Interview: James Belfer (Co Founder – ‘Dogfish Accelerator’ Independent Film Accelerator Program)

Dogfish Accelerator, the first accelerator program for film producers, has launched its business fast-track program for independent film production teams.  Founded by film industry innovators James Belfer and Michelle Soffen of Dogfish Pictures, this new venture empowers production teams to produce better and more lucrative movies by providing access to capital, business mentors and a network of resources.

Dogfish Accelerator turns film producers into successful entrepreneurs,” says Belfer.  Film productions are entrepreneurial ventures that are driven by the desire to tell a powerful story. And, good stories are in demand. However, film production teams often don’t have the right business model. They need access to business, finance, HR and legal resources to turn their creative works into successful ventures.

We talked to Dogfish Accelerator Co-Founder James Belfer while at the Sundance Film Festival last week.  Belfer founded Dogfish Pictures in 2009 to finance and produce independent feature films. This year the company’s film ‘Prince Avalanche‘ premiered yesterday afternoon at Sundance. Last year, Belfer was noted in the article “Sundance: 10 Producers to Keep Watching.

The first class of film producers will begin their three-month intensive program in New York City this summer.

Apply to Dogfish AcceleratorHERE

How long has this idea been circulating with you?
It started at the beginning of 2012, after Sundance.  We thought about what the next phase would be for Dogfish Pictures; we called it Dogfish 2.0.  For the majority of early 2012 we were developing a new strategy which included a larger Dogfish Pictures fund combined with my personal love for technology and innovation.  The final aspect of Dogfish 2.0 was a community which would act as a not for profit organization focused solely on building independent film communities.

This past May I had the opportunity to work with TechStars.  It became apparent that the things we were doing with Dogfish 2.0 were very similar to what these accelerator programs do for the tech industry and the community around it.  Since we had most of the elements already in place we decided to focus on a film based accelerator program.  Essentially doing for independent film what accelerator programs do for the startup community.

Why is right now the time for a program like Dogfish Accelerator to exist?  Do you think that the evolution of independent film in relation to its technological advancements could have made a program like this exist 5 years ago?
I think it could have existed 5 years ago but not 10.  The industry changed a lot in 2008 and what came with that was a need for a model change.  What seems to have happened, since ’08, is that people have been fighting for this new model and really push the system to start working again.  Essentially, it was still grounded in traditional sensibilities.  What we are saying is that there is a different way of going about things.  By that I mean, it is not so much in changing deal structures or figuring out new methods of distribution.  There will always be technological changes and innovation so it is up to the individual how they ultimately choose to accept these changes.  I would be very surprised if any of the traditional distribution methods or deal structures became extinct.  What I do think is that the evolving film landscape does is allow for producers and creators to try different things.  Since the accelerator provides a safe space for creativity, as well as the time to think about it,  eventually people are going to just try.  At the end of the day that is really what being independent is all about.  What seems to have happened is that idea of independence to do whatever you want to do, over every step of the process has been modeled by the definition of raise money with no distributor.  That alone is not enough to be independent.  There could be a model where a film has a distribution deal before it is even shot.  As an industry, there is no reason why we should look down on any kind of model that could ultimately help independent creators create the kind of films that they want to make.

So, you aim to maintain the independent mindset throughout the entire creative development, production and distribution aspect of a films life?
Emily Best (CEO – Seed&Spark) and I have determined the three major factors in making independent film truly independent.  They are creative collaboration, transparency and the power of the crowd.  For example with transparency and collaboration, I don’t think that distributors are bad guys like some tend to.  The ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ litigation ruling is the most recent, high profile case against lack of transparency/collaboration between the production and the distributor, but at the end of the day we don’t need to be more guarded, we just need to find people that we are comfortable to work with.  If an independent filmmaker was not happy with the distribution deal they were offered because it is the only one they received, most people will take the deal anyway and there is a problem there.  We want to let people know that if they feel they are not getting what they really need then they do have other options.

What are the specific incentives that production teams have to go through the Dogfish Accelerator program?
The most obvious incentive is the $18,000 financing that does not get paid back to the accelerator.  We also provide free office space.  Lot’s of independent filmmakers do not have access to office space so the way we want to design it is by having it be a co-working space for brilliant minds working together, learning and feeding off one another.

We have also been assembling tons of perks and resources from service providers that will provide anything from general support to legal advice, post production facilities, physical production help, rental equipment.  We want to make sure that all our bases are covered so the production teams have all the resources needed to make their movie, but also to get them some good deals.  This is something that we have had lot’s of conversations with our service providers because, at the end of the day, they are the ones providing the deals.  The conversations we have been having with them is to stray away from the idea of providing a discount.  These facilities have to pay the bills with commercial work and the likes, but they also want to work on quality projects as well.  I’ve noticed that many of these facilities deny low budget independent features, but still actually do want to work on the project;  it remains a question of finances.  This is the kind of thing we aim to avoid.

Finally, and certainly not least, is the mentorship aspect of the accelerator program.  This is extremely vital to any accelerator program.  We are constantly forming relationships with potential mentors so that any production team that comes in will have access to someone with a like mind.

What is the amount of direct involvement that production teams will have with their mentors?
The mentors will be helping us with the vetting process since we want to make sure that there are teams chosen that our mentors truly desire to work with.  Once the program starts our mentor network will be between 60-80 people. The reason for so many is reliant on schedules.  Our mentors are all active, established industry figures so they have projects of their own.  By having a large collective like this it allows us to reach out and confirm schedules for specific needs.

Essentially, the accelerator program acts as a buffer between our mentors and our teams in the beginning or the relationship.  We ask that the mentors for each of our teams come in and sit with them for at least a half hour, for a getting to know you session and NOT a pitch session.  Here is where teams can discuss any issues they see in their production, as well as like mindedness with the mentor.  After that meeting the teams and mentors are able to freely exchange communication, although we are always there to help.  Should the mentors and team be interested in collaboration, we encourage an official offer to be made by a second or third meeting.  When this happens, this mentor will be at the beck & call of the team for the duration of the three month program time.  By the end of that time a strong relationship should have been developed between all parties involved, based on our principles of collaboration and transparency.  This is something especially important for our investment mentors.  Accelerator programs were built in response to inefficiencies in angel investing within the startup industry.  Over the course of three months, it takes the pressure off the urgency to overly impress an investor simply to get money.  More often then not, producers will meet with investors with immediate financial needs.  This way a relationship can be formed offering peace of mind to all those involved.  Having these three months, trust will be formed and the mentors will want to work with the teams rather then the teams feeling that they have to work with this person or else their production is doomed.

When a production team and a mentor are getting to know each other, how would you advise the teams going into their initial meeting?  Where should the teams focus lie?
At the end of the day it will all depend on what that particular mentors expertise is and drawing upon that expertise.  When I was working at TechStars I would sit in on these kinds of meeting and there would be times where  good amount of the meeting was spent just speaking about personal things, then talk about the companies.  It is very much based on a collaborative relationship and, we hope, ultimately a friendship.

So, with the Dogfish Accelerator program, all these perks and services are provided in exchange for an “8% venture gross”.  Can you explain more about your own financial incentive with the program?
For people who understand the film industry, we are basically a sales agent.  We don’t interfere with any distributors that might come in but we sit on top of the actual production.  For those who may not understand what that means, basically if $1 goes to the production then $.92 goes to the production and $.08 will go to Dogfish Accelerator.  The reason why we developed the plan in this sense is aligning ourselves with teams that will succeed.  The only way that the accelerator program could be profitable is if our teams are profitable.  For us, we look for the strength of the producer team and their hunger to create something that they are passionate about.  This is how we define “profitable”.  It is all about pushing artistic boundaries, creative boundaries and taking the risks needed to succeed.  With a strong business foundation already set, these creative risks can be justified.

…and if you were to give advice to teams going through the application process would you advise them to focus on the potential boundary pushing, creative elements of their projects?
There is a saying in the tech industry, “your idea is worthless, it’s all about execution”.  A great idea is nothing but a great idea.  Unless you have the right execution a great idea will not become a great product.  For us, we very much look at the people.  This is why we have a video element to application, allowing teams to express themselves as individuals in a much more personal way.  We want to producers to show us their heart and their determination.  Even if Dogfish Accelerator is not a part of their project, that determination that the project will get made is paramount.  Hunger, passion and determination for their projects, if you have that you will succeed.

You are also involved (alongside Seed&Spark & Nice Dissolve) with a new venture with the Twitter Hashtag #stayindie.  Can you describe this venture?
The idea behind it is to have a public way to get the independent film community to express what it means to them to be independent.  They can come from any city, state or country but independent in universal.  If you look at some of the posts some are humorous like “using my grandfather’s rec center as  free location”, but ultimately we want it to become a theoretical and philosophical platform for independent filmmakers, producers, composers, artists in general to discuss what is important to them, what matters to them and what they need in order to thrive in the industry.
: /DogfishAccelerator
Twitter: @dogfishaccel










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