How to Become a Film Director: a Sharp Reality Check

This topic has been clouded by wishful thinking and pernicious misinformation for too long. Time to clean up!

1. Directors are hired on the strength of their reel

A director’s reel is simply a collection of the best work done in the past — the 6-9 best TV spots for a commercial director or a film director’s best features (not a montage of shots — see my remarks in the comments section). If you don’t have a reel, you are not a director and nobody is going to give you a chance.

2. There isn’t a film degree in the world that will allow you to walk into a cushy film directing job

In the film industry nobody is even remotely interested in your education – all that matters is the projects that you directed in the past, particularly the most recent ones. Film school is useless. The director’s reel is everything.

3. There are essentially two distinct paths to directing films — being hired by a producer and being completely independent:

a) The director-for-hire route

– In this route a producer wants to get a film made. He finds a script, and attaches the most marketable actors he can get hold of. He then needs a director – specifically, a director who can make the movie the biggest success possible. If, in the producer’s opinion, you are the best director for this film, you stand a reasonable chance of landing the gig, but even then there are always tangential complications and it is far from guaranteed. On the other hand, if the folks who are paying for the movie are convinced that you are the best director for the film, your chances are very good indeed. Again, this decision will be made almost exclusively on the basis of what you have directed in the past. Do not kid yourself that you are going to talk your way into being hired to direct when you don’t have a reel. That is not how it works.

– The only way to be in a position where producers and film investors actively pursue you to direct their film is to have made interesting and/or successful films in the past. The only way to do that is to start off as an independent filmmaker. There is no other way, and all the networking and film degrees in the world will not compensate for a poor reel.

– It really should not be necessary, but if you want some quick evidence of how this works, go to Los Angeles Craigslist and check out the posts looking for directors for independent features. The producers always ask prospective directors to send a link to their reel. They never ask whether you went to UCLA film school or whether you attended a film networking event once. As a director, your reel is (almost) everything. I added the “almost” because personal charisma and leadership qualities also matter, but people are willing to overlook a less than adorable personality if your reel is truly amazing and they think that you can make the film amazing. Conversely, a top-notch personality will not compensate for a weak reel.

– While it is true that the work on your reel determines the work you will get in future, there is some flexibility: if all you have on your reel is short films, you can still get hired to direct a feature, as long there is something in your shorts that convinces them that you will do a great job.

b) The independent filmmaker route

– This is where you will have to start, whether you like it or not. An independent filmmaker’s life is quite incredibly tough. As an independent film director, you are one of tens of thousands of folks who say they’re going to be a filmmaker. Nobody will finance your films and, when you do manage to complete a film, it doesn’t make any money and only a few hundred people ever see it. This is the brutal reality of being an independent film director. That said, once your reel starts to grow in both size and quality, serious producers will start to take an interest in you – if and only if at least one of your films has been either spectacularly good or financially successful.

Film networking is one of the most annoying myths in filmmaking ever. There are thousands of greasy self-styled filmmakers who seriously think that they can bypass building a decent reel by networking and sucking up to the powers that be. This does not, has never and will never work. If you want to become a film director, you have to build a solid reel – there is no way around that, and furthermore I would suggest that anyone who hopes to bypass the reel-building stage is not truly in love with filmmaking and therefore has no business directing films. I have never seen a single one of these oily networkers make any headway in their film directing career. Meanwhile, filmmakers such as myself have been quietly slogging away for years, working on their craft and building a reel of steadily increasing quality. Even then, not everyone makes it, but at least we made films.

– The best advice on how to become a film director was given, unsurprisingly, by one of the best filmmakers in history: James Cameron. He said:

“Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee” (James Cameron)

It may sound deceptively simplistic, but I can assure you that there is so much truth in this simple quote it’s not even funny.

Steven Spielberg has repeatedly given similar advice to aspiring filmmakers. If you’re not going to listen to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whom are you going to listen to? Their credibility is unparalleled. Learn from the best!

James Cameron’s advice is bad news for those who were hoping to weasel their way into the business without a solid reel. For everyone else, it is inspiring encouragement from a filmmaker of undisputed ability.

Holding the script hostage

“Holding the script hostage” is a situation in which a director has written or otherwise controls a spec script that is highly desirable to production companies. Having secured blazing desire for the script from these production companies, the director then makes it clear that he will only release the script if he is allowed to direct the film.

Holding a desirable script hostage is undoubtedly a huge help in being hired to direct a feature film. It was used by James Cameron to secure the director’s chair for “The Terminator”, and even then most companies were reluctant to let him direct, even though they badly wanted the script. James Cameron was careful to turn down all offers until one little production company agreed to let him direct.

