In 1909, the first feature film produced in the United States was a four-reel production of Les Miserables. Producers, however, didn’t think that the American public could sit still for any movie lasting more than an hour and, consequently, released it that year in separate one-reel installments between the middle of September and the end of November. Over a century later, movies continue to captivate us…and that’s without even knowing the multiplicity of elements that not only go into getting those films made in the first place but also getting them in front of an audience. Ben Yennie, author of The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget, gives us a peek behind the magic curtain of modern cinema.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When did you first know that you wanted to play a dynamic part in the making of movies?
A: Despite the fact that I’ve always loved movies, movie making came to me in a very roundabout way. For most of my high school years, I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher. I had spent a lot of time volunteering with the kids in the high school’s program and I thought that was the direction I wanted to head in. At the time, my high school required every senior do a senior project. I had taken a video production course at the beginning of the year and decided that I would do a video on how to take care of one of the kids who was transitioning into a nursing home. While I was editing the video, I realized that I liked the process of filmmaking more than I liked the subject I was making the video on. So, I decided to go to film school.
Q: Did you originally see yourself as an actor, director or producer?
A: As with many others who enter film school, originally I saw myself as a writer/director. I had a knack for writing scenes, but pretty shortly into film school, I realized I was a really talented producer. I loved the social end of producing, and enabling creative people to be creative. As I went further into film school, I found that I understood finance very well for a filmmaker. The processes behind distribution and finance fascinated me. With that in mind, I transitioned more towards the deal-making end of producing. One thing led to another and eventually I ended up as a Producer’s Rep.
Q: Who or what were the influences that crystallized the choice for you?
A: One of the biggest influences was my first producing teacher, Bill Brown. He was also the person who got me to go to the American Film Market the first time. It was really under his tutelage that I took those first steps towards being a producer. There really aren’t many people who go to film school to be a producer. It’s not all that surprising, given most film schools’ producing programs aren’t all that good.
Q: What’s the best industry advice anyone has ever given you?
A: It’s cliché, but it really boils down to this: the film business is really about who you know more than what you know. The film industry relies heavily on social capital. If you are well liked and have good relationships with powerful people in the industry, you’re going to be far more likely to find success. The reason you go to the American Film Market is to meet the people you want to know and establish relationships with them. But remember, while you want to know a lot of people, the real trick is knowing the right people. In order to know the right people, you need to build a good reputation.
Q: So tell us how you made the transition from filmmaker to entrepreneur.
A: Well, if I’m honest, it’s not much of a transition to make. Filmmakers and entrepreneurs have a lot of the same skills. They’re both able to assemble a team, lead that team through long hours, and overcome any obstacle to create a product. However, filmmakers often lack a thorough understanding of marketing, sales, or financing. I happen to be fascinated with these aspects, so the transition was pretty natural. After putting in some time at The Institute for International Film Finance, I was able to see where the existing educational system was lacking and help to create a company that enables filmmakers to pursue a career independent of the studio system.
Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
A: There are two things. The first, success is not a sprint, nor is it linear. It’s a long journey with many ups and downs until eventually something takes off. You just need to keep going, keep trying, and do whatever you can to pursue your goals. It’s not about your daily progress, or even your weekly progress. It’s about your monthly, quarterly, and yearly progress. The most important thing you can do is keep your long term goals in place, and try to move them forward a little bit every day. You can get discouraged if you don’t feel better off than you were yesterday. If you keep building, you’ll grow a little bit every month and year.
The second thing is that as you go, you’ll realize your own imperfections and want to change them. If you really want to move past them, then just decide to do so. Committing to massive behavioral modifications overnight is unlikely to stick. It’s far better to focus on being just a little bit better every single day. Even if you’re only 1% better, it will accumulate over time into massive, sustainable transformation.
Q: Tell us how you ended up as a producer’s rep and what, exactly, does this involve.
A: I have a few relatively rare and highly valuable skills in the film industry. Agents tend to like me, as do many of the distributors I’ve worked with. When it comes down to getting the film in the can, there are thousands upon thousands of details that need to be sorted out, and I lose interest. So, I focus my efforts on helping filmmakers navigate the waters that are generally choppiest, and require a highly specialized skill set that I happen to have a knack for. There are plenty of filmmakers who can make a great film, there are far fewer who understand how to market those films and help them actually make some money.
I shifted focus to enable people to create films and get them distributed. And that’s what a producer’s rep does. He or she’s essentially an agent for filmmakers and films, helping them get packaged, funded, and distributed. I’m still new to this, so I concentrate on packaging and distribution over financing. Financing is a place I’d like to move into in a few years though.
Q: Since you focus on distribution and finance, do you ever miss making films?
A: I do occasionally. But, honestly, I’m more interested in episodic content at the moment. I think that’s the way the market’s heading and I have a few ideas that I’m currently developing. Nothing will be ready for prime time for quite a while, though.
Q: Why did you decide to start going to The American Film Market?
A: I started going to AFM on a recommendation by a friend and mentor, Bill Brown. It took a few years, but eventually I took his advice and booked a greyhound bus ticket to LA. I stayed in a shared bathroom hotel with my then producing partner, and did it on as tight a budget as was humanly possible. The next two years I attended were even more successful. By my fourth year, I had 55 screener requests for the 5 films I was repping. Success builds upon itself.
Q: This month marks the debut of your first book: The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget. What inspired you to write it?
A: A lot of the inspiration was from some continual good-natured ribbing from another good friend and mentor, Tony Wilkins. I attended a workshop of his, where he spoke of how he wrote his first book and then encouraged me to write my own. After a few months, I finally decided to write it. Now, just under a year later, I’m a published author!
