filmmaker

MPI Course Empowers Filmmakers to Navigate Entertainment Business

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Ten filmmakers recently completed MPI’s inaugural Business of Film course. This six-month intensive kicked off last November with a three-day summit in Los Angeles. Participants attended monthly virtual seminars thereafter. 

Crafted with the goal of equipping filmmakers to navigate the entertainment industry, the course covered critical topics such as entertainment law, pitching, getting representation, financing films, and leveraging festivals.

Participants learned from showrunners, producers, agents, development executives, and film financiers, including Rob Mitchell (CFO, Bold Films), Ralph Winter (producer, X-Men films), Tanner Mobley (VP of development, Millennium Films), and Stacey Parks (founder, Media Sparks and FilmSpecific.com). 

“I’m not the same filmmaker I was before I started,” wrote one participant. “I am so much further ahead and I feel truly empowered to tell the stories that I am meant to share with the world.”

“I feel empowered to achieve my goals now that I’ve completed this program,” wrote another. “This was a phenomenal opportunity to engage with industry leaders and to learn from them as they generously shared how they succeed.”

Learn more about Business in Film here and find additional opportunities for filmmakers here.

Cinematography Workshop Provides Hands-On Experience

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Last month, in MPI’s immersive four-day cinematography workshop, Moving Picturecraft, twelve participants worked alongside acclaimed cinematographers to learn how lighting, camera, and lens technology can create a compelling visual story that evokes a range of emotions from viewers. 

Led by award-winning cinematographer Benjamin Gaskell, MPI filmmakers listened to lectures and studied scene set-ups from working cinematographers Peter Moss (Race), Amy Vincent (Black Snake Moan), and Natasha Braier (Neon Demon). Participants then put the lessons to work, composing, lighting, and filming scenes.

Held at the historic Mole-Richardson Sound Stage in Los Angeles, the workshop provided participants with industry-standard cameras and lighting systems. The chance to do guided work with high-quality equipment allowed participants an unmatched opportunity to experiment and innovate. 

Here is what they had to say about the experience: 

This cinematography workshop was especially wonderful because of the facilities, the equipment, and the industry connections that MPI rolled out for our benefit. It was amazing to have so many talented people brought together through MPI to advance our critically important mission in the world.
By forging personal relationships with like-minded filmmakers, this workshop has not only given me a great education, but also an arsenal of highly skilled future collaborators.
This taught me an enormous amount about what tools are available to a cinematographer and the variety of ways in which they can be used in order to tell a story. It also gave me hands-on experience with many of them and introduced me to a lot of fantastic filmmakers.

Learn more about our cinematography workshop here and keep a lookout for application deadlines to participate in our expected summer 2020 workshop.

This Fourth of July Celebrate Freedom Through Film

At the Moving Picture Institute we are proud to create and support powerful stories about human freedom—stories that wrestle with the very ideals that America was founded on such as free expression, human rights, and resistance to tyranny. 

This Independence Day we encourage you to take some time out of your planned celebrations and spend it watching a quality film that reflects on the many dimensions of freedom. Maybe it’s the powerful documentary Incarcerating US from MPI filmmaker Regan Hines or 2081, our adaption of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” If you’d prefer to keep it light, check out We the Internet TV’s latest video Marie Kondo: Tidying Up Washington, D.C.

Whatever you watch, we hope you will be entertained and inspired. 


‘We The Internet TV’s’ Mini-Doc Featured in ‘Forbes’

Forbes health contributor Nicole Fisher cites the We the Internet TV mini-doc, How Instagram Hacks Your Brain, in her recent column on the effects of social media on today’s youth. 

Does spending 6-10 hours a day on social media cause anxiety and depression? Could the onslaught of perfectly filtered images and algorithmically contrived pleasure be causing irreversible psychological damage? Rob Montz explores these questions and more in the mini-doc above, arguing that social media apps such as Instagram engineer addiction. 

Watch more videos from We the Internet TV’s mini-documentary series here.

MPI Partnership Creates Golden Opportunities

Former MPI intern Carly Hicks attends the Academy Awards thanks to MPI’s relationship with Academy Gold.

Former MPI intern Carly Hicks attends the Academy Awards thanks to MPI’s relationship with Academy Gold.

Last year MPI launched its partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to participate in Academy Gold, a seven-week entertainment industry-wide internship enhancement and mentorship program that gives our interns access to special panels with Academy members, screenings, and countless career advancement opportunities. 

