When you think of the entrepreneurial hustle, filmmakers are not the first to come to mind. But they are a really good example of the mindset and drive that are required of a 7-Figure Small startup.
The broader world of business is moving more toward the Hollywood model of work: forming teams of talent based on what needs to be done, not the illusion of permanent employment. Studios and indie filmmakers have been operating this way since … always.
Zeke Zelker is not only an entrepreneurial filmmaker, he’s also a creative pioneer at the forefront of transmedia. Not sure what that means? You’re definitely going to want to tune in, because it’s fascinating stuff.
Plus, Zeke has a 4-phase approach to the way he gets his projects done. Through our conversation, I relate how Zeke’s framework for film projects is applicable to just about anyone who utilizes audience, indie talent, and technology to create a big impact from a tiny business.
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- Blog Post: Phases for Creative Success
- Billboard movie website
- Austin Kleon
- Follow Brian Clark on Twitter
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A Four-Phase Approach for Creative Entrepreneurs
Zeke Zelker: I am Zeke Zelker, filmmaker and entrepreneur, and I’m unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the podcast for freelancers and entrepreneurs who value their freedom, creativity, and income way too much to ever accept a regular old job. For the full Unemployable experience, sign up for our email newsletter for tips, tools, and trends that will take your business and lifestyle to the next level. Simply head over to Unemployable.com to join us. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hey there, Everyone, I’m Brian Clark and this is Unemployable – tips and tools for building your perfect business. Thanks for joining us.
This episode is brought to you by iThemes hosting for WordPress. iThemes is our host here at Unemployable, and it keeps the site fast and reliable while not breaking the bank. To save even more, simply visit ithemes.com/BC50 to save $50 off your first year. Or head over to unemployable.com/hosting to read our full review to find out about several unique features that iThemes WordPress hosting includes at no charge. And click over from there for your $50 discount.
When you think of the entrepreneurial hustle, filmmakers are not the first to come to mind. But they are a really good example of the mindset and creative drive that are required of a 7-Figure Small startup.
The broader world of business is moving more toward the Hollywood model of work: forming teams of talent based on what needs to be done, not the illusion of permanent employment. Studio and indie filmmakers have been operating this way since… always.
Zeke Zelker is not only an entrepreneurial filmmaker, he’s also a creative pioneer at the forefront of transmedia. Not sure what that means? You’re definitely going to want to tune in because it’s fascinating stuff.
Plus, Zeke has a four-phase approach to the way he gets his projects done. Through our conversation, I relay how Zeke’s framework for film projects is applicable to just about anyone who utilizes audience, indie talent, and technology to create a big impact from a tiny business.
Zeke, thank you so much for joining us today.
Zeke Zelker: Thanks for having me.
Brian Clark: Absolutely, there’s so much interesting about you and you being on the show and all of that. We get pitched every single day from PR agencies, assistants, people directly, to be on the show. And we just don’t really say yes a lot, because we like to hand pick who we want to talk to.
Zeke Zelker: Oh wow, I feel honored.
What Is Your Background and Your Business?
Brian Clark: Well, it’s because what you do is fascinating to me and it dates back, I don’t know, 15 years. It’s something that I’ve followed and it’s something that I’m fascinated with and even have contemplated on a couple occasions of getting my feet wet into.
But what you do in a nutshell is kind of hard to say, because you do a lot of things and you do a lot of things really well. Why don’t you just elaborate on what you do and your background and how you got to do it?
Zeke Zelker: Okay. I don’t know where to start with that, but I’ll probably start at the beginning. First off, I’ve got to say that I was conceived the day that man landed on the moon.
Brian Clark: You really did go to the beginning. Okay, we can fast forward just a little, but that’s an interesting trivia point.
Zeke Zelker: The interesting thing about it and something that affects really the way that I create is I was raised in an amusement park that my family started. So I have a very different way of looking at things than a lot of people do. That’s one reason why, too, my entire career I’ve been doing this weird way of creation that other people don’t do. And then finally, Henry Jenkins at MIT coined the term “transmedia” and that’s the term that has stuck for how I create.
I basically create across multiple platforms, telling various parts of a story on different platforms, not the same thing over and over again, where we surround the audience in an immersive experience going from screen to screen and then also to live events.
