The Roadmap to a Successful Filmmaking Career

The Roadmap to a Successful Filmmaking Career

Here’s a question for you. Do you follow any kind of process to ensure you’ll be successful as a filmmaker? Or are you just winging it? 

It’s ok if you’re winging it. That’s what I did for many years. And if I'm being honest with you, it didn’t turn out so well. In fact, it was kind of a disaster.

A few years out of film school, I got seriously burned out on filmmaking, depressed even. There came a point where I thought about just giving up filmmaking entirely and getting a regular old day job.

It was devastating, especially after having invested so many years into pursuing the filmmaking dream. Frankly I wouldn't wish that kind of emotional turmoil on anyone.

Anyhow, this post isn't about me. Instead, it's about a bigger, much more important question...

What if filmmakers didn’t have to “wing it” in order to work their way towards success?

I mean, we all know it's easier to accomplish difficult things when we follow a set of guidelines that have been proven to work.

For instance, you follow a basic process for making films, right? You start with an idea, get a script written, pre-produce it, shoot it, edit it, grade it and give it some sound design, then send it off into the world.

Why not apply that same kind of systematic thinking to your life as a filmmaker? Wouldn’t that make things significantly easier? I sure think so.

But what exactly would that process look like?

Well friend, that’s the question I’ve been pondering over the past year.

In that time, I’ve talked to hundreds of filmmakers—some successful and some not—read close to 130 books (not even joking), and most importantly, applied a lot of this knowledge to my own life as a creative.

And what I've come up with is a set of best practices to help filmmakers move more quickly and intentionally towards their own definitions of success. 

Don't worry. It's not some hyped up magic formula or anything like that. Instead it's a series of simple, common-sense ideas about how long-term success actually works, how to make a comfortable and stable living in an uncertain world, and how creative types like us can make work we're proud of.

When you string all of these ideas together, it creates a useful framework for how to approach your filmmaking career in a smart, methodical way. And if you follow that framework, it will slowly and surely lead you towards your goals instead of just spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

So that's what I want to share with you today—my handy framework for living a successful life as a filmmaker.

So without any further ado, here’s the bird’s eye view of how it works. Just be warned—it’s not easy, quick, or some kind of magical hack to solve all of your life’s problems.

Like anything worthwhile, this is about playing the long game and putting in the work. If you're cool with that, then you'll get a lot of value out of applying this to your life.

Step 1 - Define filmmaking success for yourself.

I've touched on this topic many times, but it’s worth stating again. When you define success for yourself—and you know that you’ll enjoy the journey required to achieve that success—you set yourself up to live a good life.

On the flip side, when you operate on someone else’s definition of success, you run the risk of wasting valuable time and energy on something you never wanted in the first place. 

So be real with yourself. Figure out what you really want to achieve as a filmmaker, and more importantly, why you want to achieve it. Be as honest as you can be, because your definition of success is the foundation on which your life is built.

Step 2 - Ditch the idea of “overnight success” and invest in small daily actions.

Overnight success—especially in the world of filmmaking—is total bullshit. 

Every time you hear about a filmmaker achieving sudden success, it’s always the result of years and years of hard, unappreciated work. We just get to see the last triumphant 1% of their journey without the grueling 99% that came before it.

So instead of counting on overnight success, invest in making small, manageable bits of progress every single day, or at least every single week. Just as compound interest is the most powerful force in the financial world, compound actions are the most powerful driver of personal success.

Now, this is a huge topic that I’ll cover more in the future, but for now, start thinking about this question.

If you could only devote 30 minutes a day to work towards your filmmaking ambitions, what are the core actions you’d take that would consistently move you closer to success?

It’s a super difficult question, but answering it and then taking consistent action is the difference between succeeding and failing.

Step 3 - Find a money path that aligns with your definition of success.

Yes, money is an absolute necessity in this world, but that doesn’t mean you have to sell your soul to get it. In fact, there are quite a few good ways to make a living, both in the world of film and outside of it.

If you want to make a living as a filmmaker, you can choose one of three broad categories: the film industry, freelancing and client work, and truly independent film. There are multiple paths you can take within each of those categories, and you can even mix and match them to suit your needs. The possibilities are endless.