Another director who successfully held his script hostage is Len Wiseman, who was allowed to direct “Underworld” just so that they could get hold of the script.

It goes without saying that holding the script hostage only really works if you already have some sort of reel. Even if a production company falls madly in love with your script, when you tell them that you will only sell it to them if they let you direct it, they will ask you for a sample of something you have directed in the past. If you don’t have a reel, you are not a director and have no business holding the script hostage. You can try, but the odds are against you. In any case, holding the script hostage only works if the script has irresistible commercial appeal.

4. What it boils down to is that a film director is somebody who makes films

Not somebody who is studying to make films at some useless, overpriced film school; not someone who is trying to network his way into the business without having a solid reel; none of that. Ultimately, you are either someone who makes movies or you are not.

5. Dreamers without a reel

There is a lot more respect in the film business for somebody who consistently makes movies with a camcorder and zero money than for someone who spends years talking about it and trying to weasel his way into the business but never actually shoots anything

That is pathetic. Don’t be the pathetic wannabe film director who has never shot anything. Get a camera and start training yourself to be a film director, because no one else can do it for you.

6. People hire directors because they have a problem to solve, not because they are interested in your “career”

Specifically, the problem they have is that they want to get a movie made and need a director who is exactly right for that movie and will turn it into a spectacular success. Only if you can deliver the goods they are looking for will you be hired. Again, from their point of view, it has nothing to do about giving a job to a nice guy or developing your career. It’s all about their baby. If you learn to look at the film business from this perspective, your chances of getting somewhere will improve significantly.

7. Some atrocious myths that need to be debunked as a matter of urgency:

– “I will become a film director by going to a really good film school.” No, you will not.

– “I will become a film director by going to lots of film networking events and talking my ass off.” Not a chance, partner.

– “I will become a film director by starting as a runner on a film set and working my way up.” This is not how it works (it is a good way to become a 1st Assistant Director, but I don’t think that is why you are here.) See my notes above on how and why directors are hired.

While it is true that some directors started as runners and worked their way up, it is equally true that this career strategy is among those with the lowest probability of success. Forget the exceptions and look at the big picture and general principles.

Useful resources for independent film directors

Here are some useful resources for those who already have a reel and want to start applying for directing gigs:

Los Angeles Craigslist and New York Craigslist: look in the crew gigs and creative gigs. The occasional posting appears looking for a director: sometimes it is for an independent feature, other times for a web series or a commercial. As always, you will be judged on what you have directed in the past, and it is always worth trying.

Mandy: look in the directing jobs section.

AICP: look in the “help wanted” section – they occasionally look for directors to add to their roster.

– Perform a Google search of “seeking director reels.”

Good luck, and keep working on that reel: it is the only way to “become” a film director.

96 Replies to “How to Become a Film Director: a Sharp Reality Check”

  1. Thanks for your ideas and critical analysis on how to become a better film director. How i wish most young film directors would make your website their homepage. you are really good.

  2. OMFG!!! Thank you sooo much for posting this! I’ve never seen an article no where near as helpful than this! Seriously, this are valued information and I thank you again. It’s sad how film schools are charging a fortune, and don’t tell the honest truth on how to REALLY increase chances to be successful. Shame. I thought money would make people talk. But they’re lecturing students with no real life methods. After I’ve thought over and over, and research and research, I’ve concluded about the director’s reel before reading this. Whew! I dodged a bullet. But this info is so invaluable and I will tell other inspiring filmmakers this also (if I knew any yet).

        1. But if I really want to do film and only film, I can’t see myself going into any other schools and I also have to get a degree(for millions of reasons & second options its always good to have a degree, personal opinion).This of course will leave me in confusion, hope I figure it out sometime!! Actually working to figure it out sometime *

  3. Oh yea. Btw, I’m really young (17). I’m trying to write scripts, but I literally don’t write scripts in a script format. Scriptment seems to be the only way for me to write. I also woould like to have published books when I’m older. Any help on not being stuck when writing in script format?

    1. Hey, I’m about the same age. I use Adobe Story Free to write my scripts. It already does all the formatting for you, which is nice. Once you figure out the keyboard shortcuts, it’s really easy to use. I’ve already written two full length feature scripts on it. Celtx is also another favorite of people I know. Good luck with writing!

          1. I understand you need a reel, but wouldn’t film school help you learn how to make a good reel?

  4. I dig the ‘reality-check’ style of this blog. No fluff and cherry pudding, only cold and hard facts. Good stuff. Wish you well on your filmmaking journey.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I agree — it is indeed good news for those of us who are serious about building a reel and developing serious filmmaking skills.

