To connect with readers, an author needs nothing more than a laptop and a printer or a website. Songwriters or composers are able to effortlessly translate their sheet music into music thanks to software. Not so the filmmaker.
To give his work the shape he imagines, the filmmaker needs an army of highly specialized and highly talented experts and an obscene amount of money. If you get to make a film every five years, you can often call yourself lucky.
Hollywood, the place with the greatest density of filmmakers in the world, keeps statistics on suicides, as does every city of millions. At the top of that tragic list, with beautiful regularity, are… – the filmmakers. This is not the fault of the producers or the fact that the word film business also includes business.
Yeah, business is tough as nails
Of course, the business is tough as nails. Sure, food envy lurks behind every nice smile and friendly hug. Nevertheless, what is true for filmmakers is also true for every inhabitant of a city of millions: not everyone and not everyone does well living in a metropolis. This especially if you are not in the top half of the pecking order and food chain.
This list calls a spade a spade. Why? With that, this article will help you figure out if you’re cut from the right cloth for a filmmaker, with targeted, crisp prompts. And because words alone are always cheap and anyone with a big mouth can just recycle warm air, this post also presents you with selected strategies on how to achieve your goals in the film business.
Find your mission as a filmmaker or die!
Tell me something there’s not too much of in this world (except love and good screenwriters) and I’ll buy you a coffee! You will never be the only filmmaker, you will always be one in a million.
Your only chance: You have to specialize. Ideally, you do this with something you are particularly good at and particularly like to do.
Whether it’s interviews, films about platypuses or the pineal gland (which is known as “The Third Eye” or the “Eye of Horus”, it must be of interest not only to a director!), the main thing is that you are able to explain in one sentence why you are particularly good at something.
If your sentence is “I want to make good films!”, you have not yet understood the meaning and purpose of the task. Let me explain it to you with the not-so-serious definition of an amateur: If you know a little about a lot of things, you’re an amateur. Those who know more and more about less and less are specialists. If you know everything about nothing, you’re an expert.
This path and your will to want to be better than the rest of the world in one single thing, that is your mission. A good example of how to get to the top with the right mission is shown by the example of Dionys Frei and Davide Tiraboschi, who practically grew up behind the seven mountains with the seven dwarfs and still made it to Hollywood with their company Dedicam.
Why? No matter what niche you want to be in as a filmmaker, there is always room at the top. You don’t have to be twice as good as your competitors to do that (unless you’re female and beautiful and fighting male competitors. In this respect, the film business is still in the stone age). It’s like in sports: the winner is the one who reaches the finish line first. All it takes is a millisecond or a millimeter head start. Not anymore. No less.
Plan the Work. Work the Plan.
Of course you’re creative! You know what you want and you want to get going. Right now! Why wait until tomorrow to do what can be done today, you will say to yourself! Still, there are good reasons why you should take great care to come up with a plan first. Because no matter what you do or want to do, it’s going to be a marathon.
Do you really think you’re capable of running a marathon without preparation? If so, you’re determined and crazy enough to succeed in the movie business. That’s the Good News. The Bad News is: You will never reach your goal! You bet. Before that, fish ride bicycles.
A long-distance run requires training. You need to know how to manage your powers. You’ll need aid stations to replenish your energy in between. And you need to know your competition.
Having a plan gives you distinct advantages. You’ll make mistakes. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just human nature. The only time mistakes are tragic is when you can’t learn anything from them. A plan means you’ve made assumptions about what you’re going to tackle and how. If these assumptions turn out to be wrong, you can change them and adapt them to your learnings. But if you started without a plan, you never know if your failure was just a coincidence and what exactly you were wrong about.
However, as a smart guy or gal, you won’t just be creating a plan for your career as a filmmaker. But also know that to succeed, you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the world. A long-time professional colleague of mine claims that Steve Jobs (* 1955 to † 2011) would have been locked away in a psychiatric hospital at a young age in Germany. Right or wrong, you don’t want to find out.
Instead, find an experienced and successful godfather in the film business and ask him for advice on how he would approach a career in the film business if he were you. You will be amazed at how many doors will open for you just by doing this.
Once you’ve decided on a plan, implement it. Be persistent, determined. Set yourself long enough deadlines to determine where you stand. Only then is the time to ask you basic questions. If you shortchange your goals every few months, you will fail.
Assume that your plan covers a five-year horizon. Every two years, you decide whether you are basically on the right track or whether it might not be better for you to become an animal care specialist or an astrophysicist. Every six months, ask yourself what you learned in the last six months, what didn’t go well, and how you can improve.
It’s always the human. Always.
Filmmakers work with and for people. Your movies or videos are watched by people, weighed and found to be good or bad. Even if you are a talent of the century or a universal genius: you can’t get past human nature. Even if you’ve animated your movies or videos from A to Z on your computer.
This is even more true when you are working in and with a team. Extraordinarily good films are usually created because talents from different fields of expertise come together for a project and work towards a common goal. Every orchestra needs a conductor, but without musicians, the best conductor is just a penguin in disguise, waving his thin little stick in the air with no sense. The same applies to film composers and music production for film and TV.
It’s always the human. Read that sentence again. Word for word. Many filmmakers, especially when after the first initial successes their own career unexpectedly falters, are not able to understand this sequence of words correctly. You’re reading: It’s always the others!
Remember: The others, that is yourself. What you radiate is reflected back to you by those around you. Whether directly or indirectly, as a filmmaker you are both cause and effect for those around you. In our business, you throw boomerangs around and you’ll get your receipt.
