Stephen Follows

The film industry can be a daunting, mysterious place, even to those who’ve worked within it for years. Nonetheless, for aspiring filmmakers, producers and screenwriters, knowing what works and doesn’t can often be half the battle. This makes access to good, reliable data absolutely essential. But in an industry where art means commerce and the success of certain films can often baffle the experts, can we rely on data 100%? The man to ask all of these questions and many more is Producer/Film Data Researcher Stephen Follows, whose Film Education and Data website is an essential source for both creatives and industry insiders – breaking down the numbers behind questions such as the nitty-gritty costs of making a film, the gender breakdown of different genres and how film festivals actually work. We talked to him about the tools for success in the industry, how data exposes systemic inequalities and how all the knowledge in the world doesn’t necessarily translate into success.

Stephen Follows

I’d love to know about your background in the film world and how you decided to pivot into the world of data research and number crunching?

It’s less of a pivot, more of a parallel thing. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be able to do something in movies, and I wanted to do something around thinking. I like strategic thinking, understanding how things work and sharing them. Everyone told me to do a philosophy degree and make films on the side. I decided to do the opposite, I think because people asked me to do that. I went to Surrey Institute of Art and Design, got a degree in film production, became a producer, and then started eventually writing my own work as well as writing stuff for other people.

So writer-producer was my background; doing loads of short films and getting other people to pay for them. At the same time, I wanted to do a lot of thinking as well. In my 20s that was a lot of private stuff where I would analyse the industry, read up on stuff and help friends with business plans. Then I started tweeting or blogging about it. So I’ve been doing this for ten years. It’s like an overgrown hobby.

The data can’t ever get you far enough.

I teach on the side as well. I’ve taught at most film schools and I’m the Chairman of the Central Film School. I just like understanding how things work and sharing that with other people to empower them. You don’t know how people will use it. I’m not doing it with any intention as far as I want these kinds of films to be made, or I want to get something out of it. My production company from my work as a producer evolved into a storytelling company that raises money for charities like UNICEF, WWF and Greenpeace. This gives me a bit of distance. I don’t have a vested interest. Whether the graph goes up or down doesn’t affect my livelihood or my identity. Usually people have a vested interest: they’re either in one part of the chain or they’re hired by someone who is keeping the information private. So, because I’m not particularly special, there just aren’t many people doing what I’m doing.

What are you actually using to collate the data? I assume it’s not just putting everything into an Excel sheet?

It is 100% Excel. I never properly learned how to code. At university, I wrote PHP and JavaScript, but I never kept that up. Occasionally, I have to reach out to friends who are developers or coders to do more complex things. I’m not a real data scientist. I have a GCSE in maths and that’s it. So Excel is pretty much all I use because I’m self-taught. My graphs are in Excel, I throw them into Word, I change the font and screenshot them. They’re not interactive. It’s quite rudimentary.

Stephen Follows

What I found interesting with the close readings is that you have, perhaps rather flippantly, calculated the optimal Cannes Film: Ma Vie Pour La Femme (My Life For The Woman), directed by Ken Loach and written by Jean-Claude Carrière. It speaks to a wider question: do you think someone could cynically use data to create an optimal film for the category they enter?

Absolutely not. And that’s why I love our industry so much because if this was a solvable problem, I wouldn’t have any interest in it. That’s why I’m not in finance. What I love about producing and what I study is that it is both business and art. The essence of business is you develop one thing you control and create it a billion times; art is about destroying everything every time you do it, and building something new, even if it’s a new perspective. The business of art and the art of business is the interplay of these two things.

The data can’t ever get you far enough. If you do no observation of what’s happened before, you’re definitely gonna make the same mistakes everyone else has. But if you go too far into the data and take away the art and the passion and the humanity of the whole thing, you can’t succeed either. I can tell you that for a fact, otherwise Hollywood would be making loads of money, and they’re not. I love that you have to sit in those two spaces. That’s why most of my articles don’t tell you. Even in the example you cited, I hope my tone of flippancy comes across. I don’t seriously think that’s what would work.

I’ve been doing this for ten years. It’s like an overgrown hobby.