June marked the beginning of this summer’s program with two MPI interns participating. Former MPI intern and 2018 Academy Gold alum Carly Hicks gave us an idea of what they can expect out of this summer:

“MPI’s partnership with the Academy Gold program placed me in the very center of the film industry—from panels of filmmakers, tours of studios, and one-on-one mentorship with an industry veteran and Academy member. The Gold program gave me an inside look at the moving pieces that come together to make the movies and TV we love.”

For more information about MPI’s talent development programs, visit our filmmaker opportunities page.

MPI Filmmaker Premieres New Film

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In the spotlight: Rob Smat

Since 2015, filmmaker Rob Smat has participated in MPI programs ranging from an internship to our Mindful Editor seminar to a screenwriting workshop. Today he premieres his first feature film, The Last Whistle. Starring Brad Leland (Friday Night Lights) and Jim O’Heir (Parks and Recreation), the film follows the head coach of a successful Texas high school football team through the chaotic aftermath of his all-star player dying during practice. 

“From my start as a marketing intern at 20th Century Fox, to my participation in workshops and masterclasses, I have been set up to be the best writer, director, editor, and overall filmmaker I can possibly be,” Rob says. “MPI is a talent development machine like no other, and I owe a great part of my first film, The Last Whistle, to what I've learned and gained from the MPI.” 

Coming off a successful festival run, The Last Whistle is now showing in theaters across the US. You can find the full list of theaters and watch the trailer here. The film is also available for download on iTunes

Inspired by Rob’s success? MPI is currently accepting applicants for its 2019 screenwriting workshops. Find more information and apply here

In the Spotlight: Calvin Tran

Show host Rizqui during filming of  Rizqui Presents: Blockchain

Show host Rizqui during filming of Rizqui Presents: Blockchain

MPI Fellow debuts new show on Amazon Prime

MPI fellow Calvin Tran recently debuted his show Rizqui Presents: Blockchain on Amazon Prime. Produced by his production company NodeHaus, the series follows its host, international hip hop dance artist and data visualizer Rizqi Rachmat, as he explains the fundamentals of blockchain technology to an unversed audience. MPI caught up with Calvin (CT) and Rizqui (RR) to get the inside scoop on the venture. Here’s what they had to say:

MPI: Why make a series about blockchain technology?
CT: The value of this technology is incredible and world-changing, and yet the world still doesn’t understand it very well. Considering it's been ten years since the beginning of Bitcoin, I wanted to jump right in and help people grasp it better.

MPI: What's the biggest misconception about blockchain, and how do you address it?
CT: Blockchain is a tech protocol that can have many different applications in our lives. We demonstrate that in our show by touching on the different ways new ventures are using blockchain. It has the potential to revolutionize whole industries.

MPI: What's the greatest challenge facing blockchain right now?
CT: Slow, confusing, and unnecessary regulation. The industrial energy is definitely there, but it is diminished if major regulatory bodies act too slowly, if their laws are too confusing, or if their rules are just too onerous. We need good, solid legal parameters as soon as possible.

MPI: What did you learn in the process of making this show?
CT: Producing a documentary series requires a lot more pre-production than I thought. Even though it's unscripted, and a lot of the production depends on your instincts on-set, there's definitely so much to prepare for before shooting. Lesson learned!
RR: No matter how people feel about the hype and salience of bitcoin as an investment, BTC is undoubtedly changing markets (and minds).

MPI: What has been the response to this series?
CT: Incredible. We've gotten great reviews on Amazon, and around 5,000 views on the site,which is great for a pay-walled series. I’ve had so many great conversations where people have said I've helped introduce this industry to people in an accessible way for the first time.

MPI: How can the embrace of blockchain improve the world? How does the individual benefit from blockchain?
RR: It's as revolutionary as the printing press, the computer, and the internet. How did those benefit the individual and the world?
CT: This is a decentralized record-keeping protocol. That means truth is being decentralized instead of remaining dependent on central institutions such as big businesses, banks, and governments, all of which has been the cornerstone of the developed world since the Second World War. This is going to change the way our world works under-the-hood.

MPI: How did MPI support your early filmmaking career?
CT: MPI has been there for me since my senior year of high school, when I went to their inaugural conference with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Since then, MPI has supported me with workshops, a strong network, and even production grants. They've done a great job of planting the seeds to help my career take off.

