In my last article, I was what you might call a "Negative Nancy."
In it, I argued that you're probably chasing a definition of indie filmmaking success that’s not only unrealistic, but that will negatively impact the quality of your life if you pursue it.
That definition of success — making a feature and then relying on major festivals, traditional distribution, and the studio system — is almost entirely outside your control these days. But it’s still thrust upon indie filmmakers in blogs and magazines and podcasts as the ultimate measuring stick for whether we’ve “made it” or not.
This is how a bunch of people end up with a definition of success that isn’t their own, even when it’s a definition that ultimately does more harm than good.
Yeesh. What a bummer.
In sharp contrast to all of that doom and gloom, today’s article is going to be quite a bit more hopeful. It’s all about how to define success for yourself instead of having the world define it for you. And it’s packed with pragmatic ideas and strategies you can use right away.
But the purpose of this article goes deeper than just coming up with a few definitions and goals. It cuts to the core of what it means to live well. You see, when you can define success for yourself, and that definition is not only realistic, but genuinely fulfilling for you, you set yourself up to live a good life.
Of course, in order to accomplish anything, you still have to put in the work and hustle and get shit done. But if you’re intentional, plan well, and execute on those plans, there’s no reason you can’t be successful as a filmmaker, no matter how you choose to define success.
So let’s dive right in.
How to define success for yourself as a filmmaker
For starters, let’s just get the most obvious thing out of the way. If you’re planning to define filmmaking success for yourself, that definition should be both realistic and within your control.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t shoot for the stars. Ambition is a great thing, and the world needs more ambitious films and filmmakers.
However, when your ambition isn’t particularly realistic or tied to something that’s within your control, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Plain and simple. That was the entire point of the last article. You can’t rely on miracles to get you to where you want to go. Miracles are not a strategy.
So instead of relying on miracles, let’s check out a few strategies for defining success that are more worthwhile.
Figure out what you actually want (instead of what the world says you should want)
The first step in defining success for yourself is to disconnect yourself from the idea that you absolutely must follow in the footsteps of a filmmaker who has already made it.
The film industry is always changing, particularly these days with digital technology disrupting everything. So what may have been a viable path towards filmmaking success 10 years ago probably won’t work for you (or anybody) today.
That’s not to say that successful filmmakers don’t have some useful and worthwhile advice. Of course they do. Just be wary of thinking of their unique paths as a prescription for yourself.
The next step is to ask yourself what you actually want from filmmaking. This is far and away the most difficult piece of this whole thing because it requires a good deal of self-awareness and introspection.
Here are some questions that should help with this.
If you continue on your current path, where will you end up? Is that a result that actually excites you, or are you indifferent towards it?
Do you want to make a living through making your own films, or working on someone else’s?
If you want to make your own films, is it commercial success you’re seeking, artistic expression, or both? If it’s both, are you willing to compromise your artistic vision for commercial interests?
Are the frustrations and disappointments inherent to navigating the film industry worth it to you?
What does your body of work look like in five years? What about 20 years from now?
What audiences do you want to reach with your films? How will your work impact them?
It’s important that you spend some time here thinking about what you really want from filmmaking. A lot of us tend to go with the flow when it comes to these types of decisions. But achieving clarity here will be your best friend because it'll help you figure out how to actually build a path towards accomplishing your goals.
So come up with either a tangible destination or a continuous state that you would like to reach. For reference, a destination is something with finality to it, like having made 10 features by the time you retire. A continuous state is just that. It’s a way of living, like making a feature every other year for as long as you’re able.
Make sure your definition of success is actually realistic and within your control
Once you’ve figured out something that you want to achieve in filmmaking — for example, let’s say you want to make uncompromising and artistically-ambitious indie features and make a living from it — the next step is to ask yourself if that’s realistic and within your control.
Don’t skip this step. If you come up with a destination for yourself, but it’s not something you can realistically achieve, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and refine your idea.
In the case of the above example, most of us know that it’s not entirely impossible to make a living this way, but it’s also unlikely and not particularly sustainable. From the best data we have, most indie filmmakers don’t make their entire living on feature films. Instead, they run production companies, work as freelancers, make commercials and music videos, teach at universities, etc, before taking sabbaticals to make their next feature.
Knowing that, it’d be wise to refine your destination so that it reflects the reality of what it takes to make artistically-satisfying indie features.
So then maybe your new definition of success becomes, “I want to make an uncompromising indie feature every other year, but because that’s not going to cover all of my bills, I’m going to make my primary income from some related field and then treat my personal films as a side business (or even as a hobby).”
I know, it’s not a sexy definition of success by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s potentially a very rewarding and fulfilling way to live that allows you to make the films you want (which I’m assuming is a goal for most of us) while not having to worry about whether your films will put food on the table for you and your family. And best of all, this definition is realistic and within your control. Huzzah!
When evaluating your definition, always ask yourself why
Let’s backtrack for a moment and talk about another critical aspect of defining success for yourself. We’ve already figured out what you want and made sure that you’re focusing on things that are realistic. Now let’s tackle the more important piece. Why.
Whenever you’re considering a goal for yourself (whether it’s related to filmmaking or anything else), it’s a best practice to ask yourself why you want to achieve that goal. Really dig deep here.
You want to become an in-demand Hollywood director. Why? You want to make dramatic feature films with strong female leads. Why? You want to make people think and feel through your filmography. Why? You want to just make a living working on other people’s projects. Why?
And then for the answer to each of those “whys,” it can be helpful to keep digging and ask why again.
