Recapturing My Roots as a Filmmaker: An Open Letter to the Industry
Posted Mar 6, 2010

If you've ever felt like the passion of filmmaking has waned for you as your business has grown, this is for you. When I started in this business almost 8 years ago, I got a lot of praise and attention for the work I created. My clients raved. My friends would frequently tell me, "Wow, Ron. That video you created looks so professional." (Don't comments like that kind of irk you? Sometimes you just want to say, "Hello! McFly! I am a professional." But, I digress.) I'd post videos on the WEVA forums and get tons of comments from colleagues. "Great video, Ron." "Your best work yet." "Love the look." It wasn't long after I started the business that I was named videographer of the year for 2 consecutive years at my local Silicon Valley PVA. I was an artiste, and my fellow artistes respected my art. Times have changed though. That filmmaker in me is lost. I'm rarely thought of that way anymore, and I have done little over the past few years to nurture or promote that side of my career. But to really understand how much I love the craft of filmmaking and why rededicating myself to it is so important to me, let me take you back. Back to where it all began.

S.O.S.
As I sat on the couch and listened to the two rappers go back and forth about how they thought the show should be managed, I could feel the tension rising in the room. Our entourage was getting pissed, as was the "gang" that hung out with the opposing rap team. What was supposed to be a meeting of the creative minds was starting to evolve into an all-out rap gang war. The top exploded when the head rapper for our group got in the face of the head rapper of the other group and started free-stylin' insults in his face (i.e., making up rap limericks on-the-fly akin to "yo' mama" jokes). Blows started to fly. A fight broke out. All I could think was, "Please, God. I'm too young to die." So began my film career.

Right about now, you're probably scratching your head trying to figure out how this amusing story has anything to do with my career as a filmmaker. As Inigo Montoya might say, "Let me 'splain." While a junior at University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, I partnered with three other people to start an artist management group called Atlantis Entertainment. The aforementioned rap group we managed was named Shot O' Soul. They were a very talented trio that wowed the crowd at lower Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. We were lucky enough to snatch them up and become their managers. Without going into all the gruesome details, suffice it to say that my artist management endeavor was a total failure. It was marked by dance and concert events attended by more crickets than people, hundreds of dollars lost by me (which, for a junior in college during the late '80s, was a lot of money), stomach-related disorders, and my aforementioned near-death experience (perhaps that's a slight exaggeration, but when you're young, everything seems bigger and more dramatic than it probably really is).

I look back on that whole experience now and can laugh. In fact, that's exactly what I was doing one spring afternoon in 1992 while at lunch with an old friend. I was recounting this whole experience to her and saying how it would make a great movie. Ding! A bell went off in my head. This would make a great movie. I'm going to make a movie out of this. I'll call it S.O.S. (the initials of the short-lived rap group we managed).

That summer I enrolled in De Anza College's film and TV program. De Anza is a highly acclaimed junior college in Cupertino, Calif., just a mile or so from Apple headquarters. De Anza had an amazing film and production department. The talent that came out of there rivaled anything from a more traditional film school. When I enrolled, I was working full time as a real estate appraiser (which was a big reason I pursued filmmaking as a way to scratch my creative itch). In my Production 101 class, our first assignments involved things such as shooting a panning shot, then a tilt-up shot, then a tilt-down shot, and so on. Ever the "out-of-box thinker," I couldn't just do those shots. So within the context of the assignment, I told a story, giving a reason for the various shots. I continued this theme of going above and beyond right up to my final project, which the instructor said was the best in the class. I got an A.

Based on my work in that class and in my subsequent production class, I was accepted into the Fiction Workshop program. This was a special program in which, each trimester, students shot one major film project. Everyone in the class played some role on the set-assistant director, camera, grip, and the like. But what you really wanted was to be chosen as the director for any given trimester-to have the whole class work on your project. After being in the program for a few trimesters, you could submit a script or treatment to the professor for possible selection. After about a year or so in the program, I was poised to be selected as
a director. But then I got a new job in southern California and moved. My dream of directing my opus was delayed.

