Story Talk: An Interview with Author and Producer Barbara Freedman Doyle

Barbara Freedman Doyle’s Make Your Movie: What You Need to Know About the Business and Politics of Filmmaking is anything but another run-of-the-mill, how-to book on breaking into the film business. This is a blunt, real, smack-you-upside-the-head resource that is essential reading for anyone smitten with notions of a future working in the entertainment business.

Recently published by Focal Press, Make Your Movie is a behind the scenes guide for aspiring filmmakers who are passionate about movies, but who don’t yet have the contacts and experience to get a foot in the door of one of the world’s most cutthroat industries. Make Your Movie provides a view from the “other side of the desk,” featuring interviews with veteran film executives and lucky newcomers who have had their first breaks “getting into the biz.”

Ms. Freedman Doyle worked her way up from an assistant at Tri-Star Pictures to Production Supervisor and Line Producer on national commercial spots, network TV movies and feature films. She has worked with CBS, NBC, Disney, TNT, Showtime, Hearst Entertainment, Hallmark, 20th Century Fox and more. She is the former Associate Dean of Production at the American Film Institute, and currently serves as Chair of the Film Division at Chapman University in Orange County, California.  

JL: How has the entertainment industry changed in the last 5–10 years that justifies writing a book like this now?

BFD: The entertainment industry has undergone huge changes in the last ten years. Digital technology changed everything. Access to the means of production became much easier and the business opened up such that to make a movie you don’t have to be affiliated with a studio or even a major production company. Also, the proliferation of film festivals, the Internet and blogs have helped first-time filmmakers get their work “out there” in a way that they would not have been able to without major distribution. There are many more opportunities for niche projects, which tend to be the type of projects that new filmmakers want to make.

JL: How does your book differ from all the other “breaking into the business” how-tos?

BFD: I think it’s more practical. I’ve tried to include the entire process, from “I have an idea that would be a good movie,” to physical production, fund-raising, marketing, distribution, legal adding along the way interviews from people who have had recent successes and those who are industry veterans.  I think my interviewees were all extremely honest, and that’s unusual. I’m also amazed at how open the working professionals were, whom I interviewed—anyone who reads the book is really getting the low-down on the business, rather than an embellished, prettified version of how things work.

JL: If you had one message for your readers that encapsulates the spirit of your book, what would that be?

BFD: Show up early, watch everybody, watch what you say, and stay late!

JL: Can you expand on that a bit?

BFD: (Laughing) If you insist. I think a lot of people, and I talk about this in my book, assume they know more than they do.  And a lot of people just assume everybody is just waiting to hear their opinion.  When you’re starting out, the idea is you give your opinion when asked.  In general you should be mindful of the kind of opinion you give.  You can be honest, but you have to be diplomatic and tactful.  To just blurt out, “This sucks,” is not constructive.  If you’re looking at a script, for instance, “This sucks” is not a critique.  A lot of people try very hard to be kind of “cool,” so they come up with sweeping clever comments, but really they need to remember when people are asking your opinion about something, they’re asking it because they are either looking for affirmation of their own opinion, or they’re looking for a way to fix something, or to say yes we’re interested in something, or no we’ll pass.  So, you have to be thoughtful when you give your opinion.  Listen to how others are giving their opinions and learn from that.  Also, working on set, a lot of times things happen in a production, the reasons for which, not everyone knows.  Things happen because of politics, because of money, all kinds of things.  So you have to watch and listen.  Just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean you have to say it.  You’re better off just listening [when starting out] and getting the lay of the land.

JL: What’s the biggest mistake people make when trying to start a career in the entertainment business?

BFD: It’s like when someone’s been to some film school, or they’ve worked on some guerrilla film project where things were not done the way they should have been done professionally, and they come in [to a professional setting] and they kind of have an attitude.  I have seen this countless times: people come in with this attitude of “I know everything” and then proceed to hurt themselves by saying the wrong thing, or doing something unprofessional and hurting their reputations, and then they have to spend a couple of years recovering and fixing their careers, when all they had to do was shut up and drop the know-it-all attitude.  Come into a professional setting and be glad you’re there, scope it out and have a couple of experiences [on set].  Don’t decide that because you’ve had a couple of classes in something that you really understand the filmmaking process.  You don’t.  You’ve been exposed to some aspect of it, but until you’ve worked for a while at a professional level, your degree in whatever does not make you an expert.

JL: Why do you think if someone thinks they’re talented they have an attitude that they don’t have to be sensitive to the politics of the industry?  Is this a sense of entitlement they’ve acquired somehow?

BFD: Politics is a very strange thing and it’s very hard for people to understand what a huge place it has in the industry. Creatives that have been successful in other venues [like theater], where they’ve perhaps been in control of their own destinies, find they do not have control once they are in the movie business. The worst thing I’ve ever heard someone say is, “This is my baby, and I don’t care if anyone comes to see it.”  And people who are paying to get the film made are saying, “Well, having people come to see it is all we care about!” You don’t have to compromise your creative mission, but you have to be aware your backers don’t want to worry about you. They don’t want to worry that you’re taking their money and just throwing a party.  Look at many, and I would say most, of the successful filmmakers out there today—they are very shrewd about the politics—they understand how to use it to help them, rather than have it compromise their creative vision.

JL: List a few of the gems that stand out in your book that new readers would appreciate.

BFD: Besides the unusually straightforward and blunt interviews I mentioned earlier, I think the other major gems are the cautionary tales, which are real stories, and the lessons people learned from them.  For example: someone getting fired from their first job because they shot off their mouth, thinking they were having a private conversation on their cell phone.  People don’t set out to make mistakes, so reading about real people, their mistakes, and the true-life situations they had to grapple with, are invaluable experiences for newbies just starting out in the industry. Here are real life-lessons learned.  What makes the book special is that it is a guide that walks you through the whole process, so that no matter what you do you do in the business, you will understand the big picture of the business you are doing, its pitfalls, pot holes, subtleties, and strengths and weakness. This book prepares you for the real world of the entertainment business, not some academic or theoretical world.

JL: Is there a question I should have asked, but didn’t.

BFD: “What’s the best thing that’s happened as a result of this book?”

The answer is my former students, from as far back as fifteen years ago, are finding me on the Internet and emailing me.  They are now in the business and they are emailing me that they have “assigned” the book to their interns and assistants as part of their internship or  assistantship. The book is now required reading for incoming staff at a number of indie production companies.  That’s very gratifying.

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