Institute Insights

The “Film-trepreneur”: An Interview with James Belfer of Dogfish Accelerator

Peter is a guardian at the Leslie eLab and an intern at the Entrepreneurial Institute. He is co-president of CASEA and co-chair of the NYU Entrepreneurs Festival. He has started a film production company called Minetta Studios

While the film industry is not typically associated with entrepreneurship the way software or even fashion is, being successful in film is all about being entrepreneurial.  This is the concept I was left with after talking with James Belfer, co-founder of the Dogfish Accelerator. He’s an innovative “film-treprenuer” (his term) that’s trying to shake up the way people approach creating films. Belfer feels that he was born to be an entrepreneur, noting that his father’s entrepreneurial mindset in commercial real estate has had a significant impact on the way he's pursued his passion for film.

Belfer always enjoyed connecting with people through stories, getting his start as an actor in high school. His senior year, he was given the opportunity to direct the school play, and soon realized his passion was in creating the stories rather than just performing them.  After high school, he took his talents to Northwestern to pursue a film degree, and then set his eyes on New York.  To round out his education, he headed to NYU Stern and in 2013 graduated with a degree in Entrepreneurship and Business Analytics.  Through his schooling, Belfer gained experience in film, data science, and entrepreneurship - not exactly a common combination, but one that has proven highly valuable as he's launched his career.  Building on the work of others, including one  firm that identified a correlation in a movie’s Wikipedia page’s edits / views and the box office success of that movie, Belfer sees value in taking an innovative, data-centric approach to the film industry. He has made a career of helping others identify new business opportunities through this approach.

Belfer's first entrepreneurial endeavor was his film production company, Dogfish Pictures, which he started in 2009. He met early success, producing films for the Sundance Film Festival including Prince Avalanche and Like Crazy. But it was the experience Belfer had as a participant in Techstars in Boulder Colorado between his first and second years of business school that shaped his future career path. He felt energized by the hands-on "go big or go home attitude" at Techstars, as well as the incredible community that emanated from the startup culture. Recognizing the need for a similar model in the film industry, after graduating from Stern in 2012 he combined his experiences with Dogfish Pictures and Techstars by creating his new venture, Dogfish Accelerator.

Belfer's website reads: “Dogfish Accelerator is a mad scientist media lab that accelerates all forms of contemporary content…Dogfish Accelerator is an art movement inside the center of a business development lab.”

The accelerator takes 6-8 independent producer teams, and gives them $18,000 each as their first seed investment. The goal of the accelerator is teach teams to become leaders and entrepreneurs in the film industry. Just as in any other startup, teams are expected to develop a minimal viable product and go through customer discovery. Belfer's philosophy strips away conventional notions about the differences between film and other ventures, and settles on the fact that many startup skills and best practices are universal.

Just as in any other field, Belfer pushes the film-trepreneurs he works with to think beyond how the film industry operates today to identify new opportunities and business models.  He encourages teams imagine ways to incorporate technological advancements into the film industry, using technology to the advantage of film makers versus fighting against it. As more tech gets introduced to the film industry, he explains, stronger connections will be formed between storytellers and the ones they tell their stories to. And isn't that the goal of any artist?

Belfer’s advice to other film-trepreneurs out there is, to “just go for it, even when you’re against the grain”.  He remarks that the worst advice is to believe in absolutes, and to not try different ideas. He highlights three key points:

  • If you want money ask for advice, and if you want advice ask for money
  • Raising capital will always take twice as long
  • Ideas are worthless, execution is everything

While Star Wars episode 4 is Belfer’s favorite movie of all time, I think a quote from episode 5 best describes his outlook: “Do. Or do not. There is no try”.


See more from James here: