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Film Filmmaker Barry Avrich understands the audience and how to succeed

Barry Avrich advises young filmmakers that they shouldn’t blend in. The mission should be to get noticed – there are thousands of films that get made every year.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich is an expert in indomitable men, having produced and directed documentaries on Harvey Weinstein, Winston Churchill and the legendary Hollywood producer Lew Wasserman. This week Avrich's documentary The Last Mogul celebrates 10 years with a special gala screening at Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including how the principles of Hollywood apply to life

Life doesn't come with an eraser

I was incredibly lucky to meet Frank Sinatra in the early '90s. We were handling the marketing for his final tour and when they came to Toronto I was able to go backstage. I try to make a habit of asking moguls and legends about their life wisdom. I asked Sinatra what I should know about him that no one knows and he said, "I do the crossword puzzle in pen." What a ballsy thing to say! And then when he went out on stage his first song was All Or Nothing At All. That has always inspired me. You take the risks, surround yourself with amazing people, believe in yourself and that way you can do the crossword in pen. In order to attain great success, you have to fail, and that's what that expression means to me.

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Success is a marathon

When Eddie Greenspan died last Christmas, that was one of the great losses of my life. He defined the alchemy of friendship. We met for lunch and a cigar every Saturday – that was kind of my version of Tuesdays with Morrie. One of the things I learned from him is that you can't rush greatness. In everything he did, he just polished and repolished – an argument for a case, a speech. I have been reading Variety since I was 8 and always rushing to be successful. Eddie would say to me, you're on the path, just take your time and make it great.

Don't watch it, watch them

My father took me to movies when I was a kid. He would always tell me, watch the audience. Yes, you want to watch what's onscreen, but watch how the audience reacts. My father wasn't a filmmaker, but he understood consumer behaviour. That has really stuck with me, whether I'm watching a rough cut of one of my films or a commercial for my ad agency, I watch how people react. Where are they fidgeting, when do I lose them, where do they laugh, where do they cry? I am very, very commercial. If I'm developing a film, the first thing I ask is who is the audience for this? When people come to see me with ideas, I'll ask – what network will that be on? Who's going to see it? In Canadian film, commercial is kind of a dirty word. People ask themselves about why a project is important to themselves, but that just doesn't make sense. Telling a story or a joke isn't about making yourself laugh. I will run ideas by anyone – someone I meet at a party, the person sitting next to me on a plane. I want to see if people are curious. If I see rapid eye movement, I'm moving on.

If you don't move up, move on

I believe that a great idea has an expiration date. If you have a great idea, get it out there and if you can't get it launched, move on to the next great idea. As a documentary filmmaker, you can walk 22 blocks and have 22 ideas. I don't believe in labours of love, which is something you learn. Earlier in my career, I would get very attached to certain projects. There was a film that I so believed in – it was about stolen Nazi art. The studio picked up the pitch and I had an opportunity to pitch it in Cannes, but in the end it just didn't happen. This was 15 years ago. Since then you've had films like Monuments Men and The Woman In Gold. Neither of those movies did well, so maybe it was all for the best. Now, if an idea doesn't get traction very quickly, I move on.

Battle for the buzz

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My favourite documentary ever is The Kid Stays In the Picture [about the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans]. Robert Evans told me that the secret to life is deciding whether you're going to be in the background or the foreground. The foreground is so much more interesting. When young filmmakers ask me for advice, I will tell them – don't blend in. In Canada especially, we tend to criticize the act of self-promoting and those who have an agenda to succeed. Screw that! Your mission as a filmmaker should be to get noticed – there are thousands of films that get made every year. Often filmmakers will get lost in the art of making the film and think the process ends there. That's when the real battle begins. These principles of Hollywood apply to life, no matter what industry you're in: You must have a trailer in whatever you do – you must have that sizzle and create anticipation. There needs to be buzz.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.

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