The term “filmmaking” has a varied meaning depending on who you ask. Some may argue the term ecompasses all motion picture operations. Old-school industry people might say “video” relates to television and commercials, while film concerns narrative work.
I usually fall in the former camp. Video is king as of 2022. From a pure numbers perspective, it’s not even debatable. So for all intents and purposes, “filmmaking career” means on-going paid work in the planning, capture, and delivery of motion picture for any purpose. This includes commercial, documentary, corporate, narrative, animation, whatever.
Notice how I have the need to explain something as simple as the term “filmmaking” on a cinema blog? Well, dear reader, that’s because the filmmaking, video production, or whatever-else-you-want-to-call-it sphere is chock full of wannabes, know-it-alls, and “helpful” explainers. In other words, our industry is full of assholes. Which brings me to the first item on our list for a successful video production career:
Don’t be an asshole
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet every day, on every project, there’s always one. The guy that can’t help but try to inject his input despite complete lack of authority. The gal that simply can’t show up on time or answer her phone. The “visionary” 21 year old that micromanages their indie production into the ground, when they have no business managing a lemonade stand.
We all know one, two, or more of these types. Perhaps they’re great people outside of work. Perhaps they’re just new to the game. But alas, today, on this set you met them on, they are a complete flaming ass. At least in your eyes, in this moment. Well, that’s the point: in this fast-paced world of filmmaking, you usually have one chance at showing somebody what type of worker, collaborator, and personality you are. Blowing your first impression could mean you don’t get invited back tomorrow. Treating your crew like crap could add up to nobody wanting to work for you, no matter what you pay them.
This piece of advice is so sacred that entire movies have been made on the subject of violating it, such as The Disaster Artist and Hitchcock. Filmmaking is already a huge trap for stress and exhaustion. Don’t be an element that adds more frustration to the experience.
Don’t be obsessed with auteurism
Almost an extension of Don’t be an asshole, but this one is special enough to warrant its own discussion.
In the narrative world, how many artists have you met that have their idea, their vision, and no matter what pressure is put on them, they simply will not let go of it? No matter what social, financial, professional, or legal ruin is brought upon them, they simply must make this film this way. It’s their art.
I’m sure you can think of at least one person just like this. These people usually have that one script they’ve been “working on” for 10+ years (that nobody’s read), or that one film that “just needs the financing” (a 3 hour epic on Bangladeshi blanket knitters the first-time filmmaker wants to write/direct/star in), and nothing else. Zilch. Nothing in their portfolio. Still working on the masterpiece. But no financing or buyers, not yet.
No matter what advice they get about the realities of their marketability, they won’t listen. Because art.
The movie business is a business, whether you like it or not. Unless the auteur has disposable income to throw around, at some point they will have to convince someone their project has financial legs in order to secure funding or those who have access to funding. If they fail at this, how exactly do they plan on making the film? Hence the cycle of constantly working on their first project. Or really, never starting any project.
None of this even addresses the topic of sacrificing your cast and crew’s happiness for “the vision”, if you even make it that far. Say goodbye to future resources from any of these people if you milk them dry for nothing more than the vision.
If you want to graduate from 0 budget amature pictures and have a real filmmaking career, you need real money. Real money = real projects with real financial projections, not artistic fluff that money people don’t understand.
Do something somebody will pay you for
Cinematography. Editing. Carpentry. Catering.
What do all of these have in common? They are all marketable skills. They are all described by a deliverable product that someone can assign value to, and thus a monetary price. All are trainable, quatifiable, and easily identified to somebody who is not an expert in their nuances.
Being artistic is not a skill. Being an “ideas man” is not marketable. Otherwise my entire email address book, my neighbor, and the guy at the grocery store would all be working at Paramount for the amount of times I’ve listened to movie pitches from them. One of the best ways to have a lucrative filmmaking career is to actually learn an aspect of filmmaking. Radical idea, right?
If you wanted to get in the “house-making” industry, what would you tell a developer if you wanted to get the job? That you’re a house-maker? Or would you say you were a plumber, an electritian, or a roofer? Nobody hires a house-maker. Silmilarly, nobody hires a filmmaker. Even clients that don’t understand the business will hire a “video producer” most of the time, a term that’s more accurate to most client work than “filmmaker” ironically.
Do favors for people
The movie business is the people business. This industry is forged by relationships. Everybody starts out with big dreams and small bank accounts. With hard work and good maneuvering, the big dreams stay intact while the bank account grows. And if you’ve been paying attention to your people and not just your projects, chances are you will form a tribe that will follow you anywhere.
Give favors early and often. Work for free and do some heavy lifting for projects and people you care about. No one is saying you have to sell your soul for a nickle in the hopes it’ll pay off, but running around town like the Scrooge of indie filmmaking is a poor choice for your career. Especially if you have resource and connections that can benifit others.
What do you think is going to happen when all the other people you started your filmmaking career with form their own financed projects? Will they pass your name along to the producer as that expert sound guy with a heart of gold? Will they hire you themselves when they are running a camera crew? Or will they remember you as the lazy self-centered jerk that only cared about your own pet projects, never lifting a finger to help anybody else? What about your own projects that need a crew, but now nobody will work with you because you never helped anyone else?
A good reputation is easy to build. It’s also easy to trash completely. Timing and attitude are everything. Catch others in their careers early under good circumstances and you forge relationships for life. Find them too late and it’s likely they have graduated on to ranks above you.
Camille Landaue and Tiare White in What They Don’t Teach You at Film School describe “the fortune cookie game” as a way to get your film made. Take any activity you will do today, apply the right attitude, and add “for your film” at the end. Their example in the book deals wtih a student’s time in film school and using every opportunity to shift their school activities into supporting their feature film. They explain thus: “When meeting students whose work you like, you will arrange to crew on their films if they will also agree to work for free for your film.”
You can’t do any of that if you’re an asshole that doesn’t do favors for people.
Don’t forget those who did you favors
If a bright eyed, bushy tailed actor or crew member goes to all the lengths you ask them to for your film, you better remember them when you have an opportunity to give back. A filmmaking career is a long game, why would you want to ditch the people who did right by you and start over?
Check in later for part 2.