20 Lessons from 20 Years in Video Production: A Manifesto

A collection of thoughts that I have curated, dreamed up or borrowed to remind myself how to stay on track in the journey of building a video production company.

If the Story You’re Telling Yourself is no Longer Working, You Can Replace it With a New and Better Story
There are things that we can indisputably accept as truths: like the laws of gravity, for instance. And then there are plenty of ideas that we hold to be truths… but are actually just beliefs. At the time you adopted those beliefs, they seemed correct. And helped to make sense of the world. Carving order out of chaos. But maybe they no longer serve you. It might be a story called “I’m no good at sales.” Or maybe it’s a story about how you’re more creative when you don’t plan. The question is, what stories have you been telling yourself that don’t work anymore, and impede your ability to create a thriving video production business?

Cut Loose
The next step is to cut loose. Set sail. It’s one thing to identify what’s not working. It’s now time to take action. Sever ties from things that are getting in your way: So-called friends that secretly don’t want you to succeed. Treading water on Social Media while you wait for the phone to ring. Whatever you can identify as dragging you down, and have the courage to move away from. Break free from relying too much on the comfort of the herd. There’s a great story about the Spanish Conquistadors arriving in Mexico in the 16th Century, referred to as ‘burn your ships’. Google it. It’s all about removing the temptation to fall back on old habits and fears. Leaving yourself no option but to push ahead into a new way of being.

It’s Not About the Gear
There was a time when it actually was about The Gear. Where you literally had to go and get a loan from the bank to set yourself up with the right equipment to run a production company. But these are different times. There’s so much amazing and affordable camera gear out there. So why are there so many people lurking on Facebook forums declaring their outrage that Sony mirrorless cameras don’t shoot 10 bit 422 internally? Is this really such a dealbreaker if you’re shooting Instagram clips?? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve also occasionally found myself salivating over this week’s latest and greatest camera. But, seriously. I think you know what I’m saying. You will probably survive without shooting 6k.

The Journey Towards Mastery
There’s no shortage of self-styled gurus out there pitching systems and shortcuts to make your fortune in video production. You’re probably come across this stuff too:

“Here’s a simple formula to build a stable of high paying retainer clients so you can live the life of your dreams…”

“Learn the secrets of Facebook advertising in a weekend and take your Production Company to the next level…“

These ideas are seductive, but misleading. Think about anything that you’ve developed a level of mastery in. It’s most likely happened as a result of sustained focus, practice and refinement over a long period of time. The 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Or the philosophy of constant and never-ending improvement as articulated by Toyota. Or as Thomas Edison said, 90% of success is perspiration.

The Industry Does Not Exist
When I started out, I was fixated with the puzzle of how to ‘break into The Industry’. As if there was some sort of Inner Circle feasting at the table of video production largesse. And all I needed to do was find the door, or learn the secret knock, and I could join them. The reality is that there’s just a whole lot of random people doing random things out there. Don’t stress about ‘breaking into The Industry’’. All you need to do is identify who you want to help, your best way of doing that, and the people that will do it alongside you.

These Days, Every Business is an Online Business
When you think about the idea of an online business, what comes to mind? Amazon…Webjet…Booking.com? Well, whether you realise it or not, if you have a video production business, or even if you’re a freelancer, you have an online business. This is where people will check you out before they talk to you. This is your shopfront. Your face to the world. And, video production, particularly being a visual medium, demands that you have a great website that is contemporary, communicates clearly, and is something that you’re proud of. If not, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Learn to Love Sales
This is something I struggled with at first. I had all kinds of negative assumptions (stories that I was telling myself) about what Sales is, and what Salespeople are like. Which made trying to build a business kind of like trying to drive with the brakes on. One of my mentors, James Schramko, describes Sales as the process of helping someone move from one situation to a better alternative situation. And to do that, you need to get very clear on who it is that you best help, what your process is for doing that, and a product or service that you know can deliver great value. Everyone’s different. You have to come to a place where you can operate with integrity, offering something that, for the right buyer, can make a positive impact on their life. You then just need to decide how many people you want to help.

Hang Onto Your Soul
You do walk a bit of a tightrope when you’re making commercial videos. Balancing the demands of Art and Commerce. The thing is not to forget why you got into making films in the first place. It’s different for everyone. But at its core is a creative drive to make something that has an impact. That makes people feel something. That has something worthwhile to say. And it’s so easy to lose sight of this when you’re cranking out work purely for the money. There’s this quote that I came across. And it scares the hell out of me:

“Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it time runs out.” –  Oliver Wendall Holmes

Don’t die with your music still inside you.