Q: So where did the name for it come from?
A: I was on the floor at AFM introducing myself, and I met a fairly powerful series creator who ran a fairly big crime show on Fox. I introduced myself as Ben, and said I was a Guerrilla Rep. He loved the name, and we entered into a bet on who could make money with it first. Well Tony (different Tony), I win.
Q: Give us a brief teaser of what readers can expect to find inside its pages.
A: My own ego aside, the most useful things in the book are probably the parts I didn’t write. The contributions from the 6 distributors and the extended interview with Daisy Hamilton are the best part of the book. It’s practical advice on distribution straight from the horse’s mouth. The first 16 chapters are relatively in depth pieces of practical advice on how to find success at the American Film Market, mixed with some personal anecdotes and advice garnered on the floor of AFM. However, the really useful information is the tips from the distributors and financiers.
Q: What did you learn about yourself over the course of writing the book?
A: I had a fair amount of detractors when I started writing who said that there’s no way I could add anything useful to a book. I almost caved to them. What I learned over the course of writing the book was that I really do understand the subject matter, and on this particularly narrow field, I am something of an expert. It’s definitely a bit of a transition to that role, but it’s an exciting and rewarding one. There’s an excellent quote by Flannery O’Conner that says “I write to discover what I know.” Writing this book allowed me to discover that I know a lot more than I thought I did.
Q: The film industry is really tricky to break into. What motivates you to keep going?
A: That’s a really good question, and I honestly wonder myself sometimes. There’s this sort of compulsion some people have to create. Storytelling is just in some people’s blood, and some of those storytellers gravitate towards the tools that only visual media have. Personally, I love the feeling of being plopped into a sensory deprivation tank and being told a story with moving images, and being a part of that is really exciting for me. I think within every filmmaker lies a dreamer, and it’s the dream that keeps us all going. For me personally, I love being someone who helps people’s dream come true. There’s a certain magic in that.
Q: What qualities do certain filmmakers have that make you want to represent them?
A: There are a few qualities I look for when considering whether or not I want to represent a client. The first is honesty. If you lie to me, I’m not very likely to work with you. If you continually misrepresent yourself, then I’m not likely to invest my time in you either.
The second is stamina and dedication to a project. Filmmaking is a marathon, not a sprint, and if I’m repping you, I need to know you’ll be there to help us promote. The world of filmmaking is becoming more and more about building a community and a fan base around yourself, and if you want to have success, you need to make yourself a part of it.
The third, and the holy grail, is some sort of talent and creativity. Just because you have the tools to say something doesn’t mean you have something to say. However if you have this in spades but not the other two, I can’t help you. This is a business, and business relationships rely on trust. I need to be able to trust you and know that you’ll deliver on what you say you will. So while you need to have all three of these things for me to work with you, talent and having something to say is not the be all and end all of my search for good clients.
It’s surprising, but it’s not always the best film that lights up the festival circuit. It’s the one that can generate the most buzz. This factor needs talent and creativity, as well as hard work and dedication.
Q: If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?
A: Honestly, I hate the current power structure. The fact that the industry functions on back room dealings at restaurants and film festivals is far from desirable. The general lack of transparency is alarming, and keeps new money from entering the business at the rate necessary for sustainable growth. If you don’t have an in to the industry, it can be very difficult to break in. I really don’t like the fact that if you piss off the wrong guy then your whole career can be kaboshed. I suppose this is true in any industry, but it’s particularly egregious in the film industry. One of my life goals is to disintermediate the industry, even by just a little bit. If I can do that through my ventures, then it’s a career well spent.
Q: Where do you think film production will be in the next 10 years?
A: At this point, even three years out is hard to predict. Ten years is nearly impossible to estimate, even for the most involved in the industry. But, since you asked, I’ll give a guess in broad strokes. If current trends continue, I think the really quality content is going to shift towards the episodic format and there will be an ever increasing focus on mobile and home based viewing. I think that finding success as a filmmaker will involve getting listed on some of the bigger aggregators and growing your own personal fan base to the point that you can build a stable income stream from selling your content to your fans. Then, the filmmaker will need to continue to grow by getting listed in festivals, larger aggregators, host community screenings, and work primarily independently of the major studio system.
Success will require filmmakers to build a cult of personality around their work, even more so than it currently does. The really difficult part will be rising above the ever-increasing level of white noise and oversaturation that’s flooding the market. In essence, the most valuable asset any aggregator or promoter will have is a truly engaged list. I think community and niche market distribution will be increasingly important, and a new realm of community screenings in atypical screening locations will become prevalent. Screenings in the backs of restaurants, schools, anywhere with chairs and a projector will be more and more common, and it will be on the filmmaker and promoters to spread the film.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I’m absolutely addicted to Karaoke. I’m pretty far outside the standard demographic for it, but it’s probably my biggest vice. In fact, the launch party for The Guerrilla Rep will have karaoke. Just because I like it.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Quite a lot. We’re really stepping up the game at The Producer Foundry, and I just got promoted to Vice President of Sales at Taal, a mobile app that enables employers to take video interviews on any iOS or Android device. I’m also still repping films, running a blog, and starting to develop the next book. I’m really excited about all of it, but less excited about the lack of sleep it’s sure to lead to.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: I’d just like to thank everyone who made this book possible. I’d also really like to thank you for interviewing me. I’m looking forward to reading Office For One. *
Interviewer note: Ben is one of several dozen experts who contributed fantastic chapter content to my upcoming business book targeted to today’s sole proprietors.