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IT DEPENDS: The Top Dozen Facts and Fallacies About the Film Business, Part 1

Chris Schiller breaks down a selection of facts or fallacies in the film business into three groups: People, Business Skills and “The Deal.” Within each section a statement is made that is either a fact or a fallacy within our industry. Take a guess then read on to see Chris' assessment of the statement’s truth value and why.

Chris Schiller breaks down a selection of facts or fallacies in the film business into three groups: People, Business Skills and “The Deal.”

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Chris Schiller breaks down a selection of facts or fallacies in the film business into three groups: People, Business Skills and “The Deal.” Within each section a statement is made that is either a fact or a fallacy within our industry. Take a guess then read on to see Chris' assessment of the statement’s truth value and why.

I recently was asked to give a presentation to the film group Upstate Independents – Filmmakers Network and thought a discussion of the top dozen facts and fallacies of the business side of the film business would be entertaining and a bit informative. The presentation went over well, so, for those of you who were unable to attend, this pair of columns is an abridged version of that talk.

I’ve broken down the selection of facts or fallacies into three groups: People, Business Skills and “The Deal.” Within each section a statement is made that is either a fact or a fallacy within our industry. Take a guess then read on to see my assessment of the statement’s truth value and why.

Section 1 – People

1) The six degrees of separation concept.


It’s a FACT. At least to a degree.

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You might remember the concept as the premise of the 1993 movie of the same name (adapted from the John Guare play) starring Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland and introducing the dramatic film acting debut of a young rap singer turned TV sitcom star, Will Smith. What’s the concept? Well, Stockard Channing’s character does a good job boiling it down in the trailer to the film, but in essence, the idea is that there are no more than six degrees of separation between any individual and any other individual on the planet. That is, you know someone, who knows someone, who… well, you get the picture now.

The thing is, collective “Hollywood” isn’t that big a neighborhood. So the separation between you and someone who can make a difference in your career is usually a lot less than six. And I call it a collective Hollywood because movers and shakers in the industry can be found just about anywhere on the planet.

Draw an arbitrary 50-mile radius around any location, say, where you are sitting right now. You might be surprised, but I bet that within that circle, wherever it is, you can find filmmakers, world renowned directors, screenwriters and novelists, Oscar winners, Emmy winners and the most important category of all, people who can “take a meeting.” That last category consists of people who may not only be interested in your project or script but also have the connections and wherewithal to take it to the next level.

The only issue is that you may not realize who knows them yet, or you may not even recognize who they are, even though you know them. And it’s also a matter of when you know them. Sometimes the connections you will need in the future are already made with people who haven’t yet gained their status in the industry to help you.

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2) You shouldn’t judge people by the job they do today.


It’s a FACT.

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Here’s a few example scenarios. Imagine you are interviewing potential employees. Would you hire...?

Ex. 1 – A handyman/carpenter working on a friend’s house who heard about you making a movie and wants to try out for a role.

If you’d hire them, congratulations, you just gave Harrison Ford his first break.

Ex. 2 – An ex-video store clerk who loves movies so much he wants to try to direct one.

That young, hungry director turned out to be Quentin Tarantino.

Ex. 3 – A trespasser/squatter caught on your property, wants a job.

If you give him one, you’ve just employed Steven Spielberg.

Ex. 4 – The struggling screenwriter you just met doesn’t know how he will pay his rent next month.

Well, I wasn’t quick enough (or in a position to help him out) when I heard him say this at a screenwriting conference, but a couple weeks later he won the Academy Award for Usual Suspects, so I suspect Christopher McQuarrie is doing okay now.

The takeaway from these examples should be to be kind to everyone you meet even if they can’t do anything for you right now. They may be in a position to return the kindness later.

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3) Anyone can claim to be (nearly) anything.


It is a FACT that anyone can claim to be just about anything.

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Actually, in our industry, only two groups – lawyers and agents (and these last in only a few, key states, New York and California among them) are licensed occupations and therefore have to be authorized by the state licensing agencies where they are located to be able to legitimately hold those jobs. These licensed individuals must adhere to strict guidelines of conduct and responsibility and be re-certified on a regular basis.

