Comet Tale Productions is a Boston-based video production house. We hope that through this blog you will learn more about the behind-the-scenes of corporate video.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Who even writes letters any more?

Despite the fact that everything about anything is available on the internet, I have a soft spot for libraries. As Matt Damon says in his Good Will Hunting rant: “you blew 150k on an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees from the library.” While I don’t think a college degree is completely useless, there is something to be said for the resources that are available to knowledge-seekers. My most recent foray into the library has been for copywriting books (stay tuned for some Comet Tale advertisement mock-ups).

Typically, I get the call number for one book, head to the general section and browse through the stacks. It’s exciting to look through the sheer number of books written on any given subject, and to come across quirky books that don’t make the college reading lists but that have character. Without browsing the stacks, I never would have come across the gem that is Robert L. Shurter, Ph.D’s Effective Letters in Business.

First published in 1948 and reissued in 1954, Shurter’s book comes with all the trappings of the post-war, Pleasantville era. Just to give you an idea of its tone, here are some excerpts:

“Today, the indented form is practically obsolete because it requires unnecessary stenographic time for margins and punctuation.” They actually used typewriters. How archaic. (writers’ confession: I actually have three typewriters myself)

“For more general purposes, his language is called Gobbledygook (the sound a turkey gobbler makes when it struts) or Bafflegab (‘multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution’).”

“Can your stenographers take dictation at the rate of 120 words a minute? I can—and I am eager to prove that such speed does not lessen my accuracy.”

The parallels between the business letter and the business e-mail seem pretty apparent so even though I read the book for a fun look into the past, some of the advice was still quite pertinent today. I won’t highlight everything, instead I’ll just mention two of the points that Shurter brings up early.

When writing a letter, Shurter recommends taking the “you attitude.” Rather than focusing on your own needs, phrase your letter so that it keeps the reader in mind. The principle of content marketing takes this idea and runs with it. Rather than use a blog to shout your offerings to the world, provide the world with information that is useful to them. Frame your posts in an entertaining and informative fashion that imparts benefit upon the reader.

In addition, Shurter warns against the perils of jargon. There really is no point in writing if your audience will need to have several encyclopedias and reference books by his or her side to decipher your text. If your epistolary constructions employ copious amounts of legalese, medicalese, or any other –ese, you might as well write in Greek. To connect with your readership, write like your readership.

If you have some free time at your disposal, I would definitely recommend looking through Shurter’s text. Sometimes customs of ages past can be re-incorporated to much effect in the present.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Art of Marketing - Harvey Simmons

Last August, Comet Tale had the chance to interview Evertrue’s Dean of Marketing, Harvey Simmons (@HOSimmons4). Amidst the quiet of the pre-lunch crowd by the South Station food trucks, Harvey’s bright green pants made a loud entrance. While some ascribe to the idea of “casual Friday,” Evertruers take Friday as a chance to have a little fun and dress to the nines. Over the delicious noodles of Bon Me (food trucks seem to fit well within the startup mold with their quality, fast, and mobile service), Harvey began to discuss the art of marketing.

Comet Tale: To start with, could you just tell us a little about your marketing experience?

Harvey Simmons: As I was going into my senior year, I worked for an agency in New York City called Landor Associates, part of the WPP group and it was very much a big brand play. You get to work with clients like Verizon and we did a big campaign for West Point as part of our internship projects. But for me, I wanted to work with something where you feel more closely aligned with the business. I think the benefit of agency life is that you can work with and touch all these different things but it’s cool to be on the other side—to be working internally within a marketing department. I got the startup bug during my senior year when I met with Mike Del Ponte, a BC alumnus, who went on to go to Yale divinity school then went on to create this program for student entrepreneurs who were particularly interested in social innovation and social entrepreneurship. He was talking at BC about that and from there he introduced me to the concept of Branch Out which was essentially LinkedIn on Facebook. So I worked remotely in Boston for their office in San Francisco and created a marketing associate program which extended to about 15 different campuses along with Kevin Hylant who now works at SCVNGR, now Level Up. We worked to get the word out there, user acquisition, and user feedback from a young student perspective from all these different campuses and that really made me realize I wanted to work for a startup.

