Monday, 30 July 2007

How do we measure success?

by Ronnie Apteker

Two years ago South Africa’s imagination was captured by something called Crazy Monkey’s Straight Outta Benoni. A full length feature film which created a lot of hype and set a massive expectation. Well, the chips are down and the numbers are in. That youth comedy sold just over 200,000 cinema tickets. Not a bad first attempt but not nearly enough to cover the film’s budget. The end result was a financial loss. Many hard lessons were learned and a lot of soul searching was the result.

Looking back now, I would give that movie about a 4 out of 10. It certainly was brave, eccentric, innovative, original and unusual. It truly was a labour of love and it came from a good place. But sometimes in life what we start out to do, with all the best intentions, doesn’t always end up the way you had hoped. We were aiming for a 10 out of 10, but we missed the boat somewhere. And the audience that embraced the Benoni film gave us a clear message: we had not delivered.

Winston Churchill once said that success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. So, two years later and we are back. With a different team of people, a radical new approach and a clearer vision. And an abundance of enthusiasm. The new colourful youth comedy is called Footskating 101 and we are very happy with the film. The budget came down, drastically, and the marketing campaign this time round will be more targeted and clear on its message.

We made the new film on high-definition digital, a huge cost saving over expensive Kodak film. And we shot the movie with a handful of crew. Benoni had over one hundred crew members. The new film, which was shot on the West Rand this time, was made with a handful of people. I was one of the crew. We laid down a set of house rules which we circulated to everyone who came on board. It was a simple, no nonsense approach. There was no catering, no portable toilets, no trailers, no frills, no attitude. What there was, was a stronger sense of purpose, an overwhelming humility, and increased passion, and a bunch of artists that were very hungry. The film is now complete and we have done some extensive audience testing. The sense I am getting is that we have moved up to a 6 or maybe even a 7 out of 10. That makes me very happy. Finally, some growth.

Yes, it is still a crazy, silly movie. The name says it all, “Footskating”. But it has far greater heart than before. It is a more honest piece of work and we hope that this time, the expectations we create with our marketing campaign will be more precise.

The Benoni film’s marketing drive started at the beginning of 2005. It went on for 9 months and the Monkey was everywhere. It certainly was a relentless and pervasive campaign and it had a lot of imagination behind it. The Footskating marketing blitz, on the other hand, will be a lot more focused. It officially kicks off this August and will run for 2 months. The new campaign is simpler, but bigger. By simpler I mean more direct, more straight forward, more clear. And by bigger, I mean more creative and far more innovative.

5FM have come on board again as our main marketing partner. The movie is branded as a 5FM project. For all intents and purpose, it looks as if 5FM made the movie. This is going to be great for the radio station, especially because the film is a big step up from the last one. In the new movie we have a lot of 5FM branding (product placement) as well as some very clever cameos by some of the nation’s favourite disc jockeys. 5FM will get many kudos for the film and we are hoping to forge an even stronger relationship from our efforts here. Of course, the film itself gets a national broadcaster to help promote it.

We learnt many valuable lessons on the Benoni marketing road-show. Poster signing, for example, is a highly cost-effective mechanism and we are printing 20,000 posters that will be utilized on campus tours, mall visits, cinema campaigns, music store displays, etc. And the new poster is really brilliant. We all stood around staring at it as it came from the printer and we were overwhelmed. It just hits all the right notes and we are confident that every youngster will want an autographed poster. This is such an effective vehicle for promotion. Every teenager, for example, that puts up a poster in their bedroom or classroom etc. becomes a billboard for the movie. And it will reach the target audience.

Handing out T-shirts is always cool. Everyone loves getting a funky new hip T-shirt. But a good quality T-shirt costs around R50 to make. A poster costs less than R2. So, we are doing more with posters and less with T-shirts. Yes, there will be a range of stunning Footskating T-shirts from Puma, but again it will be focused and more strategic and tactical in its usage than just for the sake of handing them out where ever there is a crowd.

