Ben Proudfoot: “Find the people who love you enough to disagree with you”

I am hyper focused on creating an economy around short documentary — which I think is the most efficient way not only to tell important stories at scale but also create an on-ramp for storytellers who wouldn’t otherwise be invited into the film industry. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Proudfoot, CEO and Founder of Breakwater […]

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I am hyper focused on creating an economy around short documentary — which I think is the most efficient way not only to tell important stories at scale but also create an on-ramp for storytellers who wouldn’t otherwise be invited into the film industry.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Proudfoot, CEO and Founder of Breakwater Studios.

Ben Proudfoot is the creative visionary behind Breakwater Studios, an award-winning film production company based in Los Angeles. The studio is headquartered in the Los Feliz building where Walt Disney started his company in 1923. Proudfoot gets his inspiration from the master of dreamers and is creating a new studio model that replicates the quality of Disney productions while incorporating the brand vision of companies looking to engage with forward-thinking consumers. And he is spearheading a movement to solidify short documentary as a respected medium in storytelling and folks like The New York Times are paying attention.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Thanks for having me! Let me see — my Dad was a trial lawyer, and my Mom is a sociologist and I grew up in beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia. I always loved putting on a show and became obsessed with sleight-of-hand magic as a teenager and won a few competitions that started me as an entrepreneur and brought me to Los Angeles. I saw the video for USC film school, and filmmaking seemed like everything I loved about magic to the power of ten. I started Breakwater right before I graduated in 2012 and have been making films and building the studio ever since.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

My goodness that is a tough question. I think a big turning point happened when I was shooting my first feature documentary in Rwanda, and I had a very specific heartwarming idea of what the film was going to be about. And I kept hitting my head against the wall trying to squeeze this preordained story out of people/situations. And it just wasn’t working. And Sean Higgins, who was recording sound, pulled me aside and told me straight up — that the story I was trying to will into existence wasn’t happening, and that a much more interesting story was unfolding before our eyes, if I had the openness to see it. He was right, and in that moment, I discovered the difference between a narrative and documentary director.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am enamored with the Almost Famous series we are making with the Op-Docs team at The New York Times. It profiles amazing individuals who, if history had gone a little differently, may have been household names. It has taken us all over the world, and these are some of the most compelling and instructive people I have ever met, let alone had the pleasure to collaborate with in telling their story to a wide audience. We’ve released four and there are a lot of great ones coming very soon.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Oh man — as a documentary filmmaker you really get to know and love people from every corner of society. Many times I have flown between shoots where the subjects have total opposite life stories. Billionaire entrepreneur on Tuesday and homeless veteran on Thursday. Substitute schoolteacher on Monday and genocide survivor a week later. All we do is bounce from one fascinating person to the next — the job is really fueled by bottomless curiosity, and what I find most fascinating is not the things that differ, but the things that are the same between people of such disparate experiences.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I am inspired by people who stick it to the status quo. People who trusted their inner-voice instead of conventional wisdom, regardless of their field. George Lucas had a big influence on me. Claudette Colvin inspires me. I just think their stories remind me that we all have the power to shape the course of human history, and that your conscience, not group feedback, is the best guide.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

As a white guy from Canada, I am on a perpetual learning journey on this topic and far from an authority. That said, I believe that it’s imperative in a healthy democracy committed to equality for media to reflect society, and yet we have an incredibly diverse country that is woefully underrepresented in front and behind the camera right now. Empathy, experience and understanding can help obliterate ignorance and bigotry over time. I also believe my BIPOC colleagues when they testify how powerful, validating, and inspiring it is to see someone who looks like you represented on screen. Last, I think our industry spends so much time, effort and resources trying to find white guys that “have a unique vision” and see things “differently” — and yet we have scores of neglected talent and worlds of stories and perspectives just waiting to be told, if only we would fund and get behind diverse creators — it’s not only painfully overdue, but I think it’s in the business plan as well. Significant progress in media representation will no doubt help correct the public consciousness, which makes influencing policy and policymakers all the more plausible.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am hyper focused on creating an economy around short documentary — which I think is the most efficient way not only to tell important stories at scale but also create an on-ramp for storytellers who wouldn’t otherwise be invited into the film industry.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t partner with an investor for their money. Partner for their advice, ideas and relationships. Money gets spent quickly. The relationship is what lasts and actually has the greatest effect.

2. In any business relationship, it’s your job to achieve what both parties want, not just want you want.

3. When you start a business you wish you could clone yourself a hundred times. But then you realize a company of clones fails fast.

4. Find the people who love you enough to disagree with you.

5. Leveraging a friendship to achieve a business goal is a regrettable crime.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Oprah. No one has had more success in building a profitable business around storytelling for the good of humanity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Bernard Cohen wisely observed that “even had Newton or Leibnitz never lived, the world would have had the calculus, but that if Beethoven had not lived, we would never have had the C-Minor Symphony.” I think I read that in high school and it set me on a track to only do things and make things that are not inevitable.

How can our readers follow you online?

On Twitter @bgproudfoot!

Thank you for these excellent insights!

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