The Skinny on Lean Filmmaking

As part of our series examining the ways Lean Startup is practiced across different industries, we recently hosted a conversation between Lean Startup Co. Faculty Lead Marilyn Gorman and the Founder and CEO of Guerrilla Rep Media, Ben Yennie.

They discussed how the film industry, which has historically worked off long product cycles involving large financial investments, can become a more nimble and innovative endeavor.

Don’t have time for the entire webcast right now? Check out our blog (below) How Filmmakers Become Lean Entrepreneurs for highlights of the inroads Lean Startup is making in the moviemaking world.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn Gorman’s conversation with Ben Yennie, you may download it.

Disrupters Have the Upper Hand

Ben describes the moviemaking landscape as one of “turmoil and upheaval,” adding that “it’s very difficult to make a career in if you try to work in the practiced methods.” He focuses on independent filmmakers, who often create movies as a side hustle while working a day job to make ends meet. Filmmakers can modernize how they approach their work and their careers, though, by modifying their principles and seeing themselves as entrepreneurs. More specifically, Ben says, they can work on better understanding the uncertainties that litter the landscape: finding their target markets and learning about marketing their products. “A lot of what I talk about when it comes to [Lean Startup and] filmmaking is building the brand of the production company and helping build community around the films and the filmmaker.”

He hones in on adapting entrepreneurial business and marketing methods versus trying to iterate upon the product (film) itself. But, he adds, there are places you can iterate when it comes to movies too. “When you think your film is picture locked, you have a minimum viable product,” he says. “You don’t have a completed product, and you should do a test screening to iterate on a minimum viable product to get it so that it’s actually ready for market.”

Innovate to Break from the Glut

With so many different platforms vying for customers’ time and attention, filmmakers are fighting for the same eyeballs as other films, social networks, and other distractions. “The biggest threat to filmmakers right now is the huge glut that makes discovery very, very difficult,” says Ben, “and that’s where approaching a hybrid model between the old ways of sales agent-oriented distribution and more producer self-distribution and marketing [come in]. If you can find some sort of hybrid between the two then you’re going to have a much better chance of breaking out for your first film.”

It’s also important to build community early on in the filmmaking process, just as you would with any other Lean Startup product. “Develop a massive community around yourself and your work, and develop your voice and your brand image as a filmmaker so that you actually have some way of accessing your target market,” says Ben.The community aspects can also be useful for getting beta viewers.”

“When you think your film is picture locked, you have a minimum viable product.” -@theguerillarep Share on X

Build Community Before You Start Shooting

Ben says the creative team behind a film should be deeply involved with the communities they’re hoping will come see their film. “That’s the only way you can really get the customer feedback because you can’t exactly share a script, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you manage test screenings,” he says. He suggests spending time—both in real life and online—with your desired customer segment, especially if you’re a new and/or independent filmmaker working within a certain niche.

Filmmakers are often taught to “write what you know,” but Ben says that’s led to Hollywood movies stuck in storytelling bubbles. If you want to make truly innovative content that best serves your customer, you must think beyond the traditional way of doing things and go talk to your customers where they are — get out of the building.

He adds that we’ll be seeing more content being elevated by Black and Latino filmmakers, among others who haven’t been given the platforms to tell their stories in the past. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens as that trend grows and evolves,” Ben says, “especially in the awards circuits, and these other places that are actually making an effort to elevate the diversity of their voices.”

Seek Out the Other Trailblazing Filmmakers Blogging About the Industry

Ben says he’s among a small class of filmmakers blogging about the business side of the industry. “The biggest issue is that there’s a lack of desire on the part of the filmmakers to learn more about business and marketing,” he says.

He adds that the best advice he’s received was to understand how the movie business works—so you’re better protected against the unscrupulous people who’ll take advantage of naive filmmakers.

I continue to blog….because I think the only way for the reputation of this asset class to change is if filmmakers better understand business. That’s one of about five or six core things that need to change in order for film to become a more sustainable asset class.”

Thank you to Jennifer Maerz for contributing this piece. Give us a shout out on Twitter @leanstartup and let us know what you thought of our non-traditional Lean Startup piece.