This blog is my 250th article and it’s also my five-year blogiversary (I know that’s not a real word but I felt the made-up occasion needed a made-up word).
Over the past five years, I have published research on every single sector within the film industry, from directing to diversity, funding to festivals, actors to awards, stunts to producers.
Almost all of my work follows the same pattern: I take a simple question, build up a dataset, analyse it and then explain my findings with a whole host of charts and graphs. This format allows me to tackle most of the questions I get from my readers.
However, there is one request which comes up all the time and which I have not yet tackled, largely because it’s not something that can be answered by data. It’s when a filmmaker drops me a line to ask for advice on how they can get started or build a career in film.
So, today I thought I’d use my blogiversary (yup, I’m sticking with that word) to answer that query.
Below is a collection of six areas of advice for filmmakers on how they can get into, and progress through, the film industry.
If this is the only thing you take away from this article then it would have been worth it (although I won’t lie, I would be a little disappointed with your commitment to reading my blog articles).
If you look at all the films that have massively out-performed their peers, you can see one clear pattern – they all know their audience. And if you look at the many, many films which have failed in the past, you’re left with the question – who was this made for?!
Your audience is, in fact, two audiences:
Alan Parker put it best in his fabulous book Will Write and Direct For Food:
Filmmaking is a team sport. Not only do you need other people to join you on your journey but you should be eager to have them along. Consider the job that you’re keenest to do – let’s say director. You love all the challenges it brings you, the things you have to create or figure out, the pleasure in doing it well. Now consider a job you’d hate doing – say, producer. It may be the case that no amount of money could get you to want to be a producer, but everybody is different. There are people for whom producing is their dream job. And all the things you care so passionately about within directing will have their own version within producing.
So go out to meet other people in the industry. It can be local and cheap (such as free screenings or pub meet-ups) right up to the big commitments (such as attending a major film market).
There are three types of people you need to meet:
The film industry is not devoid of unfair practices, nepotism and favouritism. However, despite the fact it’s not perfect, the industry does do a good job at rewarding talent and hard work. I’ve shown in a number of studies that films generally earn more if they are better than average.
The most direct ways of improving your skills are:
The cornerstone of most successful businesses is having some sort of “unfair” advantage over competitors. In some cases, it’s a patent on the products you make, in others it’s about your size and power (i.e. Amazon). The studios have money and distribution, meaning they can buy options on famous books, scripts and ideas and have an easy path to getting their movies seen.
But what you have that they don’t are time, flexibility and the ability to innovate.
Another gem from Alan Parker’s brilliant book Will Write and Direct For Food:
Yes, your movie has a genre or two. Some filmmakers say “My movie is unique and can’t be confined by the narrow, simplistic classifications of genre”. Well, that’s lovely for you. But even if that’s true, your audience is still operating in a world where one or two broad genre classifications apply to all movies.
I am totally willing to concede that the genre model is reductive, inaccurate and deeply flawed. Some genres are production methods (i.e. animation), some are insanely broad to the point of uselessness (i.e. comedy) and we even have one genre which just means ‘None of the above’ (i.e. drama). But in the real world, this is how the industry and audiences have decided to classify movies.
So, if you want to have a chance to convince someone to back or buy your movie then you need to at least start by telling them about it in language they understand.
If it helps, don’t think “What genre is my movie?” think “What genre shortcuts will the people who sell my movie use to promote it to audiences?” Less snappy, sure, but maybe it will calm the raging artist inside you who doesn’t want to be caged by convention.
Look at how similar movies are being sold. What do they promise to deliver to the audience (explicitly or implicitly)? This may seem to be a trivial piece of advice when stacked up against the others but I assure you I have seen so many filmmakers fail because they didn’t understand the expectations that come with their genre.
I’ve kept the most philosophical for last. Becoming a successful filmmaker is very hard, time-consuming and often unrewarding. I’m not trying to put you off, and I suspect that if you’ve landed here and reached this sentence, nothing I say could put you off! I just want to make sure you’re laser-targeted at the goals you need to reach in order to make you happy.
Think about why you want to get into film. What exactly is it about the sector which appeals to you and why?
For each project, consider why you are making it. What purpose must it serve? Years ago, I saw a top British film producer speak at a BAFTA event and he said that he only ever made two types of films:
Looking at the work he has produced, you can guess which of the above options applies to each film.
If you’re an early stage filmmaker, then you may have other goals in addition to money and art. Below, I have created a table with five possible reasons for making a film at the top and then some tips on how to reach each below that.
Before starting each new project, make sure you know which is your focus. Consider the possibility that you would fully reach that goal, but miss all the others. Only when you’re ok with that possible outcome are you ready to make the film.
Oh, and never give up. If this is what you want to do more than anything else, then go for it. This path is likely to be far from easy, with an unclear route and it will be riddled with missteps. But if you hold the line, work hard and be smart then you should be just fine.
As a parting gift, here is the simplest representation of the whole journey of making a film that I can give you. I hope it helps.