A good film doesn’t mean a good investment. It took some time for this to crystallize, but quite often, the quality of the film has very little to do with its commercial success. This fact can be difficult to express to new filmmakers who want to make a piece of art. In many cases, a better investment is to make content and not art.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jason Cherubini, an academic, entrepreneur, and founder of Seraphim Associates International, and co-founder of Dawn’s Light Media. Most of his career has been assisting fledgling companies in raising capital and initiating operations. In addition to his work professionally, he has held faculty appointments at top graduate business programs in the United States and Germany and published papers on the teaching and learning of accounting.
In 2014, Cherubini co-founded the media financing and production company, Dawn’s Light Media with partners Richard Switzer and Alexander Ferguson. In the last five years, Dawn’s Light has produced and distributed over twenty-five feature films, including large theatrical releases such as Black Water starring action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, and Money Plane starring Adam “Edge” Copeland, Kelsey Grammer, and Thomas Jane.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up just south of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. My family owned their own businesses in the construction, real estate, and retail spaces, so from an early age, I was working in an ‘entrepreneurial’ environment.
After college, I returned home and took the entrepreneurial route and expanded a part of my family’s business. After a few years, I went back to business school with all intentions of heading to Wall Street. While at school, I had the opportunity to work as a consultant for an alternative energy startup and got bit by the “startup bug” and knew I didn’t want to work in a corporate environment. That is when I started Seraphim Associates International, doing financial and operational consulting for startups and trouble companies.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ending up in media production was never a goal that I had, and it is only through many turns and tangentially related projects that I ended up there.
After graduate school, I began consulting for alternative energy companies, mostly electric vehicles, and biofuel manufacturers. From there, I got involved with some “green” data centers. Data centers led me to projects with government contractors who were working on optimizing federal agency data centers. Working with those government contractors got me working with Software as a Service (Saas) software companies. Those software companies (and my background in education) gave me opportunities in EdTech. From the EdTech projects, it was a natural step to video game projects. And from video games, it is a short hop into the film industry.
When we first looked at film projects, we were primarily looking at acting as an investor and financing projects with minimal risk, including a lot of ‘bailout’ type funding. We did well with this, but we began seeing patterns where these filmmakers were falling short, and we saw an opportunity to step in and produce content of our own. Moving into production involved more operational activity on our part, but it allowed us to control all aspects of the project.
We have spent time working with our projects to get the production as streamlined as possible, from conceptualizing to delivering a final project. By systematizing these processes and maximizing the efficiencies, we can offer a higher quality product at a lower cost than those filmmakers who only deal with one-off productions.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While many people view film production and the media industry as exciting, we strive to keep our business as uninteresting as possible. We put a lot of effort into planning for potential outcomes and having contingency plans to deal with them. But, you can never plan for everything. So, one of the most exciting things that have happened was recent.
In 2019, we had conceptualized, packaged, and filmed a small action movie called Money Plane to fit a specific genre niche in the summer release schedule. The coronavirus pandemic has turned 2020 upside down, especially when it comes to film releases. We decided to push the release of Money Plane up by a month to get some additional traction before the big summer blockbusters begin releasing. We weren’t expecting that in a slow market, numerous pop culture publications would pick up on the release of the movie and promote it. This unexpected promotion from places like The Ringer and Uproxx, coupled with a few select clips of the film, had it going semi-viral.
Sitting on the phone with my partner, Richard Switzer, as we scrolled through Twitter, looking at comments and memes that people made was a bit surreal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In an early film, our line producer had tried to save some money by scrimping on crew costs to build a set. With the limited crew, a set was not going to be ready in time for filming as scheduled, so my partner Richard Switzer and I carried 2x4s and held up sheets of plywood trying to help make up time. Luckily, we were able to rearrange the shooting schedule, so the set wasn’t needed immediately, so the crew had time to finish construction.
This event was a very real (and physically demanding) lesson not to be penny-wise but pound foolish. Losing a day of filming would have been a very costly mistake, hoping to save a few dollars.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We are fortunate enough to be at a point where we get a relatively large number of filmmakers to reach out to us with projects. We only rarely invest in projects other than our own, but we have been able to help quite many new filmmakers by giving them advice and helping them make certain connections.
In this way, it is not an individual project that is exciting, but the ability to work with the next generation of storytellers who have new and fresh ideas and ways of getting their points across.
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?
