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10 Lessons From This Side of Filmmaking

This post originally appeared on Medium

Photo by TRAVIS HORNUNG - Creative Commons Licence


I’ve been writing and making films in one capacity or another since I was nineteen-years-old. I’m thirty-five now, and in that time I’ve managed my own fair share of ups, downs, false dawns and happy accidents. But despite it all, I’ve stayed the course and I can appreciate the experiences I’ve had. In a lot of ways, it’s been the naiveté that has allowed me to overcome so many challenges.

But lately, a lot of people have been asking me questions about being a low-down-and-dirty-filmmaker, one that has predominantly hung out in the elbow-skimming world of no-budget features, and just what I’ve picked up along the way. This got me thinking — if I could, what would I go back and tell myself all those years ago?

1. You will fail.

This is the most important thing I wish I had known when I started. Failure in the pursuit of success is pretty much a given, and it will show up in multiple ways throughout the pursuit of filmmaking.

This is why I wanted to start here. You will fail. A lot. Get used to it.

Of course, when you’re young, dumb and filled with optimism, you might well believe there is no way that you — as an individual — are ever going to fail. The reason? Because you’re different. You’ve got a gift and the planets will align differently when it comes to your own fate.

Well trust me, you’re not and they won’t. When you start at anything, you suck. And when you suck, you fail. I know because I started out thinking the same. And then I failed. Multiple times.

Of course, when you consider how many different elements there are that go into the production of a film, and all the potential ways in which it can go wrong, then you soon recognize that it’s all just a high-wire act.

Some of my most glorious failures include watching a film fall apart the day before it was set to shoot, never getting paid on a distribution deal and even making an awful film that I subsequently (and metaphorically) buried in the desert.

But like a dogged boxer, for every lick I took, I’ve gotten leaner, faster and better. And so that old adage — of it not being the failures that define us but the way we come back — always rings true.

Anybody can lose. That’s the easy part. But getting up from your own trouble-infused situation and really learning from it, that’s what really counts.

2. Nobody cares about you — at least not at the start.

When you decide to make a film, you’re a nobody. In fact, it’s worse than that — you’re invisible.

In a business that’s all about who you know, if you’ve got nothing to offer, nobody wants to know you.

And that’s fine. Whilst it is important to believe in yourself, to everybody else, you’re just another faceless kid with a camera. Nobody is going to pay you to do anything at this point, no matter how golden your idea.

Get used to it and stop wasting time trying to ‘raise a budget.’ It’s almost impossible at this first stage. And even if you do get lucky and raise some cash, it’ll be far less than you think you need and yet it’ll still fill your head with the delusion that this will have financial worth.

I’m not saying your movie will be worthless (it won’t), but the dollar-value will be close to zero unless you’ve struck a deal with the devil himself.

You see, your first feature film(s) should be viewed for what they are — your first gigs. And whilst a very lucky few blow up, most people don’t. And that’s great! Because it’s the nature of the hustle, and that’s a trait that’ll serve you well as you continue on the journey.

And for those that seemingly break out, they’ve still got the next few stages to navigate (which I’ll get to shortly).

Of course, on the plus side, you’ll get to make all your mistakes in relative obscurity. And trust me, you’ll be glad of that down the line.

3. A great screenplay is the seed of it all.

In the last decade or so, filmmaking has become democratized. When I started, the concept of shooting a film for under 5K was unheard of. Now it’s almost the standard.

Today, a kid with two-grand can create something that, in 1998 (the year I took my first tentative steps as a filmmaker) would have cost two-hundred-grand. That’s progress. But the one thing that nobody can cheap on is a great screenplay.

All the fancy prime lenses and VFX will never cover up a weak story or half-written characters, and that’s something that takes time to master.

The good thing about being a broke filmmaker is that working out the problems in a script costs nothing. It just takes patience, a little talent andplenty of time. Some of the earliest things I shot were, whilst technically fine, from a script perspective, disastrous. And all the fancy lighting and trick editing could never cover it up.

Also, the real bonus of focusing on getting a great script is that you will be able to attract solid talent both behind and in front of the camera. You see, people like to be involved in the telling of good stories, and are more likely to invest their time and energies in a film they can connect with.

4. Crowd funding sucks.

I get it. You need money to make your film, because hey, people in the movies get paid, right? Yeah. Eventually.

But if you, or any of your crew are in it for money, then this is the wrong gig to be in.

However, like any decent human being, you still want to be able to feed and accommodate people right? And so you go to crowd funding because, you know, everybody is doing it.

And this is the first problem: everybody is doing it. Which means that the Facebook and Twitter feeds of your friends, family and random people you met at a party are already filled with the pleas of support and well made campaign videos.

And just like you, most people are also decent human beings. But unless your goal is hugely understated (think a grand or two) or you’ve got a rich relative who’ll stump up 50% of the total amount, you know, to make it look like you don’t need everyone else so much, you’re on a road to hurt.

Most people I know that crowd fund for the first time have no idea how difficult it’s going to be. I sure as hell didn’t.

