two different locations in amazing ways: Diego throws down a green rope tried to a tree in his house and Jack, who is lying on a set of stairs in his house, grabs a hose that is thrown down to him. Diego lifts, Jack clambers, until finally, Jack is back at the top of the mountain (stairs). It’s really well done!
This would never have been considered acceptable pre-pandemic, but with a new set of rules for the world, there’s a new set of expectations. All film-watching requires the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and for these pandemic-pictures (panpics?), the suspension of disbelief has to be extended. But they are so entertaining!
Theater, unlike film, is synchronous – everything is live. This makes it much harder to adapt to a remote environment. While in film, you can do an extreme close up to show the twitch of an eyebrow, theater acting is “bigger,” so that the person in the last row can have the same read of a scene as someone sitting in the front. So Zoomtheater and the innovations there are harder to adapt to the pandemic. But theater has adapted, too. And if the pandemic stretches out, theater will have to continue to adapt. Imagine if there was a plugin that:
allows a lighting tech to set the stage by adding a virtual background and virtual lighting to make people seem like they’re in the same room, with the mood lighting the director wants.
controls which person is “shown” to the audience during a live performance. That way, the tech can make sure the right face is shown at the right time.
enables a “prop” tech to develop a unique, dynamic set and background for each actor and upload it behind them as the stage changes
allows live mixing of the audio so that music can be woven in, like a play.
It’s entirely possible that this could happen. Because despite the insanity in the world around them, humans continue to create, continue to innovate, continue to live lives of hope and splendor. Constraints make them innovate in ways that they wouldn’t have thought to before.
The same is true for startups. Startups have to startup. And the first requirement of startupping is surviving. But the very best startups, like the best creators, use constraints to innovate and thrive, offering customers an unexpected, delightful solution that moves us all forward.
“Making things that are really crappy and undeveloped until maybe they can be good. I’m way too young to confine myself to one lane and lose the ability to openly experiment.”
This is exactly how a the first draft of a film script develops. Characters and ideas float around in your head, and one day, they’re done with the floating and demand to live on the page. The script gets written, and when you’re done… it’s shitty. It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to show it to anyone, and you wonder how on earth your magical characters and ideas amounted to this pile of doodoo on the page.
But, it’s really important to have this first draft. Because as Miller said, yes, it’s crappy and undeveloped, but you need the crappy and undeveloped to have hope for the good and the great.
Struggling, wrangling, failing, crying, working, pushing forward allows your characters and your story to breathe, thrive, and for the bones to slowly emerge from the pile. Experimenting openly, taking the story in unexpected directions, adding or removing key characters, and messing around with no pressure allows the sparks of creativity that makes the script sing.
Every creator needs that messy time.
The same is true for startup creators. Ideas for a product form in your head over time, sometimes over years. Then one day, you’re ready to put it on the “page” — to code something, to craft something. And it may be a sloppy, messy ball of hair, mud, and hope. Don’t clean it up, polish, and shine it in order to raise money too early.
Love your messy stage, because it is so important to relish that stage. You can only do it once for each startup, and it’s when experimentation, ideation, hanging out, and trying weird things is entirely possible. It’s where ugly is awesome.
At some point, a screenwriter will have to share the script with producers. At some point, you have to share your startup with users and, if you want, with investors. If things go well, they love it, and you build an amazing company. Fantastic.
If you’ve grown your company into a wonderfully world-changing one, it’s worth finding ways to go back to being messy. Get into small groups. Make room for experimentation with ugly, creative things that may fail, because that can lead to new lines of growth. If you have the urge to start again, you could start another company and embrace the new ugly ball of mess. Whatever path you follow, the messy part of creation can be the the best part of creation, and the challenge of it makes your ideas and your company better.
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.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But in reality, there are hundreds of questions the director has to be able to answer. Many come as they are preparing for the shoot, but things happen, and there are always tradeoffs to be made while they’re on set.
A good director has a point of view on all these questions because she keeps the vision of the film front and center. She knows how every one of these decisions will affect the vision.
Like the director of a film, the CEO is the final arbiter in startup, especially at the early stages. In order to make the multitude of decisions, she needs to have a very clear vision of what she is trying to achieve. Every decision either takes her towards her vision (slightly or bigly) or away from it.
If the vision for what you want to become is muddled, it becomes very hard to make decisions. You always want optionality—to keep all options open, because you don’t know where you are headed.
