How Independent Filmmaking Is Like Running a Political CampaignPhoto by Joe Raedle/Getty Politics Features Filmmaking
You have a story. You have a project.
You need to build a crew and find supporters and investors to raise money.
You have a short time window and many constraints.
You need to find an audience.
Sounds like a film right?
Well, my name is Gill Holland and I have been known in some circles as an independent film producer (see Paste Magazine’s 2006 Top 20 list of Arthouse Wheel Greasers, right up there with Netflix founder Reed Hastings and Mark Cuban!) but right now I am running for Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky.
The primary is in 32 days—May 21st, 2019. I am writing this article for Paste because as I was with my Governor candidate Adam Edelen last month shooting a little video, I suddenly realized the video was just like many of the crowd-funding asks we have done for movies.
The more I started thinking about it, I realized that making an independent film and running a political campaign are essentially the same thing. In my life as a producer, I have worked on over 100 films. The producer is all about empowering the vision of the director, helping raise the money, organize and build a great cast and crew. And sometimes the producer also helps originate projects by making sure the director knows you have their back and will support the efforts. And I had reached out to Adam Edelen last fall and told him he had to run for Governor, that he was the only one in Kentucky who could save the state at this critical time. Three weeks later, when Adam Edelen shocked me by asking me to run with him, I said yes. I figured I would be helping empower his vision for building a better, healthier, modern, and future-facing Kentucky. So I am one of the “producers” of his vision and this campaign. As we sat in our short-term rented office for our first meeting, I felt the déjà vu of any first table read in a new office space with cast and crew also present. The slightly weird thing is that while most producers toil behind the scenes, in this campaign, I find myself actually IN the movie as a supporting actor!
Making a movie, the producer has to understand the director’s vision and figure out how to get it to the screen. You prepare a budget, raise the money, organize a shooting schedule, hire a bunch of folks to work behind and in front of the camera, think about who the target market audience is, build a website and social following, make the best movie you can within the financial, casting or location constraints you may have, and you try not to lose money by finding an audience and telling a great, important story.
With an independent film, no matter how long you have known the director and recognized his or her talent and have worked on the script, when it is “go-time,” you have per-production of maybe 8-12 weeks, a 3-4 week shoot, and then post-production of maybe 6-8 months. Then you hope the story lands with the end-users (film-goers).
In our case, with the launch of the Edelen-Holland campaign in early January, we will have had less than four months to promulgate a vision for a greater Kentucky since the primary is May 21st. I first met Adam twelve years ago and recognized his talent even back then (he served as State Auditor for four years in between and has serious political charisma). Just like I have told emerging talent that one day I would like to work with them, I remember telling Adam back then that he would be Governor someday and that I would love to help out. When I urged him to run in the fall, and then a month later got the call taking me up on my offer to help out “in any way,” I was surprised because jumping into a state-wide race was not something I had ever considered! But when Morgan J Freeman asked me to produce his (and my) first feature, I said yes too, despite having never been on a film set. That film “Hurricane Streets” went on to become the first film ever to win three prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. I expect Adam Edelen will be Kentucky’s next Governor (i.e. he will win the top prize).
The comparisons continue. We made up a budget with the campaign manager (who is like the line producer on a film) and need to raise about three million dollars (there is way too much money in politics but that is another story) and hire a staff. Just like the line producer is focused on the budget, and the 1st Assistant Director on the schedule and logistics, in politics we have some crew dedicated to the fundraising side, and some focused on the logistics of voter turnout. There is also the same kind of tension between the director, line producer, and 1st AD as there is between fundraising department and the “field” department. The director wants more time, more toys, more money, bigger names actors, etc while the line producer needs to say no and the first AD has to keep things on schedule (and say no, but maybe more politely)! Fundraisers want the candidate spending all their time raising money at events or on the phone and the Field organizers want the candidate talking to voters all the time, kissing babies and shaking hands.
We built a website and are building up our social following. We have to run the campaign (much like the production and post-production process), find our audience (i.e., voters, and specifically for the primary, Democratic voters, since we have closed primaries in Kentucky), and not do or say anything stupid since politics seems to be unfortunately so much about “gotcha” moments and not about folks coming together to problem solve.
Some differences are most films do not go canvas neighborhoods contacting voters, though filmmakers do online outreach and Facebook invites just like political campaigns. Another key difference between independent film and a political campaign however is that any film that does not win any top prize still exists as a film that can be seen, appreciated and monetized potentially. Any aspiring politician who does not win will not have the elected position to continue the message. But as we have seen too frequently, there is sometimes a difference between elected leaders and moral leaders. Adam Edelen and I know we can change the conversation in this state and that this change will reap benefits for our children, with the “return on investment” for our citizens and contributors (like the film investors) being one that will pay dividends for years to come.
And in this situation, we are definitely the indie campaign going up against the entrenched machine of establishment candidates (just like independent films are up against the development, production and marketing dollars of the studios). So we need the support of many!