Filmmaking Lessons From a Cattle Rancher

5 Jan

In an attempt to eat healthier and more responsibly, I’ve been searching for alternative ways to purchase beef in my home state of California. Documentaries like King Corn and Food, Inc. have convinced me that mass beef production in America is problematic on many levels. That’s why I was so happy when I recently come across a brochure for a family run cattle ranch in California.

The owners are Seth & Mica Nitschke and their company is Open Space Meats. Not only do they practice “responsible stewardship” for the earth and the animals under their care, but they raise cattle the way nature intended, on grass, not corn. Their beef is not only leaner, but a lot more nutritious due to the essential qualities of a grass diet.

What does all this have to do with independent filmmaking? A lot! While reading their brochure, I came across this paragraph:

Seth & Mica Nitschke are family ranchers in beautiful central California; we created Open Space Meats to bring a nutritious, great tasting product to our customers. We haven’t formulated our beef on a computer, or tested it with focus groups; instead, we’ve done our best to make sure you are happy with our beef for all the right reasons, not because we tricked you into it. We love Open Space grass fed beef and we hope you will too!

I want to create films the way Seth and Mica raise and sell beef! First and foremost, I want to make “nutritious, great tasting” films. Unlike cheap, quick fix sugars and artificial ingredients, good, solid nutrition has substance and is long-lasting. Many movies may appear nutritious, but their effects wear off quickly; they merely produce short-lived highs or fleeting bursts of inspiration. On the other hand, like grass fed beef, I strive to make films that are spiritually, socially or culturally nutritious in a long-lasting way. Films that build-up, not puff up. I also hope to make “tasty” films that are captivating and intriguing to watch. I realize that just like food people’s tastes vary when it comes to film. Not everyone likes to eat beef and not everyone will enjoy my films. Nonetheless, I will make them as tasty as possible according to my sensibilities and values.

Also like the Nitschkes, I am running a business with “customers.” My hope is to one day make a comfortable living as an independent filmmaker; therefore, I must reach a certain number of people who will support my work and vision. People who will believe in why and how I make films just as customers believe why and how the Nitschkes raise cattle. I need to have a clear vision and purpose as a filmmaker and communicate that with others. More importantly, I need to continually make films that embody my vision and purpose, which I can ultimately share with others.

The Nitschkes state that they “haven’t formulated our beef on a computer, or tested it with focus groups.” It’s amazing how relevant that statement is to the film industry! But then again, we’re both dealing with industries: film and beef, thus, many corporate practices are bound to overlap. As a filmmaker, I too don’t want to resort to impersonal, computed data when producing my films. I want to focus on qualitative, not quantitative measures. I’m certain the Nitschkes really on their personal tastes and convictions when making decisions on their ranch and, likewise, I want to rely on my own personal tastes and convictions when making my films. No doubt, the Nitschkes are conscientious, sincere people, thus, their product will reflect their character and I believe my films ultimately reflect my character as well.

Finally, the Nitschkes state that they do not want to “trick” anyone into buying their product. This reminds me of all the misleading trailers, ads and posters I see promoting movies. In fact, I’ve come to a place where I honestly can’t stand trailers and deliberately go to a movie 10-minutes late. Though many are well-crafted, trailers often depict a film in a highly misleading way and often “trick” people into watching them. As a filmmaker, I hope people will watch my films based entirely on what they truly are, not for what people are mislead to believe. It is my greatest hope that I will eventually generate a reputation as a fine filmmaker, which genuinely warrants the viewing of my films.

One last note for fun! Though I’m not sure, there is a chance the Nitschkes brand their cattle the good old-fashioned way. There has been a lot of talk lately about independent filmmakers needing to brand themselves and rely less on studio support. By establishing themselves as a brand, filmmakers can then market themselves and their films more effectively. They can build a community around their brand and garner financial, promotional and emotional support. Although I resisted this notion at first, I have come to embrace it as an absolute necessity. After all, like the Nitschkes, I need to financially support myself and my family. In other words, I need to make money! So, like Open Space Meats, I need to establish a well-respected, unique and trusted brand that folks will promote and support!


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