MPI: What advice would you give filmmakers looking to make and sell their first series?
CT: Be as unique and flexible as a startup. You're providing a real value to people and your real job is discovering what that value is and executing it. If you've got a unique idea, you’ve also got to have unique market to serve.

MPI: Tell us about the new projects you're working on.
RR: Data visualizations and engineering of F35 simulators using gaming network protocols. Next-level hip hop cultural diplomacy initiatives, focusing on conflict transformation and entrepreneurship. Founding and incorporating a new venture called Chart Supply Co.
CT: I'm developing a new show called Bitcoin World Tour, a travel-tech show on blockchain use-cases around the world. I'm also developing a documentary on Dennis Rodman and a feature comedy about marijuana and local politics in a trailer park.

Catch the first episode of Rizqui Presents: Blockchain for free (hosted by CoinSpice), and purchase the full season at Amazon Prime (hosted by CoinDesk).

Spotlight: MPI Filmmaker Tanner Mobley

Part 4 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series

The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers

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Our “Spotlight” series continues with long-time Moving Picture Institute-supported filmmaker Tanney Mobley, a development executive for Millennium Films and producer of high budget action features such as The Expendables franchise. Tanner graduated from the University of Iowa in 2010 with a degree in Cinema and, with the help of the MPI, relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film development. He has been with Millennium for the past six and a half years and also serves as a judge for the ScreenCraft annual action scriptwriting competition.

Lana Link (MPI): Tanner, thank you for answering our questions today! Can you talk about your role at Millennium and the films you make there?

TM: I work as a Development Executive, which is a fancy way of saying I find and develop different scripts/projects for the company. We have a full service production studio in Bulgaria, and we operate under a foreign pre-sales model. Basically that means we pre-sell our films to the different territories around the world before we actually make the movie. This provides us very little risk, since the film is already paid for before we start shooting. But creatively, it limits the type of projects we can do. Our buyers are mostly interested in high-concept action/thrillers with A-List cast. So that’s what we try to give them. We are the only independent studio in the world with six major franchises: The Expendables, Rambo, Olympus Has Fallen, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, The Mechanic, and most recently the new Hellboy reboot.

MPI: For those who are just starting out in the industry, can you speak to what “development” executives do? What skills do you need?

TM: We find scripts from anywhere we can—agents, managers, producers, friends, waiters, valets, etc. And we read a LOT. Once we find something we like, we try to option the project and put it together. Usually this involves a few rounds of notes with the writer, then sending the script out to directors. After director pitches, we hire a director, incorporate their script notes, and start making offers to cast. When we get a financeable actor on board, the sales guys take the film to the markets and start selling. This is usually where my work stops. But once the film is in post-production, we will review the cuts and give notes on how to improve it.

Skills you need: you must love reading, obviously. And you need to have a good sense of story/structure. But like anything else, it’s all about practice. If you have the patience to sit and read all day, then eventually you start to notice patterns in scripts and learn what works and what doesn’t.

MPI: What should writers keep in mind when they’re trying to get producers’ attention? Are there common errors you see screenwriters repeat, either in their work during the coverage process or in their pitches?

TM: Don’t be afraid to follow up. I get so many submissions that a lot of times scripts can get buried in my inbox. If you send me something and then disappear off the face of the earth, I’ll probably never read it. But if you’re polite and check in occasionally with a reminder, eventually I will get to it.

Common errors: don’t save your best pages for the end of the script. Make sure your first 10 to 25 pages are your strongest, and that they hook the reader somehow. Give me a reason to keep turning the page. If you tell me “Just wait until the twist at the end!” I’ll probably never make it that far.

As far as pitches go, try to relax. Don’t go too fast. Don’t read directly from a paper (notes are ok). Be funny. Even if you’re pitching a Holocaust drama where everybody dies at the end, a bit of humor can go a long way toward easing tension in the room and ingratiating yourself as someone we want to work with. Be open to ideas and collaborative, but don’t be afraid to defend yourself if you see things a different way. 

Make sure your first 10 to 25 pages are your strongest, and that they hook the reader somehow. Give me a reason to keep turning the page.

MPI: Pure ballpark estimate, how many scripts do you think you’ve read in your lifetime? What are your biggest lessons learned from that experience?