I got the vibe of what their culture was like and it seemed to be very fast paced: do now apologize later type mentality which is super relevant for anybody who wants to work in a startup. The flexibility for creativity and the getting stuff done mentality really appealed to me. I looked around Boston, landed at Hubspot for a while and learned a ton. Met some amazing people. I realized pretty quickly though that I didn’t want to do sales so I started networking through things like Greenhorn Connect and through things like MITX. Through that and through Techstars I connected with our founder Brent Grinna and from there I’ve been with Evertrue for about two years now doing very much an inbound marketing focused strategy. Hopefully now that our products are becoming more fully fledged we can start doing more product marketing.

Comet Tale: To take it back in time a little further when did you know you wanted to do marketing?

HS: I was a philosophy major and I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was set up in logic class and started studying for the LSAT and then I took a course with Gina Caruso in the communications department. It was like advertising 101 and I just fell in love with it. We did this project on D’Angelos and it was totally out there and a little bit wacky but we had a ton of fun with it and I was just like this is what I want to do. It’s that moment where the strategy meets creative that I find particularly rewarding. How can you come up with the research and understanding and the demographics and the market for the people that you’re trying to help and then look at how can I really convey what our company or our offerings or our products are going to do for them in a helpful way. You don’t want to help everyone in the sense that if your product can’t help everyone then you shouldn’t be selling to everyone. You want to market and sell only to people to whom you can make a substantial difference in their lives and make them happier and make them more successful and make them reach a better understanding of who they are.

CT: Now that you’ve been doing it for a couple years, what keeps you coming back? What continues to fuel the passion?

HS: In some capacity it’s been a transition from an interest in just marketing to an interest in startups and the innovation economy here in Massachusetts. There is such an amazing community in Boston that’s super open and very mentorship driven. The amount of access that you can gain to people in this community and the amount that people want to help each other out is surprising. I didn’t expect coming right out of school that I would be able to meet so many people who would want to push me further along in my career. Since I’ve graduated things like Startup Institute and and even now General Assembly are starting to take root in Boston. They’ve really provided this additional learning layer on top of the pre-existing startup community that had already come to be. You take a look at things like that and things like MITX that has marketing hacakthons where you go in and talk to startups.

Marketing can mean a bazillion things. It can mean the billboard you see on the road, it can mean that AdWords campaign when you’re searching for something on Google. It can mean the positioning of me telling you what my company does or an ebook. There’s a bazillion things marketing can be and when you look at the big picture, that’s when it can be very interesting from a startup’s perspective. Like what elements should they focus their attention on given the stage that they’re at and that becomes almost more of a question of business.

CT: How would you compare the startup marketing community as opposed to the bigger agency?

HS: I’m a little biased because I’ve spent way more time in the startup community than the agency side and my agency side was an internship in New York City that lasted like 2.5 – 3 months. I can really speak to the startup side by saying that its strength is the amount of assistance that people want to provide each other. It’s not like people are competing against each other because there might be one startup like Smarterer that’s providing an online testing platform that rewards people who understand different knowledge pieces through quizzes and then you’ll get a company like Runkeeper that’s a personal fitness trainer. Those two marketers can help each other without being in competition with each other because they’re totally different things but they’re both trying to acquire users. They’re both trying to improve their user experience, their design, and they’re both working on that positioning. There are a lot of transferable lessons that can be intermingled with startups that I feel agencies probably don’t have as much of an opportunity to touch. When I said earlier the cool thing about an agency is that you can touch all these different types of companies and all these different types of roles, well as you progress in the startup scene, the more you can touch different companies by talking with different people and different industries. You might not be contributing directly to their work, but you would be working with people who work on their company’s marketing every day.

CT: Could you talk a little about your Evertrue experience and how that’s been?

HS: It’s been extremely rewarding and a great learning experience. I think there is a very strong open culture that we have within our team that allows us to move faster than other organizations would. When I was at Hubspot I was probably the 250th, 300th employee somewhere around there. To go out and just do something that you really wanted to do would have been a lot more difficult than it would be in a company that was 8 employees when I joined but now is 25. That growth itself has been extremely interesting to see. What does a company look like when it’s 8, what does it look like when it’s 12, what does it look like when it’s 18, 20? It doesn’t sound like a big difference but 16 is two times as many people as 8 so that actually ends up changing a lot of the different ways a company is. In our case we maintained very much that friendly family type of nature. We’re at a really exciting juncture right now. We received our Series A from Bain Capital that allows us to support our mission even stronger. Our mission is really: to build stronger relationships in pursuit of a better world. I think even being a part of the process of coming up with a mission statement is pretty amazing and it’s going to be a few exciting years ahead.