We are creating a stack of big vinyl banners to hang up in the cinemas across the country. The cost of making a vinyl banner is around R600. To make, say, 40 big bright banners is not that prohibitive from a Rands and cents point of view. The exposure these banners provide, to the key cinema going population, is for more focused and effective when compared to the cost of putting up a roadside billboard for example. There is no monthly real estate cost for putting up banners in a cinema. This is what the theatres are keen to do. It is what they need to do to attract an audience. They do it for all the big Hollywood studio movies, and they do it for local films too. Yes, it is exciting to see a big billboard up on the side of the road, that is advertising your labour of love movie, but it is expensive. And it is not that targeted. We can’t wait to get those banners up. Comes mid August you will be seeing them everywhere. Oh, yes, before I forget, we do in fact have a bunch of roadside billboards going live for the month of September. On the Benoni film we had billboards up for months and months. This time it is for one month; the month of release. Smaller, and more precise.

Probably the most innovative aspect of the new campaign is a tie up we have done with Fanta. All I can say is that when you see this you are going to be inspired. The thing I want to point out about this particular aspect, is that it did not happen over night. Nothing about the making of this movie or its marketing happened quickly. A lot of time and effort has been invested in this journey and everything we have done on the marketing side has been proactive. We have not waited for the phone to ring. We have been building bridges since the first word was put on paper when we started writing the story over 2 years ago. The secret to our marketing campaign, and to life in general, is to be as proactive as humanly possible.

The music in the new movie is really solid this time round. And it is all South African. We are having a ball working with EMI on the CD which hits the stores mid August. We are expecting it to not only sell well, but also, to create more heat for the film. A key consideration here is that we are not calling it a soundtrack, but rather, “The Footskater’s Rock Compilation”. Compilations get far more profile than soundtracks. Soundtracks get buried in the soundtrack section of a CD store; a rock compilation, on the other hand, not only sounds more exciting, but it gets higher priority.

Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same over and over and expecting a different result. I have been involved in 8 film productions over the past 7 years and this last one, the Footskating adventure, has been the best. We did things differently, radically differently, and the end result is already a success from my perspective. We came in on budget, on time, and with greater alignment in the small team. This to me is fundamental. Everything in life is about people. People are what make the difference. You only ever invest in people; not in business plans or movie scripts. From my perspective this was the best film investment I have made to date. I invested in good people and they brought me a lot of joy and they inspired me.

Brendan Jack, Thomas “187” Ferreira, Tendeka Matatu and I were together on the Benoni film. We all did everything we could to make that one work but we got it right this time round. That is what our hearts our telling us. The new film looks great too, which is incredible considering the budget, etc. You need to understand though that we needed the Benoni journey; we needed the hard and painful lessons. There is no progress without struggle. We could not have done the new movie the way we did if we had not had that last experience.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Analog attitude

by Ronnie Apteker

In this day and age of instant gratification and warp-speed communications it is easy to confuse efficiency with effectiveness. We often use e-mail to communicate something, and while this is certainly efficient, it is not always effective. Some things need a phone-call or
a face-to-face meeting. You can't, for example, lead people via email. Yes, you can send out instructions, set up a meeting, share company plans, but you can't build trust via email, and you can't inspire people with some keystrokes.

The purpose of a leader is to create more leaders, not followers. Leadership requires listening. It requires sensitivity. It requires compassion. The best leaders lead by example. They are the first in the office each day and the last too leave. They know how to roll up their sleeves and they also know how to communicate. Great leaders don't take themselves too seriously. They know how to laugh, and when.

Here is some text that I read often. I thought it would be a good idea to post it here to our Vlog. I can't remember who sent me this text or where it comes from. I do know that it is meant to be shared. It is an important piece of text indeed!