You can also make your living outside of the world of film (because let’s be honest, filmmaking is far from the easiest or most profitable way to make a living). If you choose this option, you give up a lot of time and energy that you could be devoting to film, but you also gain an incredible amount of freedom to choose what films you work on and who you work with. Maybe that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for you. Maybe not.

What’s most important here is choosing a path that’s in line with your definition of success. If what you really want is to make a living with your own original films, but you never do anything other than shoot corporate videos, are you really working your way towards success? I think not.

Step 4 - Find one way (or several) to diversify your income.

Whatever you do, don’t skip this step. It’s really goddamn important. Whether you realize it or not, income instability comes with the territory of being a filmmaker, no matter which of the money paths you choose.

And when your income isn’t stable, it becomes very difficult to live a good life. I’m speaking from experience on this one. It really sucks when your main source of income dries up and you don’t have anything to fall back on.

Luckily, in 2017 and beyond, pretty much any filmmaker can start up a profitable side hustle, whether it’s shooting stock footage or doing something completely unrelated to film.

Step 5 - Hone your craft and find your unique artistic voice.

This is pretty self-explanatory. You need to be good at the craft of making films in order to succeed, and you need to make films that are unique and noteworthy if you want to stand out from the crowd.

And the absolute best tool I know of for accomplishing both of these things at once is making a lot of micro films, or small projects in the range of 1-5 minutes. 

Since they require very little money or time to produce, and since you’re not counting on them to generate income, you can use them to hone your technical and storytelling skills, take bold creative risks, and work with lots of new people, which helps you grow your network.

Step 6 - Start building up a unique and purposeful body of work.

Your body of work tells a story about who your are and what you’ve done. And once you realize that, you can start controlling the story you send out into the world.

This is super important, because in the world of film, a high quality body of work is your calling card. It’s what opens doors to the best opportunities. Frankly, nobody gives a damn about your resume or if you have a fancy degree. They care what you’ve done in the past, as it’s the best indicator of what you’ll be able to do in the future. (sidenote: they also care if you come highly recommended from other trusted filmmakers, so start building your network, too!)

So be intentional about your body of work. Start thinking of everything you include as a small part of your larger story. 

For instance, you can work on reality shows and corporate videos to pay the bills, but if that content doesn’t fit into the larger picture of your ideal body of work, don’t include it. Use your body of work as a means to tell the world what you’re all about.

Again, one of the best ways to grow your ideal body of work quickly is by making micro films. These little films are such a powerful tool, and it’s crazy to me that more filmmakers aren’t using them to further their careers.

Step 7 - Apply "success boosters" liberally. 

Success boosters are things that aren’t directly tied to filmmaking, but that will nonetheless skyrocket your chances of being successful. This includes practices like... 

  • building and nurturing your personal and professional networks.

  • building a diverse range of non-filmmaking skills, including hard skills like persuasion and pitching, and soft skills like communication, leadership, and collaboration.

  • managing your time and energy better.

  • taking care of your physical and mental health.

As an added bonus, when you focus on success boosters, their effects carry over to every other part of your life.

Step 8 - Keep showing up, even when it feels like you’re not making progress.

Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is just showing up.”

He was right, and that’s why this is the most important of the steps. Filmmaking success always takes time. Just doing a little bit of this stuff and then giving up won’t get you the results you’re after.

This is why it’s so essential to be deeply connected with your definition of success. You have to know why you want it, because that “why” will fuel you and keep you motivated and engaged over the long haul, even when things get tough, which they inevitably will.

But when you keep showing up, putting in the work, and following the rest of these steps, your definition of success can be achieved. I promise.

Step 9 - Don’t be afraid to reassess. 

No matter what, your definition of success is never set in stone, nor is the path to achieving it.

We’re all constantly growing and changing, so it makes sense to slow down every once in awhile, figure out if we’re still on a track that we want to be on, and then make any necessary course corrections.

And that’s pretty much it!

Now, this is really just a high-level overview of the whole system. You obviously can’t go out and implement all of this stuff tomorrow and then call it good. I wish it worked like that, but it doesn’t.

Instead, you need a way to translate this system into your everyday life. You need a set of small, practical actions you can start taking immediately. And that’s precisely what I teach in my course, the Filmmaker's Guide to Success.

If you're ready to stop spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, I'd love for you to join me.