CT: Startups aren’t new to the ideas of innovation and change. Marketing seems to be going through a big period of change itself with social media and social concepts entering the picture. How do you see it changing and what do you hope to do with that?

HS: Hubspot had this week their Inbound conference and had 5400 people in attendance there which without context might not sound like a ton of people but it’s pretty outstanding when you consider that this is their third or fourth year doing it. People are starting to realize that we’ve already made this transitional shift from being able to block out messages that come out to us. Really hard direct marketing is no longer super effective unless it’s extremely viral and even then it has a very short shelf life so what marketers have had to focus on now is how can I make my prospect or how can I make my user or how can I make my customer better at what they do? How can I make content that’s going to be useful for them? And how can I now use these social channels to talk to them in a one on one voice? Never before has it been so easy for a brand or a company or a startup to really interact with a customer base so transparently and in such a one on one manner. I think we’ve gone from direct marketing to this kind of inbound marketing so you can maybe call outbound to inbound and I think the next step is providing tools. So you’re going to see more and more brands providing free tools like software and really solid information pieces that can help their prospects or their consumers be better at whatever it is they’re trying to do.

CT: If you were to coin a term for this new form of marketing, what would you call it?

HS: Human, maybe. It’s just something that was a really popular theme during Inbound, the conference. How can we make the things that we’re doing less like machines and more like people. That for me is the super strong driver and one of the major reasons why I joined Evertrue early on. Fundamentally our platform is helping people meet—not online but actually meet in person and actually have an enriching experience through authentic communication which needs to happen more. There’s going to be, I think, a really strong push to that and mobile’s only been around so long. I don’t think we really know the power of it yet. We have to look away from the devices a little bit. Portable technology might even additionally change how we’re looking at everything internally at Evertrue.

We did a million step challenge where everybody in the office, and we have a blog post on it, wore a little chip and for 100 days we tried to hit a million steps. We almost all got there. It’s things like that that were cool and that we can talk about and relate to. It’s like, how do we make this big data quote unquote this buzz term, how do we make that human? How do we make that not just numbers and quantitative but actually bring the quantitative to qualitative? It would be mind blowing when it happens but we’ll eventually get there.

CT: I want to turn now to the reunion crashers video. I thought it was an engaging, fun parody. Could you talk a little about what went into the creation of that?

HS: For us I think we want to do more and more pieces of content like that. We decided it was time to take a risk and do something like that. We honestly had no idea what the response was going to be. We thought it was going to be strong. We kind of tested it out before launching it by getting some feedback from prospects and from customers and people who have had fun with us at reunions. We tend to have a really fun, approachable team so it just matched really well culturally for us and also as an internal piece we enjoyed it. I think it got a lot of turnaround in the startup community too which was also fun but the really nice thing was that it really spoke to our client base and the community we’re trying to connect to.

CT: Did you do that in-house or did you bring someone on for that?

HS: We did all of the copy in-house. The screenwriting was largely done in-house but we did have a producer/director [Courtney Petrouski] who helped with a lot of logistics on the day of and we had an awesome videographer as well [Elan Alexenberg] who took some killer shots and had some serious killer chops. I think it’s helpful to have consultation but nobody knows the market than the company that’s doing it so you can’t fake that. A lot of that has to come internally, particularly if you have the young people and the people who are creative enough to imagine those things.

CT: Looking towards the future what are you looking to do with video?

HS: Everything. I think we really want to always ask ourselves how can we incorporate video into this messaging that we’re doing. Hopefully as our team gets bigger we’ll have more resources and larger bandwidth to the point where we can do video for a majority of our marketing pieces and even for our customer pieces or onboarding pieces. We also use Wistia as our hosting service. We love those guys. All along the way we want to be able to interact with people through video because we think it’s extremely effective. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

How to make the most of your film freelancer - the basics

The first question when it comes to using a freelance crew for your corporate film is when to bring them onto the project. You know your company better than anyone so you can trust your copywriting studs to come up with a great script. Unless you have someone on your team who has experience in the film world, bringing on the director, producer, and even the cinematographer in the script-writing phase will give you a second set of eyes. Your writers know how to script compelling copy, but involving the major creative film forces (hereinafter referred to as the crew) early will benefit the final product.

