Raindance MA in Film: Learning Contract

I’ve always said that I want to be as transparent – warts and all – about my progress through the Raindance MA in Film. This includes doing my bi-weekly or so video blog “I Wanna Be A Producer” (available on YouTube) and posting my assignments.

Below you will find my complete ‘Learning Contract’. We write this thing to say what it is we will be doing over the course of our masters. It is incredible painful to write, but at the same time incredibly helpful. I try to refer back to it often and when I do I go ‘oh yeah, THAT’S what I’m supposed to be doing’.

I’m putting this up here because there aren’t examples available from the school and of all the pain we have in this course finding the format of the Learning Contract shouldn’t be one!

— Phil Smy


Raindance MA/MSc Film by Negotiated Learning

Learning Contract

1. Personal Information


2. Key Research Question

The Production Company v2.0

I hope to combine my Tech Startup Company experience and my interest and experience in film and film production. My personal background is nearly 20 years in the software, website and internet marketing and management business. I want to combine that with my lifelong creative pursuits of music and moviemaking.

To that end my Key Research Question is as follows:

How can the production company be re-imagined to take advantage of the latest thinking in ‘startup innovation’ and the changing landscape of distribution? In addition to creating a sustainable production company focused on low budget content, I want to evolve not only my understanding of the business side of film production but also increase my skills as a producer.

3. Research Methods (AM99995-7)

3.1 Title

How are some producers of low budget (films with an operating budget under $1,000,000) content distributing their product online? I’m investigating this in order to determine what the popular choices are amongst the filmmakers I talk to and if their experiences can help me in my choice of distribution method later.

3.2 Rationale

There are currently many options for the low budget producers as far as distribution is concerned. NoFilmSchool.com – a leading online independent film resource – enumerated top platforms in March 2014, and came up with 29 (Hove, M 2014). I feel that when it comes time – in NP2 – to start experimenting in the marketplace I will need a strong grasp of which platforms are currently being used by other low budget producers. Their experiences will help guide me in a choice of platform at that stage, based on ease of use and audience acceptance.

3.3 Methodology

  • Reading about creating and doing surveys.
  • Find filmmakers using personal connections and online communities I am active in and find some who will participate in a survey.
  • Survey as many film makers as possible with regard to a specific production they have distributed
    • Questions:
    • budget
    • number of previous productions, to get a sense of experience level
    • where did you distribute
    • what financial returns
    • what were the audience numbers

Combine filmmaker surveys with statistics from the platforms they reference to directly. Specifically audience numbers and views. By applying accepted norms for advertising click throughs, etc, I can attempt to determine if there was any financial success independently of the filmmakers response.
Do more in depth interviews with (at least) two filmmakers about the distribution process and their experience with it.

3.4 Theoretical Context

Filmmakers are struggling to get noticed in the shifting landscape for self and indie releasing. (Dargis M, 2014). By examining the efforts of other filmmakers, and also trying to confirm their success in attracting customers, I hope to spot some trends that can either be followed or avoided.
New models of distribution are available (Schreder S, 2014) but are production companies taking advantage of changing distribution models? If not, is it because of lack of awareness or understanding of the platforms or something more deep seated in the attitude and structure of the production company itself?
In a later module – NP2 – I will examine applying different business structure models to the production company, but a basis in existing actions with regard to distribution, will give me insight into what is and isn’t working for others.

3.5 Deliverables

4,000 word research paper; Appendices containing survey data

3.6 Bibliography

Carter, M, Media moving online: in search of profit, TheGuardian.com, Available At: http://www.theguardian.com/digital-tribes/media-moving-online

Smith, M & Telang, R (2012), Why Digital Media Require a Strategic Rethink, Harvard Business Review, Oct 2012

Friendman, A, 3 trends in media consumption you need to know, iMediaConnection, Available At: http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/35476.asp

Millward Brown, Digital Predictions 2014, Available At: http://www.millwardbrown.com/digitalpredictions/2013/index.html

3.7 Learning Outcomes

3.7.1 Knowledge & Understanding

By doing an overview survey of a few low-medium budget filmmakers, and two to three in depth interviews with a couple more, I hope to learn what options are currently in use by low-medium budget filmmakers, what their experiences are and filter out the marginal players.