Brian Clark: Excellent. I turned out to be the perfect person to pitch, because I am fascinated by transmedia and have been for a long time. I’ve read Jenkins’ books. And I do nothing in it officially. It’s just so interesting and I think it’s got to become more of the dominant form of storytelling beyond the traditional film, if you will.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, it’s interesting, because the film industry is starting to embrace it. I’ve got a good friend by name of Jeff Gomez who does a lot of the other world experiences around Marvel and around other sorts of big properties like that, Pirates of the Caribbean and things. But he is basically a marketer.
He and I differ very differently, because when I ideate something, I have the DNA of transmedia baked into the project from day one. It’s part of how I create it. So, when I created Billboard, I literally ideated one Saturday afternoon, in a frenzy drew up this crazy sketch with Sharpie. That’s literally what I created. And I did create all of that over the course of 10 years, which is pretty unbelievable.
I create this very differently than what my peers do, because I want it to be very organic.
The other thing too that a lot of my peers are doing is they’re doing something that you have to suspend belief very far. For instance, Sci-Fi, superhero sorts of things, horror. Because of how I grew up, I was raised behind the facades. It’s hard for me to suspend belief, because I built these things as a kid.
So I try and make things that are very real and very organic where we can definitely blur the lines between truth and fiction.
The Transmedia Space
Brian Clark: Yeah, excellent. Another intersection here is in the transmedia space. There was a gentleman named Brian Clark who was a friend of mine. He sadly passed away in 2015. But it was a running joke, because he’s in transmedia, all this really cutting edge media ideas.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, it was really crazy stuff.
Brian Clark: And then I’m talking about blogging and marketing and content and all this kind of stuff. But we’d be at the same conferences like South by Southwest, and we met because one of my fans went up to him and thought he was I. And this annoyed him so much that we became great friends because of it.
Zeke Zelker: I could see Brian doing that.
Brian Clark: He’s like that New York guy. He’s no nonsense. But he called me “The other Brian Clark” and I’d call him “The other Brian Clark,” and then we would just have this friendly thing about that. He was really smart, really bright, a great entrepreneur as well. It’s just unfortunate that cancer crept up on him like that.
Zeke Zelker: Well, fast too. I knew Brian since he started IndieWire back about, gosh, 22 years ago or so. I’ve known him a very long time and he’s been an inspiration.
Actually he’s one of the people I’ve dedicated it to, because he really was one of those people that challenged me to create this thing the way that I wanted to create it and to actually do it, instead of just talking about it. Because a lot of our peers had these crazy ideas, but they’re all talk and no action. I’ve always been of the “Doing stuff that I say I’m going to do.” And so he and I were very much kindred spirits in that regard.
Brian Clark: Excellent.
Why Do You Like Transmedia?
Zeke Zelker: Why do you like transmedia?
Brian Clark: I’m sorry?
Zeke Zelker: I said, “Why do you like transmedia?”
Brian Clark: Because it’s next level storytelling. I mean, at essence, I used to be an attorney. I quit practicing law thinking I was going to be a screenwriter. Then I started poking around the Internet. And then the rest is history, as they say, 20 years later and 10 startups and all that kind of stuff.
But at the essence of entrepreneurism, marketing, it doesn’t have to be a screenplay or a novel to be storytelling. And then you take this truly multimedia, in the sense that it’s fragmented — you’re in the real world, you’ve got a website of a fake radio station (I want to go into that more), all of this. That’s cool. That’s why – I mean, what a silly question.
Zeke Zelker: Well, no, because a lot of people don’t understand it.
Brian Clark: I just happen to pay attention from like, what was it? Alternative reality games, right? The whole thing, way back.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, what’s interesting though too is because there’s a lot more opportunity for marketing and actually making money with transmedia than there is traditional forms of media, because you’re building worlds.
So brands want to jump in and be a part of these worlds, because a lot of this stuff that we end up doing is very experiential. We can literally bring the story to the people. Instead of it being a passive form of entertainment, it becomes an immersive one where people can become part of it.
Also too, a couple of things that we do is we offer a co-creation aspect of what we’re doing as well, where we hand over part of the project to the audience and they create, given a certain amount of things that they can do or can’t do. That’s been fun too, because it also expurgates the audience as well. People engage you from places that you’ve never even thought of.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s participatory in a way beyond just what we call “interactive” with the Internet.