But have there been any articles which have effected real change? I’m thinking about that article from last year looking at the mistreatment of interns at the American Pavilion at Cannes

I’m not sure. I do a lot of stuff within gender equality and stuff like that. It’s a cause I’m passionate about, but I’m passionate about lots of causes. The reason I publish articles about this topic a lot is because I’ve got very reliable methods for using people’s self-identifications, or it functionally isn’t that hard with people’s pronouns in their bios or their names. Whereas with race or socio-economic class or nepotism, it is nigh on impossible. I’ve done a lot with gender, and I think I’ve helped the awareness of things. But I’m a bit cynical as to whether or not the progress is due to gender alone. A lot of that is down to the activists as well.

I’m not a change-maker or a thinker or a thought leader, but I’ve got these skills and try to use them to help people see better and clearer. I broadly think that will help make a fairer society because I think people aren’t trying to be unfair, even when they ‘are’ being unfair. The American Pavilion stuff is a good example because it had more of a direct focus. I’d like to think it has an effect. We’re talking in early April, and the next Cannes hasn’t happened yet. I’ve heard on the grapevine from people who are alumni of AmPav that they are being treated better this year. I’d be astonished if it didn’t have an effect.

Stephen Follows

Certainly the data makes things feel a lot more stark. I always seem to assume there are a lot more films by women and it is approaching 50/50 because I go to so many festivals, but then I read this data and it’s actually not.

The fundamental thing is that the film industry is full of people who are individually nice. A large part of it comes from misplaced fear, they choose to do what is normal, which is a white man they know. So the industry’s actions, in general, are unquestionably sexist and almost certainly racist. It has got better and film festivals are at the vanguard of that but it’s always a nuanced picture.

I knew from studying gender that film students were about 50/50 and I knew that big budget movies were a few percentages of women. I thought there was probably some barrier like a lot of women go off and have children at a certain point or something. I thought that there would be some gender-based barrier that would be very acute. But what I found is that the more the stakes are raised, the more money in the films, the more attention they get, the more that women are filtered out of the process. And that’s still happening. So, although there are more films by women, they are on the lower end of the budget and within certain genres, and on television, they are on fewer premiere time slots.

It’s shocking to me, partly because I’m naive enough to think we’ve got a fairly fair society, and that the vast majority of people aren’t sexist. But their actions are and that cognitive dissonance is quite unnerving. Nice people can produce pretty nasty results.

I’m not a change-maker or a thinker or a thought leader, but I’ve got these skills and try to use them to help people see better and clearer.

What are some insights you have found that are surprising?

There are a number of industry truisms. I feel like for a long time I was taught and passed on lots of industry adages which come across as good advice but as you look into the data, you’re like, wow, that’s just nothing, and by perpetuating that, you are really doing something harmful. For example, John August reached out to me a few years ago. He said, “You know that rule that one page of screenplay is about one minute of eventual screen time. So a 90-page script should be 90 minutes.” It’s kind of broadly true, but it’s not true enough to be usable in any meaningful sense. Especially if people are sending scripts back to writers and saying, “Take out ten pages because it’s ten minutes too long.”

The other thing that surprised me, when I was writing for the American Film Market, we’d previously looked at whether being a first-time director affected the chances of a film being profitable. We found that largely, it’s not a big factor. We knew that already. But then we looked at producers. We looked at the number of films a producer had made before, then whether their latest film had made a profit, based off some quite complicated maths. We looked at thousands of films and we discovered there is no correlation.

When you think about it, it makes sense. Because if you make a film that is bad, or you lose money, you don’t get your artistic license revoked. In fact, the better producers are the ones who make films continuously, despite making trash that loses money every time. I think the biggest problem in the film industry is that there is no feedback for failure. There is only confidence. If you have no shame, and you have complete confidence, you can succeed in film. It certainly doesn’t matter if you failed at something.

Stephen Follows

I think about directors who made film after film after film in studio systems, no matter whether it was Hollywood or the Soviet Union and many great directors made bad first films. Is it harder nowadays? Is it a career-ender?

Four out of five people who make a film never make a second film. Most films are career enders, regardless of their success or not. That’s OK because people might end up in a different job. That’s fine. We shouldn’t see making films as inherently a success. It depends on what it is. But I don’t think failure is much of a problem. The order might matter more. Let’s say you make two films: if your first film flops and your second film does well, you’re probably in quite a good position to make a film.

But if it’s the other way around, you’re probably in a more awkward position. Like Shane Carruth did Primer and then Upstream Color. I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it didn’t do as well, like winning the Sundance Audience Award on a nine grand budget. But generally speaking, failure isn’t that much of a problem because you always have different investors, because you have different partners, because it’s always impossible to make a film. You have to do it despite the odds, not because of them.

