Mark Nickolas: Taking the Bull by the Horns (Almost Literally)

It’s been more than two years since I wrote my first piece for the RP. It was April 2011 and I had just entered the graduate Media Studies & Film program at The New School in New York City and was eager, bright-eyed, and knew little about how to make a film, yet alone feature-length documentary films. No doubt, while you can certainly become a successful filmmaker without spending $100,000+ for the formal training you can receive in graduate school, for some of us that is a worthy investment.

In May, I graduated with a newly-minted master’s degree and my filmmaking training wheels have been taken off. Now it’s time to see whether my talent can match my enormous ambitions. I’ve already completed one short film that has been receiving an unexpected amount of national attention in the past week and am already in pre-production on my first feature-length documentary that I landed last year.

So, I’m going to use this website as a personal journal of sorts as I head down this path. I’ll offer a behind-the-scenes style peek at what it means to be an emerging filmmaker in New York City and the things we must juggle, mine fields we must avoid, and obstacles we must clear in this hyper-competitive field where an early disaster can quickly dash your filmmaking hopes for good.

get-attachment-5.aspxI’ll admit it. This journey is very exciting but so enormously terrifying. A perfect mix, actually. I feel like I’m standing at Base Camp and looking up at Mt. Everest. But my 15+ years in politics prepared me in many ways to handle this moment. I’m certainly nowhere as intimidated by the grandeur of the stage or the media spotlight as my fellow (and much younger) classmates. I also seem to be able to get most people to answer the phone or return an email, if only because of my background and professional success in other somewhat related fields.

Those are important benefits, no doubt about it. But getting people to open the door is just the first of many steps. Whether I have actual talent to direct a film, am able to find enough donors to help fund the $400,000 budget — and can catch a few breaks — are the real questions.

The great news is that it seems I’ve caught a few breaks already. As has been highlighted at the RP last week, my quirky short film — My Life in the Canyon of Heroes — has shined a good amount of unexpectedly national attention on me over the past few days. After the film made the finals of Smithsonian magazine’s short film contest, it was highlighted in a story in the Atlantic. That led to emails from NPR’s Marketplace and CNBC’s Power Lunch who wanted to interview me for segments. Marketplace was taped and ran on Friday. I just confirmed with CNBC earlier today that we are taping my segment next to ‘Charging Bull’ on Thursday morning and it will run on Friday (1-2 pm ET). There may be more interviews in the coming weeks.

My Life in the Canyon of Heroes from Mark Nickolas on Vimeo.

Funny how life works. That little film was never meant to see the outside of a classroom. It began as a final project in my ‘Cinematic Place’ class last spring. I only submitted it to the Smithsonian at the suggestion of Deanna Kamiel, my professor, and had completely forgotten about it until just before it made the finals when they contacted me for some clearance and rights information. And once it made the finals, the media storm happened on its own. I didn’t reach out to anyone and was as surprised as everyone else when the national media was interested in a 6-minute film about a talking 7,000-pound bronze bull.

Yesterday, I learned that I didn’t win any of the final Smithsonian awards. But how could I be upset? Thousands of people have seen and voted and commented on my first completed short film and I have national press clips heading into fundraising for my first feature project that are priceless. The journey ahead remains terrifying, but I just got a taste of the possible. Maybe I’m now at Camp 1 instead of Base Camp. But — come on — that’s the easy part of climbing Mt. Everest. I get that.

So, I head into my first film with a nice surge of confidence to keep the fear in check. It feels good. There are going to be so many ups and downs in the coming year. Student loans payments are already on the horizon and few get rich making documentary films. But I’m a dreamer and not afraid to go for it. Maybe I’ll be one of the few that make a name for themselves in this field. Maybe I won’t. But I’ll know that I gave it my best shot.

Next week, I’ll preview my feature-length film, tentatively titled A Cloud of Suspicion. I look forward to sharing my journey with you, even when it sucks and I’m battered and bruised from the constant rejection. That’s, apparently, what I signed up for.

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