Lighting the Bulb: The Power of "Proof of Concept"
I’ve always found it odd that the representation of someone having an idea is a light bulb, hovering just above their head, sparking to life. Because what I’ve seen in my filmmaking career is that ideas are only like light bulbs in the sense that unless you have an outlet to plug them into, and electricity to power them, they’re just useless, fragile, empty balls of glass.
It was in the five-year odyssey of making Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 that it became abundantly clear to me how an idea is not enough. For years, I’d been carrying the dormant bulb of an idea for a documentary that examines the idea of tragedy + time = comedy, with 9/11 being the ultimate example as it really did feel at the time like we would never laugh again. What I didn’t have was any clue of how to do something with that idea, how to plug it in and spark it to life. Thankfully, five years ago I bought a copy of The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (even filmmakers need to stay in shape—and John August recommended it, so …) and it came bundled with his other book The 4-Hour Work Week. It was here that I discovered what would be one of the most valuable suggestions in my creative career:
Test your ideas first.
Before you go through all the trouble of building a dam and a generator and putting up power lines, make sure the core filament in your idea bulb actually works.
And how do you do that?
Proof of concept.
Test to see if your idea is even viable before you dedicate creative energy and your most valuable resource, time, to it.
My first proof-of-concept test actually came from another idea from The 4-Hour Work Week: are there five people you could email right now, who could help turn your idea into something tangible?
Immediately, I thought of the comedy journalist I’d met at a friend’s wedding, Julie Seabaugh. If anyone could tell me whether there was something to this idea or if this idea had already been done, then it would be a woman who had spent the last two decades covering comedy.
Julie liked the idea, thought there was something there to this bulb, but … why should she help me? Crap! Not only do I have to provide proof of concept for the idea, but also prove why I am the one who can execute it! Thankfully, I’d edited a few documentaries and even been nominated for an Emmy—it was for best web series—and had proof that I could execute a concept.
Julie was on board, and she had connections to a cable channel specializing in comedy that might be a good fit. So, let's pitch the idea to them and see if we can get a greenlight.
But how do you provide proof of concept for a documentary that you haven’t shot anything for?
Well, what we did was start digging through all the archival interviews and clips we could find on the internet and cut a trailer to try to show what the executed idea of our film would look like.
The pitch seemed to go well, they liked the idea, and the trailer that we’d cobbled together, but ... we were first-time documentary filmmakers, they needed us to prove that we actually had the vision and storytelling chops to create what we were pitching before they were going to hand us any checks.
So, that left us with a choice, try to keep honing our pitch, polishing our bulb until it was nice and shiny and see if anyone else wanted to buy it, or … we could just start making the documentary ourselves to provide the ultimate proof of concept: the entire movie. Just the two of us. Which to be honest, was pretty terrifying, but with the proof-of-concept trailer in hand that we’d just used in our pitch, Julie started reaching out to comics who would be at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal to see if what we had was enough to get them to sit down for an interview at least.
[Early sizzle reel.]
I borrowed equipment from my roommate, traded in some skymiles and used hotel points to start shooting. We got some great footage on tape, enough that we could update and improve our reel, showing what our interviews would look like. That reel got us more pitch meetings (not buyers, unfortunately), but more importantly, it got us more interviews, as other comics could see who else was in the film and what the tone of it was. This wasn’t going to be just a series of button-pushing jokes, but a respectful examination of that harrowing time told from the POV of entertainers who weren’t sure what their place in the world was going to be now.
Over the course of the next year and a half, we compiled enough interviews that we could start to flesh out some of the major story points, particularly The Onion’s 9/11 issue and the rise of the Arab comics who would form The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. These proved to be invaluable proofs of concept. Now people could see the narrative arc of our film play out in these stories; starting with the world before 9/11, the terror of witnessing the attacks, and the feeling that the world had changed. No one knew what comedy’s place would be, but eventually entertainers realized that they need to talk about the trauma they experienced and by doing so they helped mend not only themselves, but their audience.
We learned in testing our idea, that the true equation of our film wasn’t Tragedy + Time = Comedy, but T+T+C = Healing.
[Evolution of the sizzle reel.]
We had cracked the code for the film! And I wish I could tell you that we finally had enough proof for Hollywood to open its checkbook and help us finish our film, but alas we only had a light bulb that shone brightly for 15 minutes, and that’s not the same as a feature film. It sometimes seems like the only way to get help in this industry is if you prove you don’t need it.
Our proof of concepts however were enough for Julie to win a small grant from the Women Making a Scene fellowship that we could use to get our own editing system, so we could continue to shoot and edit and update our trailer. That trailer attracted bigger names and eventually we had a rough cut of the film. Which was not enough evidence to open the pearly gates of Tinseltown, but did help us distill our idea and test it to see if it had enough story to support 90 minutes. We thought it did, but we also knew there were some story points that would require interviews and access to people beyond Julie’s Rolodex.
Now, if you’ve ever tried getting feedback on a logline, you can imagine how many people are willing to watch a rough cut of a full-length documentary that’s still a work in progress. So, I borrowed my girlfriend’s Mac to build a website and a pitch deck, which was enough to grab the attention of Dan Baglio of Pulse Films. He had worked with Sean Hayes and his production company, Hazy Mills, in making The History of Comedy. And at long last we’d found a team who could see how our little glass bulb could brighten up a whole room.
We finally had the complete proof-of-concept package; a splashy new sizzle reel, a professionally designed pitch deck, production companies who’d made a similar project for a major network attached, and a name E.P. who already had the personal phone numbers for the folks we needed to interview in his cell. Now, the world would be our oyster or … we'd get to at least pitch the film to distributors.
Thankfully, after putting four years into making this film, we had tested the idea of it to the point that Julie and I were confident we could talk anyone through the story of the film and answer any questions they had. The closest we got to a curveball was when a streamer asked if it could be a series rather than a film and we said, sure, and furiously created a five-episode breakdown which we delivered to them the next day. We could only do that because of the years of work and research and testing we’d done already.
We didn’t end up making our idea into a series though, because when we met with VICE it was the first meeting where they didn’t want us to pitch them the story, they could see from all the evidence we’d given them (the reel, the deck etc.) what the story was. They just wanted to know how they could help us plug this idea bulb in.
[Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 Cold Open]
I wish I could tell you that was the end of our proof-of-concept journey, but the truth is, it continued through production, as we had to convince our remaining interview subjects that it was worth sitting down for a shoot during a global pandemic. And into post production, as we had to prove why we needed more time and resources to edit the story. And even now, as we try to prove to critics and audience members why the film is worthy of their time.
Before this project, I had never realized how important proof of concept was at every stage of a project. But, now it’s bled into my writing, as I see that my screenplays must also prove why they’re worthy of being read, let alone purchased and produced.
And what is the reward you get for finally making your idea light bulb shine brightly?
Pulling out another one and proving you can light up a room all over again.
Editor's note: To view the full evolution of the sizzle reel for Too Soon, here's the first, second, third, and finally, the cold open.