Zeke Zelker: Oh, it’s real actually.
We’ve created gigs around the radio station that we created. We’d have these live events and people didn’t realize at first that they’re walking into my story world. We’d have DJs from the radio station there. Mind you, this isn’t a real radio station. We created this literally for the project, which is kind of weird, because I’ve had a couple of people offer to buy it from me already. And I’m like, “I can’t, because it’s part of a movie project,” and they’re like, “What?” And so it’s kind of fun.
But it’s really cool, because you can do some really interesting things and do a lot of testing. This whole thing with Billboard has been a big story R&D project and realizing what works and what doesn’t work. And so I have a bunch of case studies that we’re then going to be applying for our next projects and other projects that we work on for other people.
What Is the Billboard Project?
Brian Clark: For those who might be a little in the dark about this whole transmedia thing, explain the Billboard project, because I think that will have some light bulbs go on.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely. Billboard is about a radio station that hosts a billboard sitting contest.
What we did is we created a feature film that stars Heather Matarazzo, Leo Fitzpatrick, John Robinson, Eric Roberts, and a cast of other characters. The film focuses on a struggling radio station fighting to survive. And so what they decided to do was pull out the oldest trick of rating, which is the wacky contest. They decided to host a billboard sitting contest where four people live on a billboard to win a mobile home and $96,000.
What we did is, the film focuses solely on the radio station. Then we have a web series that is a live feed. You’re going back to the station of the four people living on the billboard. That’s a web series right now that’s actually on Amazon Prime.
Then we routed all this in a radio station where we put a call out to bands to create profiles, submit music, and we have over a thousand bands on the site now. A lot of bands have found it organically, which is pretty unbelievable, that we chose all of the music for all of our content based on those things that were given to us. Then we license it for you have the rights and everything else.
But it’s very strange, because how we built this whole thing, we weren’t expecting it to take off the way that it did. We’re really popular in weird places like Malta and Rome and in France for some reason. It’s really interesting that you create something and you’ve got no idea where it’s going to go and you have to trust your audience to be good stewards of it. And that’s kind of what the whole transmedia thing is.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s a great summary. I read the account that you wrote about the making of Billboard, and I’m just like, “This guy is the epitome of the scrappy, bootstrapping, creative entrepreneur. He’s a creative guy, but he’s out there haggling over the screws, like, ‘How many screws do we need for this?’” Right?
Zeke Zelker: Well, yeah, because of how we did this thing. There was also an immersive theater experience that we created. So we built sets probably four times, and why would you throw out screws if you could reuse them? Literally, we would reuse screws four times.
The guys on my team thought I was nuts, but I’m like, “It’s money. It’s a couple hundred dollars’ worth of screws.” So, maybe I had a few loose, who the hell knows?
Brian Clark: No, that’s a good story. I like that. The screw thing really jumped out at me. I’m like, “Wow, okay.”
Zeke Zelker: Yeah. But also what we then ended up doing with all the lumber, we donated to Habitat for Humanity. We’ve done a lot of stuff for nonprofits as well. We are scrappy. I try and stay as lean and mean as possible.
What I majored in college was actually economics and I studied efficiencies of economies and things. That’s kind of why and kind of an efficiency hard knock.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it comes in handy, absolutely.
The Four Phases for Creative Success
Brian Clark: Another thing I ran across that you wrote was called Four Phases for Creative Success. Going through these four phases, I’m nodding my head the entire time, even though I’m a very different kind of entrepreneur, sort of. I mean, I create audiences, we use content, but it’s not filmmaking. I think the only talent I have is the ability to see the congruencies between things rather than focusing on the differences. And I think that may be half the battle.
Then I checked out your agency, which is called iDreamMachine, I think.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah.
Brian Clark: Okay. So, you do this for other people too. And then I saw the Four Phases right there. It’s the heart of your organization, your process and your methodology. And I kept thinking, “Okay, he’s doing a very specific type of creative work here, and yet I think this applies to all creatives and perhaps all modern entrepreneurs, especially if they’re in the digital space.”
Zeke Zelker: Right? Yeah, it’s basically four phases for success, is the way that I look at it. A lot of creatives just start creating and see where the heck it takes them. But I’d like to have people try and have some sort of consciousness from the very early phases of the ideation of the piece of work.
