Entrepreneurial Jon Fitzgerald ’89 is redefining the way movies are made and marketed.
For producer/director Jon Fitzgerald ’89, writing his first screenplay was a form of therapy, a way to process complicated family dynamics growing up as a child of divorced parents in Redondo Beach, California. It was also an entrée into an appreciation for film that spurred Fitzgerald to launch Right Angle Studios, providing marketing and distribution strategies for the industry, Cause Pictures, a film production company with a unique business model, and iGEMS.tv, an entertainment review website. Fitzgerald wrote the book “Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform the World” and guest taught a class at UCSB by the same name.
At what age did you decide you wanted to work in the film industry--and what was the spark for that revelation?
It's actually a bittersweet story, with a happy ending. After my second year of college, I had yet to declare my major and my grades had gone down spring of that year. That summer I went to visit my dad, who was on his third marriage. She was crazy and I was an absolute nightmare. My therapist asked me if I'd ever written a screenplay, said this would make a great movie! She said I should pick up Syd Field's screenplay book. Of course, it was not as much about creating a script to sell to Hollywood, as much as a therapy exercise. I loved it.
I went back to school (UCSB), took an Intro. to Film class with [Professor of Film and Media Studies] Janet Walker and fell in love with this idea of movies, having never thought of it as a "business" before. I was always very creative and to me, film was a combination of all the arts - design, photography, acting, writing, etc. I got an A in the class and declared Film Studies as my major. I also took an intro screenwriting course and polished up my script.
Can you describe your family's film viewing habits? Were they typical American family Hollywood pictures or art house/foreign language movies?
I remember my first experience of seeing blockbuster lines around the block for Star Wars with mom and remember seeing Raging Bull with my dad. We watched mostly popular fare. When I got into college, my viewing habits expanded into indies, but didn't learn much about foreign films until after declaring my major in film.
Which do you consider yourself first and foremost: a filmmaker/artist or a business person with a personal passion for the film industry?
That's a great question, and a tricky double- edged sword I have had to deal with my whole life. On the one hand, I am proud to be able to think creatively, and I think it helps problem solve to be able to break out of the pure logic as the answer to most problems. And I believe it helps to have a business mind to promote or monetize your creative endeavors. One of the challenges is that this creates multiple interests and skill sets, and it can be difficult to master a practice if you spread yourself too thin.
You also have a tendency to move on from a certain vocation or practice faster than those that find their passion in one space and own it. It's fun making a movie: very creative, collaborative. There's the prep, then the production, the editing and then seeing it on the screen. It's a long process, but changes up over time which keeps it interesting.
I've found festival directing as a similar process. You prep the fest, create your theme and color scheme for the year, review films, secure partnerships and then "produce" the event--a fun, extended party and celebration of the art of film. Then you take a breather and start the next one, always reinventing to keep it fresh.
By creating entrepreneurial ventures, Right Angle Studios, Cause Cinema, and before iGEMS.tv, I've been able to follow my greatest "business" passions: number 1, to provide support to indie filmmakers, helping them on festival strategies, and find an audience. Number 2, to direct film festivals and actually bring great movies to audiences they may not otherwise see (most fest movies are not lucky enough to be released in theaters) AND have filmmakers present their movies to audiences, do Q&A sessions, etc.. Number 3, to help audiences discover great content they may not be able to find, and when possible, guide them to socially relevant movies that can have an impact on them.
So yes, it has been a challenge to streamline my focus. Perhaps if I didn't have the creative, I'd be sitting behind a desk at a studio. And if I didn't have the business, I'd have directed more movies and let the business folk sell them.
Documentaries always seem to be something of an outlier: a not particularly "glamorous" part of a glamorous industry. In some ways, the skills required often seem more aligned with the role of a journalist than someone in the entertainment business. What made you gravitate toward documentaries specifically?
I started to gravitate to what I call social impact films after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, and then The Cove. I realized that the genre was expanding, and filmmakers were making docs that were not just purely educational or talking heads. They were entertaining too, and had beginning middle and end. Which is what led me to write [a book] Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform the World.
So, I decided, when I transitioned back into filmmaking, I wanted to make a documentary, something socially relevant. [Cause Film’s first picture], The Back Nine, about a 40-year-old amateur golfer seeking to compete professionally, was meant to demonstrate that "it's never too late to become what you wanted to be."
The description of "Cause Pictures" is that "All movies would be made for a price, with a core audience in mind, and would become profitable." Could you explain how this model works?
The idea is this: Number 1, know the audience for the movie, and project a modest capture rate for sales. Number 2, then go make the movie for less than the projected revenues and number 3, if you can make a movie for less than 200k, for example, and know that over time, with all the distribution pipelines, you will eventually recoup and then make money, it starts to make more sense. Studios spend astronomical sums on movies, then an average of 30-50 million to market them. Most of them lose money. Some break even. What they are hoping for is the blockbuster that covers the other losses. It's a different model for indies.
How can anyone know a movie will make money?
You don't know...and you never know how good the movie will turn out. Most of them, the final product is different than how it looks on paper. The trick is to keep budget tight, make a good film and know your audience.
Roger Corman, king of the B movie, wrote a great book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. He was not trying to be James Cameron (who actually got his start with Roger), but he knew how to make movies for a price and make his money back.
In some ways, iGEMS.tv seems to be an amalgam of all your interests.
YES, it is. From the business perspective, it’s solving a real problem. With so many movies and TV shows and the expansion of digital platforms, audiences are spending more time searching when they could be watching. I have been curating movies of all genres since 1995 so I know how to [choose and package them] creatively. So, iGEMS.tv gives me an opportunity to share great movies, many of which are off-the-radar, to audiences. I will get to share indie films, docs and foreign films with broader audiences who will come to trust our selections. It’s a win-win-win. Once we succeed as a guide, we will start hosting, and collect the data and tastes of our members and eventually produce our own content, just like Netflix and Amazon are doing now.
What is your top 5 movie list of all time?
Citizen Kane, 8 ½, Good Fellas, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Casablanca.
This changes a lot.