There was a study I read a while ago that said that if you’re a director and you want to make a second film, most of the time you need your first film to succeed in one of three realms. It has to make money. Or it has to succeed critically, as in artistically – lots of people saw it and gave it five stars. Or the third one was buzz. It needed to have conversations, it needed to be at festivals, it needed to be seen. I can definitely think of filmmakers who have made films that don’t make money and are getting three to four stars, but they succeed because of buzz. But that goes back to data. Data can’t give you the answers because it can’t measure whether people think you’re hot right now.

The biggest problem in the film industry is that there is no feedback for failure. There is only confidence. If you have no shame, and you have complete confidence, you can succeed in film.

Directors Notes focuses mostly on shorts. At the end of every interview, most people say they’re working on a feature and maybe around five percent come back with a feature. Do you have any data on how many short filmmakers make this graduation to making a feature?

I did look at BAFTA-nominated short films. The tricky thing is that short films are not as well tracked as feature films. Lots of short films will go nowhere and that’s fine because they are fun or educational, or they’re network or artistic building. But I used to do a lot of surveys of filmmakers asking them questions and I would talk to filmmakers on my courses. One of the questions I would ask was: “Are you planning on making a feature?” Almost everyone is planning on making a feature in the next 12 months and that’s obviously not happening.

But that’s OK. I don’t think your expectations and reality not matching are a problem because it’s hard to make a feature and it’s even harder to make a feature that sells or gets distributed or gets seen by people. And that matters far more than shooting 90 minutes of material because I can shoot 90 minutes of material on my iPhone. If I shoot it in slow-motion, I can do it in half an hour. It doesn’t mean anything. So I don’t think that has a positive or negative spin.

Stephen Follows

With so many short films out there and so many different festivals, what are your recommendations to first-time directors to actually get their work noticed?

Well, I think there are many reasons to make a short film and you can choose any one you want. What I would suggest is to know in advance what your reasons are and put them in order. If you can prioritise, you can very much filter the kinds of people you go to and the kinds of people you bring on board. Because if you’re fundamentally about having fun, you might not have to do the unpleasant things you don’t want to, but at the same time, if you’re trying to do something that’s brilliant, you may accept that some things are going to be harder.

If you don’t have a good reason for making a film, you should stop until you do because if you do focus on one particular outcome as your primary outcome, you can probably achieve it. So if you want to be in a film festival, watch all of the films from the last five years at that film festival. You’ll realise there is a programming voice for that and you can write for it. I’m not saying write in a derivative way, but you can use it to invalidate things. Like if it never screens horror, don’t write a horror film.

Almost everyone is planning on making a feature in the next 12 months and that’s obviously not happening.

When it comes to award-winning shorts, do higher budgets translate to more success? Just from my experience watching, they appear to have a high production value…

There are so many correlations. The only people who get money are the ones who have already succeeded. Look at the NFTS, one of the top film schools in the UK, or even the world. They take something like eight directors a year, so their directors do very well. Now let’s say their education was nothing, they would still do very well because they’re picking the best people. Their education is not nothing, but the kind of people that get funded are already very, very good. So you could arguably have given them half the budget at that point in their career and they might have won that festival.

We also really can’t know budgets. We struggle to know budgets for feature films. We only know what’s reported. But there’s an even deeper question: how much is it actually worth? Sign Language is a film I made where we only spent money on a sign and some sandwiches but we also had half a day’s work from lots of really talented people. That film went on to do very well. Raindance called it one of the most successful films of all time, because we won something like 40 thousand pounds worth of prizes but had we all been hired at our rates, it would’ve been much less successful. It’s just that as a producer I made a film for £100 but it doesn’t mean it’s worth £100. Someone else might have to spend ten grand on the same product.

What are you working on next?

I do a number of different things. I’ve still got my company that is raising money for charities. Data-wise, I’ve got a number of projects on the go. I don’t know which ones will end up crossing the line. I was approached by somebody recently who is working with a studio. They’re casting their two leads in a big budget movie. They’ve been told they have to hire actors from within the IMDB top 1000 and so I’m looking at the data. It’s interesting to be using that. If the industry is using that list as canon, what does that mean? And then I’m using some AI stuff. I’m writing a screenplay using AI, and I’m trying to help writers to understand how to use it and think about how we can use it to help create human-based art!

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