Media Mogul Phil Cooke Discusses the Importance of Branding for Filmmakers

As Curly said in City Slickers, “The secret of life is this, one thing, just one thing…” Or as Rusty said in True Detective, “Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.” Finding your one thing is vital. But it’s also challenging.

That’s why Phil Cooke wrote “One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do”. The Washington Post listed it in it’s top five business books, though I doubt it would make the top five of any filmmaker’s list.

Phil Cooke is a founding partner of TWC Films, a national advertising production company that’s produced two Superbowl ads. In 1991, he founded Cooke Pictures, which has been producing media for non-profits and religious groups. His clients range from Billy Graham to ESPN to Paramount Pictures. From filming stories on human trafficking in Eastern Europe to producing music videos, this guy has pretty much done it all. Including earning a spot on your bookshelf.

Phil Cooke Talks Branding for Filmmakers

With his 30-plus years of industry experience (as a writer, producer, and director), Phil has become a branding and marketing guru. He believes that filmmakers need to better understand the power and importance of developing personal brands while honing in on that one thing that separates them from the rest. Along with sharing his advice on marketing, Phil offers some insight on the future of filmmaking.

Anna Kemp: Creatives could easily define themselves as professional dabblers. I know I’m guilty as charged. It’s difficult to focus and pursue one thing or even know what it is we should be doing specifically with our time and energy. You’ve said that a key to success is to face the reality of what you’re good at doing versus what you want to do, and embracing how you’re wired. How long was it before you embraced your own wiring?

Phil Cooke: Way too long. I spent too many years pursuing my passion, not what I was really wired to do. Out of that experience, I wrote the book “One Big Thing.”

Anna Kemp: Does it first begin with a process of elimination?

Phil Cooke: Earlier you mentioned our creative desire to “dabble.” I couldn’t agree more. My One Big Thing concept is about how you express your gift. But “dabbling” is a good thing for feeding that gift. So I do encourage people to read, digest information, visit museums, etc. Experience life. Then, begin focusing on the one area where you can share your message, gift, or calling, most effectively. And yes – it starts with eliminating anything that you’re not talented at doing.

Anna Kemp: It’s integral to find your niche to be successful. So for example, a writer wants to be identified as the go-to-screenwriter for female-driven thrillers. Does that come at the risk of compromising creativity? Or does it stimulate creativity because that writer becomes the best at something specific?

Phil Cooke: Great question. And my perspective is that finding your One Big Thing – your “niche” if you will, actually opens up your creativity and increases your possibilities. For instance, if you’re a writer – don’t worry about being the best writer in the movie industry, because you’ll be competing with everyone. Start with being the best writer in a certain niche – perhaps a certain budget film, a particular genre or style, or a specific kind of story. That narrows down the competition considerably, and allows you to start standing out. Once you become identified as “that person” who’s awesome in that niche, then you start receiving many more opportunities.

Anna Kemp: Your book “One Big Thing” talks about how to stand out in our media-saturated world. We’re constantly making choices in what we do or don’t listen to or watch or read. Some speculate that as a result, younger generations lack focus. However, I recently read somewhere that there actually isn’t a loss in focus but a gain in discretion. That because of all of the media messages received, a person takes about 5 seconds to decide if it’s worth their time. Would you agree?

Phil Cooke: My experience is that most people take 2-3 seconds to decide what TV channel to watch, and research indicates that it takes 1 second to decide to read an online article or link. So yes, it’s about discretion. However, that incredible number of choices does take it’s toll. Most people report that it’s more difficult to watch a long movie, read a novel, or sustain focus on one thing for awhile. I worry where that will lead.

Anna Kemp: As an expert in the field, do you believe filmmakers understand the importance of branding?

Phil Cooke: No. Most are trying to compete with Spielberg, Scorsese, or Tarantino, rather than charting their own unique course. We already have those guys. What we need is you.

Anna Kemp: In establishing a brand identity, a filmmaker needs to directly connect with their audience. What if someone is not comfortable with being out-and-about? Is it too harsh to suggest they learn to get over it?

Phil Cooke: That’s not too harsh. But keep in mind, understanding your audience doesn’t mean becoming their best friend. The greatest advance lately is social media. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others you can engage with your audience, ask them questions, do surveys, and more.

Anna Kemp: Do you find that filmmakers and artists put enough value in their audience?

Phil Cooke: I believe in the power of the audience. I don’t think you should pander to them, but if you’re not paying attention to your audience you’ll find it very difficult to succeed. Respect your audience. Understand why they buy or donate. Get inside their head. I do think that some advertising agencies and studios overdo it. I still believe in the priority of an original vision. But it never hurts to understand how your audience thinks.

Anna Kemp: Technology is rapidly changing. It enables us to learn more about our audience, but it affords us new ways for distribution. Digital platforms are increasing in popularity as a primary method of distribution. What long term effects do you foresee? Or is it too early to tell?

Phil Cooke: It’s the future. Get used to it. We can complain all we want, but the bottom line is that it’s not going away, so start thinking of all your projects in terms of eventual digital distribution.

Anna Kemp: Do you see digital distribution as a way to allow filmmakers more opportunities to develop passion projects? Or could it potentially get in the way of filling a niche? Time management becomes even more crucial!

Phil Cooke: It will give more filmmakers opportunities, no question. That doesn’t mean it’s helping the financial bottom line, but if you’re passionate enough that you’ll film a story whether you make a profit or not, then digital distribution is a godsend.

Anna Kemp: I was fortunate enough to work in a video store when they still existed. I often heard customers scoff at the straight-to-video releases. Lately, programming and films have found great success without theatrical releases. How quickly is that “straight-to-video” stigma fading away?

Phil Cooke: Particularly when it comes to art films, or small budget efforts, it’s very acceptable. I have DirecTV in my home, and my wife and I watch movies all the time that I’d never heard of before. So while having a theatrical release is still important for major movies, tent poles, and event films, it’s not necessary at all for many projects.

Anna Kemp: Many filmmakers are crowdfunding to produce their films. Is there a future in crowdfunding or will it turn into a short chapter in film history?

Phil Cooke: I think crowdfunding will always be around because it allows people to partner on a subject or issue they’re passionate about. If you can build an army of people who believe in accomplishing your vision or helping your cause, it can be a powerful tool.

Anna Kemp: It can be argued that crowdfunding is more about the person behind the project than the actual project. Would you agree?

Phil Cooke: In many, many cases that’s absolutely true. If the project leader or visionary is charismatic, inspiring, and motivational, it will be incredibly important to the outcome of the project. There is an art to crowdfunding, so I always recommend filmmakers study how to do it well.

Anna Kemp: With all of your experience, what is the one lesson you would drill into the minds of new filmmakers?

Phil Cooke: Spend less time on your “passion” and more time discovering what you were actually born to do. I receive screenplays all the time from writers who tell me they are “passionate” about writing. And yet the screenplays are just awful. I met an actor recently who has left his wife and children to pursue his craft, lives on food stamps in a nasty apartment, and spends every waking moment trying to develop his career as an actor. And yet he’s one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen.

The truth is, passion is a wonderful thing. If you can align your passion with what you’re actually brilliant at doing, it is the ultimate goal. But I recommend you start with discovering your talent. Start there, and you’ll find that passion about that area will begin to grow. And that’s when you start making things happen in your life.

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Say hello to Phil Cooke on on Twitter @PhilCooke

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