The closing evening of the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival seemed like an opportune time to ponder the similarities between two sets of oddly kindred spirits.
"It took 10 years, innumerable false starts, five maxed out credit cards, and an unending sea of small bridge loans, and help from friends and family to get here. I just want to thank everybody who supported this project along the way, without them this would never have been possible." Is this abstracted from a speech given by a filmmaker or a technology entrepreneur? Perhaps it is the story told by Derek Cianfrance, the director of Blue Valentine? or maybe Pandora founder Tim Westergren? I have heard them both tell a story like this, which is more than anything else, a story about passion, commitment, relentless faith and ambition.
It is odd to me that many of the internet entrepreneurs whom I spend time with know so little about this "other" global band of entrepreneurs and who congregate every year for a week in Park City. Similarly, most of these filmmakers know very little about the ever increasing small clusters of hugely creative engineers who hole up for months and years, and emerge with a product like Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and occasionally something as pervasive and transformative as Facebook. And although perhaps they might not see the obvious parallels between their processes and journeys, I assure you they are in many ways the same.
I will also make the radical assumption, or perhaps it is just wishful hoping, that over the next few years many of the young Valley entrepreneurs who will be looking for a next chapter (having arrived early enough at Zynga, Facebook, and countless others) will resist the urge to pour all of their play money into angel technology investing, and will look to the funding of films and filmmakers as another risky, but fulfilling adventure. Of course they will not be the first. Mark Cuban and Jeff Skoll, have devoted much of their second acts to supporting unique creative voices in film. Of course the adage that "there are much less fun ways to lose money than investing in film" is not altogether untrue, the same could also be said for internet angel investing. For every Twitter there are literally thousands of companies every year that will lose money for everybody involved. Sure the difference between Little Miss Sunshine or Juno which are the most recent indie film equivalents of Facebook, return millions, instead of billions, the raw likelihood for a net positive outcome is probably closer than you think.
But for those technology jackpot winners who don't yet know or care enough about independent film to consider investing, someday I would love to test a hypothesis of mine: tech entrepreneurs and indie filmmakers are cut from the same cloth. I try to get to Sundance every year for an intense and almost surgical mission where I try to see four or five films a day for as many days as I can spare. At the end of a few days like this, you begin to see filmmakers as the entrepreneurs they really are. At the end of each screening they usually stick around to field questions and provide helpful context into the impetus and inspiration for their films. They all tend to do so with the same intensity and purity of vision as someone like Jobs or Zuckerberg, most of them have not just an idea but the same intensity of the entrepreneurs that want to change the world, they are just trying to do it with a story, usually about real life, not the ones depicted by Hollywood.
Sundance has its own set of angels and VC's holding court on the streets of Park City, but most of these people aren't getting 2 and 20 (2% management fee and 20% of profits) to make bets. They are doctors, dentists, small production companies and the parents of the filmmakers. There are also studio folks and agents looking to catch lightening in a bottle, usually in the form young actors and directors, in addition to the handful of films that might have a life beyond the cloistered walls of Sundance. In the technology world as of late, the "angels" have gotten bigger and more organized and the companies they are fishing for have gotten quite a bit more expensive than ever before. No deals are cheap anymore, and the ones with promise are too expensive for ordinary outsiders. In many ways this feels like Sundance a decade ago, where studios would routinely show up and over pay for a small intimate film, only to see it fail quietly at the box office.
Today with the independent film business more competitive than ever before with fewer screens, more films, shorter runs, shorter distribution windows to VOD, and bigger TVs at home, finding a diamond in the rough is nearly impossible. But more people will likely see more of the Sundance films than ever before with Netflix, Amazon and others creating a longtail for films that historically would never have been able to secure any kind of distribution if a buyer didn't emerge by the end of the festival circuit. This, however, doesn't help the economics all that much, just the ability for actors and filmmakers to better ensure that their films are available at all.
It is my profound desire that the entrepreneurs and early employees of paradigm shifting technology companies, begin to see, understand, and embrace the importance of independent film to our culture. Just as it is improbably less expensive to start an internet company today with cheap bandwidth and infrastructure and easier programming language than it was a decade ago, the ubiquity and quality of HD cameras and the quality of editing software has also enabled people to make more and better films inexpensively. Filmmakers are often even less interested in business than most software engineers, but they share that same spirit, same passion and hopefulness. In both groups you see that same burning light, but practically the patron saints are more likely to come from the Valley to the mountains of Utah than the other way around. In the not too distant explosion of IPOs from Linkedin, Facebook, Zynga, Groupon and others, I am hoping some of that good fortune helps fund the next Winter's Bone, or Sling Blade, keeping the spirit and energy of our creative class in the business of creating art from life.