5 Lessons Creative Entrepreneurs Can Learn From A Filmmaker

by Tim Jahn on August 20, 2010

Dave Miller is a producer, writer, and director who, in addition to writing, producing, and directing feature length movies, owns his own production company.  He also writes and produces his critically acclaimed comedy web series Assisted Living, now in it’s 5th season on Koldcast.tv.

As we got to talking, I realized many of his lessons from being a filmmaker could apply to creative entrepreneurs looking to start their own companies:

  1. Needing a support structure
  2. Adapting as technology and the marketplace changes
  3. Surrounding yourself with the right people
  4. Why you should iterate on your idea rather than waiting for the perfect idea
  5. The importance of knowing your audience

Transcript

Dave Miller: I’m president of Mindlight Films, a production company here in Chicago that specialized in feature films.  And I also have a company Viral Film Video, which is more web based content, narrative, web series, commercials; pretty much across the board anything production related.

Tim Jahn:  What was your background prior to Mindlight?

Dave Miller:  Well, back prior to Mindlight was like high school and college and grade school.  So we started making little films with the super 8 running around in the forest with – making little action movies.  So it’s like I always knew I was going to be a filmmaker so I didn’t have to go out and decide in college what I was going to major in.  I always knew what I was going to do.  So it was a little bit more focused than a lot of friends of mine.

Tim Jahn:  So you always knew, I mean you always had that idea in mind of what you wanted to be doing post school?

Dave Miller:  Yeah.  Yeah.  I mean, I always knew it was film related or entertainment related.  I started off producing and then more recently got into writing and directing.  I was able to co-write two of the features that I produced which was a lot of fun and really started me off on developing more creatively in terms of the web series that I produced, which I actually write and direct as well.  So that’s been the most recent phase where I’m taking more creative role in productions.

Tim Jahn:  So you’ve been doing Mindlight for I mean, what 20 years now?

Dave Miller:  Just a little under 20.  Pretty close though.

Tim Jahn:  So that’s a lot of time to be running your own thing.  What sort of challenges have you run into from inception until today?

Dave Miller:  You know, it’s kind of a roller coaster.  I don’t run it by myself.  My wife and partner basically, we work together on a lot of things.  She has her own production company, Medium Productions and I have Mindlight but we’re located in the same office and we share resources.  And when she’s busy, I work with her and when I’m busy, she works with me and it’s basically that kind of support structure that really allows you to kind of keep going.

I think in terms of what keeps you relevant is being able to adapt as technology changes, as the marketplace changes.  When we were doing feature films originally, there wasn’t as much competition for feature films.  So you could release a movie and you could get a decent advance when you were licensing it for DVD for example or putting it on paid TV or cable.  Now, those advances have gone way down even if you do get them.  So you basically have to either adapt you philosophy to making a film by lowering your budget to giving you that chance or raising your budget and bringing in name actors, which that’s kind of a disadvantage around here unless you’re really, really well connected.

Tim Jahn:  And you mentioned that your wife is kind of like you’re partner in addition to her own company.  How important is that, you mentioned support structure, how important is that idea of who you surround yourself with kind of affects what you’ll create?  I mean, you mentioned – I mean, how important is that to you, the idea of having that group around you?

Dave Miller:  It’s – from working on films where there’s a cast and crew over 40, 50 people to working a web series where there’s one or two, you definitely notice the differences between how that works.  And even when you’re working on a smaller production, you always have people that you could call in if you want somebody to read your script or say, “Hey, is this funny, does this work or does it not work?”  So I think it’s important.

But you also still have to know who to take advice from and not to just kind of open it up to everybody and rely on your experiences and learn from your mistakes and what works for you.  In the past when I used to write for, when I was writing the feature films, that’s a lot different than writing for web series.  I had to learn that kind of by trial and error, by going out and doing it and then realizing okay, well we cannot take seven minutes for a title sequence before somebody says anything on web series, that’s your whole show.  So you have to move things a lot faster.

Tim Jahn:  You mentioned you’re still learning.  What are you still learning?

Dave Miller:  You know, I think that a challenge with directing especially is that there’s no two, there’s no – actors are all unique.  So it’s like engaging somebody that you want to give your performance, there’s no one way to do it.  Whereas in producing, there’s usually a way that you can rely on over and over again.  With directing, you have to tailor it to individual styles and personalities and it’s taken a while for me to do that and I’ve adapted, I’m continuing to try to adapt.  Whereas before it would just be, hey this is the way I want to do it and if somebody can’t do it, I’d try to find somebody who could.

Now, it’s – I’m a lot more easy going I think with that.  And that comes along with the terms that it’s a team effort really and they’re part of the team.  As long as you surround yourself with people who want to help make things the best thing that they can be, that’s all that I can ask for and then I’ll work with them as much as I can.  If something doesn’t go right, then I just won’t work with them again.  And if it does go right, then I’ll work with them over and over again.   A lot of the productions I do, I use a lot of the same actors because I enjoy working with them and its fun.