TM: I’m probably close to 1,000. You learn a little bit from everything you read. Usually what not to do. For example: taking too long to get into the story, not having a clear direction/arc for your protagonist, focusing too much on the action/plot instead of character, etc. As someone who reads a lot of action scripts, I can tell you we usually just skim the action scenes, because the director and stunt coordinator will do whatever they want with those anyway. Character is always most important. And the decisions your character makes will influence plot.

MPI: We are about to kick off our 2018 summer internship program, with students coming from around the country to work in the entertainment business and get a foot in the door. You are a Moving Picture Institute success story, and you participated in the program yourself when you first came out to LA. Can you talk about that experience?

TM: I did two development internships, and both were very different experiences. One was very fun and collaborative—the company let us attend production meetings, assist in weekend read, etc. The other was very cold: it was basically “Find a cubicle, grab a script from this huge stack, and do coverage all day without making a sound.” Both these experiences were super important, because I got to see how a department should be run and how it shouldn’t be run. 

The stipend provided by MPI allowed me to focus all my energy on succeeding at the internship and not having to worry about how I was going to pay rent, etc. . . . even more important is just learning how to work with people, be a team player, be collaborative, and be confident in your own taste and ideas. 

MPI: How did those placements help you land your next Hollywood job(s)?

TM: Both internships were essential. It’s incredibly difficult for someone not from LA to uproot and move across the country to take an unpaid internship in a totally unfamiliar industry with no connections. The stipend provided by MPI allowed me to focus all my energy on succeeding at the internship and not having to worry about how I was going to pay rent, etc. I was able to pad my resume and show I had previous experience, which is important. But even more important is just learning how to work with people, be a team player, be collaborative, and be confident in your own taste and ideas. 

MPI: Last year, you began hosting Moving Picture Institute interns of your own at Millennium, and you recently hired one for a full-time position! How can interns really stand out when they’re at the bottom of the totem pole?

TM: You basically need to remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. This will help you a lot when you first become an assistant as well. It doesn’t matter if your boss asks you to retrieve a lock of hair from Queen Elizabeth’s puppy. You never say no—at worst, you say “Let me see what I can do.” Then figure out a way to make it happen.

You basically need to remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. . . . You never say no—at worst, you say “Let me see what I can do.” Then figure out a way to make it happen.

No task should be too small. If it’s stocking sodas, cleaning up after a meeting, getting coffee, etc. Do the small things right and do them with enthusiasm. People will notice, and they will give you more responsibility as time goes on.

MPI: You’re also a writer yourself. Can you talk about your writing process and how you make time to write when you have a demanding full-time job in the industry?  

TM: It’s hard to find time to write even if you have a normal job. It’s just such a laborious process. But if you’re passionate about something, you’ll always find a way to make time. This is Hollywood—everyone has an idea for a script. A lot of people have really good ideas for scripts. But until they’re actually on paper, they don’t exist. It’s never hard for me to find time to write because it’s therapeutic. Even if I’ve spent all day trying to fix someone else’s bad script, it’s an easy switch to flip when you start working on your own stuff. If you can’t get excited about your own ideas, then you shouldn’t be writing. 

MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking and writing journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next projects?

TM: Know which ideas to focus your energy on. Work on things that you can actually sell. If you spend two years working on a script that only five people will want to see, then what’s the point?

Also, a tough pill to swallow:  concept is often more important than the actual script (at least for my company). We need to be able to pitch the movie in two or three sentences to a buyer from China, Mexico, Germany, Russia, etc.—all in the same day. And they all need to be able to understand it. Focus on universal themes and ideas that will have global appeal. It will go a long way toward making your project commercial and marketable.

MPI: For fun, share a film (or script) that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves). 

TM: Grease 2. I think it’s just as good as the first one. I’m yet to find anyone who agrees with me.

MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers, new interns, and screenwriters?

TM: Find what you like to do, and do it. If you like writing, write every day. Even if it sucks, you will only get better. If you like directing, direct! Don’t wait around for someone to give you a job. Write or find material and start shooting short films. Anyone with an iPhone can shoot a short film today. With technology where it’s at, there’s really no excuse. 

Find what you like to do, and do it. . . . Anyone with an iPhone can shoot a short film today. With technology where it’s at, there’s really no excuse. 