3.7.2 Learning

I will learn more completely the research and referencing process needed for the rest of my masters

3.7.3 Reflection

I will reflect on the impact, benefits, drawbacks to filmmakers like myself using these platforms. By interviewing some active filmmakers I hope to further understand my direction

3.7.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate issues with getting ‘real data’ and believe I will have to make significant personal contacts to get access to personal data.

3.8 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 10
Web Research 60
Literature Research 20
Conduct Interviews 15
Transcription 15
Writing 30

Total Hours 150

4. [updated] NEGOTIATED PROJECT 1 (AM99996-7)

4.1 Title

Proof of Concept Web series Development and Pre-Production

4.2 Rationale

With greater emphasis on online distribution, and shorter content, a web series seems the optimum format to develop for the later stages (NP2 and NMP) of this degree program. By developing a web series I will get more exposure to the hands on aspects of film production – from script development, through to budgeting, casting, scheduling and finding investment. In addition, at the end of this module, I will have some assets – concept art, script readings, storyboards, etc – that can be used as source material for NP2.

Initially the contents of this module were to be for my Negotiated Film Production module (AM99997-7) but I have advanced it for a few reasons.
First of all, I feel that I have underestimated the amount of time required to adequately develop this webseries. Finding talent in Japan is proving to be a significant challenge that I had not anticipated and is requiring a lot more time investment in networking and discovering communities that I had previously expected.
Second, my original NP1 – investigating consumer activity in finding online content – revolved around a similar process as my RM module. Namely, surveying. My attempts at surveying for my RM was not successful, and in that case I believed I had direct access to a community – other independent filmmakers – that would be helpful. This turned out to not materialise. In my previously proposed NP1 I suggested attempting the same strategy, but for the public at large, a significantly less motivated and less approachable group! Rather than position myself for more frustration and failure I thought it best to advance and extend my NFP module.
Thirdly, I am discovering that to attempt to perform the ‘experimentation’ that I lay out in NP2 I need more and more varied source material.

4.3 Methodology

  • Find scriptwriter to co-develop web series idea through local industry contacts. The script will be developed in English and Japanese, but if shot the dialogue will be entirely in Japanese.
  • Ensure script ideas developed to budget by keeping locations and number of onscreen actors in check.
  • Investigate finding talent and production staff and locations by getting involved with the local industry.
  • Secure talent for the filming of a pilot episode

4.4 Theoretical Context

In the NP2 module I will pursue audience testing and content development – making minor content and concept changes in through repeated rounds of audience acceptance testing. To adequately pursue these tests I first have to have a original concept developed to a clear enough point – i.e past the idea stage and into the script development and pre-production stages – to be able to place something before an audience.
In this module I will also develop the practical aspects of my production knowledge – that is the actual planning of a film (or content).
Because I intended to make a web series in Japanese I will work closely with a local writer to ensure that dialect and tone are appropriate, but similarly my personal goal is to develop something that draws on ‘western dramatic sensibilities’ as opposed to conventional Japanese serials.

4.5 Supporting Activities

Attend or review, either in person or online, the Raindance course Create & Market Your Web Series (http://www.raindance.org/course/create-market-your-web-series/)
Review the materials from the Raindance course Web Series Foundation Certificate (http://www.raindance.org/toronto/course/web-series-foundation-certificate/)
Review MakingWebShows.com, a leading website dedicated to the development of web series (http://makingwebshows.com/web-series-development-part-1/)

4.6 Deliverables

First draft of pilot episode; production and budget documents; reflective report outlining learned conclusions.

4.7 Bibliography

Morgan, Elize (2012) How to Make a Web Series

4.8 Learning Outcomes

4.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

I will learn how to develop an idea from a basic high-level concept into an initial script, taking into account budget, location and casting limitations.

