Business Lessons Learnt from Filmmaking
POSTED BY KA-LOK HO
I started out my career wanting to make films, but along that route of filmmaking I found myself on the commercial side of things which lead to creating a lot of content for digital platforms, and to where I find myself now.
Like any subject, I studied and poured my heart into studying film (I still do), film theory, film production… anything I could get my hands on. After reflecting on some of the things I’ve learnt in the industry, I realised how much of it was relevant in a business setting.
Below are a handful of business lessons I unintentionally learnt from filmmaking.
1. Show. Don’t Tell.
One of the first lessons I learnt in filmmaking is ‘Show. Don’t tell’.
Exposition in film is boring.
Being told why is not satisfying, it doesn’t engage the brain, whereas being shown an example, you become invested in the story and can extrapolate the message.
This is just as true across business. Don’t client-splain it. Show it.
Treat your audience with respect, they’re not stupid
The customer doesn’t care for your intricacies of your process.
It doesn't matter which screw you turn to fix my car, or the differences between RGB or CMYK when designing a logo, or what camera you use to shoot.
[If they do care about the minutia, you’re in for a bad time of micro-management.]
The client doesn’t care how it’s done, just that it will be done, and more importantly what it can do for them. So show them.
Same goes for advertising and marketing – telling me you’re an expert means squat.
Show me through your actions, through helpful material, through customer engagement why you are the best choice.
If you’re pitching your service and have a slide that says why they should work with you, you’re wasting your time.
Every interaction leading up to that already gives signals of what it’s like to work with you.
Show. Don’t tell.
Storytelling is the way we communicate in life, it’s the way we learn, share, and dream.
Everyone can agree that storytelling is important, but why is so key in a business context?
It’s about turning the abstract into concrete.
Telling me how X will achieve Y is abstract. It’s difficult to put myself in those shoes.
Tell me how someone else did it, ideally a brand I’m familiar with. Paint me a picture of the problem using touch points I can relate to.
When something is abstract and hard to imagine, it’s difficult to say I want that. But when it’s tangible, and I can put myself in those shoes to imagine the result, it’s easy to point to that and say, I need that.
As Steve Jobs said, ‘People don’t know what they want until you show it to them’
This is why brochure portfolio websites of most creatives are generally ineffective. It's hard to separate you from the next artist who also has a never-ending scrolling list of pretty pictures.
Tell me a story, set up the issue, what were the challenges, how did you tackle it, and what was the resolution and result?
Call it a case study or testimonial — but let's just tell better stories.
‘Marketing is no longer about the stuff you sell. But the stories you tell.’ - Seth Godin
3. Aligned Vision
Every budding filmmaking will eventually ask, ‘how do I get the film look.’
Is it the grading? The widescreen ‘bars’ aspect ratio? The lighting? Wardrobe? Framing? Locations?
It’s all of it. It’s the entire approach. One single piece is not enough.
I came to realise that a brand is the same thing.
A film is not created just in the directors hand, or with wardrobe, or editing, or actors. It’s everyone.
A brand does not just live in the marketing department. But throughout the entire company
Marty Neumeier defines brand as, ‘not what you say, but what they say.’ So if you can’t align what ‘you’ - the business internally - says, how can you expect it to align externally?
In his book The Brand Gap, he says, external action needs to match internal culture for a brand to resonate with authenticity.
‘…every person in the company is an actor…every event from a customer service call, CFO releasing a profit warning to landing a new account all add depth and detail to the script. People read the script with their experiences with the company.’
A great film needs an aligned vision. A living brand needs alignment from the entire company.
4. Content Marketing
When I started out in my filmmaking career, I came across the company, Aputure – I knew of them as a China-knock-off-brand providing LED lighting on eBay.
Fast forward a handful of years, their products were all over trade shows and I had to double-take to check it was the same brand.
So let’s fill in the blanks.
With no budget, Aputure settled on a simple strategy. Make helpful content.
They taught filmmakers how to shoot, film theory, lighting 101 — basically an online film school.
But they were never advertising or actively trying to sell.
Sure, they often used their products in videos, BUT they also used 3 other brands of lights in the same shoots and would tell you that. How many brands do you know use their competitors products in their media?
They spoke to their audience genuinely, solving their problems, taking on feedback and developed products because of it. They were in service of their audience to build trust.
Nowadays their equipment is not only synonymous in every YouTuber and indie-filmmaker's kit, but also found on big budget Hollywood productions.
Even with zero budget, content done properly – helpful, entertaining, personality driven – can take you to to stardom. In Aputure's case, literally.
5. Strategy vs Tactics
People copy tactics, but not strategy.
The DC movies (Batman, Superman) began to copy the tactics of the Marvel films (Avengers, Iron Man, Black Panther) after their previous efforts weren’t met with much fanfare.
With Justice League especially, which should’ve been an easy box office hit, they tried to throw in more colour, add in some humour and even got the director behind Marvel’s Avengers to replicate their success.
And it still didn't perform. The issue is DC only copied the tactics, but not the strategy of Marvel.
They didn’t have an aligned vision. They didn’t build up their repertoire. They didn’t understand the why behind the how.
It’s the same for many brands and their content.
‘Fun start-up’ now means the content art direction is solid colours, abstract shapes, floating hands, and jerky stop motion.
So many brands nowadays look and feel the same. Perhaps that is their ‘strategy’, a heuristic so they can quickly be identified to be similar to these other brands.
Don’t copy look and style, copy the reasons behind it all.
Why do they post the way they do? Why does their content resonate? Why are they adjusting content for each platform? Why do they speak with that TOV? How frequent is their release schedule?
Only copying the small moves without understanding the larger context will only get you so far.
There are many lessons from filmmaking, film theory and just general direction that correlates almost perfectly in a business environment. Perhaps it’s all the moving pieces in a production that need to operate perfectly and the amount of teamwork involved to achieve a lofty goal, whether it’s completing a film or running a successful business.
I see myself as a creative and filmmaker at heart driven by a business mindset, so seeing the similarities and writing about it sure gives my brain a good tickle.
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Join me on Instagram where I post daily, sharing my process, behind the scenes on projects and lessons learnt in my business and personal development. @kalok.ho