And why would they? Crowd funding is very in vogue right now. I mean, you’re a broke filmmaker, it’s what you should be doing, right? After all, if Zach Braff and Spike Lee can do it, why can’t you?

Again, back to my second point — you didn’t direct Garden State or She’s Gotta Have It — nobody knows you.

Look, I’ll be honest; if this is your first (or even second) rodeo and the film can be shot for under five grand, it’ll be easier to put the hours and effort into a day job to make that money. Or possibly go to a private investor (read rich dentist), and harass them for the cash. Aside from saving you a few lost friendships and a lot of stress as you scramble to get the word out, no matter how pitiful the amount you’re asking for, the platform you’re using isalways taking their cut. That’s money out the pocket of every donor who often think they’re giving you all of their $20 donation.

And then when you factor in the burn of ‘perks’ (usually some random fulfillment that you really don’t want to be thinking of when you’re knee-deep in pre and post-production), it just all becomes some other thing to distract you.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t ever crowd fund — sometimes it’s the only chance you’ve got — but it’s definitely not the golden goose that you might think it is going in. It’s hard and it’s annoying to your friends (not that they’ll tell you). And if you fail to raise the money (this is where most films fall apart in pre-production), you’ll hate the world for not emptying their wallets (minus the 5-9% that the crowd funding platform took).

Consider all the options before you go into crowd funding. And if you do go that route, make sure you go in with a plan.

5. You will do multiple jobs. Most will take a long time to get good at.

Yeah. This. Making a film is a really, really good way to master a million jobs you never thought you’d be doing.

From making tea, to acting (yep, you’ll probably consider it at least six times as you search for your lead), to operating the camera, clapper, sound and editing, you’re about to go through the 36 chambers to become a filmmaking grandmaster.

Get used to the fact that your name will appear about a hundred-thirty times in the credits for a variety of roles. It’s just how it is. But if you can get lucky and find someone more experienced (or even just someone more confident) in a role, do it. Every director wants to focus on, you know,directing. It’s just logistics and resources (or lack thereof) that deem you’ll do (almost) too much.

With all this in mind, for me, the key areas to focus on when you start are good screenplay (get a writer if your scribing skills are not there yet), great casting (trained actors are often better than your Uncle Jimmy), impeccable sound (bad audio means a bad movie experience) and (where possible) good camerawork.

You don’t have to beg Janusz Kamiński to come and shoot your film, or kidnap an A-lister to be in it, but attracting good, talented folks to the project will absolutely make your life much easier.

6. When you finish your film, you’ve only just started.

So you survive the writing, the budget-raising, the shoot and the hundreds of hours of footage in post. Great. Congratulations. It might have taken you (most likely) a couple of years to get to this point, but you’re approximately a third of the way there. Yeah, this was a hard lesson to learn for me. Shooting a film is the easiest part.

Cutting and re-cutting seems to be the constant accompaniment in the post-shoot stage as you apply to festival after festival after festival. You learn about just how important that sound was, about going back and forth on the grade, and just where to lose ten minutes (or worse, try to add ten minutes) to a film that just a month ago you were convinced was as tight as it was ever going to be. Welcome to the ‘What Have I Done’ phase of filmmaking. It feels like madness. And it sort of is.

Your bank balance (barely recovered from the shoot) will be hurting from the festival fees, whilst your inbox will be filled with rejections from most of those festivals.

Actors will wonder when they can get their footage, whilst you’re wondering how to tell them you cut them out of the film.

You’ll throw a temporary score on the movie, and then ache over having to switch it out because you couldn’t get the rights for that music from that hot new band that blew up when you were writing it, and is thereby forever stained in your mind.

Crowd funders will ask when they can see it, and your relatives will ask you what will happen next at family gatherings. And everybody will ask whether you’re going to sell the film to someone to remake, thus unintentionally wiping out the last five years of your dreams.

This is the hardest, loneliest part for so many filmmakers, and this is also the point where a lot of films collapse under their own weight.

The common mistake so many filmmakers make is that they think it was meant to get easier at this point, but instead, it all feels like a suffocating mess.

And as the director of said chaos, you don’t even know if the film works anymore, and are convinced that you’ll be forever known as the person that failed miserably.

But this is where a filmmaker’s mettle is really tested. You get resourceful, clever and (as always) learn a bunch of things about yourself you never knew. It takes a certain kind of courage to get through this stage, and as anyone who has been through the post-shoot blues will attest, it does get easier.

7. Festivals are massively important and also highly irrelevant at the same time.

Film festivals. What is the actual point? I ask this as both a filmmaker and as someone who (until recently) ran a film festival.

Getting into a festival is really, really, really hard. There are so many variables to consider when it comes to your film’s chances of being screenedanywhere (including festivals ‘that count’), and it can be very hard to even know how to navigate the many thousands of options that are out there.

Nepotism in festival selections is rife (again, this is the ‘who you know’ business), but it’s not the only factor that matters. The sheer volume of movies out there competing for attention means it’s a numbers game. There are approximately 2500 films produced annually, and a majority of those will have bigger marketing budgets than you. So getting noticed is hard. And you’ve got two years before it’s counted out of most festivals.