The most important thing I think in terms of writing is to just to do and then go through it.  Don’t sit, wait for perfect inspiration.  Write something and then you can always go back and work on fine tuning it, making it better which I think so many things have come from things that didn’t start off as being that amazing and then just evolved into something that’s good.  And also know your audience too.  My audience on the Internet is mostly male.  So it’s like I try to give them what I think that they want and what they tell me they want.  I’m not trying to write a movie that only I will like and no one will.  That’s a mistake that I see a lot.

Dave Miller: I’m president of Mindlight Films, a production company here in Chicago that specializes in feature films.  And I also have a company Viral Film Video, which is more web based content, narrative, web series, commercials; pretty much across the board anything production related.

Tim Jahn: What was your background prior to Mindlight?

Dave Miller: Well, back prior to Mindlight was like high school and college and grade school.  So we started making little films with the super 8 running around in the forest with – making little action movies.  So it’s like I always knew I was going to be a filmmaker so I didn’t have to go out and decide in college what I was going to major in.  I always knew what I was going to do.  So it was a little bit more focused than a lot of friends of mine.

Tim Jahn: So you always knew, I mean you always had that idea in mind of what you wanted to be doing post school?

Dave Miller: Yeah.  Yeah.  I mean, I always knew it was film related or entertainment related.  I started off producing and then more recently got into writing and directing.  I was able to co-write two of the features that I produced which was a lot of fun and really started me off on developing more creatively in terms of the web series that I produced, which I actually write and direct as well.  So that’s been the most recent phase where I’m taking more creative role in productions.

Tim Jahn: So you’ve been doing Mindlight for I mean, what 20 years now?

Dave Miller: Just a little under 20.  Pretty close though.

Tim Jahn: So that’s a lot of time to be running your own thing.  What sort of challenges have you run into from inception until today?

Dave Miller: You know, it’s kind of a roller coaster.  I don’t run it by myself.  My wife and partner basically, we work together on a lot of things.  She has her own production company, Mimi Productions and I have Mindlight but we’re located in the same office and we share resources.  And when she’s busy, I work with her and when I’m busy, she works with me and it’s basically that kind of support structure that really allows you to kind of keep going.

I think in terms of what keeps you relevant is being able to adapt as technology changes, as the marketplace changes.  When we were doing feature films originally, there wasn’t as much competition for feature films.  So you could release a movie and you could get a decent advance when you were licensing it for DVD for example or putting it on paid TV or cable.

Now, those advances have gone way down even if you do get them.  So you basically have to either adapt you philosophy to making a film by lowering your budget to giving you that chance or raising your budget and bringing in name actors, which that’s kind of a disadvantage around here unless you’re really, really well connected.

Tim Jahn: And you mentioned that your wife is kind of like you’re partner in addition to her own company.  How important is that, you mentioned support structure, how important is that idea of who you surround yourself with kind of affects what you’ll create?  I mean, you mentioned – I mean, how important is that to you, the idea of having that group around you?

Dave Miller: It’s – from working on films where there’s a cast and crew over 40, 50 people to working a web series where there’s one or two, you definitely notice the differences between how that works.  And even when you’re working on a smaller production, you always have people that you could call in if you want somebody to read your script or say, “Hey, is this funny, does this work or does it not work?”  So I think it’s important.

But you also still have to know who to take advice from and not to just kind of open it up to everybody and rely on your experiences and learn from your mistakes and what works for you.  In the past when I used to write for, when I was writing the feature films, that’s a lot different than writing for web series.

I had to learn that kind of by trial and error, by going out and doing it and then realizing okay, well we cannot take seven minutes for a title sequence before somebody says anything on web series, that’s your whole show.  So you have to move things a lot faster.

Tim Jahn:  You mentioned you’re still learning.  What are you still learning?

Dave Miller: You know, I think that a challenge with directing especially is that there’s no two, there’s no – actors are all unique.  So it’s like engaging somebody that you want to give your performance, there’s no one way to do it.  Whereas in producing, there’s usually a way that you can rely on over and over again.

With directing, you have to tailor it to individual styles and personalities and it’s taken a while for me to do that and I’ve adapted, I’m continuing to try to adapt.  Whereas before it would just be, hey this is the way I want to do it and if somebody can’t do it, I’d try to find somebody who could.

Now, it’s – I’m a lot more easy going I think with that.  And that comes along with the terms that it’s a team effort really and they’re part of the team.  As long as you surround yourself with people who want to help make things the best thing that they can be, that’s all that I can ask for and then I’ll work with them as much as I can.

If something doesn’t go right, then I just won’t work with them again.  And if it does go right, then I’ll work with them over and over again.   A lot of the productions I do, I use a lot of the same actors because I enjoy working with them and its fun.

The most important thing I think in terms of writing is to just to do and then go through it.  Don’t sit, wait for perfect inspiration.  Write something and then you can always go back and work on fine tuning it, making it better which I think so many things have come from things that didn’t start off as being that amazing and then just evolved into something that’s good.

And also know your audience too.  My audience on the Internet is mostly male.  So it’s like I try to give them what I think that they want and what they tell me they want.  I’m not trying to write a movie that only I will like and no one will.  That’s a mistake that I see a lot.

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