So it’s a matter of breaking things out into four phases where the first phase is igniting a project, where you’re launching it. You’re getting your capital together, whether it be actual hard cash or whether it be things that you’re going to need to be able to create with.
Then we’d go into the second phase, which is insight and let other people in on what you’re doing and sharing it. You create serialized content that can be shared. You start to build your audience, and these sorts of things. It’s important to let people in under the hood and realize what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, because people are interested in the final product. They’re also interested in how the sausage was made. I really do believe that.
That’s one reason why every DVD that we had as kids, you’d have the “Making of X, Y, and Z Film.” People are generally interested in that, but my point is to share that serialized content leading up to the main event, which is phase three. And that could be the films in theaters. That could be a band is finally launching their album. It could be an artist that’s finally having a gallery opening. It could be a dancer that finally has a show mounting. It could be an immersive theater experience, also mounting.
These sorts of principles get people all the way through the process.
The fourth one is probably one of the most important ones, and it’s actually rewarding your audience for participating in your creative. How often have people gotten thank you cards anymore? Actually handwritten thank you cards? My wife and I try to do it quite a bit, but it’s also a matter of paying it forward.
One of the things that we’re doing with Billboard, for instance, is those people that show up at theaters, we’re periodically running around handing out these Billboard survival kits as a thank you for people going to see the movie. Yeah, it costs us a couple of dollars to put together, but at the same time, it’s those sorts of things that are going to be memorable for people, and then they become a true fan.
What we found is that if somebody is a fan, they’ll spend, they’ll go see your movie. So I’ll make basically 10 bucks off of them. But if they’re a true fan, it’s actually an 8x multiplier, where they’ll not only go to the movie, they’ll also go do the web series, they’ll then buy a t-shirt. They’ll possibly support you, some sort of crowdfunding campaign. Those are your true fans.
That’s the interesting thing. If you build this out and are intentional upon how you’re doing it and being very, very cognizant of all the different phases and why you’re doing them, you can actually then take that audience that you built for that first project and bring them over to the second project.
We’re in the midst of building a platform that walks artists through these four phases, so that we can help more creators be successful.
Brian Clark: Yeah, there are so many congruencies here. I would say it’s scary, but it’s not, because it makes sense, and it’s what works. So often, whether they be what we deem creatives or just people who are trying to start a business, they do it all wrong.
Zeke Zelker: They do. What people say is “ass backwards” really.
The thing is people get an idea and it’s so awesome to have the enthusiasm – I never want to squash that. But at the same time, I’ve cleaned up so many messes.
I just had a friend that called me two nights ago with this huge business problem and he’s like, “I don’t know what to do.” And I’m like, “Okay, break it down. How did you set this thing up? Yada, yada, yada.” I walked him through it. But because they didn’t do any of the due diligence that they needed to be successful, and that is literally important for phase one.
Phase 1: Ignite
Brian Clark: Okay, let’s talk about phase one: ignite. You mentioned capital, but there are a lot of different forms of capital. Again, illuminated by the way you actually talked about Billboard as one of your projects, of course, it’s not like venture capital necessarily. I mean, it’s human capital. You could do partnerships to get things done. I’ve done that over and over again.
You’ve got just creative constraints where you come up with a better solution, because you don’t have the money. And then you’ve experimented with crowdfunding like Kickstarter, Indiegogo – that type of stuff.
Zeke Zelker: And I’m horrible at it. I’m horrible at asking people for money.
Brian Clark: So am I, that’s why I’ve never done it.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, and that’s the thing. There’s a reason why I’m horrible at it. It’s because I have not been able to activate my entire audience, my fan base in an easy way. And that’s one reason why we’re also building the platform.
It’s interesting, because it seems like creatives are constantly in need, because, again, there’s no creative class in our society, in the American society. And that’s why you’ll always find artists in need.
But the thing is too, it’s not necessarily worrying about so much of money, but it’s literally taking an inventory of those things you have at your disposal to be successful. You might find things in the strangest places and it just takes an open mind and the due diligence to actually create those lists of resources at your disposal. You know what I mean?
Again, capital comes in all strange forms. It could be a loan, it could be you’re like, “I’ll refinance my Jeep,” the only asset that I had to start my production company 20 something years ago. So you just have to be creative of how you do things.