Spotlight: MPI Filmmaker Toby Fell-Holden

Part 3 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series

The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers

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Our “Spotlight” series continues with long-time Moving Picture Institute-supported filmmaker Toby Fell-Holden, a British writer-director based between New York and London. His short film Balcony won a Crystal Bear award at the 2016 Berlinale, played at over 100 film festivals, and won over 30 awards. Toby is currently developing his first feature film, Incident, with Western Edge Pictures.

Lana Link (MPI): Toby, thank you for answering our questions today! You’ve been writing and directing for years, with incredible success. Do you think of yourself as a writer or director first?

TF-H: A writer first. It’s free to write so it’s much easier to get in the hours! I love directing, but it tends to be a much smaller part of the process when you’re also writing the scripts. 

MPI: You attended Columbia’s MFA program—do you recommend that filmmakers who are starting out go to film school or get an MFA?

TF-H: I found the MFA incredibly useful to learn the craft of filmmaking, but some people are able to thrive without the structure and deadlines that school provides. For me it was important to have a community—a network of people who champion your work and give you feedback.

MPI: The Moving Picture Institute’s "Calling Card" screenwriting workshop will begin soon. You’ve written several critically acclaimed shorts. How can calling cards help further writers’ and directors’ careers? Is there an advantage to making those instead of diving right into features?

TF-H: The last short I made opened a lot of doors to the industry so it was definitely useful. But it required making many shorts and a lot of exercises during film school to get something to a level that gained attention. I wouldn’t know how to dive into making a feature without first getting to grips with the process through some shorts.

I wouldn’t know how to dive into making a feature without first getting to grips with the process through some shorts.

It’d be pretty tough to make a feature people would want to watch without having cut your teeth elsewhere. But if you can make a feature for next to nothing then great, why not!

MPI: Your short Balcony was an international success, screening at dozens of festivals and winning 25 awards, including a coveted Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Can you talk about your festival submission strategy and process? How did you decide where you submit?

TF-H: We had this long spreadsheet that I had used for prior short film submissions. A good starting place is to go through the festival qualifying lists that the Academy Awards and BAFTA provide. These cover many of the more established festivals around the world. The other thing to watch out for is the premiere status of some festivals. Very few require a world premiere, but many established festivals require a national premiere, so it’s good to apply to those first.

MPI: Along those lines, what advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to know how to write a calling card short film that stands out from the crowd?

TF-H: I think they would first want to focus on what they’re trying to say with their stories. What are they passionate and eager to communicate in a way that’s unique to them? Films are hard to make so you need to really believe in what you’re doing to see it through and your enthusiasm is infectious in attracting the cast and crew.

Films are hard to make so you need to really believe in what you’re doing to see it through and your enthusiasm is infectious in attracting the cast and crew.

That said, with shorts many of the ones that do well will tend to throw you into a specific moment with high stakes or will have a powerful punchline/twist. You have almost no time to set up a story so it’s good to keep it moving and let the audience play catch-up.

MPI: Similarly, what advice would you give to other filmmakers who are beginning their film festival submission process?

TF-H: Be realistic with your expectations. If it’s the first attempt at a short, it’s better to aim for more local and niche-interest festivals rather than spend $2,000 on festival fees for the biggest ones and expect to go to Cannes. The goal is to get the film seen and to meet other filmmakers. As you make a few shorts you start to develop a sense of where it might play and you build relationships with programmers who will give you waivers and invite you to submit. At the start, I found that going for the big short film festivals like Palm Springs and Clermont was a good starting place. 

MPI: What should filmmakers know about getting distribution for their shorts?

TF-H: It’s hard to get distribution on TV, but online platforms are creating more new opportunities. If you have a good festival run, distributors will tend to find you. Winning awards will often attract interest. There’s also a lot to be said for approaching places like Vimeo and Short of the Week, which can often get you more exposure than you’ll ever find at festivals!

MPI: Could you talk about your writing process? Do you follow popular structural recommendations or books that you’ve found helpful? Particularly as you move into features?  

TF-H: The biggest part is just to write, every day. That’s the hardest challenge. Books-wise, Aristotle’s Poetics lays out the key elements of plot and character really succinctly. On Filmmaking by Alexander Mackendrick and On Directing Film by Mamet are also great for story. Listening to Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) talk about writing is always an education. He gave a masterclass at Columbia that changed the way I thought about structure and endings—I can’t get it out off my head when I write! There’s a great intro to first acts by Arndt and Pixar on YouTube. 

MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking and writing journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?