      It’s very bad news for the networking-obsessed work avoiders 🙂


  5. Very helpful points out there. Regarding the demo reel, I’m putting together mine now and I just want to ask, what makes a good reel? Thanks!

      1. Films. Might do some TVCs too but I’m mainly going for the films. Another question, since you asked about what kind of work I want to direct, what’s the difference reel-wise and is there a way to make a “flexible” reel that will appeal to those 3 categories?

        1. To be chosen as the director of a feature film, you need:

          – some solid projects you directed (features, shorts, TVCs) so that you can legitimately call yourself a director, and

          – a script that has so much commercial appeal that well-financed entities are willing to let you direct it, just so that they can produce it. This is called “holding the script hostage,” and is how James Cameron got his break. Obviously the script has to be yours, either because you wrote it or because you purchased it. If you don’t have a HOT script as a bargaining chip, there is no reason to hire you as a director if you are a nobody, unless your reel happens to seduce someone powerful.

          Unfortunately, talent is no longer sufficient these days — too many directors, too little work, too much economic malaise worldwide — but owning a HOT script is still a reliable way to claw your way into the industry. It is more important than the reel, because competent directors are more plentiful than HOT scripts.

          Did I mention that the script has to be HOT? 🙂 More about what gives mainstream commercial appeal to a script:

          There is also an increasingly viable second option: crowdfunding, but forget about raising much more than about $100,000 with that system. I will post about this in future.

          For TV commercials, things are significantly more strict — read the story in full in this post of mine:

          You have chosen a nightmare of a career. Welcome to the club.

          Good luck!

  6. Whew!nice piece as always.
    I wil love 2 knw d challenges,and how to strike d balance of a director taking up one of d major acting roles of same productn.I think George clooney did dat.

        1. Hi Geshin,

          Serving as both director and lead actor has been successfully done by several filmmaker/actors. Obviously it presents a number of challenges, foremost of which is, in my opinion, the issue of maintaining perspective on one’s own performance.

          It’s tricky, but it can be done.

          However, I would tell every director out there that they are probably not the best actor for the role. Find the actor who is the BEST for the role — it is unlikely to be the same person who is the best director for the movie.

          I hope this helps.


  7. Inspiring as always. I am greatfull for your posts which really cut through to the chase. I love learning the lingo, Director’s Reel, that makes sense, I have all of my film on Youtube, I can see some improvement each one. I keep asking for feedback, I find this interesting as although it is clear to me what mistakes I am making, still find it hard to predict what people like. Actually I have found that artists like the arty ones and practical people like the well structured ones. Seems to be very subjective

    1. Thanks! If you ever want to be paid to direct, that decision will be made on the basis of your director’s reel. Interpersonal skills also help, but your personality will only come into it if your reel qualifies. That is the first check, and you need to pass it with a marketable reel.

  8. I understand that film school is useless, but what if you know NOTHING about film-making (I’m talking about editing, shot angles, types of cameras to use and how to use them). Wouldn’t film school be useful in that situation? After all, there are some very successful directors that went to film school.

  9. Well, I want to become a film director but no body is supporting me, not even my family. I want to go to a film school in USA,may be New York Film Academy ,but I want to study film direction and editing , not cinematography . Can you please suggest me some appropriate schools ?

  10. It’s refreshing to see a post like this that doesn’t sugarcoat the real world. For a while I was wondering if going to school for film would be a good idea, but I think I have my Answer. I’m 16 years old and I like to try and make funny short films with my friends, and it’s a lot of fun. Even for school projects. I made a mock episode of the history channel for my history class about the 60’s for my group, and I helped a different group by directing a 50’s short. So much fun. It’s great to feel like, after reading this post, that I’m already going in the right direction.

  11. I’ve been saying it for 20yrs now. I went to film school I networked. That was all BS. It’s like an intro to the film industry. You are going through the motions but you really aren’t achieving anything. You have access to equipment but its limited. You have a hundred other clowns that want to do the same thing, be the director. No one gives 100% when they aren’t in the directors chair. Sabotage and backstabbing is as common as coffee and cigarettes. You would be better off to have a close nit group of friends brainstorm and put a film together. You kids today have it easy. Cameras are HD and cheap. You can edit on a laptop with the dozens of editing software available. Exposure? Put it on YouTube create a website etc. all the money you spend on film school you could have spent making short films. College is becoming a waste of time and money. You come out in debt and a job is not guaranteed and you will be a slave to corporate America working for peanuts making them rich and yourself miserable. If you go after the gold pot at the end of the rainbow instead of enjoying the beautiful rainbow you will have lost your soul and who you really are becomes what you are. Welcome to the suck. You are not a rock star you are not special.