4.8.2 Learning

I will learn the techniques for budget analysis of a script, how to create a shooting schedule and how to approach outside investors.

4.8.3 Reflection

What did I learn about the process of idea to script to finalised pre-production schedules?

4.8.4 Problem Solving

Finding solutions to location desires versus available locations, and similar constraints with casting and equipment, will prove to be challenging. Especially given my location (Japan).

4.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Supporting Activities 80
Writing 80
Content Creation 60
Web Research 30
Literature Research 20
Reflective Report 25

Total Hours 300


5.1 Title

Coordinate and produce a single episode of webseries content.

5.2 Rationale

In this updated module I will create basic elements for the web series developed in NP1.

After developing the webseries, and preparing for production, in NP1, in this module I will create basic webseries content for use in NP2. I believe that, in part due to my situation of living in Japan, the whole process of development and creation of my webseries will take significantly longer, and require significantly more effort, than I previously expected.
For the purposes of the experimentation outlined in NP2 I would like to have as much ‘base material’ as possible. That now extends to at least one episode ‘filmed’. With that completed things like live action trailers, music videos, etc, can be more easily created that fit into the overall theme and presentation of the webseries.

5.3 Methodology

  • Coordinate all on-set production aspects (equipment, location, talent, production staff)
  • Direct or supervise the directing of, principal photography for pilot episode
  • Perform or supervise initial post-production of pilot episode

5.4 Theoretical Context

5.5 Supporting Activities

Research and prepare paperwork for shooting permits and actor’s in Japan.

5.6 Deliverables

Raw footage of pilot episode, first edit of pilot episode, first trailer and music video based on pilot episode footage, shooting logs, production notes.

5.7 Bibliography

Morgan, Elize (2012) How to Make a Web Series

Kenworthy, Christopher (2012) Master Shots Series (Vol 1 – 3)

5.8 Learning Outcomes

5.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

Come to a greater understanding of the legal and logistical aspects of independent filmmaking in Japan. This is not something that has been written about in any detail (that I can find) in English.

5.8.2 Learning

Learn specific production skills, from arranging personnel and catering to securing location permits.

5.8.3 Reflection

How will my actions on this short, low-budget production scale out to larger productions?

5.8.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate many issues to arise due to the unusual nature of what I am doing. Shooting a film in small town Japan, with a foreigner at the helm, will cause great consternation amongst the locals! Getting cooperation might be difficult. That coupled with the ‘usual’ production problems like last minute cancellations of people and equipment will test my abilities to succeed.

5.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Supporting Activities 30
Logistics & Organisation 50
Preparation & Shooting 60
Editing 30
Post production 20
Reflective Report 25

Total Hours 300


6.1 Title

Marketplace experimentation – putting content through a series of audience tests

6.2 Rationale

Having developed a proof of concept outline, script and pre-production documents for a webseries (NFP), the next step is to perform ‘experiments’ in the marketplace. ‘Experiments’ in this case refers to the methodology of doing small, frequent ‘releases’ of content into the market and testing reaction (Ries, 2011). By doing this I should have more understanding as to whether this is a viable process for content creation.

6.3 Methodology

  • Develop some assets – storyboards, concept art, theme music – and variations
  • Release these into the marketplace via YouTube channel
  • Drive traffic to the experiments by using a combination of targeted social media postings and limited advertising.
  • Create a ‘Customer Avatar’ – model an ideal customer to give a foundation for marketing approaches.
  • Measure audience reaction – views, sharing, comments – to different variations

6.4 Theoretical Context

This concept of marketplace experimentation is becoming commonplace in the software industry, and it has been (arguably) proven that the methods of Minimum Viable Product, Continuous Development and Split Testing increase both quality and customer satisfaction. (Ries, 2014). See Section 9, Definitions, for an overview of these concepts.
These concepts are occasionally applied to content marketing – teaser and trailer variations for example – but rarely to the actual content development, and usually not at the low-budget level as it is incorrectly perceived to be expensive. (Bachmann, C 2009)
By performing these experiments and analysing not just the results but also the methods, I hope to determine how applicable the methods are in this situation.