The crew can spot any major concerns early and suggest solutions before too much energy or capital can be invested—such as suggesting alternatives to car chases, explosions and helicopter shots. In addition, involving the crew early ensures that everyone is working towards the same product. While this sounds like a given, the more exposure your crew has to the material, the more familiar they will become with your company, its message, and its culture which ultimately results in a solid piece.

In order to create this unity of vision, communication is key. The following items that should definitely be exchanged during the course of communication about a project aren’t revolutionary by any means, but sometimes it’s good to revisit the basics.

 The more the crew understands about the intent of the project, the better they will be able to deliver on the day. Creating a team atmosphere will ultimately result in a solid group effort. Some key points to make sure your freelancer understands:

(a) who is the intended audience? In all likelihood, you’ve determined the personas for whom you’re producing this project. Letting your crew know the intended audience gives them the opportunity to do their own research and understand the habits of that audience which in turn results in a more effective film.

(b) what is the tone of the piece? Your crew will approach a light, witty project in a far different way than a more meditative, thought-provoking piece. Feel free to use a bevy of adjectives to describe the feel as the more precise and thorough the description, the more vivid a picture your crew will be able to produce.

(c) where is the piece going to be displayed? A project that goes out in an e-mail blast will have a different feel than an explainer video on the front page of your website.

(d) where is piece going to be filmed? For a high-budget project, pre-production will encompass multiple days of preparation, scouting, and planning. If you’re working on something smaller, perhaps filming in your own office, it is still in your interests to have a day where the crew can see the physical space. They will look for where they can draw electrical power, where the sun will travel throughout the day, which areas offer the best visual potential, and other factors that are best determined at the physical location.

While it is important that the crew know what you’re thinking, it is just as important that you know what your crew is thinking. Some things to get from your crew are:

(a) some visual samples that represent something close to their vision. Not to be confused with a freelancer’s reel or portfolio, the samples should consist of some images that approximate the look and feel of your project. Some elements that you can begin to discuss before the day of filming include the lighting, the general composition of shots, and the overall pace.

(b) the schedule for the shoot. The amount of time necessary to film a project depends upon a number of different factors. The more crew members, the faster they will be able to set up. Scheduling the day with ample time to set up allows for the crew to work in an efficient and safe manner. Allotting enough time for lunch is also a key consideration when scheduling the shoot.

In the end, it all comes down to the flow of information. The more the freelancer is involved with and understands your creative team, the better your project will become.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Film Breakdown Friday: Werckmeister Harmonies


Yesterday, I wrote about how turning your video project into a film project is a mindset. In order for your video to move into the category of film, you have to invest the majority of your effort in pre-production and story. The film is made long before the first day of shooting.

Today is the first post in what will be a weekly series of film breakdowns. I’ll pick a clip from a movie, or corporate video and break it down into a couple bite sized chunks that you can consume and incorporate into your next project.

If you haven’t had a chance to see many foreign films, brace yourselves for this coming clip. Most commercial American movies have an incredibly fast paced editing rhythm. The following scene from Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies occurs over the course of one long take. In order to pull up the English subtitles, you have to manually activate them by selecting the CC button in the lower right hand corner of the player and then selecting English subs.

Take a look at the scene:

The Breakdown

Béla Tarr is an extremely intentional director. His famously long shots are planned well in advance and he is able to see the movie in his head before it ever hits the silver emulsion of 35mm black and white film (and yes, despite films decline in popularity, Tarr continues to shoot on it). And that is what separates the directors of great films from the masses—the ability to take a strong personal vision and bring it to life on film.

The reason I picked this scene as the first film breakdown Friday is to show an incredibly intricate scene so that I can talk about storyboarding. Sure, anyone could set up a camera and have it run for eight and a half minutes but what makes Tarr’s scene from Werckmeister so powerful is the interaction between the camera and the scene itself. The camera is not a passive observer. It is an active participant in this scene subtly attuning the audience to the emotional tone of the moment.

I want to break down the scene into smaller chunks to show how the camera works to tell the story. There is a short bit of the beginning that this Youtube link is missing that gives a sense of the space before Valuska’s entrance. But as Valuska enters the bar, his movement opens up the frame from a tight shot of him and one of the drunks to a very wide shot of the entire empty bar. He now has a stage on which to perform his opening philosophical and astronomical monologue.

The next shift occurs as he corrals the barflies into position as the sun, earth and moon. The camera like our attention moves in to focus on Valuska and his model solar system. The proximity of the camera to our speaker gives us a sense of connection and safety as he twirls these drunken men around in circles. But the revelation of an eclipse results in yet another shift.