But when you do make a film festival, well, you’ll feel like one of the chosen few. And that’s pretty much because you are.

And when you get selected, you should go. I mean, really. If you beat the odds and got selected, then beg, steal or borrow the airfare and accommodation and go to the festival. I mean it. It’s seriously important. Once there, you’ll meet so many folks who are in the same boat, and you’ll stand a better chance at winning an award. And when you make good connections, they last.

If we’re talking about where you’re at with your film’s journey, think attending festivals means you’re the two-thirds of the way there. So well done.

But on the flip-side, festivals are not an elixir for your career. Unless you’re in TIFF or Sundance or some other high-regard event, you probably won’t meet someone of Hollywood-level-importance. And that’s okay. Use the festival circuit as a celebration of what you’ve achieved and as a chance to meet a bunch of other likeminded individuals who are also just trying to survive the game.

Film festivals can be wonderful, but they cannot make your film (and by proxy, your career) suddenly skyrocket. They can, however, remind you why you set out to do it in the first place, and possibly, hopefully, if you show up, set you on the right trajectory to the next stage.

8. Distribution is ridiculously hard to crack.

You make something. You sell something. Hopefully there’ll be a profit. And in that sense, the film business works pretty much like any other.

Although you might not have thought too much about it going in, producing a film is essentially about engineering a product to sell. Of course there are many other reasons associated to the creative endeavor, but if you want to have a career (one where you get paid by others for your work), then you will have to eventually treat your film as a product.

Selling a film in this entertainment-saturated world is the most impossible thing you will face as a filmmaker. It takes great sense of mind (and certainly some great connections) to sell your film.

I’m not saying all films sold are good (we all know that a lot of duds are out there), but I am saying that in order to get your movie distributed, you have to be smart enough to convince someone to add your film (product) to their distribution slate.

Think about it as beating the final boss in a video game. In order to get the win, you’ll need to acquire a set of skills and knowledge that mean you’re smarter than the average filmmaker.

I know what you’re screaming at me right now — find a sales agent. Cool. You do that, that’s 20% right off the bat that you’re giving up.

Okay, alternatively, you sign with a distribution company to add you to their slate for iTunes etc. That means you’re most likely being added to a cumulative deal of one hundred that will be submitted to Apple for inclusion on iTunes as soon as that distributor has, you know, a hundred movies. That might take three months, six months or possibly longer. You get no input into its release schedule, and sometimes no say in even the artwork.

Also, there are fees to be paid. That might be upfront (whistle goodbye to at least a grand) or possibly later in a revenue split (usually weighted in your distributors favor).

Either way, your film will come out eventually, but you probably won’t see much (if any) money. And that means neither will your actors. Or crew. Or anyone else you convinced to join you on this insane-weird journey.

And yet, it’s not about the money. You distributed. That means you’re one of the one percent dreamers who ever make it this far. And you didn’t give up. But its just the start.

9. Development Hell is a real place.

Sell a film, start again. Fortunately, playing the game for the second time is easier. At first.

You write another film, you stand a better chance of attracting attention, and you’ll have more contacts than when you first started. And because so few people distribute, you’ll be taken more seriously when you do approach producers and talent with your next film (so that’s point two semi-squished).

However, you need to tread carefully. Whilst many people in the business are genuine and wholesome folks, some aren’t. Or worse, they don’t really have the skills to guide you through the next phase of your career.

Look, most films lose money. Sometimes they even lose a lot of money. And nobody is going to give up everything they’ve worked for because you bottled lightning once. After all, they made it to where they are by not placing stupid bets. And they need to be sure that you’re not a stupid bet.

Instead, they’ll most likely put you into development to help gauge how much interest there is in you, your story and its likelihood of turning a profit.

Whilst here, you’ll be swayed and schmoozed, and people will talk about you ‘being on the radar.’ Word of advice? Keep the ego in check during this phase because hype is easy to believe.

If you’re fortunate, the people around you will keep their promises and those with the purse strings will see your potential.

If you’re not so lucky, you’ll spend two-years-plus feeling like you’re chained to a radiator in a dark room as your producers tell you to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.

Basically, development can feel like you’re swimming in a tar-pit and the folks throwing you the ropes have tied them to crocodiles. It can get rough.

The best way I found to navigate this is to be upfront with people when you have doubts about them, the changes being made to your project (there willalways be changes), and the likelihood of it ever getting made. If someone has your back, they’ll listen to you. If they don’t, they’ll talk over you. Reputations lie in this business, but morals will always see you straight.

10. You’re only as good as your last film.

There’s a reason why we do this. I don’t know if I’ve quite figured it out yet, but there is a reason, I’m sure of it.

It’s not because we like ricocheting from anonymity to pseudo-celebrity to being commercially toxic. It’s not even because we love spending decades and every penny we ever saw on projects that return us to our most insecure places.

It’s certainly not even a vanity thing (again, the multiple-failure can become embarrassing).

Whatever it is, you’re only as good as the last film you made, so always having another story in the tank means that you’ll always have something to return to. And maybe that’s all it’s about, we just want to tell our stories.