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June 23 at 8:20am

Integrating Entrepreneurial Training Into Graduate Film Programs

By Ted Hope

I was excited to learn recently about how entrepreneurial skills are in integral part of the University of Central Florida MFA filmmaking program.  I gave a talk at LAFF on “The Rise Of  The Artist Entrepreneur” and find many filmmakers woefully under-equipped to navigate the demands of both survival and creation in today’s world.  Randy Finch helped start UCF’s innovative program in 2005 and I asked him to explain it a bit further. This is his guest post:

By Randy Finch
Not all filmmakers want to know about writing business plans, entity formation, the uses of social media and DIY distribution strategies. The MFA program at UCF is not for everyone. Our program is designed for a small group of microbudget digital filmmakers. If you are not prepared to do everything (including raising your own financing) that it takes to get a feature made and marketed for under $50,000, we’re not for you.
While I agree with Ted that financing, distribution and marketing should be woven into today’s independent filmmaker’s education, I also understand the recent backlash from filmmakers who have no interest in these subjects. The reason most of us got into this was not to become experts in distribution, marketing or finance. But in the 20+ years since I first became an independent filmmaker, I’ve been compelled to learn about VHS deals, sale leasebacks, foreign presales, negative pick-ups and all sorts of other arcane (and now mostly useless) business practices.

As far as I can tell, being an independent filmmaker has always meant hustling to get the money and an audience. So teaching my students about the new models of distribution, transmedia storytelling, forming an LLC and the like – is not really such a stretch. Just like all the other parts of the filmmaking process, the entrepreneurial stuff independent filmmakers must navigate today are just skills that can (and, I think, should) be learned. Of course, you can choose to ignore what happens with your film after you’re done with the editing – just as you can choose to ignore visual storytelling, sound recording and the intricacies of post-production workflow – but the more you know about all aspects of the filmmaking process, the better.

I’d be lying if I said that the students in our Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema MFA track all happily accomplish every task we put in front of them. The two classes they are required to take in UCF’s Business School (Entrepreneurship and Business Plan Formation) are generally not their favorites. And the paperwork they are required to submit to get their degree (after they’ve written, budgeted, scheduled, financed, insured, pre-produced, cast, crewed, directed, edited, and mixed their own microbudget feature) detailing everything they’ve done and how they now plan to release their film, always seems excessive. (I tell them that we require less paperwork than the delivery requirements of most distribution companies, but it never seems to soothe them.)

But now that their films are starting to circulate, and our graduates are starting their own careers, the results are very positive. Last time I checked, everyone who has received an MFA from UCF Film is working in the film business. And the first three graduates from our program have all launched their films on the festival circuit, where they all have won awards (including: Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Gasparilla International Film Festival, Best Feature Director 2009 LA Femme Film Festival, 2009 Silver Crystal Reel Award for Best Feature $1 Million and Under from the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association, and Best Feature, Best Score and Best Cinematography at the 2009 Bend Film Festival in Oregon).

So, in addition to a finished feature length film and an MFA (a credential that will allow them to teach at the University level), everyone who completes UCF’s graduate program in Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema has been exposed to ALL parts of the filmmaking process – including film financing, marketing and distribution using online tools. Whether they want to use all the tools when they get out is up to them. But, by the time they graduate, all our students really know what it takes to make and market an independent feature.

– Randy Finch

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  • Margaret Zaho

    Bravo Randy Finch for teaching, inspiring, and preparing students for not just film making but also solid business practices and self reliance; all which will serve the UCF film graduate well.

  • Pauliemidc

    What a thoughtful concise essay on what seems like a wonderful program!

  • Robbmaus

    In this changing world, we can no longer cling to the paradigms of the past. As an actor, I have been involved in many indie projects that fell victim to inadequate budgeting, poor planning, and a general lack of knowledge of what to do when the cameras stop rolling. Having an outstanding program like UCF's MFA film program that prepares film makers to carry their projects across the finish line is simply a treasure and one that aspiring artists should take advantage of. Often the difference between a “successful” film and one that sits on someone's shelf for years is simply knowing what steps must be taken to begin, shoot and finish the project. Without this knowledge, one may make many great films, but they will never see the light of day. And that is a loss for all of us.