The boss drives his men;
The leader inspires them;
The boss depends on authority;
The leader depends on good will;
The boss says "I";
The leader says "We";
The boss shows who is wrong;
The leader shows what is wrong;
The boss knows how it is done;
The leader knows how to do it;
The boss demands respect;
The leader commands respect.

Digital attitude

by Ronnie Apteker

The budget on the Benoni film was just over 8 million Rands. The Footskating budget went way south of this. We went and had an adventure and we are very happy with the end result.

We could never have made the new movie on its tight budget of one million Rands if we hadn't learnt the hard lessons we picked up while in the East. The Footskating film is a great case study. Technically, the new movie looks much slicker and professional than the previous one. Practically, well, at this budget we could actually make a modest profit. I say "could" because we could still lose the million Rands we spent here. Yes, the film looks very good but God only knows if it is a better film than the previous one. My heart tells me that we moved up from a 3 or a 4 out of 10 to at least a 7. We have now done a series of screen tests with the target audience in mind and so far everyone is smiling. One thing is for sure, the numbers don't lie. We will know after the opening weekend on the 14th of September, whether our efforts here will bare fruit.

Shooting on digital required quite an adjustment in routine, discipline, behaviour and attitude. We shot on a new kind of system, onto flash memory cards, and we had to back everything up after we shot it. Each card could hold 8 minutes of hi-def footage and we bought 4 cards (they're pretty expensive) so we could shoot about half an hour of footage before we needed to wipe the cards clean, do a back up of the back up and then re-use the cards. Sometimes we shot up to an hour and a half a day which meant a lot of discipline and routine with respect to back ups etc. Occasionally we made mistakes when we were rushing and we erased some footage which was not cool. Didn't happen too often thank God.

The image quality we achieved utilizing this technology is quite extraordinary. We have seen the film blown up on the biggest cinema screen and we couldn't believe our eyes. No one knew they were watching a film that wasn't shot on film. This approach allowed us to be freed from the anxiety and costs associated with film ratios; we could shoot and shoot without worrying about expensive film stock. We also did a lot of re-shoots and pick-ups which again did not matter with respect to film stock costs etc.

The biggest adjustment though was one of attitude. No one behaved like we were making a low budget film. There was a respect for the process and a discipline when it came to the digital routine. A good attitude was the glue which kept this small unit thinking big. And the end result has been stunning. From my personal point of view this film is already a success! We came in on budget, had no fights, laughed a lot, gave it everything we got, and we had a lot of fun. Something feels good inside on this one and my heart tells me that there's magic on the horizon.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

East meets West

by Ronnie Apteker

Many lessons were learned from the "Benoni" film. We could not have made the new Footskating movie on a million Rands budget without making the previous film. As the saying goes "no pain no gain".

Making a film, like developing software (take Vottle for example) does not require vast amounts of money. It doesn't take money to write a script or book, compose a song, shoot a film, or develop software; it is a function of inspiration; it is a measure of talent; it is a labour of love. It comes from the heart, not from a cheque-book.

You don't need expensive Kodak film-stock to make a movie - you can shoot it on digital. What you do need is a vision, a good script, actors, talent and most of all, the right attitude. Imagine telling a writer that you can't create a book on a word processor; only on a type-writer. And one thing you can never underestimate, is the power of luck. You need to be lucky. "Better to be lucky than to be a clever" a successful entrepreneur told me earlier this year. So, the challenge then is to make yourself luckier. This is easier than you think. Just start smiling more and your luck will change. It has been said that the best way to receive is to give. Focus on the quality and the quantity will sort itself out. Luck favours the persistent. Yes, there are lot of these sayings, and they are all correct. You can indeed make your luck better.

The most fundamental aspect of any venture is the people. The only thing you ever invest in is in people, not in business plans or movie scripts. I get so many screenplays sent to me and what I have learnt is that strength of character is more important that the strength of the screenplay. Ideas don't move mountains, people move mountains.

