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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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