  12. Hello! This is amazing, honestly. Made me want to pick up a camera and start practicing now!
    I just have one question though, I’ve seen a lot of great YouTubers that direct videos and stuff for entertainment. Their work is amazing, like Kurt Schneider for example, but they haven’t been given a feature film to direct. How come a lot of talented people don’t get their big breaks? It’s a bit disappointing, or maybe I’m seeing it incorrectly?

  13. This is by far one of the most incorrect and blatantly ignorant articles I have ever laid eyes upon. You are describing a chicken and the egg scenario, and pretending one of the components does not exist. IF you apply to a prestigious film/TV school you’re not paying for an education. Your paying for two things, a network of friends with common interests, and time to do everything that you’ve described above.

    A) How do you expect to create a professional looking reel without making something first? Not a soul will take an individual seriously if their reel is filed with home video experiments.

    B) In order to shoot professional looking footage you need to have a camera that looks somewhat decent. How the hell does a laymen afford to either buy or rent equipment?

    C) If you don’t go to film school, how can you expect to find like-minded individuals to fill your crew? This is one of the biggest advantages of film school: A lifetime of connections that will help you make films. Most of the time these individuals will wind up being your DPs for years to come.

    D) If you go to a good college, and you don’t slack off, getting equipment is not an issue. You’re paying for four years of boundless experimentation with professional equipment. After college I had enough professional footage to fill up multiple reels, for multiple positions… And it was all shot on expensive professional cameras or on 16mm.

    You can’t have a reel without great footage, you can’t have great footage without a plethora of equipment (much to people’s surprise you do need this to make a GOOD film) or the time to make it, you won’t have anyone to fill your positions without knowing enough talented individuals to fill a film set, and you can’t do any of the above without going to college.

    It is a chicken and the egg scenario. So don’t spew your ignorant thoughts on the internet, just to screw people up, making them believe they’ll get anywhere without a degree. Because, in reality, you’re 1000X less likely to go anywhere without going to college. Simple fact.

    1. Dear Professional Film Maker.. what u mentioned that things also important and most of people do these… but if someone can’t afford to do these all that does’t mean he or she can’t be filmmaker.. LAvidofilmaker pointed out something ahead all this….

    2. Im glad ive finally seen a comment like this! Beibg a graduating highschool senior and trying to prep for collegeand just beginning to seriously consider if my previous career choice for directing instead, this post was starting to make me rethink. I mean I knew before that id need a good reel and script but this made it sound like film school was a waste but I have no idea how to begin without filmschool. Im not a natural. I didnt grow up with a camera in my hands. I dont know how to film things and make people really want to watch them – I thought that was the point of school…to ya know teach. Im glad to know that filmschool isnt a total waste after all and it will help me get a start!

  14. Many actors have their directorial debut with a full budget and director’s fee without ever making a director’s reel. However, these are invariably successful and renowned actors before they undertake a directing project.

  15. This post woke me up. Thanks so much for sharing your insight and experience. Here’s hoping I get to thank you in person one day.


  16. Thanks for your post. Probably the best, most straight forward post I’ve ever read about becoming a director. This is what I always try to tell people and what I try to implement into my own life. If you’re a director, then just keep directing. And if you’re any good, people will start to notice.

    Thanks for your posts and keep on going!

  17. Hi Ed, this is a good post. I’d like to know what do you do for living when you’re still an indie-filmmaker? And why did you take that job? Thank you before 🙂

  18. Thank You so much,

    This was my wake up call I’ve always seen Film directing as a hobby to me I wanted to do it but was always doubting it, I did amazing work when I was in High School and Middle School but once I got into College I ignored it completely. Currently taking Biology as my major and I read your other post on why we shouldn’t take Film School what major should I take instead? Biology I’m doing great but I Hate it…When I was editing, recording, scripting projects I loved it don’t know What I should do but this post and the other one (Why not to take film school) has helped me a lot

    Thank You very much 🙂

  19. Sorry, this might be a long read.
    Wow, thank you so much. I’ve found the information to be of much use and delight for my future career ambitions. I’m actually very glad to hear that the only legitimate qualifications are a good reel and a burning passion for filmmaking, as opposed to an elaborate network of associations and time spent in film school. I have a strong desire to make truly great and inspiring films. I’ve come up with many stories challenging people to look beneath the surface and think for themselves about the most challenging questions of life. I also incorporate original and interesting scenes, themes and ideas into all of my stories and I believe they could be great movies. However, I want them to be more than just my thoughts and ideas, I want to turn them into captivating and touching works of art for the world to see. Could you please give me a direction to move forward in because I am unsure of how to turn my dreams into reality (I’m 15). What should I do next? Just try to film my stories?

