20 Fascinating Filmmaking Facts

1. James Cameron’s contempt for studio executives

While shooting “The Abyss,” James Cameron became very irritated when a studio executive showed up in his suit and limousine, expecting to boss James Cameron around.

Cameron smoothly slipped a diving helmet on the executive’s head and closed the seal, letting the executive flail around for a bit, the oxygen inside the helmet dwindling rapidly.

After taking the helmet off the executive in time to avoid asphyxiation, James Cameron reminded him that this is what it feels like to run out of air while in a diving suit, which is what had happened to him a few hours earlier underwater while shooting a scene, and that he would not tolerate interference from office dwellers. The executive got the point and was never seen on that set again (source: Parisi, P. “Titanic and the Making of James Cameron”).

2. “Jaws” and “Titanic” looked destined to be disasters

The biggest box office hits of their time – “Jaws” in the 1970s and “Titanic” in the 1990s — were a nightmare to shoot, went massively over budget and their directors honestly thought that they would never work again. Instead, “Jaws” and “Titanic” catapulted Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to the rarefied heights where no one questions their financial and artistic judgement.

3. The two most successful filmmakers did not go to film school

The two most gifted and wildly successful filmmakers in history — Steven Spielberg and James Cameron — did not go to film school and do not recommend going to film school.

Instead, they both advise aspiring filmmakers to shoot their own projects and build their reel until their skills are marketable enough to be hired on paid directing gigs. If you are not going to listen to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whose advice are you going to take? This question is fair game, and is the one question film school advocates cannot and will not address.

4. Film school degrees: second and third most useless

Film school degrees are rated as the second most useless by Forbes and third most useless by Yahoo Finance. This will come as no surprise to consenting adults, but if the inclusion of these links saves just one kid from the indentured servitude of student debt, it will have been worth it.

5. Most independent films never see the light of day

The overwhelming majority of independent films never make a profit or see any kind of meaningful distribution. Most independent films are only watched by friends, family and audiences at second-tier film festivals, and then disappear completely. With the glut of no-budget films being churned out at unprecedented rates, the number of “orphan movies” is probably bigger than ever – and there are no stats, because these films tend vanish completely and do not leave much in the way of a paper trail (although their websites can stick around for years).

6. Times are tough for film crews

There are massively talented and experienced film industry workers out there who have shot music videos for A-list pop stars and TV commercials for major brands who now sit at home, scouring Craigslist for low-paid film production gigs. True story!

7. Filmmaking industry management is dim and dull

If you want to be an “employed” director, you will have to endure contact with some management types who have all the artistic judgement of a brick. It is absolutely worth it — just steel yourself psychologically for it! Very few directors are above that; every one else has to suck it up.

8. The $20 gem vs. the $100,000 farce

Many aspiring filmmakers think that spending $100,000 on a film school degree is a good investment, but most are not even aware of the $20 book that can make a gargantuan difference to their practical skills – the book that most of their competitors have never even heard of, and are probably not sufficiently motivated to absorb anyway.

9. Wrong question!

I am asked “Which camera should I use?” as much as all other questions put together. I intend to change that.

10. Freedom for filmmakers

If you have a decent director’s reel and a social/professional network, you can shoot a high-quality feature film with no debt and without depending on tedious decision makers: it’s called crowd funding.

Good news: your reel and social network are both assets that you can improve steadily, if you put the work in.

11. Color is your friend

As a director, you can make your work stand out from the crowd by developing a good mastery over color and design. Good news: this is fun and cheap to do — all it takes is some aesthetic sense and time spent browsing art and design publications. The Decorista is a great start. You all have some sort of aesthetic sense, even if you don’t consider yourself a designer – you simply need to sharpen and strengthen it. It’s fun! Most filmmakers don’t bother with this, so this investment will give you a competitive edge. Do not underestimate the power of eye candy.

A stylish reel is a reel that goes off on a great start – and directors work or languish on the strength or weakness of their reel.

12. You can cast better actors than you think

Most independent filmmakers have very poor judgement when it comes to choosing actors. With so many talented actors of all types, even at the most accessible levels, there is really no excuse for all the bland casting I see in indie films. As James Cameron says, “Good enough isn’t.” It really isn’t. Stop settling and work overtime to find the best!

It took Franco Zeffirelli almost a year to find his perfect Juliet for his “Romeo and Juliet”. A pretty young actress who could do a good job wasn’t enough for him; he wanted Juliet herself, the real deal, without compromise. Finding her took some effort.

Solution: collaborate with a professional casting director. They earn a living by having good taste in actors.