That is impossible on a film set, because most films are shot in 30 days or less. It’s not impossible in a startup, because you can always defer the decision. But doing so will put the startup at risk of not executing or of muddled execution that leads to failure.
To keep your eyes on the prize, you need to know what the prize looks like and which direction you need to go to find the prize.
You also need to know the fundamental underlying tenets that will help you achieve your goal. For example, at eBay, one unbreakable tenet was always “level playing field”, meaning that every seller, whether a big company or your next-door neighbor, would be subject to the same rules. Another was that eBay would not touch the items, thus keeping it a purely person-to-person marketplace. When opportunities came up, it was easy to evaluate against these (and other core) tenets and determine if they kept us moving towards our vision.
This does not mean that you don’t react to changing circumstances or opportunities. Some of the best scenes or shots on a film set can be the ones where the director decides to improvise on set. She may see an opportunity in a location, in the weather, or in the actors’ mood and try something unscripted. But the reason she can do that is she knows what she wants to achieve and has prepared so well that she has a strong hunch that this improvisation will improve the film.
For a CEO with a big vision, unexpected changes can present an opportunity. With the vision front and center, and all the hard work to understand what moves you towards and away from that vision, you can think of ways to bend and adapt to strengthen the company. Otherwise, you stand the risk of losing what the company is and what it stands for.
Make your vision a touchstone that you come back to often. Make the time to come back to it, refresh it, and let it refresh and reenergize you.
On Sunday, Carol Dysinger won the Oscar for her short documentary, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).
It’s a delightful film that will make you both laugh and cry, but this post isn’t a film review. It’s about a life lesson that I learned from her.
In 1977, when Dysinger was twenty-two years old, she won the coveted Student Academy Award. Frank Capra, famed director of You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presented the award. It was (and is) a big deal — of all the student films made around the world, only one can win. Everyone, including Dysinger, assumed her career would take off like a rocketship from there.
Of course that stuff only happens in the movies.
Dysinger’s real story was more of a struggle. She has worked in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, making documentaries that won prizes and grants from top festivals. But nothing compared to her early win.
I met Dysinger in 2009 when I joined a grad film program where she was the editing professor. She was working on a film called One Bullet Afghanistan, which, more than twelve years later, she’s still working on.
It was during this time that Dysinger was asked to make a film about the girls of Skateistan — a school where underprivileged kids learn basic academics and how to skate. She accepted. Then this film, this side project, just took off.
Learning to Skateboard was nominated at major festivals and won at Tribeca and the BAFTAs before winning the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject.
43 years after Carol Dysinger won the student academy award, she won the grown-up version.
When I was her student, Dysinger’s favorite piece of advice was that becoming a filmmaker would take “a whole lot of not quitting” — a phrase she repeated during her acceptance speech.
A whole lot of not quitting. That’s great advice for pretty much anything. Everything takes much, much longer than we think it will. We get frustrated, upset and dejected. After six years or ten, we give up.
Sometimes quitting is the right choice. But often, those who reach the pinnacle do so not with shortcuts or luck, but because of a whole lot of not quitting. For decades.
I’m thrilled to see one of the good ones succeed — four long decades after her first taste of success.
My film school classmate Heather shared this video of Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T. Take a look.
What stands out are the choices he made. Before becoming an investor, I spent some years in film. I’ve auditioned children for roles and most of them make the obvious choice – screaming, shouting, being loud. That is likely what most of the kids who auditioned for this role did, too. “NOOOO!!! You can’t take him!!” etc.
But what Henry Thomas did was so unexpected. With such little information, he decided to very quietly cry. He made the creature his friend, he asked how the agent even knows all this. He decided to be extremely vulnerable. These are the choices that got him hired.
I’ve often said that there are a ton of similarities between tech and film1. This is one small example – when you are interviewing candidates, a majority will pick the obvious answers. That’s fine. They could be journeymen in the company. But when there is a candidate who makes an entirely non-obvious choice, something that makes you sit back and think in a new and different way, those are the candidates who can change the trajectory of the company. Hire them.
The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak. Jack Donaghy’s verbal swordplay with Liz Lemon was a comic rendering of the various things many citizens of Manhattan have come to regard as fatal weakness: childlessness, obesity, poverty. To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.
Such a great piece on the city, warts and all, and on creating in the city.
Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.
It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists—of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals—against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university—or have sold that TV show—they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.