  • http://www.breitred.com Phyllis

    I owned and operated two small businesses before I started working in film. I had to know about all aspects of the business, and this is no different than that. Most of us don't enjoy the “drudgery” work like establishing the LLC, paying taxes, setting up spreadsheets, getting insurance, etc., but somebody has to do it. Unless you get into this with money to hire a staff, you're probably going to have to do it yourself. How well you manage your business will make or break you.

  • http://www.breitred.com Phyllis

    There are rational reasons to get into an MFA in film; they just don't appear rational in your mind, and that's ok. Everyone is at a different place in life and their needs and aspirations are different. The program isn't for everybody, but it does fit well for others.

  • doghouse

    For an explanation of why American independent film is what it is today, look no further than this thread.

    There's nothing which prevents an “artist”, who presumably is intelligent and capable, from learning about LLCs, insurance, viral marketing and spreadsheet modeling. But for independent film to work as medium in a private finance system like ours, we need reciprocity: if the filmmaker has to assume the role of entrepreneur, investors and the producers have to learn to see in ways they haven't before (become “artists”?), because beyond the micro-budget realm (and even within it) there's always a need to raise money. One without the other is meaningless.

    But our investors and producers do not appear to be educating themselves, are not learning from their errors and misjudgments, show no inclination to reappraise what they know, and never (for example) submit to endless conferences and panels of exalted “artists” with water bottles telling them what they need to learn if they want to be respected for producing great films, as opposed to getting films made which no one admires outside their own circle and which promptly disappear. In Ted's many lists of what's wrong with things, never once has he listed the intellectual limitations of producers, investors and independent film entrepreneurs. It must also be said that the benighted entrepreneur and the would-be auteur are often the same person.

    In other industrialized democracies countries, the art films tend to be as good (or bad) as the best and worst minds of the filmmakers, thanks to public subsidies and the film culture those subsidies sustain. In the U.S., the professionally produced and financed films are only as good, and more frequently as bad, as the producers and investors which brought them into being.

    Could this be the reason American art-houses are full of foreign-language films?

  • Rick

    What a wonderfully innovative program!

  • Kerry

    How fortunate UCF film students are to have him teach them everything about independent film making. There's a reason the graduates of UCF's program are gainfully employed in the film business–they know what they're doing; all because of a marvelous teacher and experienced independent film maker named Randy Finch. Mr. Finch not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. UCFis blessed to have him on the faculty.

  • Sharon Weaver

    I feel very fortunate to have gained extremely valuable experience while working at a UCF Graduate Film. While being an undergraduate film student at UCF, I worked in Laura Lopez's feature film “Acts of Mercy.” To know that it can be done and to see how is done will benefit me for the rest of my professional career.
    That film provoked a great deal of growth in me and my fellow crew members, and I am so very proud of the film's accomplishments so far.
    I am extremely thankful to have embarked in the wonderful journey of independent filmmaking, and to have received all the knowledge given to me by my beloved UCF professors.

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  • Jeffrey

    Fascinating essay and thread. Interesting that marketing and creativity become perceived as rivals, somehow battling for space in the zero sum that is supposedly the filmmakers brain. Marketing cannot supplant creativity,but it's a hell of an ally.

  • http://www.shericandler.com Sheri Candler

    For all of the commenters here, I was so inspired by what Randy wrote about that I did my own interview about the UCF program for this month's Microfilmmaker Magazine. It is now live http://www.microfilmmaker.com/tipstrick/Issue57

  • Charris

    Randy, I am just now catching up with your guest entry but I want to thank you for shedding some light on a world of filmmaking that you probably know I do not know much about. Would like to see regular update entires on the topic as changes continue to happen.

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  • http://filmstank.com David

    “But in the 20+ years since I first became an independent filmmaker, I’ve been compelled to learn about VHS deals, sale leasebacks, foreign presales, negative pick-ups and all sorts of other arcane (and now mostly useless) business practices.”

    Believe it or not, these are the things that I find interesting! I started filmstank.com with a friend. He is a film/media student & interesting in the technical side of things. On the other hand, the 'business' of film is what fascinates me.

    The purists would label me as a business-freak, rather than a film enthusiast- yet the entrepreneurial aspect to this course gives me hope! Surely the concept of starting with a sole idea, and watching it transform, evolve and be commercialized is a sight to behold. It's like that scene from Cast Away where Tom Hanks attempts, and eventually succeeds at, making fire. It's miraculous! This is the way I feel about the 'business' of film.

    Am I crazy? Surely I'm not alone.

    Dave @ filmstank.com

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