POV: Film Financing Silicon Valley Style - Rob Ness

We Make Movies has been disrupting traditional filmmaking since its inception almost a decade ago. Our latest endeavor, the MAKE YOUR FEATURE COMPETITION, is keeping with that tradition as we set out to create a sustainable ecosystem for independent film financing and production. If you've been wondering how we're managing to award at least two filmmakers with 25K each (alongside our full assortment of pre through post production and marketing services) to make their films, perhaps our lead investor, Rob Ness (General Partner of Asymmetry Ventures) can shed some light. 
Ness' academic trajectory alone pronounces his versatility, from a BA in Economics, Math, and Interdisciplinary Child Health from UC Berkeley to an MPS in Development & Finance from Georgetown University to an MPA in Development Economics from Harvard University. A few of his diverse career highlights include a senior consultancy at Booze Allen Hamilton (a firm at the forefront of strategy and technology), managing at the multinational IT conglomerate  Capgemini, and serving in the US Army - Civil Affairs Branch (for the past 18 years). 
Referred to as a "pragmatic powerhouse that helps develop ideas and drive the successful ideas through execution," by his peers, WMM is thrilled to be partnered with Ness. He brings a philosophical and ethical anima that is very much aligned with the spirit of WMM, in addition to his breadth of knowledge and experience. Keep reading to find out what we mean...
WMM: Have you always had a passion for film, and where does it come from?

RN:  I've always loved movies - the storytelling, the cinematic experience, the way a great film can transport you into an entirely new world. But my passion specifically for film-MAKING came much later in life, after I'd already gotten established in my main career path as an investor. Though I enjoy my day job running a venture capital firm, I reached a point where I needed a bit of art in my life - not only experiencing and appreciating art, but actually participating in the creation process. For some people, that artistic outlet might be painting, woodworking, or poetry. But I gravitated to the world of cinema; I feel there's just something incomparable about bringing a great story to life on the big screen. 

WMM: You live and work in Silicon Valley, but found us through our virtual events. What specifically is it about our organization that made you want to reach out and collaborate with us?

RN: What caught my attention about WMM is that it comes closer than any other Hollywood-based organization I've encountered, to replicating what we have up here in Silicon Valley for tech startups - namely, a supportive ecosystem that aims its energies directly at the process of mutually supportive creation. Silicon Valley has an entire spectrum of organizations that exist to help fledgling tech companies realize their full potential: angel investor groups, startup competitions, incubators & accelerators, and venture capital firms. All of these groups partner with deserving startups, and speed them along their growth journey. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much of that coordinated energy in Hollywood. Maybe it's present inside the almighty studio system... but in the indie film world, it doesn't seem to exist. However, WMM is the closest thing I've seen to that Silicon Valley mindset of mutual support. From my first interactions with WMM, it was clear that it's a tight-knit community united around the common purpose of actually getting films made.

 As someone not directly part of the entertainment industry  what issues do you see on a structural level? How do you feel WMM is different?

RN: I'm convinced that indie filmmakers need a community like WMM. In certain art forms - e.g. writing novels - you can engage in the creative process within your own solitary bubble. But filmmaking doesn't work like that; you need the collaboration of many, many other people!  To make the comparison once again with Silicon Valley: it strikes me as a real shame that there's no ecosystem of incubators in the indie film world. In Silicon Valley, an aspiring founder with a halfway-promising startup endeavor can seek out participation in any of the dozens of startup incubators. During the incubation process, that founder will get resources & hands-on support to help them build their company, and navigate the founding journey. But if you're an aspiring filmmaker with a promising cinematic project: what's the equivalent of an incubator where you can show up, get resources & support, and learn the ropes? Note: I'm not just talking about film festivals or film pitch competitions; I mean actual full-service incubators where you'd get both mentorship and financial resources to bring your project to life. Sadly, these don't seem to exist! (There might be a few in-house incubators inside big studios, or within organizations like Sundance... but otherwise, film incubation doesn't appear to exist in any broader form that the general indie filmmaking community can consistently access.) My sincere hope is that WMM can start to fill that vacuum! I view the "Make Your Feature" Competition as a bold step towards establishing a culture of incubation for the indie film world. 

 As someone who is deeply embedded in the VC world, have you been approached by filmmakers or production companies? How do you feel about unsolicited content and pitching? Bold move or just annoying?

