This week presented a good opportunity to SFS students to gain insight into the other side of film: the commercial side. Popcorn Taxi’s Artistic Director, Chris Murray may not have a long list of credits on art films, but he certainly knows how to make a living in the business.
His advice to students ranged from how to promote your first short film, to how to ensure the industry doesn’t leave you behind. The session revolved around Murray’s own career and the various places it’s taken him to.
It’s a message to students that’s ubiquitous around these kinds of Sydney Film School events: Carve out your own way.
“I understood the importance of bullshit, so I started in advertising, where the kings of bullshit live,” he told the students.
From selling ad-space in Australian mag, “9 to 5”, his career took him all over the place. From being a photo-editor for Australian “Playboy”, becoming the Managing Editor of the Australian branch of British film mag, “Empire”, to reviewing music and films on Triple M Channel Seven’s “Sunrise”. Murray also runs his own production company; “Neon” and has grown the fortunes of Popcorn Taxi, whose long list of guests include such luminaries as Quentin Tarantino, Vince Gilligan, Rob Zombie and Geena Davis (to name just a few).
Murray is very much his own man – and in that sense he’s quite cool. He’s not afraid to say what he feels and was open and honest about the things he wanted to do and the things he felt he had to do. This is sound advice for young filmmakers, who quite often find themselves compromising their ideals for a paycheck early in their careers.
Murray says this is unavoidable: “It’s the hardest thing to do, to make films. It’s creating something out of thin air and hoping you’ll get paid for it.”
He went on to talk about the “pet project” that everybody has. You feed it and keep it alive, but the mistake, he says, is not balancing that with work. The emphasis was on networking and self-promotion.
“You have to self-promote enormously without being a loser about it,” he explained. This doesn’t mean shout to everybody about what you’re doing – it’s simply about being proud of what you’re working on and not shying away from telling people about it.
This carried over into his advice to students about promoting short films. The key message here was to not be shy about selling the film through marketing material – particularly visuals. It’s got to look important and iconic.
A large portion of the session was dedicated to corporate films and commercials – how a lot of our graduates earn their money. Here, Murray was keen to stress the importance of investing in your idea before you pitch to a company. He himself invests time, money and hard work before every commercial pitch.
He says his strike rate with these jobs is fifty-fifty – but that his hard work always backs him up. It’s a matter of being brave enough to twist the ideas that are initially presented to you and creating an ambitious project that gets people excited.
Murray also produces content exclusively for the web. Here, he says it’s a whole different ball game. When all online content is free, what makes people want to access yours over anybody else’s? There’s not one single solution, Murray says, as it’s an entirely different world of standing out. Though he did touch on the usefulness of branded content – a good technique for anyone looking to increase his or her budget (if he or she doesn’t mind shoe-horning in a couple of close-ups of whatever product you’re touting).
The best advice Murray says he was ever given was “is it the best you can do?” This is quite liberating for people trying to make it in a competitive industry. If you’re competing with yourself, why worry about anybody else? As Murray says, filmmaking is such a difficult process that it weeds out those who weren’t going to do it anyway.
There was good news, too, for fans of Popcorn Taxi. Murray refused to specify the details, but says there are exciting times ahead. He hopes to see some big changes over the next six months.
It’s pretty clear that, as filmmakers, we may not always get the work we want, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any work. There are many reasons for cinefiles and filmmakers alike – and it’s clear that Chris Murray is both – to be optimistic; and the future of Popcorn Taxi and Neon Productions are two good reasons to start with.