A Little Help for My ‘Friends'
The job I got was assistant marketing manager at Screenplay Systems, Inc. (SSI) in Burbank, Calif. SSI was the creator of the ubiquitous Movie Magic software programs. Movie Magic was to Hollywood what Microsoft Office is to the business world. Every studio used it. For that reason, many of the people who worked at SSI were those who were passionate about the film business. One of them was JD Cochran. JD was a University of Southern California (USC) film grad working as an intern at SSI. He and I became fast friends. He was a talented filmmaker who had a Super 8 film camera (ooh, aah), and I saw him as my ticket to getting my film made. I approached him about helping me produce and DP a short film idea I had called Just Friends. My one-liner pitch for it was "a black When Harry Met Sally." He loved the idea, and we got started.

Ron Dawson on the Just Friends set

JD was still connected to his film school buddies, many of whom were actors or aspiring filmmakers. We set up auditions at USC and had 2 full days of people coming in reading my sides. ("Sides" are excerpts from a script that you have people act out during the audition.) I can't express to you the feeling of hearing my words acted out right before my eyes. It was euphoric.

I was doing my very own "fiction workshop" project, but without fiction workshop. I had "real" actors, a producer, and a DP. I was finally ... a director. (Here's a fun bit of trivia: Two of the actors who auditioned for me were James Lesure, who played Mike Cannon on the show Las Vegas, and J. August Richards, who appeared in the role of Charles Gunn on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel. This was long before they came to fame. To this day, JD teases me for my lack of foresight as a talent scout: I didn't pick either of them for the lead role.)

The experience of making Just Friends—from the auditions to the antics on set to directing my actors—was something I deeply treasure. I'm sure it was those experiences working with JD and the joy he saw in me that led him to ask me a fateful question nearly 7 years later when I was a business marketing manager for Quicken at Intuit: "Ron, what do you want to do with your life?" I replied, "Well, eventually I'd like to make a movie." To which he replied, "OK. So, how you gonna do that at Intuit?"

Back to the Future
Four months after answering that question, in the summer of 2002, I started my event video business. As part of my natural business-minded tendencies, I started doing creative marketing endeavors to get my company's name out there. In 2005 I started a video podcast aimed at brides. Then in 2006, we started heavily blogging (you know, that "fad" that so many videographers back then said would never last and was a waste of time). We were asked to speak at national conventions on the topic of social media.

Then, to my surprise, I got a phone call one January morning in 2008 from the editor of this magazine. I was in my kitchen when the call came. "Hi, Ron. This is Steve Nathans-Kelly. I need you to send me a picture of yourself because you've been named to the EventDV 25."

Ron Dawson 2008 EventDV 25 card

The words were still floating in the air like one of those bubbles that hang over comic book characters' heads when they're talking. "You've been named to the EventDV 25." Wow. I didn't even campaign. Was this a mistake? I was delighted to be on the list again the following year.

Then my wife, Tasra, and I were invited to write a book for event videographers that would help them evolve their businesses: ReFocus: Cutting-Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business (2009, Peachpit Press). We were by no means the most successful video company in the industry. But I guess there was something about our approach to business and marketing that appealed to the editors. The book has been extremely well-received. I get emails from people all over the world who have said it's helped them in their businesses. That is so rewarding.

But as much as I appreciate my recognition in the industry for my marketing and business prowess, the artist in me was dying. I was named to the EventDV 25 and got the opportunity to write the book not because of my art but more because I was good at social media marketing. The irony is that I left a high-paying marketing job to start my video business. Then somewhere along the line, my video business turned into a marketing job.

Facing the Fellas
It all came to a head last summer. I was at (camera gear manufacturer) Zacuto's Chicago headquarters to shoot an episode of its popular webisodic series, FilmFellas. They were doing a series on wedding filmmakers. I was on the episode with two of the most creative and celebrated artists in the industry: Patrick Moreau of StillMotion and Kevin Shahinian of Pacific Pictures. It was clear that I represented the business aspect of the industry on this panel. But that was fine. I had no problem with that. However, hanging out with Patrick and Kevin before and after the filming affected me. I got to hear how passionate they were about their work. If you've ever listened to Patrick or read any of his forum posts, you know he has a penchant for perfection. That kind of painful, self-deprecating, push-yourself-to-the-very-limit kind of perfection. The kind of characteristics you see in filmmakers such as Jim Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh. Kevin was the same way. It's who they are as artists and a huge reason they are so successful.