13. 35mm lookalike cameras are now common, but skills never will be

Every filmmaker has access to cameras now that were a distant dream just ten years ago. DSLRs give everyone the opportunity to make footage look like it was shot with a real movie camera — bokeh and all. To stand out in this deluge of 35mm lookalike videos, it is more important than ever to develop real directing skills — the one thing that is and always will be in scarce supply in this industry, because it takes some innate talent and an awful lot of work. After the mandatory directing and camerawork skills, the next biggest return on investment is offered by learning the key fundamentals of film editing.

14. Goodbye, film prints!

The IHS Screen Digest predicts that movie studios will cease to produce film prints for “major markets” by 2013, and for the rest of the world by 2015. At this stage, the decline of celluloid cannot be arrested.

15. 1st Assistant Directors are golden

The First Assistant Director is the crew position that is most frequently overlooked by newbie filmmakers, meaning that they are one of the last additions they make as they move up the ladder of project professionalism and quality. Their early projects tend not to have a 1st AD at all, only finally working with one several projects later.

Words are inadequate in the description of just how much value a good 1st AD can add to your project. They mitigate one of the most pressing issues for independent filmmakers: making the most of time and resources, avoiding burnout and completing the shoot on schedule.

Advice: become the kind of filmmaker whom veteran 1st ADs are willing to help free of charge in the hope of being hired on well-paid projects in future by that director. When your reel building pays off with a well-paid gig, remember the folks who helped you and hire them!

16. The music video industry wasteland

The current music video industry is an unmitigated disaster. It dupes directors into working for free with the empty promise of “future work,” heavily penalizes them for making any sort of narrative sense, and favors those who make the wackiest and most incoherent videos.

If you are an ambitious filmmaker who wants to get paid to direct movies and TV commercials – real work, in other words — involving yourself with music videos is a terrible idea, because it will sap you of financial, emotional and goodwill resources that you will need to develop your career. It is a dank alley with a dead end. Avoid.

17. Spielberg was already Spielberg at the age of 21

There is remarkable stylistic consistency between Spielberg’s “Amblin’” (his first professional-quality project, a 26-minute short) and his subsequent feature films. If you compare Spielberg’s “Amblin’” to his first feature film (“The Sugarland Express”) or any other movie he made, you will be amazed to see that Spielberg was already Spielberg when he was 21. Remember that at the age of 21, Spielberg had already been making his own films on Super8 for a decade!

18. Kubrick was a brave pioneer

Stanley Kubrick was a fiercely independent spirit — an extraordinary character. In 1953 he made his first short film completely off his own back — and subsequently sold it for a profit!

In the 1950s, going your own way and making films outside the Hollywood system was unthinkable. For the average person this would take an extraordinary amount of intellectual independence and courage, but for a hardcore INTJ type like Stanley Kubrick, this intensely independent pioneering was nothing less than 100% natural. He saw in his own head a different way of doing things and then made it a reality, unceremoniously brushing the sceptics aside.

If you want to be a filmmaker, you will be bombarded from all sides by people who tell you that you cannot or should not do it.

19. You have to be tough with film distributors

To secure the best possible distribution deal for your film, it is absolutely essential that you make all potential buyers watch the film in the same place and at the same time, ideally at a proper screening in a major film market. This is because if the distributor is allowed an early preview and they turn your film down, word of mouth will circulate quickly, killing your film stone cold dead. This advice comes from veteran experts who know what they’re talking about.

Make it clear to the film buyers that no sneak previews or DVD copies will be allowed, with absolutely no exceptions. If you’re not good at hard-nosed communication, work with someone who will communicate and negotiate on your behalf. If you are going to cross swords with film distributors, you must ensure that your weapon is made of harder steel.

20. Filmmaking is leadership

You can have amazingly gifted professional actors and crew members work for very little money on your project and have them be grateful to you for the opportunity. It is charisma; it’s being the kind of leader whom people are glad to follow to Hell and back; it’s coming across as someone who will actually achieve something in life. These are all attributes that you can steadily improve, just like learning an instrument.

When you land paid directing work in future on the strength of the projects that your collaborators helped you build, remember those who believed in you and worked for nothing — give them a tangible demonstration of gratitude by hiring them! The people who helped me all reside in my mind with crystalline clarity. They will not be forgotten.