We moved from the East Rand with the Benoni film to the West Rand with the Footskating film, and we moved from a modest budget to a tiny budget, from one hundred crew to a handful of crew, from Kodak film to high-definition digital, from 25 shooting days to 39 shootings days, and the list goes on and on. But the most fundamental movement was in attitude. Yes, on our latest film adventure I made a better investment. And not because the budget was smaller, but because the people were more inspired, more humble, more aligned, more enthusiastic, more passionate, and more hungry. On this new adventure there was a greater sense of purpose and a strong spirit of adventure when it came to taking the road less traveled on.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Footskating Fever

by Ronnie Apteker

A few years ago our friend Brendan Jack presented at our annual IS Internetix conference about our film project "Crazy Monkey's Straight Outta Benoni". In the time that has passed we made another movie "Footskating 101". Many hard lessons were learned on the Benoni journey. The new film is a big step up from the previous one and it was made on a fraction of the budget. The Benoni film had a crew of over 100 people, 25 shooting days and a budget of just over 8 million Rands. It was shot on Kodak film and it turned out to be a big affair. The new film was made for just under one million Rands, with a shooting schedule of 39 days and a crew of 5. I was one of the crew. Every keeps asking about the favours we pulled in to get this done. But there none. This was a combination of lessons learned, careful planning, a solid vision, and most importantly, this was a function of good people. They say ideas move mountains, but the truth is, people move mountains. You don't need a lot of money to write a book, compose a song, shoot a film or develop software. You need inspiration and many late nights. Footskating fever is coming and it is a going to make for a fascinating case study.

Every story needs a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning here was the "Straight Outta Benoni" movie. The middle is "Footskating 101". As for the end, well, we are still in the middle. Straight Outta Benoni was released during September of 2005 on 45 screens and 35mm prints were the order of the day. The marketing campaign was intense. No one can forget the monkey. The monkey was everywhere, and the cost of this blitz was around R10 million.

The new Footskating movie will be released in September of this year. Yes, two years later a new crazy comedy, West Rand style (the last film was an East Rand story) will be out there on 61 screens utilizing digital projectors (no costly 35mm prints). Oh, and the marketing blitz that is coming is significantly greater than last time.

The Footskating adventure was all about the spirit of the start-up. It is guerrilla style film making like never before. Here is the rulebook we stuck too:

No catering
No chairs
No toilets
No drivers
No trailers
No parking
No cellphone allowance
No assistants
No attitudes
No nonsense

And here is our methodology:

Plan, plan plan
Triple check all details
One week off, one week on
Triple check everything again
Find closet McDonalds (toilets)
Find closet garage (coffee)
Find grass patch (chairs)
Back-up all footage
Pray for good weather
Have fun, take chances

Making a movie takes time. They film shoot though is the quickest part. First you got to have a vision. Then a script needs be developed. In this case, almost a year and a half of Footskating writing. Then you got to plan the production. The longer you plan, the better. In fact, if you never shoot the movie you will be ahead. Ok ok, that sounds crazy, but consider that there is a 1 in 20 chance an independent film will work. So, if you want to win this game the best bet is not to play. But we did. So, what happens next. Planning, planning and more planning. And then it starts: lights, camera, action! All through this, with a handful of crew.

After the shoot ends the long, tough stuff, begins, Yes, the edit. This is where the dream is made or broken. This is where opinions clash, chirps fly in every direction, and tempers flair. We got through it, with minimal psychological damage. In fact, we laughed, a lot! If you survive this part the next thing to do are screen tests. You got to have nerves of steel to listen to other people criticize your work, but that is the name of the game. You make this product, that no one has asked for, that no one really needs, and then you see if they are prepared to recommend it to their friends. This is a tough gig indeed!

After all this starts the real work. There is a big difference between making a film (production) and selling a film (the film business); just like there is a big difference between writing software and selling software. Yes, now starts the real work, distribution and marketing. The "fun" stuff is over, now starts the fever!