6.5 Supporting Activities

Review the following web resources:

6.6 Deliverables

Detailed report on experiments performed and data acquired
Reflective report on the impact of the experiments and changes made to the content because of them

6.7 Bibliography

6.8 Learning Outcomes

6.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

I will gain knowledge and understanding of how much relevant feedback can be retrieved from consumers and how the content can be tailored to that feedback.

6.8.2 Learning

I will learn how to measure feedback and promote new content to consumers. I will learn how to manage or do the creation of variations on content.

6.8.3 Reflection

Is it possible to use a build-measure-learn (Lean Startup) loop for something like content creation without losing site of the initial creative vision?

6.8.4 Problem Solving

Getting a large enough sample – and active participation – will be challenging. If necessary I can harness other websites I have influence in to drive traffic, or, run a paid advertising campaign.

6.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Web Research 100
Literature Research 40
Supporting Activities 55
Writing 100

Total Hours 300


7.1 Title

Bringing it all together – Operating Principles and Formation of a Reimagined Production Company

7.2 Rationale

This masters has been a series of evolving projects. Having gone from market research to consumer research to proof of concept content development and finally on to content experimentation it is now time to brings these findings together and to outline the operating principles for a new production company, and to pursue it’s formation.

7.3 Methodology

  • evaluate and enumerate steps to company formation in Japan
  • define minimal roles needed for production company using industry standard roles compared with new business methods ideals
  • iterate through business model canvas to fine tune consumer and content focus
  • write business plan and SWOT analysis
  • draft mission and vision statements
  • approach industry peers for feedback
  • evaluate and approach potential financial investors
  • structure a board of directors

7.4 Theoretical Context

There are two significant growing trends in small business – the Lean Startup model and the Blue Ocean Strategy Model. (Blank S, 2014)
The Lean Startup – developed by software entrepreneur Eric Ries – deals with a different form of company structure to instill rapid, customer driven development, through experimentation phases (Ries, 2011) similar to those I will have attempted in NP2.
Blue Ocean Strategy is a complementary startup ethos aimed at creating a distinctive product and product space, thereby reducing competition, through an examination of the core values of any business. (Kim & Mauborgne, 2005)
I hope to follow these two complementary schools in structuring the internal and external workings of a new production company.
Existing production companies have an inherent structure with defined roles. How do these roles fit into a company structured on the aforementioned new principles?

7.5 Deliverables

  • Business plan
  • Business Model Canvas
  • SWOT Analysis of company position
  • Mission Statement
  • Reflective report covering peer and industry feedback

7.6 Bibliography

Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant

Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO)

7.7 Learning Outcomes

7.7.1 Knowledge & Understanding

By going through the steps of company formation I will gain a deeper understanding of the corporate aspects of running a company. I will gain understand of the business requirements for company operation in Japan. Gain knowledge of tax and other incentives for media companies and companies operating with the ‘disaster zone’.

7.7.2 Learning

I will learn the process for company registration in Japan. More formal learning of the business plan development process.

7.7.3 Reflection

How am I suited to the role of business person and how will this new company be situated in the marketplace.

7.7.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate great difficulty in finding all the requirements to form a company and to attract investors. I hope to overcome these by consulting with experienced business people here in Japan.

7.7.5 Communication

I will have to prepare and give presentations to potential investors and industry leaders. Also prepare documents in Japanese with the use of business partners and partnering agencies (eg Japanese External Trade Organisation) for governmental approval for incorporation.


Brachmann, C. (2009). Automatic Movie Trailer Generation Based on Semantic Video Patterns, In: Digital Tools in Media Studies, University of Siegen, Germany.