    1. Hey Daniel,

      I say just start making short films. Even if they’re only one minute long. Got to start somewhere. Even if you can’t afford equipment and can only use an iPhone. Making good film content is nearly always powered by the mind not equipment. Having said that, watch lots of movies as well in order to challenge and evolve how you think of filmmaking.

      All the best, Max

  20. I want to host and direct my webtv show
    but I dont no where to begin I have a video camera am excited but confuse
    as to where do I start. I myself is ol skool but I got crazy idea in my mind but as I said dont no where to begin……can you help a novis as I?

  21. I have a diffrent opinion about film school. Although i agree with your statement that even the best film schools don’t make you a film director, it surely helps, especially if you don’t have a budget for props, actors, crew or camera’s (as i do). Film school provides you with a means to make a reel, as fancy as most of the starting directors wish it is. Before film school i was messing around with my old-school camcorder that had close to no options for visual style. But i did film stuff. But that’s it. I just filmed inanimate objects and cars, not able to get my directing any screentime. I couldn’t find any actors, just because i didn’t have the finances to hire them, and everybody i knew always had something to do when the time was there to film my ideas of a short movie.
    This changed as soon as i went to my current school. Here i have a database of editors, setdesigners, audio people, focus pullers, actors and camera men. And i had the guidance of people who are active in this field of work and, most important, all the time i need to make my films.
    The school even provides budgets, although very small, for renting cranes and locations. Film school gave me this.
    I see my school as my pillar that holds my reel up in the air.

    I must add that i live in the Netherlands, and that i know that the entire school system differs from the one in the US (the price is also pressed by fundings from the government for creative education, making this a 1200 dollar a year study over here). But the source of people to help with filming must be the same.


    Matthijs M.

    1. adding to the entire “1200 dollars a year” part, i would have one short film ready after that year with almost nothing to show for my directing skills, if i didn’t go to film school, where i get about three reel-ready films out per year. Just saying.

      1. I very much agree. I am going to film school this fall and the only experience I have with making films is through skateboarding, and shooting various settings and cinematic shorts on my mini dv camera. I view film school for me, as I place where I can actually begin to pursue my interest in filmmaking. Not just a place where I can get an art degree and call myself an artist, everyone needs to start somewhere and I think film school can be a very good starting foundation. It’s all about how you choose to use an art degree, or your education for that matter that I think is most important.

  22. Thank you for such informative article!! It was very helpful:)
    But about holding the script hostage, how can I get my script to be recognized? Some tips would be very helpful……..
    And would it be impossible to succeed as an asian woman director in US?

    1. Hi Irene,

      You need to send so-called query letters to literary agents in Hollywood. If the pitch in the letter piques their curiosity, they will read your screenplay; having read it, if they think it has commercial potential, they will represent you, give you suggestions on how to improve the screenplay, and then shop it around to the studios. If the studios love it and want to make it into a movie ASAP, that is when you hold it hostage and say that you will only sell it if you are allowed to direct it. (You’d better have a decent reel, though.)

      Everyone has a chance, but the script must have exceptional commercial potential — this requirement applies to everyone.

      Good luck,


      1. Do you have an article on this? I’d love some tips on how to approach literary agents. How to ensure that your query letter is actually seen by an agent. How to pitch your story in order to best “pique their curiosity”, so they will bother to read your script.

  23. Wow. So I’ve made a few things, but I realized I’m turning into those wannabes you mentioned. I’ve been using excuses like I don’t have a decent camera or no one can act for me, but I think I’ve gotten the message now.

  24. Thank you for your article. What day-job do you think is the best for an aspiring film/TV/TVC director? Which jobs bring the most money, connections, experience? Or is it better to look for a job in a completely different field, while working on the script and making the first feature film? How would you recommend to earn money? Thank’s for your answer.

    1. I would start a well-paid career in a separate industry, preferably one that is not financially correlated with the film industry — in other words, an industry that will not necessarily suffer if the film industry is hit by recession. Keep me posted!

  25. Thank you for your article. I always truly believe film school was overpriced and (almost) useless. But i have some questions. I am interested in being more of an visual art director- a music video director visually showing what I feel with music. Meaning, scripts and actual plot doesn’t really succumb to my visions in a way? I don’t know how to word it but any advice on people inspiring to lean towards making art pieces instead of featured films with a long basic story plot? Thanks

    1. It sounds like you might feel more artistically rewarded in the music video industry, such as it is — or you might utterly loathe it. Experiment with music videos and shorts and you will find your path. Do keep me posted!