Brian Clark: Well, and what about time? I think the most valuable capital of all.
You keep talking about platform and that’s exactly right. In 2006, I was able to just really express my time largely without a ton of money. I think I spent three grand to get the website rolling, and then I was just writing, writing, writing, building an audience. And then that audience turned into a platform, and then that platform allowed us to launch seven businesses, which resulted in an 8-figure company.
People are like, “How do you get to eight figures without investment?” And I’m like, “Investors are often the worst thing that could happen to a business, because they’re not going to let you nurture it the way it needs to be done, based on what you’re hearing from the audience.” That’s why we call it an “Audience First” approach.
It seems to me that you’re doing the same thing here and through the additional phases of the process, you’re just deepening your relationship step by step by step.
Zeke Zelker: Oh, that’s just it. You want to build deep, genuine relationships with your fans, because they’ll empower you, they’ll make you feel great. They could also make you feel horrible, but at the same time, if you’re creating your crappy work, then that’s what just happens. I don’t know what to say.
But it’s important to be very cognizant of business when you are a creative. I teach business a lot to creatives just because it’s a matter of… For instance, how we funded Billboard early on is I actually sold content advertising. We sold the billboard spaces in the project to be able to start the whole production. And it was just a very creative way to do this. When we would do the immersive play, we would sell the billboard spaces for the place. We were actually in the black before we ever sold a ticket.
These are just things that you can do, but it does take work to be able to achieve them, I can tell you that.
Phase 2: Insight and Sharing Your Project
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s dig down a little into the insight phase a little more. Tell me what that means from your perspective.
Zeke Zelker: The insight phase is really about the idea of sharing things. I’m not just posting on social media and yada, yada, yada. But literally sharing a piece of yourself generally through some sort of video format or it could even be a picture or a slide show sort of thing, because people really want to know what makes something happen or what makes someone tick. It’s literally sharing more of the project with people.
For instance, with Billboard, this would be the web series. That’s how I created this thing. I launched the project by creating, and phase one would be WTYT, the radio station website. And then number two is the web series. And so we’re sharing this across various sorts of platforms. We’re engaging people with that content. We are building up a presence for social media as well.
But now, the challenge is: how do you take those friends, fans and followers and be able to get them to actually buy something or take them from those platforms that exist and take them over to be able to do things?
It’s interesting that the APIs of stuff keep changing over the course of years as well. When I started this, APIs were very open, and having audience trouble was heck of a lot easier than it is now. But the insight phase is really sharing under the hood how you create something.
Brian Clark: Okay. So, this to me is an aspect of the total experience, but it’s not necessarily the thing you’re charging money for.
Zeke Zelker: Correct.
Brian Clark: That’s another thing that people screw up. They think they can jump right to that money without realizing that, from my standpoint, this is where we educate people with free content before we ask for them to buy a tool that they are now empowered to use better.
I don’t know if you know Austin Kleon?
Zeke Zelker: I don’t.
Brian Clark: Okay, he is a guy who’s written some books. One is Steal Like an Artist. It’s all about inspiration, not actually stealing. His second book was called Show Your Work! and it’s exactly what you’re talking about here. Take people along on the process and it doesn’t feel like marketing at all. It’s fascinating and interesting to the type of people you’re ultimately trying to get to with what you call “the main event phase” or is that “illumination?”
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I know a lot of artists are a little bit leery of being the center of attention. That’s one reason why we’re artists.
For instance, I have a hard time shooting myself. I have a hard time with people if I’ve got to actually do a video of myself, it’s hard for me to do. It really is. I’d rather make content that I can distract people with and is something they know is part of this serialized content. So it is kind of you’re still a part of the project.
But I have a hard time with turning the camera on myself. I’ll speak in front of thousands of people without a problem. But as soon as the camera goes on, it’s a whole different thing for me for some weird reason.
Brian Clark: I don’t like it either. It’s funny how many people that were drawn to the Internet are actually introverts and very successful entrepreneurs now, because they could communicate with content instead of that handshaking, backslapping type of old school networking that makes our skin crawl.
I think there’s a lot of congruency between perhaps what the introverted personality is considered and the artistic personality. I think everyone’s creative. It’s just: how driven are you to do it in your own way? These different channels allow us to do that without feeling gross.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely. And that just did it.
Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be you’re taking photos of yourself, because quite honestly, there’s so much sharing happening in the world right now that is so disingenuous that it makes me sick. A lot of the things you’re seeing on Instagram, like really? People are inserting themselves into Coachella, into all these things. It’s crazy and it just breeds disingenuine. I say, be as genuine as you can be.
Brian Clark: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, authenticity became the worst buzz word, but there’s something there. But it’s really: are you being yourself in a way that resonates with the audience? It doesn’t have to be fake, but it can’t be just about you. And that’s a tricky line to walk, I think.
Zeke Zelker: Well, it’s interesting, because when you were saying that I was thinking about, I don’t know why, but Kim Kardashian.
Brian Clark: Oh great.
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, I know. I don’t know why, but I just saw a before and after picture of her I think yesterday or something. And like her whole body is silicone, and it’s crazy to think that everything about it is fake. And it’s sad that they’ve now been the center of attention for, I don’t know, how many years? It might even be a decade at this point. This is what is driving people. And then you have all this other stuff like all these teenage girls now that can’t meet that mystique, so they’re doing all those crazy things to themselves.
It’s interesting how society has become so infatuated with image and so forth and not necessarily the true image.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I like to tell people that Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are content marketers. It just so happens that their content was a sex tape.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely, and they did. You’re absolutely right on that.
Brian Clark: Absolutely.
Zeke Zelker: That’s how they got started. It is what it is. I’m not going to bash anybody for doing things that they want to do, but at the same time, it’s like when people…
Brian Clark: Yeah, I don’t care what they do, but I feel bad when I see young girls looking up to these type of people and thinking, “This is how you have to be. You can’t be known for your brain necessarily. It’s all about sex and appearance.”
Zeke Zelker: Well, yeah, I’m raising three very, very strong, confident women. I can tell you that. I think that’s why they sometimes have a hard time finding boyfriends, but that makes me even happier.
Brian Clark: That’s great. Good job, Dad.
Zeke Zelker: It’s important to us and that it’s not all about image, it’s a matter of what you’re doing for other people, how you’re giving back. It’s not a matter of the quantity of life, but the quality of life. And that’s what we’re trying to instill.
Phase 3: Illuminate or “The Main Event”
Brian Clark: Yes, absolutely. When we get to the third phase, which you call illuminate, but also the main event, I think this is where some would-be artists or entrepreneurs start without realizing there are two very big levels before you ever get here.
But once you’ve laid the groundwork and you’ve got your resources and you’ve primed the audience, how do you think about introducing what was the thing you were really trying to do all along?
Zeke Zelker: The first phase is preparation, the second phase is teasing and building anticipation and hyping up things to the main event. And those are just as important. All these phases are as important as every other phase. It’s not just one’s more important than two or three is more important than two.
You’re kind of priming the pump for the main event and you’re hyping everything up to this point and getting people ready. Also you’re building an audience every single step of the way up to this point as well, so that you actually have an audience to be able to sell to. Because at the end of the day, you have to make money at what you’re doing or it’s a hobby, it’s not a business. Or you’re not being a creative entrepreneur. That’s the thing that people just have to realize.
Also, I’ve had things in my past where I’ve made more money on an ancillary product than I did the actual main event itself. I did a film called AKA, which was entertaining, but it just was a very schlocky film. I pushed it into production way too fast, because my dad was dying of cancer and he wanted to be in the film. So I did that.
But I ended up selling more cocktail books – I made more money in selling cocktail books associated with the film than I did the actual film itself. That’s just one of those things that I do is I create all these different ancillary things to be able to make money on around the actual main piece of content.
Brian Clark: Yeah, things don’t begin with the product launch, even though to the perception of a lot of people, it seems that way. And it doesn’t end there either because for the life cycle, I think what you’re talking about with something like Billboard, when you’re starting to recognize all the things within the context of your art can actually help you fund its success, but also hopefully your next project.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely, yeah.
Brian Clark: It’s a very improvisational process, isn’t it? Because we do that. We put something out in the world and we get immediate feedback and start improving everywhere we can. But also saying, “Oh, we didn’t realize we could also do this,” and that’s actually maybe more important than what we thought the main product was.