TF-H: I found it useful to keep a journal that I would make a note in whenever I saw a film, art, or read something that I had a strong reaction to—over time you start to see what things matter to you and it clarifies what you want to explore in your own stories.

MPI: How have your Moving Picture Institute fellowships and participation in MPI programs like screenwriting workshops helped develop your career? 

TF-H: My Moving Picture Institute fellowships were a great extension of support beyond film school to develop scripts with talented filmmakers who all have unique perspectives. The last short, Balcony, went through one of the script development labs and the discussion helped me gain a clear sense of when things were really working.

MPI: As you know, the Moving Picture Institute’s mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas, as you did in Balcony or MPI-supported Little Shadow?

TF-H: I try to focus on the characters and their problems, then link that into the wider story world. Whenever I attempt to impose an idea or perspective onto the characters first, it usually goes wrong! Really wrong! It becomes preachy, mechanical, and lacks authenticity. If you can come up with an interesting character and get them talking to you, then it’s much easier to drop them in a situation that might dovetail into current events or tensions.

If you can come up with an interesting character and get them talking to you, then it’s much easier to drop them in a situation that might dovetail into current events or tensions.

MPI: For fun, share a film (or script) that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves).

TF-H: Labyrinth! But nobody hates that one, right??

MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers and screenwriters?

TF-H: WRITE EVERY DAY!

 
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More about Toby Fell-Holden:

Toby Fell-Holden is a British writer-director based between New York and London. He holds an MFA in Film from Columbia University and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. His short film Balcony won a Crystal Bear award at the 2016 Berlinale, won the Iris Prize, and Best International Short Film at the Flickerfest, Calgary, and Urbanworld film festivals, along with a nomination for Best British Short Film at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA). It has played at over 100 film festivals and won over 30 awards. His short film Little Shadow was long-listed for an award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and nominated by the Casting Society of America for an Artios award. Toby is a Screen International Star of Tomorrow for 2016. He is a 2016 recipient of a John Brabourne Award and has been awarded fellowships from the Moving Picture Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Toby is currently developing his first feature film, Incident, with Western Edge Pictures.

Spotlight: MPI Filmmaker Cyrus Saidi

Part 2 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series

The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers

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Our “Spotlight” series continues with MPI-supported director/producer Cyrus Saidi. In 2013, he co-wrote, produced, and directed a MPI-supported short-film titled L1TTL3 BR0TH3R, a political thriller with a sci-fi twist. He recently completed a major documentary feature titled What We Started—taking on the subject of global electronic music culture. The film features some of the biggest names in music including Martin Garrix, Carl Cox, Tiesto, David Guetta, Dubfire, Usher, Ed Sheeran etc. What We Started is now available for streaming on Netflix. Follow the film on Facebook.

Lana Link (MPI): Your compelling feature electronic music documentary, What We Started, premiered last summer at the LA Film Festival. In March, the film will enjoy its theatrical premiere and go nationwide. Can you tell us a little about this project and how people can watch it?

CS: What We Started explores the rich history of the widely misunderstood and well-insulated dance music industry that began as an underground movement and has soared to become one of the most popular genres in music. The film follows the rise of young superstar Martin Garrix (#1 DJ in the world), and industry pioneer Carl Cox. The cast also includes Tiesto, Erick Morillo, Moby, David Guetta, Steve Angello, Afrojack, Paul Oakenfold, Usher, Ed Sheeran, Richie Hawtin, Seth Troxler, Pete Tong and more. After a theatrical run (March–June) The film will be available exclusively on Netflix worldwide. 

MPI: How did your background in the music business shape this film? Is this something you always knew you wanted to make?

CS: I always wanted to make this film and tell the incredible story of EDM (electronic dance music), which at its core is about freedom of expression and unity. I have worked in the EDM industry for 15 years and knew a lot of its history, politics, and key people.

MPI: Billboard recently shared the updated trailer and wrote: If you're a music geek or a student of dance history, this won't be one to miss. What do you think will draw audiences to the film who aren’t as familiar with dance music? What do you want them to take away from the film? 

CS: My co-director on this film, Bert Marcus, and our producer Cassandra Hamar brought an angle to this project that hugely enabled an objective view needed to make this film attractive to non-fans of the genre. They are extremely good at making commercially successful documentary films such as Teenage Paparazzo, Champs (Mike Tyson), and How to Make Money Selling Drugs, etc.

