Every Movie I Ever Worked on Was a Startup

Every movie  I ever worked on was a startup. We just didn’t call it that. We assembled a development crew. We pitched our idea to a network or group of investors. We got money. We put it into production, sending crews into the field, rewriting scripts, getting it into post, getting music composed and graphics made. Then we would hand the finished project off to the network that paid for it. We let them take care of promoting it. Guess what? Often, that didn’t go well.

Wait a minute. A network? Failing at promotion? <snicker>

You know what happened? With their network resources, their vast reach, they failed to build a culture around the movie. Most often, networks discover cultures by accident, which is lucky. Or by design, by continually commissioning the same project over and over about Las Vegas/Jesus/WW2/the Bible/UFOs/blowing stuff up. Or chef/cake competitions. Or Real [People] of [Location.] Mixing those elements in the same recipe over and over meant they did not need to build a culture for each new project. They already had one waiting for them. The project would connect with a pre-existing audience.

This is why so many movies you see are the same.

The people who make them have discovered demographically-driven cultures ready to get pinged, willing to jump in, able to accept the movie or tv show into their world. Getting cultural connection is easier when the culture already exists.

Startups face this challenge all the time, but they don’t call it culture-building.

If I made a documentary about Harrison Ford, millions of people would watch it. An existing culture interested in movie stars easily found the project. If I made a documentary about UFOs we got a vast audience. The cultures existed. The delivery system existed. All that remained was to make a half-decent connection.

When I made a documentary about Harley-Davidson I realized that we were really speaking first to people who went to motorcycle rallies, and people who had weekend motorcycle clubs. Sub-groups. Smaller cultures.  If we could draw them in, they’d participate in the film, granting us an interview. They’d watch it when it came out. When I made a documentary about Route 66 we gave everyone we met, from California to Chicago, a t-shirt with our production company URL on the back.  People started to communicate with us about the film on the website, even before it was released.  Mind=blown. (This was in 2000, so we felt pretty advanced.)

The lesson I learned was that each film we made had to go out and talk to a culture. If there wasn’t an existing culture, we had to build one, which was harder. If we didn’t do the culture-building step, the film when released dropped like a rock to the bottom of the ocean.

When building your startup, are you also building a culture to support it?