Lights, Camera, Education.
How Filmmaker.MBA brought approachable indie film distribution to an audience near you.
“You have to have a course that addresses a real need; there are lot of ways to test what the need is but if you have some valuable knowledge and if you can find a way to connect it to an audience that desperately wants that knowledge to solve some sort of problem that they have—that’s kind of a magical connection.”
That’s Christopher Rufo’s answer to what advice he’d give to someone interested in starting an online educational site, like his successful audience-backed business, Filmmaker.MBA. He developed Filmmaker.MBA utilizing ten years of “in-the-trenches” experience as a creator and distributor of his own independent films. After producing multiple documentaries for PBS, he set his sights on giving other burgeoning filmmakers the shorthand of what he’d learned from trial and error: how to launch an independent film and distribute it directly to consumers—no gatekeepers or institutions needed.
Action! Authority, quality, and unique knowledge
When it comes to creating content and teaching courses, Rufo understands that three things are important before you can take “action” and make a real impact. First, anyone else who wants to teach a well-rounded and knowledgeable course has to have the first-hand experience and deep knowledge of the subject they’re teaching. “You have to share that you have authority and expertise in the field, and the best way to show that is to have done what you are teaching.” The second important attribute is a keen focus on quality because, as Rufo shares,“quality is really a factor of how knowledgeable you are and if you are able to communicate that knowledge in a persuasive way.”
"People are really seeking out quality, and if you can demonstrate quality, you’ll be able to find an audience, and the audience will be willing to pay for it.”
And the third and most important aspect of successfully teaching and creating content for courses is making sure you’re able to offer the audience something they can’t access anywhere else. "You can help people in a broad or general way; but I’ve found what’s really helpful in my course and other courses that I’ve taken is when you’re sharing deep knowledge that you have on a topic. “The more experience you have the more knowledge you have, the more insight you have into whatever topic that is, the better. People are really seeking out quality, and if you can demonstrate quality, you’ll be able to find an audience, and the audience will be willing to pay for it.”
Roll Playback! The best competition is no competition.
One way Filmmaker.MBA squared up against other contenders was starting with no competition at all. “What makes my course different is that I’m not going to teach you filmmaking. Tons of really qualified people already do that. What I’m teaching, which is independent film distribution, has no competitors.
"How can I teach something that is unique, different, and important, that nobody else is teaching?"
There’s no one else out there that is teaching the same thing. The way to think about it is not 'how can I compete with all these other people that are teaching this one thing.’ The real way is ‘how can I teach something that is unique, different, and important, that nobody else is teaching?’ I don’t look at it like I’m competing with anyone. I have unique knowledge that no one else is teaching. So when people come to me—they’re just ecstatic; they’re like, this is the only place I can get this information and because of that, it’s really valuable.”
Cut! Solving problems and making a difference
What’s the most important takeaway from Filmmaker.MBA’s success? That like all successful education based membership sites, you start with an idea and answer the call when other creators ask you the simple question: how? “I was able to do something that very few documentary filmmakers are able to do, which is successfully market, distribute, and monetize a film, which eventually earned more than 1.5 million dollars through our distribution campaign.” That film was Age of Champions, one of the most successful independent distribution campaigns in the continental U.S. Once Rufo knew the secret recipe for film distribution success he could have kept it under lock and key. Instead, he decided to give back to the community he was an integral part of by teaching them what he had learned.
"I can’t respond to all these people one on one, but this is a really important problem to be solved and something I can contribute to.”
“I had hundreds of filmmakers reaching out to me and they wanted to know how I did it, what are some of the secrets, what are some of the strategies, what are some of the pitfalls. It got to the point where I thought to myself, I can’t respond to all these people one on one, but this is a really important problem to be solved and something I can contribute to.” That first spark of inspiration became a masterclass on filmmaking he taught in Seattle, then an online course, and eventually an audience-based membership site. “This knowledge that I developed, this concept that I developed, was really valuable to so many filmmakers. I could lay out my ideas and how people could do this, but I didn’t have to interface one on one with these folks, but I could send them in the right direction.”