To the ancients, an eclipse was a terrifying event—day turning to night. With no scientific explanation for them, they determined that it was a bad portent. At first the camera moves in to a close up to reveal Valuska’s thoughts as he expounds upon the darkness of the eclipse, but as he proclaims the complete silence that arrives, the musical score enters and the camera begins to pull back. This move is the most powerful of the scene as the meditative silence of Valuska, the haunting beauty of the solo piano and the wide, high-angle shot all work in harmony to convey a sense of loneliness that the darkness brings.

But the eclipse cannot last forever. As the moon moves away and once again reveals the bright warmth of the sun, the camera too returns to its position of safe proximity. As it settles, all the men of the bar take up the waltz and for the first time in the scene, Valuska leaves the frame granting full autonomy to his drunken solar system.

In the closing moments, the bartender urges everyone to go home and the floor clears resulting in an almost cavernous emptiness. Valuska walks through the void and as he leaves, tells the bartender that “it’s still not over.”


Two of the key takeaways from this scene are (a) in order to execute a complicated choreographed scene, you have to plan everything in advance and (b) use the camera’s positioning and framing to enhance the meaning of your shot.

(a) The amount of planning that must have gone into filming this scene was immense. I’m willing to bet that the actors all rehearsed their movements many times. The cinematographer and gaffer watched those rehearsals like hawks and developed their lighting plot accordingly. But before anyone even set foot in that bar, Béla Tarr mapped that scene out in his head and put the major moments down on paper in storyboard form.

When planning to shoot your corporate film, make sure to take the time to think out every shot and how it will all interact together in the final product.

(b) The camera can be a powerful ally. The framing and composition of your shots will have a large impact of how the audience reacts to the image. Close up shots bring the audience close to your subject and allow them to see minute emotions. Wider shots give more of a sense of the setting. The size of the subject compared to the setting can convey a number of different things. The small figure of Valuska in the bar during the eclipse gives a profound sense of loneliness whereas the more crowded and closer view of the spinning barflies is safer and more comforting. Pay attention as well to the angle of the camera. A straight on eye-level shot is most common but if you move the camera along the vertical axis, you can elicit different responses. A low-angle shot where the camera looks up on an individual typically connotes power and the opposite high-angle shot connotes weakness.

As with any “rule” in film, everything is dependent upon specific circumstances at hand. But the way to ensure you are striking a chord with the audience is to know why you are implementing any technique. So long as you have a well-thought out reason for your actions, the audience will realize there is meaning even if they can’t specifically pinpoint what it is.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Corporate video vs. Corporate film

“I don’t make movies, I make films!” – Billy Walsh from Entourage

Film is a magical and dying medium. Only Kodak remains as the last bastion of motion picture film as Fujifilm announced the discontinuation of the vast majority of its film products. Celluloid has a certain panache and glamor associated with it. The silver screen; the golden age of cinema. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn—all of these names and personas are immortalized on physical 35mm prints. The term “film” when referring to the work of art rather than the physical stock, has come to connote a certain degree of quality, craftsmanship, and artistic merit (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, film; Transformers, movie).

In the corporate setting, video seems to be the buzzword. Personally, whenever I hear the phrase “corporate video” I cringe a little bit. To me, the term “video” is associated with home videos recorded on grainy 8mm film or a little handycam from Best Buy. Society is moving in an increasingly more visual direction. Our phones can now capture moving images. Vine and instagram allow for micro-sized movies to be shared with friends and family. As a result, it’s easy to whip some video content together on a phone and start creating a video footprint.

There is definitely a place for iPhone videos and Vines in marketing strategies. After all, they’re inexpensive to use, extremely portable and match the style of most normal social video content. At the same time, one can’t devalue the more polished side of the visual spectrum. Rather than think of a 30 second explainer video as a corporate video, approach it as a corporate film. A film tells a compelling story in a visually stunning way—in a way that connects on a deep and emotional level with audiences.

The best films are the ones with the best stories. Don’t think of film and fear Michael Bay sized budgets. Instead think of touching indie classics like this past summer’s The Way, Way Back. With a great story and a cinematic mindset, you can create a great corporate film.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

If it doesn't push, and it doesn't pull...

