Everyone loves watching movies, but have you ever considered how great filmmakers get their start? Like every other business, the film production world has its wild dreamers who defy the odds to prove themselves worthy among the masters of their craft. These are the independent filmmakers, and they are some of the greatest examples of truly visionary, inspirational leadership that can be found in the trenches of a world few even know exists, the world of independent filmmaking.
Independent filmmakers are like the Navy SEALs of the motion picture industry. They embody the ultimate in entrepreneurship, creative vision, unconventional problem solving and raw grit and determination. Indie filmmakers routinely create million dollar properties out of thousand dollar investments, and they wouldn’t be caught dead at a leadership workshop or a managerial retreat. They’re often the business world misfits, busy hustling their projects from dream to vision to revenue machine. Here are a few key concepts every business could learn from the under-the-radar movers and shakers of Hollywood:
1. Vision is King: If there’s one thing successful indie filmmakers have in spades, it’s Vision. Every business coach in the world will tell you that you have to start with a clear vision, a vision that is contagious, a vision that people will follow. There’s no better example of the heart of great, contagious vision than an independent film. What literally starts with an idea in the mind of a writer/director, manifested onto the written page and then cast as a cinematic, completed story is the only thing that most independent filmmakers have going for them when they begin a project. Without that compelling vision, written out in the form of a screenplay, no filmmaker ever makes it out of the dreamer phase. But, a great script, the filmmaking world’s version of a vision statement and business plan all rolled into one, will ignite a flame that a whole cast and crew can rally around and fan into an inferno. It’s a stunning example of the manifestation by many of the vision of a few.
2. The Law of Merit: Indie filmmakers don’t waste their time with personal politics or hiring quotas. In fact, indie filmmaking may be the last, vast, unspoiled frontier of merit-based employment. Unlike many other industries, the very nature of a film project and its structure as a one-off production, staffed largely by independent contractors gives it the unique and absolutely necessary characteristic of attracting and employing the best workers for each role. There are no oversight commissions, no legislation that can dictate who a filmmaker hires, whether for a leading role or a leading crew position. It is a 100% meritocracy. You don’t get and keep a job on a film unless you are right for the position and can perform every day. Non-performers in a contractor role are easy to replace, and they are replaced quickly. There is no tenure, only intense competition, solid work ethic and the survival of the fittest. As a result, the end product always wins, and the most skilled always advance.
3. Desperation Breeds Innovation. To say indie filmmakers are desperate to succeed is usually an understatement. Imagine having the vision to raise and spend the equivalent of what may be a studio film’s catering budget on your entire, completed film, with the belief that it can compete head-to-head with those same behemoth-budget films for an audience’s attention. Yet, that is exactly what indie filmmakers do every day. From raising capital to stretching that capital beyond compare, the indie filmmaker uses his desperate mindset to fuel his determination. If the motivation were financial, indie filmmakers would likely crumble in the face of their insurmountable odds, but it’s always about proving that it can be done, and having the faith that it will lead to greater opportunities down the road.
4. Consistent Persistence. A nanosecond consumer culture has fueled a quick-to-discard corporate culture that all too often puts rapid return on investment over patient and measured development of a product that may not yield a return for years to come. Indie filmmakers are not afraid of consistently persisting with the development of a project that may take years, sometimes even decades. Because of that strength of vision that they never let fade, the longer they persist, the better the final film becomes. With an average development time for an independent film of 5-7 years, if ever there were gleaming examples of the idealism of vision over quick financial returns, it is to be found amongst the indies. They turn their seeming greatest weakness – a lack of financial backing – into their greatest strength. When you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, you persist out of pure necessity.
5. Hire the best and let them do their jobs. Nothing kills productivity like a micro manager. But more so than anywhere else, in the indie film world, nothing will sink your film faster than second-guessing the other artists you’ve hired to help you manifest your vision. Whether it’s an indie film or the latest installment of “Star Wars”, the reason great movies are great is because successful filmmakers know how to hire the best, cast a contagious vision, and allow the creative breathing room for their cast and crew to make the project their own. The best actors are the best because they have directors who understand this concept, and allow the actors to push back and help to shape the scenes of the film. Likewise, a smart director doesn’t hire a great cinematographer and then nit pick every light they rig. When you see great movies, you’re seeing the product of great filmmakers who know how to set up great teams for success, and get out of their way.
So, the next time you see a great movie or TV program that you like, remember that you’re seeing the manifestation by many of the vision of a few, and the result of clear and unfettered leadership in many disciplines. Indie filmmakers make it happen, no matter what it takes.