Zeke Zelker: Well, yeah, also true is as you’re building audience and as you’re sharing content and everything else, you’re building audience, but also there are other people that start to take notice as well.
For instance, you can get brands engaged in your main event and them sponsoring things and offset some of your costs. So there’s potential of you making even more money if you do things properly, because you just start naturally drawing attention to yourself.
Also in phase two, you’re doing PR stuff. You’re getting things written about what you’re doing. And you have to be (for the lack of a better term) a sales person and making people aware of what you’re doing.
Brian Clark: Yeah, no doubt about it. Fortunately, selling doesn’t have to be a dirty word if you are authentic and you believe in what you’re doing. It’s only gross when you’re shilling something that you don’t believe in or behaving in a way that’s inappropriate.
But the passion you bring to your projects, I can just see you waking up and hustling every day without even thinking about selling. You’re just like, “I’ve got to get this done.”
Zeke Zelker: Yeah, and also, it has to be done right.
The weird thing about our society today is a lot of people feel that art should be free. I don’t know why that is. And like all contents should be free and why would they pay for it? That’s a big challenge that we’re having in society today. Although you see that Avengers did all these huge box office numbers and everything else, but I don’t know if as many people went to see Avengers as they did Titanic. Actual, literal numbers of people.
That’s the thing. I do feel that less and less people are going to the theater. So filmmakers have to figure out other ways of bringing in an income, so that we can pay the crew and keep going. And that’s another big challenge that we have is people just expect things for nothing right now. And I’m not sure why that is.
What Are Your Thoughts on Streaming Services?
Brian Clark: Yeah, just a quick aside here, since you brought it up. What do you think about streaming — Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus — as an avenue for creative outlets for people such as yourself?
Zeke Zelker: I was a very early adopter. I’m generally an early adopter to almost all things technology. My last film InSearchOf, we were on some of these portals very, very early on. I did some really crazy things. InSearchOf was the first film ever to show in a virtual reality. It was part of Second Life and it was one of the first films on Hulu. We ended up being in the top 20 all-time films on Hulu for over seven years, because I was an early adopter.
I believe that there is a place for all of them, but they’re also making people think that they can get all this content for free. What has to happen is artists and filmmakers now have to create events around what they’re doing. So they create these experiences for people that can get people off the couch and into theaters or some other location to experience it.
I don’t think that it should always be the same content either. I think things should complement each other. And there are certain things that just should be seen on a big screen and not on a small screen. But it all depends on somebody’s creative endeavors and how they want to articulate it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I have a feeling that Avengers: Endgame is the end game. Like there’ll never be another mass audience event outside of the home, because everything’s heading into the home.
My son plays Fortnite like every other teenage boy. Then I’m reading about how Fortnite could expand into a broader virtual world beyond gaming, and I’m just like, “Wow!”
Like it or not, we’re heading into kind of fascinating times and I still think there’s a way where someone such as yourself would have a better chance of adapting and thriving, because it is a different way of thinking about media that you’ve already been doing in a traditional format.
Zeke Zelker: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, the other thing too is your creators also, to a certain extent, should be creative agnostic. I’m that way with what kind of cameras I use and things like that. I know what I want it to look like and I need the best tool for the job.
It’s interesting, because I’m sitting here thinking about music. Music is so much more important to be heard in person than it is in a recording any day of the week, just because you can feel the actual vibrations of the music and everything else. And I think that’s the thing that film is missing — the idea of “It has to be seen in theater,” or there’s a moment that they’re never going to see unless they go to a theater.
I’m a huge jazz fan and you can see the same four musicians perform four nights in a row and play the same four songs and it’s going to be different every single night. That’s what’s just interesting. I’m trying to figure out if cinema could be the same way. And there has been some experimenting that’s taken place that things do change based on where it’s located and so forth.
I don’t know if Avengers is the last big theatrical film or not. That’s actually a good question.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s something I’m interested in, because I happen to be a fan of the MCU. And I chose times to get the best audience to watch it with that I could, because I knew I’d never get that chance again. It’s not the same as the iTunes version or Blueray or anything. Being in a crowd like that is something we don’t get as much anymore.
Zeke Zelker: No, we don’t. We’ve become a very isolated society. It’s pretty sad that there are very few things that we do in common and I think there should be more of it.