Every once in a while an embarrassing moment serves as a great teacher. Last night I was filming an event put on by VentureFizz and NextView Ventures—“designing product experiences that win.” I had my two cameras set up. One running off direct power and the other on battery. I knew that I was going to need to swap batteries partway through so I switched batteries between the networking portion of the event and the start of the panel to give the spare as much time as possible to charge.

As the power on my camera began to run down, I looked for an opportunity to break away for a moment to grab the battery on charge. I seized my moment and scampered to the room in which I had staged my equipment and found the door was closed. I pushed on the handle to no avail. It wasn’t a push door, so I pulled on it. Nothing. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the door was locked. If it won’t push open and it won’t pull open, it has to be locked right? As I stood outside that door staring at my one spare batter (you can never have enough batteries), a woman next to me chimed in: “It slides.”

It slides. I easily opened the door and retrieved my battery. On the walk back to my camera, I realized how simple the solution to my problem was, but I was constrained by my perception of doors and couldn’t fathom a sliding one at that moment. At rest stops across the country, the doors are all labeled push or pull so that weary travelers don’t have to struggle trying one method in vain. In my mind, those were the only two options for how to open a door. Sometimes, when the two most obvious and seemingly only options don’t work there might be a third very simple option that gets overlooked.

Has there ever been a time when you found a third solution to a problem that seemed to have only two answers?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Lesson from Fantasy Football

With the advent of the NFL season comes the arrival of fantasy football. If you’ve seen any of FX’s show The League, or know people who play fantasy, you’ll know that people can get pretty crazy about it. Ridiculous bets are won and lost, trash talk is colorful and inevitable, and in serious leagues the hoisting of the championship trophy can instill more pride than perhaps even the birth of a first born child.

As league commissioner of a robust 14 person league (anything with fewer than 12 teams is a joke, let’s be honest), I do my best to keep everyone connected. With members scattered across the globe (we have people on three different continents and across twelve hours’ worth of time zones), I decided to take full advantage of the video option for the League Commissioner’s notes.

Even though I’m capable of producing a quality, highly polished video (film one might even say), I use the webcam built into my laptop to record the videos I send out to my league. A snazzy, sizzling corporate film has its place, but not everything has to be rolling in production value. Bringing in a Condor crane for a fantasy football league video would be so much overkill. The important most important element of those league videos is to instill a sense of camaraderie and connectedness which takes nothing more than a webcam and some witty banter (and of course, plenty of trash talk). So when you’re thinking about incorporating video into your marketing strategy, take a minute to reflect on how important the production value is because in some cases, a webcam might do just fine.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Love that Dirty Water

Boston is a great city. It’s the only place I’ve called home. The Pru, the Hancock, the Custom House Tower. The smell of salt water from the harbor. The roar of the crowd as Mike Carp rips a grand slam. If you talk to any true Bostonian, they will defend their city with a fierce passion.

But no city is without its flaws. I mean, who lets a bunch of cows’ meandering design your streets? And despite the recent success of our sports teams, the first thirteen years of my life were but a small part of an 86 year drought (my heart goes out to any fans of the Chicago Cubs, you will have your day in the sun). But one strange rallying cry of the Boston people is The Standells’ song “Dirty Water.” The song doesn’t provide the most glowing review of our city, yet we own that song.

How many companies describe themselves as cutting edge, innovative, thought leaders that are revolutionizing the industry with big data? How many ninjas and mavens and pirates are running around on LinkedIn? Now I’m not saying that you should go around heralding the fact that your product will result in an extra unwanted appendage, but sometimes when you embrace the warts, you get a prince in return.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How to Improve your Chances in the Hollywood Crapshoot: The Film School Question

So you're an aspiring filmmaker in your early 20s. You want to make films. Not just some half-cooked short film you may have created while in an undergrad production class, but a real film, really made - with real people who can truly define and brand themselves as filmmakers.

Not only that, you want to be a filmmaker in the industry. You want that glorified Oscar nomination... but you'd settle for Sundance. You want to travel to Cannes for your work.

You want Hollywood.

Best way way to get there? That's the tricky part. I've had aspirations to write a traditional 120-page Hollywood screenplay, submit it to a competition (and win), sell away my rights to it for a few cool million & get noticed in the biz. Just a few easy steps! I mean if JJ Abrams can do it, why couldn't I?

The cold hard truth is that is isn't as easy as that. Not everyone is as talented and successful as someone like JJ Abrams. Everyone who has that kind of talent doesn't necessarily also already have a connection in the biz - your parents. JJ's parents produced a few television shows in addition to him.