  26. This was very helpful and I really appreciate it!!! Ive been working on my reel for a while and I am about to direct another low budget film to add even more to it. Thank you for this awesome article!!! totally worth the read!!! God Bless.
    -Darrick Landreneau

  27. Thank you so much for this piece. It is going to help me so much. I wish all upcoming film directors will use this piece as their homepage and a library site. I love this, thank you once again.

  28. Definitely more people have to understand how the industry actually works, because you will find people who think that if they start as a PA, they will “work their way up” to director one day. I don’t know how in their minds they are connecting these dots. I mean, what, PA to grip, grip to gaffer, gaffer to DP, then DP to director? Like how the heck would that work? They act like these positions are all related, but they really aren’t. The skills to succeed in one are quite different from another and a great gaffer wouldn’t necessarily make even a decent director. They’re completely different skills. Granted, it’s great to have many skills when you’re trying to get work, sure, but the only way to “be” a director is to direct! The part where I disagree is the thought that a director is “his reel.” That seems to me to be a misunderstanding of how directors present themselves. A DP needs a great reel, because that’s how they’re hired. A director’s reel is a vanity piece, often completely pointless. A director’s WORK is what’s important. You’re not going to be hired to make a feature film based on “your reel,” but based on the last feature you did. I don’t think any sane producer would trust you to direct a movie based on a 2 minute reel. Maybe this could work for commercial directing, because you could fit 3-4 spots onto it, or even 7-8 partial spots (punchlines, show brands you’ve worked with, etc.), but not for features. I think most “directors reels” are completely 100% useless because they cut them to music and have almost no dialogue, but a bunch of pretty shots. That won’t do anything but make a producer wonder, “Wow, nice cinematography, who was the DP?!” A director needs to show completed works to demonstrate talent in making a cohesive whole, which is the most important part of the job.

    1. When I refer to a director’s “reel,” the intended meaning is the director’s body of work; the CV or resume’, if you will. I agree that a 2-minute montage would not sell a director.

      A TV commercial director’s reel is constituted by the 6-9 best spots s/he directed. It used to be a DVD but now it’s all done online.

      For feature film directors, in practice the reel is simply a list of film titles and perhaps the DVDs themselves if they are films no one has heard of 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for writing this article. I wish I had received this advice before investing so much time and money into studying filmmaking in college. I realized the truth of what you’ve said here about halfway through, but I felt that by then it would be more of a waste to drop out. I’ve given the same advice to younger aspiring filmmakers myself, when asked about my experience. About the only thing my MFA is good for is teaching, and even with that, schools are more interested in my CV than my academic credentials.

        I searched the comments for the one about director’s reels that you referenced at the top of the article, and assume this is it. I made a “sizzle reel” in grad school, which is exactly what you are saying will not work for getting me hired by a producer for a feature or even a smaller commercial project.

        You’ve made clear the expectations for a TVC director’s reel, but what about someone who is trying to break into features, but has only done shorts so far? Are you saying that we should compile our latest or best work onto a DVD/website, so they can be viewed in their entirety? And what about getting TVC or music video work, same advice?

        Thanks again!

        1. In the current market, the best way to break into feature filmmaking as a director is to write a highly commercial script with a distinctive “voice” and when it generates heat and the industry pursues it, you impose the condition of attaching you as the project’s director. This is called “holding the script hostage” and has worked for many directors (including totally unknown first-timers). James Cameron used this strategy with “The Terminator,” and there are many more recent exmaples. Of course you need some semblance of a director’s reel for this to work, but if the script is hot, even a good short can suffice.

          As for commercials and music videos…those industries are in serious decline and they simply don’t need new directors, because the existing work isn’t even enough to keep established directors busy. Forget about TV commercials if the only reason you are doing them is to break into features. The hostage script strategy has a far better chance of success in this market.

          It is not a magic bullet, however: writing a commercial script is a major undertaking (but at least it doesn’t entail the considerable expense of shooting a feature by yourself).

          Best wishes with your career — keep me posted!

  29. Thank you for this information as I found it to be very helpful and yes uplifting. I am an actor and have a lot of professional training and right now I and about eight others will be making a professional film this summer with a professional film school. We will each be assigned a “title” and it was hinted to me that I will be the Director. I totally would be honored to take on this role! Everyone says that I would make a good one. Having 20 years in the military and before that I was a police officer so after reading what it takes to being a director is about LoL….I thought I have half a chance? I have assisted a couple Directors in their films and learned so much! I just want to some day earn my way….Again, thank you so much for your time and article.