Seriously, get to the core of why you actually want these things. Does it come from beliefs instilled in you by film blogs, a mentor you had, maybe your parents? Does it come from you trying to be someone or something you’re not? Get to the root of what you want. Make sure you're not aiming to accomplish something that doesn't really align with your values.
This may feel a bit difficult and redundant after all of those other exercises above, but I implore you to do it. The more clarity we have on our goals and definitions of success, and the more we’ve tied them to our beliefs and values, the more likely we are to be fulfilled when we actually achieve that success.
Plus there’s a legitimate danger to skipping this step. If you don’t ask yourself why you want something, you may very well achieve it and then find out that you never really wanted it in the first place. You just chased it on autopilot. You assumed you wanted it, but your assumptions were wrong.
Considering alternative definitions of filmmaking success
In many ways, the reason this site exists is to give people alternative ways to navigate through the world of filmmaking. Personally, I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of film, but I find the film industry itself to be pretty aggravating and demoralizing. Truthfully, I have no intention of making my living that way (more about that in a bit).
So that’s the philosophy behind much of the content I’ve written on this site. And in the relatively short time Filmmaker’s Process has been around, I’ve shared quite a few different variations on what filmmaking “success” can look like if you choose to step outside of the mainstream definitions.
You can choose to treat filmmaking as a business, or not
You can choose to make films that are personally meaningful to you
You can choose to make short films instead of features
You can choose to specialize in one aspect of the craft or be a jack of all trades
You can choose to pursue greatness and push boundaries
You can choose to treat film as a skilled craft and adopt a growth mindset
You can choose to love the filmmaking process and divorce yourself from the results.
You can use the filmmaking process as an outlet for depression and anxiety (although let’s be honest, making films probably causes more anxiety than it alleviates).
These might not be traditional ways of thinking about filmmaking success, but they are the things that I believe in and try to actively practice myself. And they’re things that are likely to result in getting more fulfillment from filmmaking. Which for me at least, is ultimately the point of all of this.
But these things are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to alternative ways of being successful as a filmmaker in 2016 and beyond.
Inexpensive production and post-production technology is making the filmmaking process more accessible to people all over the world, people who’ve traditionally never been represented or heard from in film. And internet distribution is continuing to evolve in ways that help this new generation of filmmakers to reach their audience.
I won’t speculate as to the details, but I’d wager that in the next five years, digital self-distribution will become a much more viable and profitable, not just for the voices that are already established in film, but for all of us.
My definition of success
Now, I know this won’t apply to most of you, but I’ve chosen a rather minimalist definition of success for myself that is purposely vague, and is focused on my quality of life more than anything else. That’s just where my priorities are these days. So here it is.
I want to make films that I genuinely care about with people I like.
It’s super simple, but for me, that’s all that I need. I’ve tried my hand at the film industry, and it wasn’t for me. More often than not, I found myself working on projects I didn’t care about with people I didn’t particularly like, often working 14–16 hour days for a negligible amount of money. Sure, the process of making films can be a lot of fun, but that particular way of life sucked all of the joy out of it for me.
However, as someone who believes in the power of film and who cares deeply about art, creativity, expression, integrity and all of those fluffy concepts, not making films and not being a part of the film community just wasn’t an option.
So here we are. I don’t make films for a living. I write and do content marketing to pay my bills (which gives me tons of flexibility in how I spend my time), and I take on new film projects when they meet my criteria. It’s pretty rad.
Your definition of success can change over time
Before we wrap up this article, there’s one last thing I want you to consider. Your definitions of success are never set in stone. Never ever ever.
In many ways, we’re all works in progress, and the world itself is changing daily it seems, so it doesn’t make much sense for our definitions of success to stay static.
For that reason, I think it’s perfectly healthy to let your definition change over time as you do. We’re all growing as people and artists, whether we like it or not. The person you are today might have not see the world the same way as the version of you who’s 10 years older.
For me, despite all of my protest in this article and others, there’s definitely a chance I may end up doing something in the film industry one day. Right now, in this season of my life, that doesn’t sound like a great way to spend my time. But in a few years? Who knows. It’s certainly possible.
So make sure you’re constantly revisiting and revising whatever definition of success you come up with. It should always be a work in progress as you become more knowledgable and your tastes change and new paths towards success open up.
If there’s one thing I hope everyone takes away from this article, it’s that you’re in charge. Nobody has the right to tell you what your definition of filmmaking success should be. Not me, not any other writer, not any supposedly successful filmmaker. Nobody.
In the past 15 years, the world of filmmaking has changed immeasurably thanks to inexpensive digital technology and the internet. Because this seismic shift, there are now infinite ways you can make your way through the world as a filmmaker. And there are infinite ways you can succeed.
Sure, there are still a few traditional definitions of filmmaking success that are viable right now. And if those appeal to you and you have a solid plan to achieve them, then I wholeheartedly wish you the best of luck.
However, if you’re anything like me and you’re skeptical of the traditional definitions of success, then please don’t feel obligated to pursue them just because everyone else is.
Your definition doesn’t have to be wildly exciting or flashy or even necessarily measurable. It just has to be something you know you want and you know you can achieve if you put in the work. Whether that’s making millions as a big shot director or just making cool short films with your friends on the weekends.
And if living a happy and fulfilled life as a filmmaker is a priority for you, then coming up with your own definition of success, one that’s tied to your own goals and values, is simply a must. Hopefully I’ve given you a few tools to do that in this article, but there will certainly be more to come as we dive deeper into this.
In the meantime, I wish you the best of luck.
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