Have someone in Your Life who Believes in You Even More Than You Do
There’s some kind of popular wisdom that says that you have to believe in yourself, otherwise no-one will. Even more importantly: Do you know what it feels like to have someone in your life who believes in you even more than you do? I hope so. Because, here’s the thing: You are capable of way more than you realise. You might only be scratching the surface. And feeling that belief in you from someone else can open up whole new vistas. I have been lucky to experience this from my wife. And from some mentors. For you it may be from a parent. A friend. A teacher. Seek it out. And let it fuel you.

Give ’em What They Want
This is all about developing a deep understanding of what your clients really need, articulating that clearly, and building a machine to do that reliably and consistently. An example of where I see many production companies veer off the path, is their fixation with talking about their ‘storytelling’ credentials. Now, I’m not criticising Storytelling – an ancient and vital art that has served human kind well since the dawn of time to help us survive, gather vital information, entertain us etc. But your prospects are not necessarily going out and googling ‘storyteller Melbourne’. That’s not at the forefront of their mind. If you are a great storyteller, that’s awesome. I hope you’re there next time I’m sitting at a campfire!

No Need to be an Evangelist for Video
Why do video production companies often feel compelled to sell the concept of video production? To tell people that Youtube is actually the second biggest search engine? And then quote some study about how video actually accounts for some huge proportion of all internet traffic? If they’re on your website then you can safely assume they’re already drinking the Video Production Kool Aid. And they’re probably choosing between your company and a couple of others.

You are Running a Restaurant
You’re the maitre D’. Your crew are your chefs. You’ve worked hard to get your customers in the door. Now everything needs to be perfect. You can do everything right, but if you over salt the meal, they’ll never come back. Think of the best restaurant experience you’ve ever had. Not only was the food amazing, but the staff anticipated your needs. Your glass magically refilled at the perfect time. How can you deliver this to your customers? Every time?

You Can Have Whatever You Want
Pretty much. It just depends on what you’re prepared to give up. And how much you’re willing to suffer.

Work The System
The conventional wisdom on systems in business, popularly articulated in books like The E-Myth, pushes the idea of systematising your business, creating an asset, and then selling that asset. A smart strategy. And at some stage in the future you will enjoy the benefits of this work.

But the reason to implement systems in your business that bring you benefit every day, is the peace of mind that it can bring you. Running a business means dealing with an incessant series of highs and lows: you missed out on a big contract – you feel the disappointment associated with what could have been. You make a couple of big sales – you’re back on the horse and riding high again.

The problem with this approach is that it burns a lot of energy. And that success is defined by forces, to some degree, beyond your control. A more effective approach is to devise and refine systems, and to work them. The focus then becomes not on the immediate win or loss, but how closely you are sticking to the rules you devised for yourself. Your view then becomes wider and more long term. And temporary setbacks are more likely to be viewed with the appropriate perspective

Make Your Bed
I read this bit of advice in some kind of ‘how to succeed in the film industry’ book many, many years ago. It makes no sense until you reflect on it: Start as you intend to continue. How you do one thing is how you do everything…

Just Focus on Doing One Thing Really Well
It’s tempting to work hard to try to improve your weaknesses. But the best results come from doubling down on the things you’re good at. The things deliver the most value. And becoming great at them.

Draw Widely for Inspiration
Look beyond the obvious for inspiration. Look at the graphic design of shopfronts as you pass. Go to the theatre. What can studying architecture teach you about rhythm? Look around you right now and notice how the light is working. Read the Australian Financial Review. Why are people lining up around the block to buy a loaf of bread for $9? There are lessons and inspiration everywhere.

Take it Personally
They say “it’s just business. Don’t take it personally.” But this is creative work. You inject a bit of your soul into the work to try to make it great. Because you actually care. About the integrity of the work. And the result you’re aiming to get for your client. Just don’t take it too personally. At the end of the day, you’re handing the work over to your client. It will be theirs. And you’ll move on. So put your heart into it. Give the best advice you can. And then let go.

Never Waste a Good F#%^kup
Everyone in video production has their own disaster story: Some variation of things not going to plan…a lost SD card…a missed shot…distorted audio. That moment of realisation really hurts. So does the conversation with your client. So, you owe it to yourself to have a transformational realisation after this, and put something in place to ensure that it never, ever, ever, happens again.

Be the Wolf
In an ideal world you would be given a clear brief, a good time frame, and lots of creative freedom. The reality is that you’ll often work with clients that are under immense pressure, not 100% clear what they want or need, and just want the problem taken away. Which is why there will be times that you’ll called on to be The Wolf: Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction. You’ll breeze in. Ask the right questions. Stay cool in a crisis. And know exactly what needs to be done to get a successful result. And you’ll make it look easy.

If you want to go deeper with these ideas, get in touch.

video camera


 Ryan Spanger


Ryan Spanger is one of Melbourne’s most respected and sought-after video production professionals. Ryan founded Dream Engine in 2001, and specializes in helping medium to large corporates, government departments, and the non-profit sector to connect with their audience by using video.

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