  30. bruh. Bruh. BRUH. This information is so damn valuable, and the fact that you’re willing to help people like yourself, you’re really “The Man”. I really appreciate the fact that you don’t sugar coat things and go straight for the “reel” deal (pun totally intended ;). As an aspiring filmmaker, I thank you like no other. As a matter of fact, I promise you a free family ticket to all of my future blockbuster movies as a sign of respect . I really wish the best and good luck on your filmmaking career.

    Thanks for calling Microsoft!

  31. Great article. I’m not a director, aspiring director, or aspiring to anything in the film industry. I would kind of like to be an extra on a popular TV show or movie. Just sort of one of those “bucket list” things. A modest goal, but that’s about it. Anyway, I was curious what it took to go from “average nobody” to “big shot Hollywood film director”, and I found this industry insider talk pretty fascinating.

  32. I greatly appreciate this site, and in particular this page, but I really hope you will address the post made by “Professional Filmmaker” on August 2, 2013 at 2:11pm. While I can’t find fault in your emphasis on creating a reel, the latter user raised a number of key points, specifically the financially (for many) insurmountable barriers to the industry. Film programs, while not cheap, do seem to provide a hell of lot for far less money than one would have available should they seek to rent equipment and hire actors and crew independently, It seems to me there must be a middle ground here somewhere as not every notable film director comes from a priveledged background, nor did every notable director attend film school. There’s no disputing the automatic competition among students that film school engenders, but what’s the alternative for people who don’t have access to comparable resources?

    1. I took a second look at the comment to which you refer. The points made by the commenter have been addressed exhaustively on this website and I no longer have the time or desire to re-hash my arguments.

      As a courtesy to you, however, I will add (or reiterate) that the equipment cost defence of film school was considerably stronger back in the days when shooting on 16mm or 35mm was the only way to build a professional reel — but even back then, I would have stood by my argument. With the current abundance of comparatively low-cost equipment alternatives, that argument no longer holds water, in my view. There is plenty of equipment being sold on eBay; buy it, build your reel and then sell it back to the next cash-strapped filmmaker.

      If a filmmaker truly has no money and can find a free film “school”, obviously that’s an option. But do such outfits exist? I would imagine their student-to-equipment ratio is on the high side.

      The bottom line is that aspiring filmmakers with parlous finances will struggle to get ahead, but that is true of almost all fields of endeavour. That’s life, unfortunately, but even those people have options: get a job, save money and use it to build a reel. That formula has been used by many an underprivileged youth, and not just in filmmaking.

  33. Thank you for responding. I realize some of what I said was addressed by you in earlier posts, but I should apologize for not clarifying my position in my previous post. When I referred to the resources of film school, I was not speaking purely about cameras. Having dabbled a bit in film, specifically the festival “circuit,” I was made keenly aware of how folks who’d submitted films were not at all on equal footing. I thought this was down to budgets, or acting, or, heaven forbid, talent, but I soon realized that filmmakers who’d come through certain programs had a major leg up on those who didn’t. Upon digging a bit deeper, I learned that it wasn’t just that they’d attended Film School X, but that Film School X boasted a faculty member who had the ear of someone important at (e.g.) Sundance. As a result, films that flowed through that faculty member automatically had favored nations status; most everybody else found their films tossed into the bin. Again, I would stress here that if this advantage inherent to film school(s) does exist, it has absolutely nothing to do with learning how to make films, or even how to become a better film maker – in short, one is paying for connections. Now, you may tell me that none of this ultimately matters, and it’s all about the reel no matter who you know. That may be true, but there seem to be reasons that have nothing to do with film per se that attract the attention of festivals, or agents, or investors, or studio execs, etc., etc. Are the people who rise above simply lucky, or are they getting a leg up by landing themselves in the purview of people who can help them? As with most things in this day and age, the much larger degree of availability accorded by the internet and communications in general has severely skewed signal to noise. I’m not sure if one can to be noticed without assistance.

  34. Thank you for this information it was very helpful. I’m still young but I would like to become a film director. Do you have any suggestions for the reel?