That’s a big thing that we’re trying to do right now — my team is literally trying to do a lot more in-person sorts of things, human-to-human, than anything else. Because we found that it brings a lot more interest and it also keeps us more engaged as well.
It’s interesting. You’ve got me thinking about a couple of different things along the lines of this stuff. Because I think that story, if it’s a good story, it could go basically anywhere, right? But then you end up having the idea of what should be where and how and that’s where it becomes more of a challenge, I think.
Phase 4: Inspire
Brian Clark: Yeah, for better or worse, we live in interesting times, which is the Chinese curse. We actually have one more phase left. Again, people think, “Okay, we sold the thing, we’re done, let’s go.” No. I want to hear what you mean by inspire.
Zeke Zelker: Sure. We’ve done this a couple different ways with Billboard and with other projects.
One of the things is literally thanking people. You’re giving them something back. It could be content that you never released, that everybody that’s been a part of the project from day one, you send them this piece of content. It could be like how we’re doing these Billboard survival kits to the audience.
It’s just important to make people realize that you appreciate them participating in what you’ve created regardless of what kind of art you do create. And it’s important, because it’s being conscientious that you can’t do what you do without an audience. That’s the thing. And I think that’s the biggest thing that people forget. It’s a matter of if you have an art opening, everybody that signs in, in your guest list or whatever, you should send them something or do something special for them, and that sort of thing. Just because, by doing that, it’s a thank you.
When you’re thanked, you’re like, “Oh wow, okay, they care about me.” Unfortunately, we as artists, we’re so damn selfish often that it’s all about the creative, and that’s the most important thing to us. But we forget about, again, who are our audiences and we have to appreciate them.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. On the other hand, you’ve got some of these people who think they’re tough guys, who think that’s an art scene notion. But look at corporate America, it’s not only cheaper to keep an existing customer than to find a new one, it’s more lucrative over the lifetime.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely, yeah.
Brian Clark: If you’re a marketer, you know once someone has bought from you once – like you mentioned earlier, a normal fan is worth 10 bucks and a super fan is worth 8x or more.
Zeke Zelker: Yep.
Brian Clark: That’s not artsy or hippie, that’s just good business. But also, it’s congruent — your people, your audience, your customer base, however you want to think about it, treat them well. These are the people you took responsibility for and you’ve got to take care of them, and they will take care of you back.
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely. And that’s the thing. The more that you do this, the more that your audience will grow, and that’s a thing.
Again, the challenge that there is in the marketplace right now is everything is so fragmented that nothing really exists to be able to walk people through these four phases. And I found that it is a challenge. Because you’re going to leave this audience over here and that audience over there, and those people that have watched your serialized content. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t respond to these 10 people that saw my video,” and all these sorts of things.
And it gets to be crazy. Just think about Gary V. People have to realize he has an entire team around him and he’s like, “I’ll respond to everything.” He can’t even do it anymore. And he hasn’t been able to do it for years.
It’s interesting, because I think we put these pressures on ourselves, but at the same time, if things were very streamlined, it’d be so much easier.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Of course, we’ve been preaching this for years. Use every outlet you can, but push everyone back to your website and your email list that you control, and it makes life so much easier. You just have to be conscious about that. You have to make a conscious effort to remember, “This is where we live permanently. All these other things are kind of ephemeral,” you know?
Zeke Zelker: Absolutely, yeah. That’s just it. It’s like leaving crumbs all over the place. Crumbs do eventually just become dirt.
Brian Clark: I love that. I’m stealing this one. This is great.
Zeke Zelker: That’s the thing, then it goes away. And that’s a challenge, a matter of, “Okay, how do you collect all these crumbs and make a cookie again?” It’s almost impossible. That’s one reason why if you have a cookie, it should stay a cookie.
Where Can We Find You?
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Zeke, this has been fantastic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Tell people where they can find out more about you and your various endeavors.
Zeke Zelker: Sure, my company is idreammachine.com. I have a personal site called zekezelker.com that I’m not as active as I should be, honestly. When you stay lean and mean, you unfortunately can’t be tackling everything all at the same time. And then Billboard Movie is our project site where people can see how WTYT works in the web series. And then the film opens in New York on June 21st at the IFC Center.
Brian Clark: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Zeke, and best wishes with Billboard. I’m going to check it out, it’s fascinating.
Zeke Zelker: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
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