23 thoughts on “20 Fascinating Filmmaking Facts

  1. It has been a long 40 year journey beginning with a photographic project of a San Francisco artist and his family. Those images were transformed into etchings and photoetchings for the next 20 years, and for the past 10 years my focus has been to learn how to bring all of these images together first in Apple’s imovie, final cut express, and now fcpx. Non of my videos are posted on my website or anywhere else. Sam Green who co directed “The Weather Underground” Documentary film saw my video in progress at my home in Hawaii about 3 years ago and commented, that even without any voice over, with all of my technical mistakes, and incomplete areas…he considered my video successful… The next day I went out and purchased a HD camcorder. Don Soker Gallery in San Francisco wants to show my video on “The Charles and Linda Ware Family,” anytime…..which could be a year form today.

  2. Aisling Blackburn says:

    that is so interesting, the whole post is but in particular the bit about distribution. I am very interested in making my films available to the widest audiences but this is very possible as a solo producer. I can see with future collaborations how important it is showing to buyers altogether. when you talk about color and design, do you mean set design?

  3. Jim Malmstrom says:

    Ed, great stuff as usual. You continue to educate and inspire fledgling filmmakers like nobody I know of. I admire your work and appreciate what you do for the community – we’d all do well to absorb this stuff and get out and shoot something!

    I am not a full-time filmmaker yet I continue to meet people in my ‘day job’ that in mid-life find they have this itch they need to scratch. We are slowly sowing the seeds of an indie film and look forward to putting to work much of your wisdom.

    Thank you!

    JJM

  4. Woolker Cherenfant says:

    Hi Ed! Your tips just suit me very well and help me a lot. You know, being a Haitian director is not so easy but I find much inspiration from you. Good work and keep it up!

    Thanks again,

    Woolker

  5. Wow, thanks a lot for such useful tip 🙂 About Film schools… So TRUE!!! Even, if we got more guys like you (who share their experience), we would not need any film institutes in future 😉

  6. Hey, thanks for your good work. am a Nigerian and an independent film maker.you’ve been of tremendous help to me. Making it in Nigeria isn’t easy but i know we will get there. Thanks, a lot.

  7. it is true what you said about music video,it is dead end.people are easy to forget you when they get what they wanted and thanks for all your tips it helped allot.

  8. Thanks for all the great advices and tips.
    I live in Panama (central america) and have directed and created TV commercials for various important clients till september of 2012. I shifted jobs and for now I am a marketing manager for a nationwide company.
    I want to direct my first short film, but need some discipline for writing a first draft screenplay. Any Tips on how to manage time in order to have the time and inspiration to write?

    Thanks for your thoughtful advice!

    Augy

    • The key is to allocate writing sessions in your diary and then stick to the plan, come Hell or high water.

      I can tell you from experience that the toughest part is the first 10 minutes or so. Once you get into the flow, the difficulty is stopping 🙂

      If you only write when you “feel” like it, you will never complete your screenplay. Make a start every day and trust that you will be massively into it once you have warmed up. It never fails for me; your mileage may vary.

      Good luck!

      -Ed

  9. Rashad Lewis says:

    I just want to say that you are awesome for taking the time to give great advice and helpful tips about the industry. Not too many people are willing to do that. I have been reading and saving them as reminders. I look forward to any and everything else that you have to share. Thanks again!!!

    Rashad

  10. Natalija says:

    Stumbled upon this blog only today, and it is the most interesting and useful find! Thank you so much for your insights and most of all, honesty.

    I am still at university (NOT a film school) but I am already developing this paranoia that it is too late for everything in life. Always being way too self conscious about my creative work and therefore started to look at producing, but a coupe of weeks ago the directing bug bit me hard and i haven’t been able to let go.

    All I can say is that at the moment I am scared out of my wits about what future holds for me, but I suppose it’s a natural occurrence in young people who are hit by the realisation that adult life is near and unavoidable.

    Thanks again for sharing. Reality check is a good thing.

  11. This is my favourite film website! I have ordered ALL the books you recommended today (except the one I already owned)! I already get the email newsletter and can see the facebook entries. I am trying to follow your advice on making a couple films and doing everything myself including editing to learn as much as possible (I actually found the site when looking for advice about editing). I ordered extra lenses and tried some of your experiments and tips out, just mucking around. Everything you point out is awesome and inspiring!

  12. Thank you so much for this valuable website and this great help. Whenever I read about directing and great directors, I get these facts that I want to share along with having your feedback on them please.

    To be a great director, you have to :

    1- Have a vision of your own on the cinema, world and life.
    2- Brave and adventurous.
    3- Hard working.
    4- Creative.
    5- A good leader.
    6- Interact more with different social classes in your country to guarantee depth and reality in your movies along with interacting with other cultures from other countries; Movie making is not only American.

    These are some general traits of a great director in my opinion based on your website and my little experience. But, what I have learnt lately that the most important is working and enough talking and wishing.

  13. THANKS THAT HELPED A TON

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