If you’re going to succeed in the film business it is crucial that you stick with it and stay motivated. The best way to stay in the game is to celebrate your wins. A lot of people getting into the film have their eyes set on grandiose goals that are often hard to achieve. Sometimes those goals are hard to achieve for anyone (like winning an Oscar) and sometimes they are more modest like completing your first short film – but the truth is that every goal no matter how big or small has its challenges – otherwise it wouldn’t even be a goal, you would just take it for granted.
This lesson was something I learned early in my plunge into filmmaking but it’s also something I forget constantly. I write a lot of these blog posts to teach myself about the business and post them online just in case someone else can benefit from the lesson as well. I remember writing a short film and just not understanding why it was so complicated to get something made. Every time I would bring up shooting the short people would start telling me it would take three weeks and so many thousands of dollars and that I needed a casting director and a location manager and a this and a that – ughhh! Couldn’t I just do it with a two-person crew on equipment I already owned?
Celebrate Your Wins – the first time I learned the lesson
I decided to tap a friend of mine who was also passionate about filmmaking and see if he wanted to give filming the short, or at least part of it, a shot. He said yes. I was even able to film in his house – bonus. I used my brother and a friend of mine who was trying to break into acting and we shot a 4 page dialogue scene at his house and it came out pretty damn good – but I didn’t see it that way at the time. At the time all I could see were the mistakes and the fact that the script was twenty pages long and I only got through a tiny little portion of it. There were things I wished I did differently in the direction, different angles I wanted to get, different performance notes – I was a mess.
My friend was also gracious enough to edit the film. This was back when computers couldn’t really handle 1080p (4k was still a dream) and ingesting the footage and cutting it up took a lot longer than either of us expected. I felt horrible because I basically took over his whole Sunday and he had a whole laundry list of chores he needed to get done. But he said something that really changed my perspective and still resonates with me. In the middle of looking at his chore list and getting stressed he took a little breather and said “hey, I made a short film today. That’s pretty cool.” And with that simple sentiment he tossed the list aside and smiled.
In an instant he was able to reframe his entire outlook on the day because he knew that getting a short film shot and cut in a day (even if it was just part of a short film) was a big accomplishment and he felt good about it. He was celebrating a win and I instantly changed the way I looked at the situation too when I saw how he flipped it around.
People who stick with it succeed
It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating – succeeding in the film world is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s so funny when people think they have discovered a new filmmaker who just came out of nowhere. What they don’t see is the 10-20 years that the filmmaker has put into honing his or her craft to get to the point where they are actually good enough for their work to make an impact.
succeeding in the film world is a marathon, not a sprint
As a filmmaker the chances of you getting lucky are slim to none. No matter who you hire as your DP or screenwriter (if you’re not writing your own material), and how great your cast is – if you don’t have the goods as a director it always shows. What this means is that you have to put in a tremendous amount of time as a filmmaker honing your craft. What is perfect in your head rarely translates as such to the screen. You learn what works and what doesn’t the more you shoot and eventually you start to develop your own tricks and techniques that help you stand out – but all of that takes time.
Some of my friends are just starting to break into the industry in meaningful ways and each and every one of them has at least 10 years of hard work behind them if not more. How do you stick with it for over a decade?…
The key to putting in the time it takes to really break in is staying motivated. If you find something exciting and redeeming about every film or short project you take on you’re more likely to have a positive mental relationship with film and that will help you stick it out until you cross the finish line to a fruitful career.
To stay motivated you have to stop looking at huge goals and celebrate the small wins wherever you can. I remember when I got into UCLA film school after two years at UCSB I felt like I won an Oscar – it was a huge deal to me. Later on I realized that film school is just a tiny little step towards a greater goal and that I actually learned just as much at UCSB but in the moment I applauded myself for reaching another milestone in my journey.
Lowering your expectations
Every project you work on will have certain expectations of you and you will have certain expectations of it as well. Even if you’re just acting as a PA on a set, most people are somewhat expecting to learn something or gain a credit or a connection – there’s always something. The best thing you can do for your mental health is to lower your expectations. Having big expectations can lead to a sense of entitlement. That sense of entitlement quickly becomes resentment and bitterness when its not met to your satisfaction and being resentful and bitter is a sure-fire way of people hating you.
Everytime you make a film you’re taking a chance and other than a great script the only reason people will work for you for anything less than a crazy day rate is because you are passionate about the project. People invest their time in you as a filmmaker and being bitter will get you absolutely nowhere in the film business. I was stupid and young with my first attempt at making it in Hollywood and didn’t appreciate everything my agent and managers were doing for me and after a while I grew a ridiculous sense of entitlement that then led to bitterness when I didn’t sell a tv show or a feature and I found myself without representation before I knew it.
People invest their time in you as a filmmaker and being bitter will get you absolutely nowhere in the film business.
This isn’t just good advice for the film business – it’s good advice for life. If you realize that the world owes you nothing and that your only goal should be to learn to be happy you’ll be in great shape. Regardless of how well your film does or if you got an agent or not you’ll not, your goal should only be to appreciate what you’ve learned on every film and to project joy and passion into the world. If you do this you’ll actually find that it helps your career because people like working with happy people.
Never overspend on a film
My last little piece of advice is about spending money on your short or feature film. Keeping in mind everything I said above, it’s important to note that today’s film market is extremely volatile. There’s just a gluttony of films being made right now so the chances of financial success are slim. Don’t spend any more on your film than you can afford to lose. Look at it like going to Vegas – whatever money you take into the casino – assume you’ll lose it all. If you approach filmmaking in the same way the losses won’t beat you up as much.
I’m a big proponent in investing in your own career. I think having a financial stake in your film is a good thing, but I also have seen first hand how losing too much of someone’s life savings on a first feature can literally suck the life out of them and they end up paralyzed unable to ever move on from the loss. Don’t let yourself get into that kind of situation.