Ron Dawson on FilmFellas

I'd been there once, but unfortunately, that was an aspect of my personality I had let become subdued in favor of making work "good enough" for business purposes. I'd lost that drive to make everything perfect.
I left Chicago that evening wanting to be a filmmaker again. I wanted to be excited about the work I was doing. Seems like so much of what I was doing was just to pay the bills. I longed for the passion. You know that feeling you get when you really jibe with a video you're shooting or editing and you put tons of more time into it just because you love it. That's what I was missing.

There was something else that happened last summer that got my creative juices flowing again and stirred that desire to be a filmmaker: Canon's 5D Mark II. To be frank, up until last summer I hated shooting. Well, maybe "hated" is too strong a word. But I really didn't enjoy it, not the way I used to. But then this DSLR comes out, and I feel like a film student again. It's actually fun being behind the camera. The images that come out of it look amazing. True, editing is a pain in the rear-but man, the end result is so worth it.

Ron Dawson with the 5D

Getting Back to My Roots
The passion I have for filmmaking is stronger than ever. Inspired by fellow event filmmakers, new discoveries on sites such as Vimeo, HD DSLR film contests (seems like there's a new one each week), and empowered by amazing technology, I'm moving forward with the return to my filmmaking roots.

For me that means doing work that I can get excited about. There are three ways I'll go about it. If you find yourself in a rut similar to the one I've been in, these are three things that you too should do to recapture that passion: Focus on doing what truly fulfills you: After completing an inspirational film series we produced for a photography convention this past fall (you can see it online at http://bladeronner.com/inspire), I discovered that I'm most fulfilled doing work that inspires and encourages others. So we're changing the focus of our company to work for non-profits and other worthy causes. (Note: Working for nonprofits does not mean nonpaid. We're paid very well for the work we do for NPOs.) Naturally we'll still do traditional commercial work; we're still very much in this business to support our family. Our wedding division has been revamped too (http://dawsonsignaturefilms.com). But in terms of where I'll be putting our marketing energy, it will be towards helping organizations whose missions it is to improve peoples lives and their communities. Our new slogan: Telling stories that help change the worldTM.
Do personal projects that hone your craft and keep you excited: Inevitably, at some point in this business, you're going to find that the work that used to be fun to do is now just ... work. Finding personal projects that get you excited is a surefire way to keep the excitement alive in this profession. There are a slew of short film ideas I've been knocking around that I hope to shoot this year. I look forward to reliving the glory days of Just Friends.

Stay connected to people who inspire you: It was hanging out with consummate artists such as Patrick and Kevin that reignited my excitement for filmmaking. I want to keep that encouragement going. So I've recently launched a new podcast series called Crossing the 180: The Filmmakers Podcast That Breaks All the Rules. It is a filmmakers' version of my popular photography podcast series F-Stop Beyond (both are located at http://fstopbeyond.tv). The show is a series of in-depth, one-on-one interviews with filmmakers from all aspects of the industry. So far we've had X-Men producer Ralph Winter, Terminator: Salvation DP Shane Hurlbut, HD DSLR guru Philip Bloom, Kevin Shahinian, and many more. Hearing their stories and getting to know these artists has been very encouraging. The forums are a good way to stay connected too. But I'd encourage you to go even further and see if you can form a small group of artists with whom you can convene regularly to share ideas and encourage one another.

At one point in my business, I came very close to giving up the day-to-day duties of filmmaking altogether in favor of being a more traditional CEO. I am so glad that didn't happen. I am thrilled and excited to be embracing my true passion again. Be prepared to see a brand new Ron Dawson. It's time to evolve ... again!

Ron Dawson (ron at daredreamer.net) is president of Dare Dreamer Media and Dawson Signature Films. He and his wife, Tasra, are co-authors of the Peachpit Press book ReFocus: Cutting Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business. Ron is also a two-time EventDV 25 honoree.