RN: I totally support the idea of filmmakers (or any other artists) taking the initiative to get the word out about their projects. If you don't believe in your own project, then who else will? Having said that: it pains me to see how much filmmakers struggle to strike the balance between outwards-facing promotion of one's project - vs the harder, lonelier, but absolutely crucial inwards-facing work of actually honing your craft as a director, screenwriter, actor, or cinematographer - i.e. objectively improving the raw quality of your project. So many aspiring filmmakers are quite happy to spend month after month networking, querying, and generally hoping to be discovered... but a much tinier number are resolute about really learning the craft of filmmaking.

As a result: those of us who invest in films are deluged with projects heavy on the hype (the classic "My pet screenplay is BOUND to win an Oscar!!!" mentality) but lacking in solid execution of the craft. Over the past couple of years, I've read hundreds of screenplays from aspiring screenwriters or writer-directors... and I'm saddened to say that easily 95% of them were very poorly written, had weak premises, etc. It gets exhausting to wade through so many unsolicited submissions, from writers who simply haven't put in the work upfront to develop their craft: they haven't participated in writers' groups, submitted their scripts to screenwriting contests, or gotten notes coverage from experienced industry readers. Often they haven't even read books or taken courses on the craft of screenwriting. I'm using the example of screenwriting, but I expect the same holds true for other roles in filmmaking: directing, cinematography, acting, etc. If you haven't received objective feedback on the quality of your skills or project (and "objective" means from a source other than your own ego!), then don't be surprised when potential investors or champions end up not even responding to your inquiries. The reason we don't respond is because we're deluged with flimsy projects whose creators are nevertheless convinced that they're solid gold. Don't let your project be one of the flimsy ones! Put in the effort to learn your chosen art form. That means getting blunt feedback from filmmakers you respect, on your strengths and weaknesses - then putting in countless hours of deliberate practice, to hone your skills... and finally, channeling all your learnings into well-conceived, attentively crafted projects. Truly well-constructed projects are so rare that the word almost always gets out... which means you won't even have to worry about doing unsolicited submissions... because investors like me will hear about it, and we'll be chasing YOU.

To any of you who are still reading after my rant above: thank you for letting me vent  :-)

WMM: What captures your attention when you are deciding whether or not to invest in an endeavor, and is your process the same for creative investment? What are you specifically looking for in the treatments? In the pitches?

RN:  From my prior answer, you can probably guess that one of the key things I look for is a well-conceived, thoughtfully constructed, attentively crafted project! That's MUCH more important to me than any specific genre or subject matter.

It's been said that the three elements of a great film project are: Artistic Value (Do you have something meaningful to say about the human condition?), Feasibility (Can we really get this thing made, given our current budget & in-kind resources?), and Commercial Potential (Would any meaningful number of people actually pay money to watch this?).

When filmmakers are cognizant of the need to address all three of these elements, it's evident in their materials. Their treatment showcases a well-developed story with real depth, structure, and resonant meaning. Their pitch directly addresses how the film will get made, and why people will care about watching it.

Conversely, when filmmakers HAVEN'T taken the time to think about any of these issues: their lack of forethought is similarly evident in their materials!   

WMM: Who are you excited to work with, when it comes to the filmmakers? What traits or qualities inspire confidence in you?

RN:  Above all, I'm looking for filmmakers who have something authentic and resonant to say about the world and its inhabitants. That's what it's all about; I'd say this is fundamentally why we're in the filmmaking game in the first place.

And the strongest indication that a filmmaker really has something juicy that they want to say about the world is that they take their craft, and the filmmaking process, seriously. They don't treat as just a lark; they take it seriously because it's very important for them to manifest their intended statement about the human condition. I'm not bothered about whether a filmmaker qualifies as an auteur, or visionary, or savant. I don't care if you've utterly mastered the craft - since the finer points of directing, screenwriting etc can be taught. WMM has an absolute wealth of knowledge on the art and science of production and post-production. As for myself, I love the early-stage stuff: helping filmmakers pin down premises and characters and outlines and story structure. On many occasions, I've worked with writer-directors to develop their tentative ideas into treatments, or even all the way into full-length screenplays - and I find this kind of collaborative creative work extremely gratifying. So, within a community like WMM, there's an abundance of support available; you don't need to be a grandmaster already! But what excites me is the chance to work with filmmakers who are authentic; who have something meaningful that they want to say via the medium of cinema; and who demonstrate that they take the process seriously, by humbly receiving feedback on their work, and constantly refining their skills. Those artists are a joy to work with. 