It's not formula. It's a crapshoot. How does one improve his odds in a crapshoot?  In order to make it in the film industry, one needs to have not only the drive, talent, & determination and a boatload of luck, but also the connections. The best way to attain these valuable connections if one isn't already born into them is film school.

Hollywood Reporter recently unveiled its annual list of top film school undergraduate & graduate programs, tallying votes from a bevy of industry professionals from the America Cinema Editors, Writers Guild of America West, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. But are they worth the money?

Top programs like University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, Hollywood's own American Film Institute Conservatory Program, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts are steep in price. The gamble you make, of course, is whether or not you'll be in student loan debt the rest of your life, which runs you close to about $100,000 on average for a two year MFA program. Have no fear! You pay that money back after you network with the big boys after graduation! Easier said than done.

But it's way more than networking. A smaller and relatively less expensive film program such as FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts, provides its students with an arsenal of industry cameras & lights. For free. Top programs like USC & AFI might not be even to provide that - you have to rent elsewhere. Granted, they give you grant money to rent & use them for your thesis films, but that's besides the point. The point I am making is this - you do get what you pay for when you pay for film school. Industry standard equipment is catastrophically expensive.

You'd never get a chance to play with with equipment like that, and learn all their intricacies, anywhere else. And if you plan to concentrate in cinematography rather than directing or screenwriting, you get to use that equipment to shoot plenty of films. MFA programs in directing and screenwriting can guarantee maybe only one thesis project that you can personally brand while in school. Cinematographers have the advantage of shooting multiple theses, which provide excellent sources for a reel to showcase your talent to industry professionals. More projects equals more diversity in your reel, which is more impressive than just one magnum opus, in my humble opinion. You have the opportunity to shoot multiple magni opi.

Which brings me to my next point: what to specialize in film school, if that's an option. I would suggest venturing down a path in cinematography for several reasons. For one, less people tend to concentrate in cinematography because the ones applying to grad school flock to the directing programs. Cinematography helps you out in admissions. I never personally understood this because I believe cinematography should be the most popular. You are actually behind the camera, and using it! Or you actually light the space yourself! The cinematographer is literally responsible for the visual, not the director. But, I digress.

The second reason is that a proficiency in cinematography means you know about both camera and lights; you are more responsible on-set because you are most likely more technically knowledgeable than everyone else. A director, yes, is the unspoken boss on-set, but really he is in charge of getting the best performance from the actors. A screenwriter loses his power once he sells his perfectly manicured script. After that, his input is rarely heard. They're not even allowed on set during production because their mere presence and potential complaints are an annoyance to the director. The director has final say in story elements & visual choices after that.

If the screenwriter is responsible for why the story is important, the director is responsible for what is important to show in that story, and the cinematographer is important for how everything comes into place - the real bare bones & all the guts and glory. You are more engaged with your work at hand, and isn't that the most important thing? Doing work you love because you're engaged with it?

The third reason is anyone can read a book about screenwriting, and then write a screenplay. You don't have to pay tuition to learn that. Yes, you get connections in film school, but a screenwriter can write as much as he or she wants and enter hundreds competitions and win prizes without a degree. This is true.   Cinematography, however, requires a certain skill set that can advance in levels in terms of proficiency; specific equipment is required that is not readily available to the layman, but is available to experiment with at top film programs.

Sure you can get an MFA in Screenwriting and apply for teaching jobs at the collegiate level and make a good living, but schools also tend to hire based on experience. Winning prizes in well renowned nationwide competitions shows you know how to write screenplays and is a substitute for that Masters degree. Pay hundreds of dollars to enter competitions or pay thousands of dollars in student loans to meet your end goal? That's the decision.

Last reason, you can still get noticed by making your own film without the help of one of these institutions. You can just max out all your credit cards to become ~$100,000 in debt to pay for equipment, locations, and permits like Kevin Smith did with Clerks, but that's a real silly gamble.

My real last reason to go to film school: you make not only industry connections at these graduate programs, but you meet friends. Film is a collaborative medium. You need to meet other people who are as invested in making movies as you are; it's not a hobby, it's a calling. And you filter out those who believe filmmaking is a hobby at film school. These are the ones you make truly great work with after you leave school. And that's when the fun begins.

At least that's my best educated guess, because that's where I hope to be later down the film school.

- Sebastian