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AUTHOR: Robert Montoya
STORY: The Lessons I Learned From Failing as a Filmmaker
When it comes to filmmaking, I’m a failure. There’s no other way to put it.
Thirteen years ago, I jumped into film, and while I’ve worked on seven different projects, in all this time only one of them was my own. Let's just say it didn't go well.
And since then, I’ve only been involved with two other projects.
I’ve learned a lot since those early days, and if my experience can help any young filmmaker avoid the traps I fell into, then I must share my story.
All of us recall that moment when we felt the desire to make films.
Mine was in my teens when I was watching a documentary about the making of my parents’ favorite TV show, Moonlighting.
There were two words the narrator used to identify what he felt was one of the show's greatest strengths: character development.
When I heard those two words, it was like something lit up in my brain and my heart, and a desire was birthed all of us here have felt. A desire to make films.
I buried myself in books on filmmaking and movies, drinking everything in. But I let myself get caught in the trap of thinking that because I didn’t have money or the right equipment, I shouldn’t make anything at all.
I let my excuses and fear of failure keep me from trying, only to become frustrated in my early twenties reading about filmmakers who started when they were nine and I hadn’t made a single film yet.
I hadn’t even written a script out of fear of not “doing it right.”
More time passed, and I stalled myself out thinking I was too old to start.
Had it not been for a friend of mine who had studied graphic design, I probably would have given up altogether. But thanks to his encouragement, I continued studying and found the courage to make the next big decision: move to where the action is.
Moving to Texas
Most of you probably wouldn’t think of Texas when it comes to filmmaking, but back in 2006, the state was still living off the high of Prison Break, so I decided that should be my target of where to leap to for my jump into film.
It didn’t hurt that my parents lived there too, meaning I’d have free room and board. (Yes, I was that guy.)
Thankfully, the doors opened for me no sooner than I arrived. Through my sister, I got connected to someone who was already working in film and he gave me two pieces of advices: look for films to volunteer on, and get your college degree.
I did the former and ignored the latter.
While it is definitely debatable today whether everyone should go to college, as someone who finally did go, I can say that now that Someone upstairs was trying to guide me to the path that would work best for me. Had I listened, life might have gone a lot smoother for me.
Still, even doing half the advice opened doors for me. I got some great experience and met the man who would be a great help and supporter of me following my dream: Derek Presley.
Together, we made three short films, one of which was my own, and a featurette.
Impact, my one and only short film
Making your first film is stressful for anyone. Unless you’re just that great right out of the gate or have supreme self-confidence. For the rest of us, it's a daunting experience.
For days leading up to the shoot, I woke up in the middle of the night with panic attacks.
During the shoot I had something close to a breakdown, but not quite.
The only reason we finished was because of the amazing, hard-working, and patient cast and crew I had surrounding me.
The actors were understanding, the cinematographer (the only paid guy on set) was a jewel, our first-time editor was a class act, and right beside me was Derek. All of them together ensured the completion of my short film, Impact.
When all was finally finished, I was emotionally and financially tapped out with only a short to show for it.
Only a short.
That was my problem: my mindset and perspective.
Instead of being amazed that I had seen this vision become reality, I saw it as a failure because my goal had been to win festivals and jumpstart my career. And at that point, I didn’t have enough money to finance many festival applications.
So I quit.
Mindset and Goals
Because my goals were far too ambitious for where I was, and my mindset destructive, after Impact I stopped trying to make more films. I worked on one more short film with Derek, but then I stopped, except for a short I worked on at my university.
I realized I needed to find a better way to make films than breaking my bank, but continued giving myself excuses while I waited for “the right moment.” And as you probably know, “the right moment” doesn’t just fall into your lap.
You have to be willing to take action, and learn along the way in order to find it. You also need to set small, reasonable, and achievable goals so you don’t fall short and give up.
Part of the problem we beginners have, I think, is that we set these big ambitious goals that we can't possibly achieve with the skills and resources we currently have. It's one thing to believe in yourself and shoot for ambitious targets, but it's another thing to be delusional.
Had I set my goal as simply getting experience or just make a short film, I wouldn’t have been depressed about the outcome of Impact because there wouldn’t have been as big a gap between my expectation and the reality.
Knowing Your Why
When I made Impact, I had dreams of winning festivals and getting money to make more films.
When I was younger, a producer in Britain shared this piece of advice: when you go into filmmaking, you have to do it because you love it and not for money, because in the beginning there is no money.
Sure, I knew it was good advice, but that didn't stop me from doing the exact opposite.
I came down with a case of "red carpet fever" and imagined the wealth I would one day enjoy as a result of my films. This isn’t to say wanting these things in and of themselves is wrong, but as a young, inexperienced filmmaker, it's a destructive mindset.
And sure enough, it destroyed me. I learned the hard way that I was doing film not because I enjoyed it, but because I wanted money and glory. Is it any wonder I stopped making more films?
Don’t let this happen to you
My whole goal in sharing this rather personal story is so that you, my fellow filmmaker, learn from my mistakes and avoid the traps I fell into.
Film is a beautiful art form, and you can no doubt make a great career out of it. But if money and fame are the sole drivers of why you’re doing it, you will likely crash and burn, as I did.
Don’t misunderstand: there is absolutely nothing wrong with becoming rich and famous as a filmmaker, and I’d have to restrain myself from slapping any “auteur” who says otherwise.
What I am saying is that if those are your only drivers to be in film, then your passion won’t sustain itself.
So, please, learn from my mistakes.
Be humble and start small. Set reasonable goals. Do it because you love it and have a story you want to tell. Figure out how to tell a story where you are with what you have.
Learn from the experience, and keep moving. You’ll adjust your direction, but just keep moving.
And if you find out from the experience that film isn’t for you, don’t feel bad at all or feel any shame.
You learned something, and you’re one step closer to a life you can be proud of.
Finally, I hope you don’t mind but I have another motivation for writing this piece: to fire up my desire again, to get out there and make something else even if no one sees it.
See you out there.
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