Therefore, occupy yourself thoroughly with what makes us human. Work out your differentiated image of man.
As a filmmaker, don’t tell me what others have told you!
It’s a plague. The plague, however, has been less persistent than the nonsense of trying to tell stories as filmmakers that are not your own. By that I don’t mean Tarantino and consorts, not quotes and interpretations. But people who, as storytelling machines, turn old coffee into warm rolls. If your mission is to be known as the world’s best gumball machine, you can try that. You’ll have to take it from me, though, why you won’t build self-flushing toilets. Because with that, you’re almost certainly more likely to be able to keep a Trophy Wife or a Toy Boy and a Bentley for once in your life.
Man can walk on two legs because he has a backbone. Our spine is tense with a complex system of muscle ligaments on which enormous forces act. If you weigh 75 kilograms and are able to walk upright, your lowest intervertebral disc is held in place with over 100 kilograms of traction. Along with the audience, I want to feel that tension in your back that keeps you going as an individual and that keeps the way you move through your life different from the donkey and the chimpanzee in your stories.
I want to see you walk your path as a filmmaker upright and with a backbone, telling stories that no one else can tell in that way. Master that, and you’re an artist. If you can’t do that, you’re a handyman.
To do that, you have to live. Your own life. Not other people’s lives. Only when you understand and experience firsthand that there is no such thing as a great life and a cruel life, but only great and cruel moments in any life (both of which can be enjoyable or last a hell of a long time), are you worthy of your audience trading their lifetime for your story and your view on life.
After the marathon is before the marathon
Your first film is the most challenging. Nobody knows you. Not a soul believes in you and your talent as a filmmaker. At the same time, you still have to acquire knowledge at every turn. You don’t have the experience to know how things work. There’s not much more difficult than getting a first film off the ground successfully. Except for making his second movie.
Your second film is the most challenging. Because your first film convinced, you get the chance to repeat your success. If you succeed, no one can say that your first work is a fluke. If you fail with your second film, your career fails. You’ll never have as much pressure on you as you did on the second movie. Unless you’re making your third movie.
Your third film is the most challenging. You’ve proven what you can do. You’ve learned what success feels like. Everybody wants to work with you. Financing problems will be solved by others for you. Suddenly you find yourself not only in the shoes of the artist, but you’ve become an economic factor as a filmmaker. Your success or failure determines the course of business of companies and the fate of the families of your employees. As much pressure as there was on the third film…
As long as you’re making movies, stress and pressure will be your closest friends. They lie in your bed with you at night, walk the red carpet with you at film festivals and look over your shoulder during interviews with the press. That’s why you have to learn how to manage your strength as a filmmaker. Find your sources of energy and take care of them. Or you’ll end up a wreck.
You don’t have to know everything. But it also does no harm
In a perfect business relationship, the skills of the business partners complement each other and both parties empower each other to achieve a goal impossible for the individual with joint forces. Because they both need each other, neither side will take advantage of the other. So much for the theory.
In practice, especially early in your career as a filmmaker, you won’t even know what all you don’t know. You swim like a fat red carp in a shark tank and are an invitation made flesh for unfavorable deals.
The more you learn and know, the less likely you are to get ripped off. This is not only true for the creative work and the manufacturing process. The exploitation chain of your film is just as big a minefield. What is the definition of revenue or profit share in the agreements that affect you? Profit before or after tax? In what currency? Capped? With an escalator? Tied or free?
Granted, you can make good movies without knowing what spherical aberration is. But there is also no harm in dealing with focus errors of camera lenses as a non-cinematographer, as the good Mr. Kubrick already proved in 1975 with Barry Lyndon.
Learn to ask the right questions. Your manager and your lawyer, too. You pay for them, too. In return, these people owe you not only the highest professionalism, but also answers to all possible and impossible questions. Always keep in mind that it is not gut feeling that builds trust, but performance alone. The more you understand, the more focused your questions will be and the greater the respect you will be shown.
Why Plan B helps you as a filmmaker to implement Plan A
Successful negotiators always have a plan B. Why? Because with every deal and every business negotiation, you always have to play a little poker. You can lose at that, too. That’s part of the risk. If you need a deal badly and quite desperately and can’t afford to lose a deal, you’re going to have to make messy compromises that you can’t afford.
If, on the other hand, you have a safety net, a fully developed plan B, with which you can achieve the same, or at least an equivalent, goal just as well in another way, the failure of plan A is not the end of the world. That’s why when you negotiate Plan A, you’ll be fair, but also tough and consistent in insisting on your well-considered demands. And succeed with Plan A.
Create serious options and concrete alternatives for action. Always and for everything. This is the only way you will ensure that you achieve your goals at all career stages. Negotiations are especially fun when you come out of them either as a winner (your plan) or as a winner (your plan). A) or else as a winner (your plan B) go out.
Watch your movie with an audience
If your audience is too stupid to understand your movie, you’re too stupid to understand your audience. As a filmmaker, you have a double responsibility. First, a content responsibility as a storyteller, because you’re taking the audience on a journey to change their world. Second, you have a moral responsibility because the effort it takes to get your story to the screen as a movie is never just your effort.
If you, as a filmmaker, only satisfy your ego, you abuse all those who, together with you, helped to bring your work to life in this form.
That’s why: watch your movie with an audience. Secretly sit in the back row of any movie theater. Nine in the evening and three in the afternoon. Get to know your audience, yourself and your film anew in the natural habitat. Visioning your own films with a real audience feels like open-heart surgery every time. But only humility will really make you and your future films better.
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