For every other job there is nothing prohibiting you or anyone else from claiming to be a filmmaker, actor, writer, producer, director, cinematographer, distributor, star, manager, an “important person,” etc.

It doesn’t mean they’ll be any good at it. Don’t get caught up in titles or what’s on their business card. They’re cheap and easy to get printed and no one checks the credentials of the person who puts in the order.

Takeaway: It’s not what people call themselves, it’s what they can do. And that goes for you, too.

Section 2 – Business skills

4) Your most successful negotiation is when you are bored.


It might be surprising, but that’s actually a FACT. And surprise is the key element here.

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Excitement often leads to making quick, and sometimes bad choices. In the heat of the moment, enthusiasm can run amuck with the unprepared. How many stories have you heard about filmmakers so overjoyed with the offers they get from distributors right after their festival premieres that they take one that night, only to regret that snap decision when the details of what they signed reveal themselves.

To counter this potential disaster I’ll remind you of these proven negotiation tenets. Before you go into any potential negotiation know these two key things:

Know when to say, “Thank you for your time, but this is not going to work out.” This is your specific low bar. Not enough is being offered to make you happy, and you are so far away from a deal that would please you that it is only wasting time to continue the discussion. You are just not on the same page because you’ve already calculated the lowest acceptable deal you’d consider before you walk in the room.

Know when to think (or even say,) “Shut up so I can sign!” This is the high bar you’ve decided is good enough to make you happy. When you know what you need to be satisfied before you walk in the room, and they’ve just offered it or better, then there is no need to continue the conversation. Holding out for more won’t make you happier and might sour your reputation in future negotiations. You don’t need to take less than they’ve offered, but there’s no need to gouge them.

If you know these points of comfort with your deal before you start negotiations, then it’s a matter of waiting to see what’s on the table. If you are between these two points, then you can continue to negotiate towards an acceptable level.

But always remember, if it sounds too good to be true, you’re right. And if there is unavoidable urgency for your decision make sure that it is truly to your advantage, that you have them over a barrel, otherwise you’re the one who’s dangling. “Let me think about it,” should always be an available option, otherwise no further thought is necessary. Walk away.

Takeaway: Preparation for what could happen and how you plan to react allows for calm decisions from well considered options.

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5) The best meeting is when you talk the least.


Again, this may surprise some people, but, it is a FACT.

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It may seem counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that if you let someone talk about themselves and their interests when you meet them they will walk away with a good impression of you and your meeting.

First impressions are lasting. If you come off as self-centered and focused on only what you want from them, most people remain defensive and guarded. No one wants to be taken for granted or taken advantage of.

If, on the other hand, you are truly interested in someone you’ve just met, by inquiring and listening, you will find the other party relax and be more forthcoming. Invariably, if the timing and setting allows, the conversation will turn back to you to return the inquiry, “So, what do you do?” If not, you’ll still come off as a pleasant and non-threatening person, one that is met with a smile at your next meeting. If you want to look at it as a task, it’s the long game, but in reality, it’s just being friendly. That often gets you further along than any other approach.

Every time I bring up this topic I’m tangentially reminded of the quote, “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it” - apparently attributed to Maurice Switzer from Mrs. Goose, Her Book, written in 1907 but also attributed to either Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. Since I don’t really know who said it, maybe I should have kept my mouth shut about it?

6) You will most likely always be the least experienced person in the room.


In the main, this will nearly always be a FACT, but there’s more to it.

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First off, this is not a bad thing, just a fact. And actually something you can take comfort in. You want there to be more experience on the other side of the table, someone who knows how to do the things you don’t. That experience will give the project more opportunity to succeed.

And you don’t have to go in blind and all innocent. You can study up and prepare for what is likely to be discussed in the room. Learn all you can about the processes you’ll likely encounter. Then you’ll be able to follow the conversations and decisions being made and even contribute. A well-prepared collaborator is a welcome thing in any new association.

Takeaway: Impress them with your preparation, even if you don’t yet have the experience, and you will earn their trust.

To be continued...

We’ll stop here and leave the rest of the facts and fallacies for next time. There we’ll finish up with the business skills section and move on to the all important “deal.” Until next time...

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