I think media across all of its forms is a way for individuals to step outside of themselves for a short time and be presented things in a new way. This stepping outside of oneself is especially true with forms of video entertainment where a unique perspective can arise across multiple senses.
These perspectives should not be one-sided. By providing diverse viewpoints as reflected by those involved in creating and making entertainment, unique perspectives permeate the viewing audience.
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. The entertainment business is still just a business.
When I first got involved in the filmmaking business, I heard that it was different from others, and things worked differently in entertainment. I quickly found out that was not true. The business of entertainment is still business. It has different facets and can seem more glamorous, but it runs like any other business.
2. It is all about personal connections.
More than most other industries I have seen, the film business runs on personal connections. Being on good terms with someone is a defining factor in their choice to work with you. We have made good relationships with certain actors, who come back to work with us over and over again solely because of the relationship.
3. The egos in entertainment are unrivaled.
Having worked in the startup and venture worlds, I thought I had seen how ego-driven people in business could be, but the film business is leaps and bounds above anyone else. Everyone involved in production feels they are the next great filmmaker, and they know what is best.
4. A good film doesn’t mean a good investment.
It took some time for this to crystallize, but quite often, the quality of the film has very little to do with its commercial success. This fact can be difficult to express to new filmmakers who want to make a piece of art. In many cases, a better investment is to make content and not art.
5. Say no early
If a project is not something you are interested in, it is better to give a definitive “no” early than try and cushion the blow. By trying to be kinder, you end up causing more work and stress for everyone involved. It is better to make a clear and definitive “no” and then move on.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think this may be counterintuitive, but I think one of the best ways not to burn out is to have multiple projects going at any one time. For me, I find that the most significant burnout comes when I hit a wall on a project and can’t seem to make any more progress. Because I feel like I should be working on something, it is difficult just to step away. By having multiple projects that I can turn my attention to when one project isn’t progressing the way I hope, I can turn to a different project and not get burned out when I’m not making any progress.
I think this advice is also beneficial in dealing with failure and rejection. It is a guarantee that at one point in the film industry, a project you are working on will be rejected or failed. If you have no other projects that you are currently working on, that failure means you need to start back at square one. By having multiple projects going, you are never going to be back to the beginning.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
The movement that I think would do the most good to the most amount of people is a movement towards rational analysis and civil discourse. I feel that so many vital issues have been hijacked by emotion and feeling, that it is almost impossible for common ground to be found and progress to be made. If people were able to detach themselves from their emotions and rationally look at the situations and problems, more solutions would be found. We, as people, would be able to progress in a better way for all.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The most important people that helped me get where I am today are my family. The lessons I learned growing up in a family business have shaped the way I approach every business transaction. They are the ones that instilled in me that business should be a ‘Win-Win,’ The goal is that everyone involved is happy to have been a part of the deal.
My time working with my family also taught me that not everyone would view things the same way. My grandfather used to say, “No one will care about your business like you.” He said this as a means of taking personal responsibility for all aspects of your business. As I worked with startups and eventually started my businesses, I found this advice to resonate universally. It’s not an admonishment of employees, customers, or vendors, but rather a calling out of the reality of people’s goals. No matter how much we try to align goals, no one will care about your business as much as you are, so you need to take personal responsibility for all aspects of the business and be prepared to put in the time and effort to see your dreams realized.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote comes from a fantasy novel, The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. “Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.”
I first read that line during a period of the rapid growth of my consulting practice. There was a constant onslaught of tasks that needed doing, and quite a few were unpleasant. Many of those unpleasant tasks had been continually being pushed to the bottom of the list because I didn’t want to address them.
The line hit me so strongly that I had to stop and put the book down for a minute. I pulled out a pen and a pad of paper and copied it down and taped it to my desk. I realized that I was living in fear of those unpleasant tasks, and by not tackling them, I wasn’t making them any more comfortable. I was making things harder than necessary by not just dealing with them.
To this day, I still have that quote on my desk. Whenever an email comes in that I don’t want to deal with, or there is a job that I want to put off, I remind myself that it is better just to get it done than to worry about it until I finally am forced to get it done.
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 just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are many people currently operating that I find fascinating, but I think I would have to choose Tim Ferriss. I find that I give out copies of his book, recommend his podcast more than others, and believe he would be a fascinating person to sit and chat with over a meal.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be reached on my website, www.jasoncherubini.com, or across social media at @jasoncherubini.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!