I think people will have a deep appreciation for the dance music community’s struggles in fighting for their rights, the persistent efforts to continue to love what they have done despite overwhelming odds, and all the challenges that dreamers overcome

I think people will have a deep appreciation for the dance music community's struggles in fighting for their rights, the persistent efforts to continue to love what they have done despite overwhelming odds, and all the challenges that dreamers overcome. All this while being highly entertained at the same time. That is the film’s goal.

MPI: Many of our filmmakers seek to involve high-profile interview subjects or stars. Your film features some of the most prominent players in the music world today, including Martin Garrix, Moby, David Guetta, Tiesto, Usher, and Ed Sheeran. Do you have any advice for how others can attach big names to their projects? 

CS: For us, this came down to two factors: relationships and offering value. Relationships are obviously something we had built over years in our field of work, so making a film about something in which we were deeply involved helped. Value however, is more important; if the film subject is compelling and the your dedication is evident—not only to make the film great but make its release a success—nothing can stand in your way. With this film, even with all the contacts we already had, it took us six months to convince big names to get on board. Once a couple joined, the rest followed. 

Value however, is more important; if the film subject is compelling and the your dedication is evident—not only to make the film great but make its release a success—nothing can stand in your way.

MPI: You first started working with the Moving Picture Institute team on your dystopian sci-fi short, L1TTL3 BR0TH3R. The film explores themes such as the role of technology as a means to fight oppression in society. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell that story?

CS: I have always been fascinated with dystopian “big brother” films. Usually the story is about using technology to take power away from people. I wanted to tell the opposite story where technology was used to take power back.

MPI: What’s the biggest difference between directing a narrative project and a documentary? Which do you prefer and why?

CS: With a narrative you need to have the story down tight. Whereas with a documentary, the story kind of takes shape as you go along. All you need is a very strong subject and and solid “why”—as in why you are dying to shed light on that subject. 

MPI: How about the difference between shorts and features?

CS: Features are a ton more work!

MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project? 

CS: I have made two films so far, and each time the most valuable lesson I have learned is the value of collaboration. Being open to new perspectives can really bring out the best in a project. I have learned that lesson twice. So I will definitely be more flexible as I grow as a filmmaker.

The most valuable lesson I have learned is the value of collaboration. Being open to new perspectives can really bring out the best in a project.

MPI: How has your Moving Picture Institute fellowship, support from our staff, and participation in our programming, like masterclasses, helped develop your career?

CS: Being part of MPI is like being part of a family. Knowing there are people who believe in what you are doing is not something I can put a price on. MPI is and will always be a part of my film career because it is driven by people who deeply care about their mission.

MPI: As you know, our mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas?

CS: Telling freedom-oriented stories is in my creative DNA. Having been born in a country where freedom of expression was so scarce, then growing up in Canada and now living in the US where the idea of freedom is so much more respected—that has had a huge impact on me. Both of my films have freedom as a central idea. I am also working on a feature screenplay that revolves around this theme.

MPI: For fun, share a film that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves).

CS: I love Solaris (2002), and most people have never heard of it, don’t understand it, or hate it.

MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers?

CS: I don’t think I am qualified to give advice as a filmmaker to all of the talented people in the MPI network. But perhaps as a talent manager, which is my day job, I can say: Only give your time to projects you absolutely love.

Only give your time to projects you absolutely love.
 
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More about Cyrus Saidi:

Director/producer Cyrus Saidi has always had an insatiable passion for film, music, freedom of expression, and the crossroads at which they all meet.
 
Starting his entrepreneurial career at 18, Cyrus challenged legislation and produced Canada’s first fully legal electronic music event. Over the past decade he has gone on to manage international acts and produce tours in 30+ countries. 
 
Growing up inspired by the great masters of cinema, Cyrus found his true passion in film. He spent a decade extensively studying screenwriting and directing, and optioned his first feature screenplay in 2012. In 2013, he co-wrote, produced, and directed a Moving Picture Institute-supported short film titled L1TTL3 BR0TH3R. A political thriller with a sci-fi twist, the film has received international attention and won several awards in festivals. The short was also featured on CBC, Canada’s national television channel.
 
Cyrus recently completed What We Started, a documentary feature about global electronic music culture. The film features some of the biggest names in music including Martin Garrix, Carl Cox, Tiesto, David Guetta, Dubfire, Usher, Ed Sheeran etc. What We Started will open in theaters in March 2018.