 WMM is excited to co-create what we feel can be a new economic model for film financing. What are you hoping to achieve (in the larger picture) through this competition?

RN: It's well-known that big platforms like Netflix will happily pay millions of dollars - in some cases, tens of millions - for well-crafted films. Yet there are famous examples of films made on tiny budgets that went on to massive success (think Paranormal Activity, Napoleon Dynamite, or Mad Max).

That huge gap between what scrappy filmmakers can accomplish for almost nothing, vs. how much money big buyers are willing to pay for great movies, begs a question. Why doesn't the indie film universe have some kind of platform to give talented filmmakers the chance to show what they can do with an incredibly tiny micro-budget project - which should give the very best of those finished films a real shot at making huge profits for their filmmakers and investors, when they get snapped up by content-hungry buyers?

I believe that the WMM Make Your Feature Competition could serve as that bridge - by surfacing the most talented filmmakers out there, and giving them a smidgen of resources to get a feature made that will really showcase their talents.

WMM: Why do you think investors should be excited about the prospect of this investment pipeline we are creating? 

 The investors that I work with in the venture capital world are no strangers to the prospect of backing speculative projects with high chance of failure, but also enormous potential upside. In fact, this is exactly how the VC industry functions.

The great thing about WMM's Competition is that it creates a similar high-upside pipeline of deals for investors... but for films, which is an asset class most of them have probably never had much exposure to. While investors who've never previously invested in films could theoretically go it alone, and try to find deserving filmmakers &  film projects to back, it's vastly more sensible for them to partner with an established organization such as WMM that can ensure not only volume, but more importantly, quality of curated film deal-flow. 

Lastly: as sexy as startup investing can be... I think we'd all agree that the glamorous world of movies is even sexier  ;-) 

I think that this combined appeal of exposure to the glamor of film, PLUS the modest but real chance of a big upside payoff, could be very attractive to many of the angel investors who operate out of Silicon Valley. 

WMM: How do you think we are revolutionizing the climate for filmmakers through this process?

 If we manage to pull this off, I think we'll have the initial elements in place to promote an incubation ecosystem serving the indie film world. 
That would be a huge step forward, because it'd mean that filmmakers would finally have a place to go. No more wandering in the wilderness. Instead of endlessly wishing that someone out there would just recognize their passion & potential, filmmakers will have a clear trajectory. Imagine being able to join WMM as a novice filmmaker, to start your journey by listening to some talks, taking some workshops etc... but then when you're ready, having the infrastructure in place to enable you to make your first films - and now, thanks to this Competition, that will extend all the way to making your first feature!

WMM: Any advice you can impart to filmmakers thinking about submitting to the competition? 

RN: Absolutely.

1) Understand that the competition rules are there for a reason; we spent a lot of time developing them, to make this competition as fair & meritocratic as possible. So, please just stick to the rules as stated. We really mean them; they're not some kind of subliminal signal for you to attempt to negotiate or bypass them!

2) Every single person involved in running or judging this competition is deeply passionate about film... and about supporting filmmakers. We're here to champion you, and help you realize your full potential! But we also intend to hold you accountable for putting your best foot forward. We urge you to put some real effort into developing your materials. A solidly developed treatment carries a LOT of weight. A sharp writing sample speaks volumes. And if anyone on your team happens to have any of the optional extra materials (e.g. Director and/or DP reel; footage of a sample scene), by all means include them!

3) Take the process of crafting your story very, very seriously. Securing a fancy camera or an eye-catching location or great props is the easy part; the harder thing to do is formulate a great story in the first place. This is where most indie film projects collapse: they just don't have sufficiently robust story structure to carry the weight of a full feature film. Get detailed feedback from any capable screenwriters you might happen to know in the WMM community, and flesh out a story structure that can sustain an audience's interest for about 1.5 hours. Easier said than done!

4) Submit as early in the process as you reasonably can - so that we can give you feedback on your submission. That way, you can refine your project, and then resubmit it - as many times as you'd like! If you submit something that's not quite ready for prime time, but is at least well-conceived and brimming with potential, then we'll work closely with you to boost your project from good, to great, to exceptional.


I'm so excited to connect with each of you in WMM - to collaborate on the development of your film concepts, and ultimately celebrate the amazing submissions that I'm confident we'll receive from this immensely diverse and talented community!!! 

Written by Sapna Gandhi

Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.

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