Making his first film pushed this producer to get his USC Marshall MBA

Sam Mantell spent almost three years producing, editing and selling a documentary about being homeless in Los Angeles. His biggest takeaway? Understanding the business side of entertainment is key.

November 07, 2019 Steve Cimino

After nearly three years of being hyper-focused on the streets of Los Angeles, Sam Mantell decided to apply to the USC Marshall School of Business.

Sam Mantell homelessness documentary
As a filmmaker entering graduate school, many people assumed Sam Mantell would pursue a degree in film; instead, he chose business. (Photo/Matthew Siretta)

The 31-year-old producer was finally approaching the end of a 35-month-long endeavor: shooting, editing and trying to sell an intimate documentary about homelessness in L.A. As he moved step by step through the process, he came to realize how much a business degree would help.

“Hollywood is a business, and it’s changing every year,” he said. “Though I’d successfully made a film, trying to show it to audiences — to get people to care — is a different story. No one is going to see your work if you don’t know how to sell it. I figured, why not go for my MBA?”

That might not be the next step for most independent producers who just finished their first film, but Mantell wants to do it all — not just making movies but handling the business side as well.

Ambitious producer sets sights on homelessness documentary

Mantell grew up in Geneva, N.Y., and graduated from Marist College in 2010 with a degree in radio, TV and film. Like so many would-be filmmakers, he soon moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. He met future collaborator and aspiring director Matt Siretta through a friend, and they’d often discuss potential projects. One night, they were driving around the city when an idea crept up on them.

“We turned from the Hollywood Hills onto Hollywood Boulevard and were struck by the difference between the two,” he said. “Despite being so close to each other, the hills were all about seclusion and wealth and quiet, and the boulevard was loud and dark.”

This thought eventually morphed into Disco’d, a documentary produced by Mantell and directed by Siretta that follows the moment-to-moment uncertainty of five people experiencing homelessness. The title was a term that the two filmmakers heard often — it was how their film subjects described their mindsets.

“It’s short for discombobulated, disconcerted, disconnected,” Mantell said. “When we were looking for a thread that would tie it all together, the way the footage looked and the stories the people were telling and the state that they were embodying while we were filming, they were all about discombobulation. It came to encapsulate everything.

“What we wanted to do was tell the story of how the simple fact of being on the street puts you in this state. Whether you want to be or not, it leaves you feeling this way. And when you feel that way, it makes it that much harder to get off the street, think straight and take care of yourself and survive.”

USC Marshall student supplements film knowledge with a business degree

While shooting Disco’d, Mantell was living what he calls “a double life”: days as an academic services coordinator at the USC Graduate School, nights in homeless encampments by the side of the road. It was a crazy, complicated time, one he believes he couldn’t have conquered without the USC Graduate School’s flexibility and encouragement.

“They understood that this was a creative pursuit and a dream I was fulfilling, and they were so supportive,” he said.

When he decided to go to grad school, most people assumed it would be at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. But Mantell wanted to do a deep dive into the business world — specifically, the business of entertainment.

“USC has the greatest film program out there,” he said. “But that’s an area I’ve focused on before; it’s something I already knew. When we began to bring the film to a close, I realized I wanted to continue to produce independent films. And for that, I thought I needed to know more about the business side of things.”

Although USC Marshall offers five different MBA programs, including an online program, Mantell chose the part-time MBA.PM program with a graduate certificate in the business of entertainment. Now in the second year of a three-year program, he’s found it both intense and illuminating.

Matt Siretta homelessness documentary
Director Matthew Siretta working on the film in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo/Sam Mantell)

“Marshall is really taking me to a level I couldn’t have reached on my own,” he said. “I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time. I feel like my career trajectory has totally changed and become more real.”

Meanwhile, Mantell and Siretta are ready to unveil Disco’d to the masses. It’s playing next week at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, and the two hope for future distribution deals to be finalized shortly. But the L.A. premiere means the most to them, as one of their goals was to capture and highlight what they saw for those 12 months among the homeless community.

“We want to facilitate a change in perspective for all Angelenos and all Southern Californians,” Mantell said. “We want them to look at people experiencing homelessness with a new set of eyes, so that they can begin to think differently about how we all coexist.”

Watch the trailer for Disco’d: