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Aspiring Filmmakers: Love Is the Answer — A Leadership Talk with Jonathan Coleman


headshot of Jonathan Coleman wearing a blue grey button down shirt

How do you go from shooting family movies in the backyard as a kid in Iowa to overseeing operations of a production company whose films have earned over half a billion dollars at the box office? Just ask Jonathan Coleman, Executive Vice President of Guy Walks Into a Bar.


Coleman recently sat down for a Leadership Talk with FUTURE NOW CEO and Founder, Peggy Kim, and shared how he broke into the business and ended up running the operations of Guy Walks into a Bar, best known for the Christmas classic Elf, Sully, Perfect Stranger, and The Professor and the Madman.


Coleman had dreamed of being a filmmaker since he was a boy. He convinced his mother to get him a Super 8 so that he could capture precious family memories. It was an ingenious move that would fuel his passion for storytelling.


While film school might have seemed like the natural track for him, he attended Wheaton College, which did not have a formal film program. Nevertheless, he took every film class he could while getting his BA in Communications and Media Studies, and honed his filmmaking skills outside of class, shooting short films with his friends on the weekends. Though he didn’t know it at the time, all that dedication would pay off…eventually.


During his sophomore year, he met Wheaton alum and filmmaker Todd Komarnicki, who had just produced Elf and had come to speak on campus. Coleman approached him after his talk and made plans to meet Komarnicki over coffee in NYC. A mentoring relationship was born.


After graduating from Wheaton, Coleman was intent on finding a job, any job, to pay off his school loans. “My first job out of college was data entry at a factory in Palatine, Illinois, and it was miserable,” he told attendees.


After that, he worked as a financial consultant for nonprofits for two years. Still, he knew he wanted to be in the film industry, and after working at two jobs he didn’t love, he “was really ready to take a giant leap of faith.”


Five years after their first meeting, Komarnicki offered Coleman a job as his assistant at A Guy Walks into a Bar in NYC, and the rest is history. Coleman steadily rose up through the ranks to his current position as EVP. He likens his job to being a “conductor, making sure all of the instruments are playing in sync.”


Coleman learned about the long cycle of getting a film made. Making a movie—even a small one—is a laborious process. “[The production process is] always seven years, even when the movie doesn’t happen,” Coleman quipped. “It’s not for the impatient, that’s for sure.”


“Sully,” Todd Kormanicki’s screenplay about the Miracle on the Hudson, took six-and-a-half years to come to fruition before it scored an Oscar nomination for Tom Hanks.


At A Guy Walks Into a Bar, five employees balance the current slate of 55 projects in various stages of development or production, some of which may never come to fruition.


Oftentimes, they will be approached by someone in the hope of adapting preexisting intellectual properties, and then Coleman and his team go to a studio to get funding for the production. Even after all this, filming might fail, or, in the case of television shows, the show might not get picked up during the pilot season. “We run a tight ship,” Coleman said.


Of course, being in the production world has been precarious lately due to the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America strikes, but when asked about the strikes (this talk was filmed before the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes were resolved), Coleman expressed his wholehearted support.


“I have picketed with people in solidarity,” he said, “[and] I’m very much in favor of labor and protecting labor.” Coleman had just graduated from college when the WGA went on strike in 2007 when the threat of artificial intelligence loomed less large on the horizon, but concerns over fair pay remained the same.


AI, streaming, and the increasingly consolidated corporations all “come together in this crucible,” Coleman explained, and it’s on this crucible that the WGA, SAG, and major studios have been tested.


Due to those issues, Coleman acknowledged that making independent films has become harder. Before streaming, “you could actually get a theatrical release for [your film]. There was more cinema.” But now, it has become increasingly difficult to turn a profit on a film.


Still, Coleman is optimistic that the strike agreements and the success of some smaller, independent movies, such as last year’s Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” will help independent cinema turn a new corner.


Starting a career in this environment might seem daunting to industry hopefuls. Coleman was open about his own struggles when he first took a leap of faith to pursue his dream. “New York [after he first moved] was difficult,” he admitted, but he advised students to try and fall in love with what they’re doing.


“Love is actually the answer to almost everything in the world, but specifically this career,” Coleman said. It might not come easily, but “you can cultivate [love]” by figuring out how “to turn this from an outcome-based thing to a process-based thing.” What parts of a job can you fall in love with? What little things can you find love in? “The ability to put one foot in front of the other is not something you should underestimate,” advised Coleman.


Coleman ended by telling about his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. During this time, he reflected on “the ability to calm down and just walk, one foot in front of the other, [is] a reminder that life is a journey and we’re all in it together.” No matter how difficult the journey might get, just walk forward with love, and things will turn out alright. “I try to always live my life remembering that we’re walking each other home.”


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