Blank S (2013). Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything, Harvard Business Review, (May 2013) p. 64

Dargis, M (2014), As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity, New York Times, Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/movies/flooding-theaters-isnt-good-for-filmmakers-or-filmgoers.html, (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Hove, M (2014), Direct Distribution & Marketing Roundup: A Who’s Who of Today’s Digital Tools, NoFilmSchool, Available at: http://nofilmschool.com/2013/09/direct-distribution-roundup-whos-todays-digital-tools/, (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Lockard, L (2012), Ask the Experts: Where do you find customers online?, LizLockard.com, Available at: http://www.lizlockard.com/where-to-find-your-customers-online/ (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, New York: Crown Business

Schreder, S (2014), How to Save Indie Distribution in 5 Easy Steps, IndieWire.com, Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/article/how-to-save-indie-film-distribution-20140618, (Accessed 8 August 2014)


Minimum Viable Product – The term minimum viable product has been in use since at least 2000 as part of various approaches to product development. See “The Dynamic Balance Between Cost, Schedule, Features, and Quality in Software Development Projects”, Junk, W, 2000, Computer Science Department, University of Idaho.
The term refers to any product (initially any software) in a basic state that can be presented to consumers. As defined by Eric Ries in the Lean Startup, a Minimum Viable Product “is a learning vehicle. It allows you to test an idea by exposing an early version of your product to the target users and customers, to collect the relevant data, and to learn from it.”
See also: “Minimum Viable Product: a guide”, Eric Ries, 2009. http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/08/minimum-viable-product-guide.html

Continuous Development – The process whereby products are altered frequently and released to the marketplace in an aggressive – often weekly – schedule.

Split Testing – Simultaneously releasing 2 or more variations of the same product into the marketplace, obtaining some sort of metrics to test customer approval or interest, and comparing the results, choosing a ‘winner’.


This following are articles, blog entries and general reference materials that I feel will be beneficial during the course of my degree program

Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots, Methuen Drama

Bernstein, P, Crowdfunding is a Full-Time Job, Indiewire.com, Available At: http://www.indiewire.com/article/crowdfunding-is-a-full-time-job-tips-from-the-directors-of-the-dog-20140811?utm_campaign=crowdfunding-is-a-full-time-job-tips-from-the-directors-of-the-dog-20140811

Fogelson, M, How to Identify an Online Community for Your Business, Moz.com, Available At: http://moz.com/blog/identifying-online-community

Grove, E (2013) Lo To No Budget Filmmaking, Focal Press

Hirschhorn, J, If Video is Booming, Why are Revenues Evaporating?, MediaRedefined.com, Available At: http://www.mediaredefined.com/a-redef-original-if-video-is-b-668292818.html

Jolliffe, G & Jones, C (2000) The Guerrilla Film Makers Handbook & Movie Blueprint, Cassel

Lynch, J, How Amazon built a TV studio that’s finally challenging Netflix, Quartz.com, Available At: http://qz.com/246925/how-amazon-built-a-tv-studio-thats-finally-challenging-netflix/

Puttnam, D (1997) The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry, HarperCollins

Munarriz, R. A., Why Your Local Redbox Kiosk Just Disappeared, DailyFinance.com, Available At: http://www.dailyfinance.com/on/redbox-kiosk-numbers-shrinking-outerwall/

Ng, D, How to Find Thriving Online Communities, Dummies.com, Available At: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-find-thriving-online-communities.html

Sillesen, L, Do documentary filmmakers need data about their audiences?, Columbia Journalism Review, Available At: http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/do_documentary_filmmakers_need_audience_data.php

Szalai, G, Netflix Has Reached 3 Million U.K. Subscribers, Analyst Estimates, HollywoodReporter.com, Available At: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/netflix-3-million-uk-subscribers-724558

Wigon, Z, Indie Filmmakers Should Act Like Entrepreneurs, TribecaFilm.com, Available At: http://tribecafilm.com/stories/racking-focus-indie-filmmakers-should-act-like-entrepreneurs