Unless you’re on Sean Duggan’s LinkedIn feed, you may not know about the longtime sell-side executive’s off-hours creative project. For nearly four years, Duggan has moonlighted as a documentary filmmaker from his position as VP of ad sales at SXM Media, where he oversees political.
His debut feature, a documentary on the origins of surfing in Ireland titled “Keep It A Secret,” premiered last November first in Belfast, and a week later at the festival Doc NYC. It has since racked up 10 festival screenings.
C&E: How did you balance making a feature-length documentary with your day job?
Duggan: In the beginning, it was vacation and some weekend time. I also got very fortunate because some of the pioneers [surfers] that were featured in the film turned me onto some events, some reunions that were happening, and I was able to go collect a lot of my master interviews over a few days. But this was my free time. My knowledge of sports and other things definitely dwindled during this.
C&E: Did making a movie help you better understand the campaign industry?
Duggan: We work with a ton of creatives, whether that’s a commercial agency in New York or a creative team that’s working on shooting ads for a candidate. I understand much more intimately what it takes to get that 32nd spot done and tell that story in a real compelling way.
C&E: Did any of the skills you picked up translate to what you do in this industry?
Duggan: This project could well have gone on for another year, but I was just determined to get it done. So I think that aspect of my daily life of hitting targets and goals, that’s a critical part of being a producer and just keeping all those [parts] of the project moving forward.
I personally set a goal that I wanted to submit to Doc NYC, which is the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., and I think, the whole world. I was just like, I would love to premiere it there. And so that’s why we really hustled to try to finish the film for the submission deadline, which is June 30th. And it was super exciting and humbling when we got accepted for the film to premiere in the U.S. there.
C&E: Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
Duggan: Film has been a huge passion of mine and about four years ago I just made up my mind that if I didn’t do something with it, I would kind of kick myself, probably forever for not giving it a go. So I started working on some projects, which I would envision I would potentially produce, having never made a film before.
One of the ideas I had on a yellow notepad was the origin story of surfing in Ireland. I was thinking that it would be maybe a scripted story, not even a documentary. And then I started just doing some preliminary research, and then I started connecting with some of these pioneers of Irish surfing, which had started in the sixties. And I started to see the opportunity for even a better story than I could have come up with going the scripted route.
C&E: How did you get funding?
Duggan: The first shoot I did was like basically on a credit card. I went to Dublin, got a director of photography and an audio engineer, and then had a friend, a former Pandora colleague who was studying for her MBA in France, she came on as production manager while we did interviews in Ireland.
The crowdfunding actually enabled the final editing and a lot of our final production of the film over the final six months that we were wrapping it up last year. That provided the finances to finish the film, and bring on a professional editor. Previously, I had edited my own rough cut of the film after using LinkedIn Learning to learn Avid.
C&E: Any advice for other practitioners who are nursing a creative side project?
Duggan: I think the best advice I could give is, hey, if you have a project that you’ve been thinking about, whether that’s a business or a creative project, I think the most important thing is just to start taking the first steps. In hindsight, for me that was a phone call and a Zoom interview three-plus years ago with an Irish [surfer].