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In Features, Issues

CULTURE HACKER
Lance Weiler travels to the land of start-ups.

LOVELAND'S JERRY PAFFENDORF.

It has been said that amazing things come out of difficult times. The recession of the late '70s saw the birth of Apple and Microsoft. One can only wonder what innovation is going on today in garages, studio apartments and basements across the country.

I've often found it surprising that filmmakers spend years developing a film only to watch it die soon after it reaches the world. I'm sick of hearing the terms “creative,” “artist,” or even the phrase “I just want to make films,” as if uttering the expression excuses the lack of interest in the business aspect of our craft.

At the end of the day filmmakers are entrepreneurs. Independent filmmaking is very similar to bootstrapping a startup — long hours, little to no pay and big dreams. But are filmmakers so focused on a single film that they are missing larger opportunities to tell the stories they wish to make? Over the course of the last few months I've reached out to a number of interesting entrepreneurs in an effort to better understand what it takes to birth a company in today's difficult economic times. In the process I came across some insight, which I think can be beneficial to filmmakers.


WELCOME TO THE BOTCAVE

The sign on the door reads MakerBot Industries. Inside, boxes line the floors and there is a flurry of activity. A light humming sound fills the air. Machines buzz as they print physical objects that merely minutes before were 3-D renderings on a computer screen. This is the Botcave and within its walls resides a start-up that intends to change the face of printing. The MakerBot is a boxlike unit that prints thin plastic, laying it down layer by layer similar to a glue gun. Over time the layers build and become physical objects. During my visit I'm shown eyeglass frames, wall brackets, tweezers, action figures and even a 3-D rendering of Walt Dinsey's head — all printed courtesy of MakerBot. The community around MakerBot is rabid with owners sharing designs and inspiring each other to create. Within this dynamic the MakerBot team has found a number of interesting ways to embrace their users' passions while empowering them.

APPLICATION:
MakerBot does an excellent job of understanding the value of a niche community and providing tools and resources to enable them to share and “make.” Case in point: MakerBot is experimenting with crowd-sourcing manufacturing. Parts for the actual MakerBot are being printed by those in the community, thus eliminating the need for outside manufacturing. The goal is to eventually have an army of MakerBots making themselves. By giving the community an active role in literally and figuratively building the MakerBot they have tapped a loyal user base and in the process have energized a whole community.


I GOT INCHES IN DETROIT

Jerry Paffendorf wants you to buy a million inches of Detroit. When I reach Paffendorf at his office, a former factory that once manufactured a line of Chrysler cars but now is home to entrepreneurs, architects and artists, he's in the middle of a second round of what he calls a public “inchvestment” for his newest start-up, LOVELAND. The inchvestment is open to anyone, and inches sell for a $1 each. To date 330 people have inchvested in more than 4,000 square inches, which Paffendorf affectingly calls “Plymouth Colony.” Once Plymouth reaches 25,000 square inches it will travel to a larger plot of land, a million square inches (85' x 85') of prime Detroit real estate.

What began as a collaborative art project has grown into an interesting experiment in social ownership. Those who purchase inches are free to do whatever they wish with them. Some have turned to augmented reality to bring their inches to life while others are creating miniature structures and people to inhabit the inches they have purchased. The process of building LOVELAND excites Paffendorf in the sense that the project is artistically fulfilling and self-funding. A veteran of the highly structured VC/angel financing route, he is perfectly content with letting the project organically grow.

APPLICATION:
LOVELAND takes a creative approach to the design of not only the concept behind the project but also the way in which it is funded. Routed within a hook that some might consider a novelty (the million dollar homepage pops to mind), Paffendorf is embracing the playfulness of LOVELAND's actual and virtual inches by documenting the process as if it was a natural history/storytelling project. The approach appears to be paying off as inchvestors are doing all kinds of creative things around their plots and actively sharing and socializing with one another. In the process LOVELAND could prove to be an interesting revitalization project that turns areas of Detroit and other cities into collaborative social art that is self-sustaining.


TIME TO MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR

Everyone has something just lying around that they use maybe once or twice a year. It could be a ladder, a set of tools, or an old bike. But what if you could simply borrow them from the people who had the items collecting dust? NeighborGoods.net is a way for people to share, barter, rent or sell those items in a simple and unified way. Currently launching in a number of cities across the country, NeighborGoods is starting locally with the hopes of stitching together a national network.

When Micki Krimmel started NeighborGoods she fell into a similar trap that affects many filmmakers: She found herself waiting for the perfect set of circumstances. Between searching for the perfect partner and the desire to create the perfect business plan, Krimmel found herself paralyzed and mired in the traditional paths to funding. It wasn't until she reached out to other entrepreneurs that she found clarity. Together with a designer friend Krimmel jumped in and started working with what she had at hand. It did not need to be perfect — it just needed to work. Along the way the model could evolve thanks to direct user feedback.

APPLICATION:
It is common for Web sites and services to release early versions for testing. Alpha and beta releases are ways to work out bugs and improve performance, user experiences and expand upon feature sets. While it's commonplace in the film industry to hold test screenings, they occur late in the process and often become a Band-Aid for problems that could or should have been corrected earlier. Applying the concept of an alpha or a beta to the filmmaking process could lend itself well to story R&D (research and development), thus giving a filmmaker an opportunity to engage with a prospective audience at an earlier phase within the filmmaking process.


AT THE HEART OF A NEW MODEL

One thing is for certain: The audience will be at the center of whatever business models emerge. Building and establishing meaningful connections with your audience is how independent filmmakers will be able to fund, create, distribute and sustain. While many filmmakers hold onto crumbling traditional models, the most valuable and stable asset a filmmaker can build for his or her future is an audience that is not there just for one film but for a whole body of work.



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