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!
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.
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.
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.
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.