  35. Although I have never directed to make a reel myself, I have however directed in a studio but did not attain my own material. It was just a simple local direct method for a weekly show. Using a switch board, slight editing, and sound clarification. I have written my own screenplays years later one of which actually won a contest for its category in the screenplay festival held in LA in 2012. How does a person grab hold of an agent? I know that schooling is important but my writing skills must be of some caliber if I won a contest yet no agency wants to take the risk. I thought they are looking for fresh new talents as per their advertising niche. It is so frustrating to see that agents only want to hold on to their present screenwriters as their cash cow but if so why keep advertising? I must have emailed about seven dozen agencies since 2012, as well as email drops to the first ones I came across in case someone didn’t receive or read my scripts the first time around. I still have my winning script… all 199 pages of it, which is also if put to film would be the first thriller/horror epic of its kind. Yet no production company, agency, wants to see it. Why? I followed proper protocol such head letters, synopsis, background (Contests included) schooling, and resume. Not one has ever replied back. I never said I wanted to direct. I just wanted to expose another future block buster. As another example, there was a studio which was looking for a particular script. One that had both father, and son as the protagonists. Were on a trip or vacation, ran into trouble with locals, and went on a trip of the mind… a psychological trip. My script described all of that. I’ll say that again…. ALL OF THAT, and yet they said… Sorry but this is not what we’re looking for… good luck. I mean really? They even asked to have it written for the present day, which I still have in my possession. IN any case, how… does a person attain a good open minded agent who can take and ascertain if a script is good or not? There must be some secret or some other avenue to expose my writing other than a contest. Here is the address to that contest so you can see for yourself that I am not all talk. The script is called Necromancer…. Oh and I also got an honorable mention with another screenplay in the same category. So two birds with one stone.

  36. obviously you need to direct to be a director, but for directing you do need to have conections and specificaly a crew, I think all directors have their go to actors dp’s editors etc, so I think disregarding conections aswel as film school is not a good advice at all!
    Where els will you meet colaborators and be able to produce short films for your reel? This article is a rant.

  37. So I’ve loved the idea of directing since I was in 2nd grade (I’m now in grade 10) and i know I’m a long ways a way but I just don’t know where to get started. I make “short films” a lot and some of them are decent but like I said, I just don’t really know where to go. I’m all worried that i won’t be able to support myself financially.

  38. This is what I’ve been looking for the past 2 Years. Finally someone that cuts the bullshit and explains it how it is. I’ve tried to ask so many people about how to go the way without going to college and they say “college is the one and only way”. So thank you!

  39. Hi Ed,

    A lot of this article sounds like captain obvious wrote it. Basically the entire article could’ve been summed up to “make a directors reel.” Anyone who is serious about directing in the industry knows you need a directors reel. I was hoping to find more useful tips other than the obvious one anyone with a brain knows. You also talk about how there is no point in film school or networking and I agree if you are just networking and going to film school with no directors reel it’ll get you no where but, again, for the people who aren’t brain dead and are actually out directing films and have a reel, networking and film school will help tremendously. My buddy got connections through his film school which allowed him to network with some producers in the industry which gave him and his reel a ton of exposure. He has now assistant directed on a few major films within the past couple years and is doing very well for himself. My point is, instead of getting so focused on the obvious “make a film reel” try and give some tips that’ll help filmmakers who are past the “make a film reel” stage.

    1. It is obvious to you and many others, but it certainly isn’t obvious to the numerous aspiring filmmakers who think — either independently or through third-party misinformation — that they can somehow weasel their way into directing gigs without having fully proved themselves first. It’s incredible, and I myself would struggle to believe it if I had not personally met plenty of examples in real life, but that’s the way it is, and for that reason it was worth covering.

      Beyond that, there is plenty of detailed technical filmmaking advice on this website. Start here 🙂

  40. I found after months of research, and still a year left in high school, I will create short films where possible the take part in an externship program along with some online courses. It sounds like a good idea but I’m still not sure…

  41. Thank you for this, it was extremely helpful! A few questions I have, however, is how to “start” filmmaking in the first place. With me for instance, as a teen, what would be the best advice for starting out? It seems almost impossible as I don’t have access to anyone with remotely good acting talent, any sort of equipment beyond an iPhone and free editing software, and no income outside of selling items online and birthday cash. Any tips on how to make my very first film, or finding the funds to do so? Is crowdfunding a good option?

    1. As a teen, your chief concern should be the acquisition and development of filmmaking skills. The equipment you have is more than enough for that. Draft the services of your friends as actors and crew. Treat every project as training, not something that you will screen at festivals — but make sure you plan, shoot and finish these projects as if they were to be screened at Cannes. In other words, place high demands on yourself in terms of learning outcomes. If you do this, by the time you are a few years older and have the income to shoot projects with proper equipment and real actors, your skills will be conducive to the production of audience-worthy projects. Good luck!

      1. Thank you, this is very helpful as I am in the same place, have made some short films, and wanting to move on. Again, thank you for this whole article.

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