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How to Succeed in Business: 6 Tips From IFP Keynote Speaker Glen Basner

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire September 18, 2013 at 9:00AM

After hearing FilmNation CEO Glen Basner talk at the IFP Film Week Filmmaker Conference, we wrote up these 6 lessons in how to succeed in the film business.
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FilmNation's Glen Basner

To introduce FilmNation CEO and IFP Film Week Filmmaker Conference keynote speaker Glen Basner, producer and IFP Board member Anthony Bregman gave the audience a little-known fact: "20 years ago," Bregman said, "Glen Basner was selling sweaters on 7th Avenue. How did you transition from sweaters?" 

"The dream was always sweaters," Basner joked.

The truth is that Basner got his start when his childhood friend, director Edward Burns, told producer Ted Hope that he was a "must hire" as an unpaid intern on Burns' "She's The One." Basner worked his way up -- as Hope' assistant, then heading up development at Good Machine, then moving into international sales where he oversaw Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Pedro Almodóvar's"Hable Con Ella" (Talk to Her), Alejandro González Innárritu's "21 Grams," and Sofia Coppola's"Lost In Translation," among others.

He was Focus Features' executive  VP international sales & distribution when he left to become president, international for The Weinstein Company. And then, Basner and partner Steven Samuels started sales company FilmNation in 2008 -- right before the recession hit. 

"When we started out, we didn't have a desk," Basner said. "It was just me in my kitchen with my wife yelling at me to get a job. Sixty days of sitting in my kitchen later and Lehman Bros. goes bankrupt and economic crisis comes in. It was a big 'holy shit' moment. I didn't know if my financing partners would come up with the money still, which thankfully they did."

The company's first big hit was the Academy Award-winning "The King's Speech," followed by the James Cameron-exec produced 3D film "Sanctum." 

"A year or two years into our existence and we had two very different and very high-grossing movies," said Basner. "It allowed us to start attracting other filmmakers. We convinced Pedro Almodovar and Terrence Malick to work with us. Those were really important moments – more so than we even understood at the time. That filmmakers like that would trust us to come onboard. It gave us credibility to the creative community."

The company's recent films include Malick's "To The Wonder," Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" and Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects."

After listening to Basner's talk, we've compiled Glen Basner's Lessons in the Film Business (note that the headings are ours, but the content is direct from Basner):

1. Never stop learning.

The smartest thing I've done is not to get in my own way and to learn from people I was working with and working for. Before I started Film Nation, I only had two jobs in the film business. When I found someone that was really smart, I tried to learn from them as much as I could. The combined experience is what made me feel confident that I could start FilmNation and have some success.

2.  Deliver content that will satisfy audiences.

We like to be diversified, we want to work on films that we believe can satisfy their intended audiences – whether it is an art house movie or a broader movie, it's about delivering content that will satisfy audiences.

I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect film. We made a decision when we started the company that we would, for better or worse, curate the films that we were selecting. We were going to make creative choices, not purely business choices. That means if we select well, it will communicate to our customers around the world that they can trust us and trust our taste.

 We need to make films – however how artistic or commercial they are – for the audience. When we get away from that, that's when we've had our biggest misfires.

3. Be flexible.

I was working in the production department at Good Machine and was really enjoying it... I was told 'You'd be better suited to working in international sales rather than production.' I had been working really hard for two years with the singular goal of producing a film. But my natural talents were more suited to the sales and distribution side of the business. They gently nudged me into international sales, which was a transformative moment, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

4. Be open to change.

The business is changing and it's changing more rapidly than at any other time since I've been doing it. We like to say: Don't fetishize the big screen. The goal was always to make a movie that played in the theater. Now people are watching movies on iphones and ipads wherever they want to watch it and wherever they want to watch it. We could stay the same, but people who watch movies want to watch them in other ways… For us, we're navigating our way. It's exciting. 

It's not about having nothing to lose. It's about having everything to gain. The democratization of the process will offer lots of new and exciting choices.

5. Be respectful.

I sell movies the way I was taught. Respect the distributors who are buying movies. Create a fair playing field for people to come and compete and do it in a direct manner. It's okay for people to be disappointed that they didn't get the movie, but not angry with you about the process.

6. Enjoy what you do.

When you make something that feels fresh and distinctive – "Looper" is a good example – it's like magic. You're delivering box office. You're exciting the people who work on the movie and you're having a great time because you feel like you're working on something special.

This article is related to: Financing, Independent Film Financing, FilmNation, Filmmaker Toolkit, Filmmaker Toolkit: IFP, Independent Film Week