Film, Angels, and Entrepreneurs

Last week I was invited to speak at an event at Victory Studios in Seattle that was sponsored by the new Seattle chapter of the Institute for International Film Financing (IIFF). I told them I thought they had the wrong person, but they explained that in LA and San Francisco there had been some great interactions between tech angels and the film community – we had a lot to teach each other. I agreed to speak, but was concerned that I really knew nothing about the film business.

I love film (as well as theatre). I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember and (from my previous posts) you know that I found the new 3D/IMAX experience entertainment-altering. I’ve also blogged about setting up my home theatre to watch movies and loving Netflix on the iPad. I enjoy the output of the film industry, but really have no knowledge about film as a business, nor have I ever given it much thought.

I found myself at a film studio, sitting among a panel of film experts, including experienced producers, speaking to an audience of established and aspiring film makers, producers, and directors. As I listened to them speak, I realized why I was there. There really were a ton of similarities!

Listening to a producer discuss how the director and stars had a strong desire to create the vision exactly the way they wanted it, without regard to the budget, sounded like a conversation I had just had with the CTO/founder of a tech startup who had delayed shipping on schedule to get it exactly right. A discussion about the need to consider marketing budgets in film production sounds so eerily similar to that of a web company that had only budgeted sufficient money to launch their product, but not enough for distribution. And there was a long discussion about using social networks to enhance views that could have been a web startup as well as a movie.

The similarities do abound. Is a short film marketable? (Is a single feature company marketable?) Can a director be a producer as well? (Can a tech founder be a CEO?) Etc.

But for me, the biggest learning experience is how the movie industry has paralleled the tech industry. It used to cost many $M to produce a film, just like it used to cost $20+M to build a software company. You can now produce a film for several $100k’s. The technology has made it easier to do the filming, do the editing, etc. Even distribution is changing markedly. For example, you can distribute a film entirely on line, using services like YouTube and Netflix.

However, I also realize that, while I have some expertise in startup deal structure and terms, this might not apply to film ventures. I haven’t yet taken the time to review the kind of deal structure, partnership arrangements, rights, etc of a film deal. Nor have I looked at the business/revenue models that apply to film. I sense that most film investors do so more on gut, instinct, and passion than the smart tech investor.

The main difference is that most tech (or medical) startups create a product that doesn’t have to be a “hit” to succeed. If you get it wrong, or your timing is wrong, you still have the opportunity to fix the situation. This makes investing in a single film very different than investing in other startups. Most of our tech startups are more like investing in a studio than a film. This might dissuade a tech angel from film.

Comments from experienced film investors very welcome.

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