If you’ve ever wondered what greatness means in the context of filmmaking, you’ve come to the right place.
Now a few words of warning before we jump into this topic. If you’re expecting an article about how many theater seats you have to fill or YouTube views you have to accumulate before you can start calling yourself great, you’re about to be sorely disappointed.
This article, like many of the ones I publish on this site, is about your mindset, your philosophy, and your spirit. It’s about introspection and individuality. It’s about finding your own path through the world of filmmaking and walking it proudly irrespective of what other filmmakers are doing.
I know that probably sounds a little "out there," like I’m advocating that we all live in a world where the cars are powered by unicorn farts and we sing kumbaya all day long. I swear I’m not. Just stick with me.
So let’s dive down the rabbit hole, shall we.
What does it even mean to be “good” or “great” as a filmmaker?
Before we get into this, I think it might be useful to clarify a couple of things.
First, this article isn’t about the technical, logistical, or craft aspects of filmmaking. It’s not about how good you are with a camera, your ability to raise funds, secure locations, and manage a set. It’s not about whether you’re a master at one aspect of the filmmaking process or a well-rounded jack of all trades.
Nor does it have anything to do with how mass audiences or critics feel about your films. That may seem counterintuitive. Many of us equate greatness with getting to Hollywood, making a string of popular and critically acclaimed blockbusters (or high-budget indies), and calling it a career.
But I think greatness goes much, much deeper than that. Let me explain.
So what’s the difference?
As far as I see it, both good and great filmmakers are technically accomplished. They’re both craftsman, using the many tools available to them to weave together compelling visual and auditory stories. They both understand film language intrinsically and use it to great effect. They both make work that engages audiences.
So the difference is this: Great filmmakers aren’t satisfied to do the same things as everybody else just because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” They take risks and push boundaries. They cultivate a unique artistic voice and perspective, and they have the courage to actually infuse their work with that voice.
Great filmmakers aren’t particularly concerned with what audiences and critics think because their source of validation isn’t external. They’re seeking to express something personal and intimate, yet universal and profound. Sure, they’re wrapping all of this in story and in the film language, but they’re practicing courage and vulnerability by putting very real pieces of themselves out into the world.
And subsequently great filmmakers are both the ones failing most often and they’re the most resilient. Just like in the world of entrepreneurship, failure in the pursuit of great filmmaking is a badge of honor. It’s a symbol of being one step closer to making something incredible and lasting.
Basically, good filmmakers leave behind good films, but great filmmakers leave behind their unique fingerprint on the entire craft.
Editorial side note: By this definition, it’s absolutely possible for a good filmmaker to become great or for a great filmmaker to be good. This isn’t some genetic thing where greatness is just a part of you. It’s something that comes from your beliefs and your actions. Basically, anybody can become a great filmmaker if they cultivate the right beliefs and follow through on them.
Why “greatness” is important for the future of film
You might be asking yourself why this approach to filmmaking should be classified as “great.” Well simply put, because this is how film will continue to evolve as an artistic medium.
Like the novel, the play, and music, all of which have existed for many hundreds of years, film has a bright future ahead of it. However, if we want it to keep evolving and growing, that evolution starts with a few brave filmmakers here and now. It starts with challenging the status quo, innovating, disrupting, and moving forward.
Now I’m certainly not arguing that anybody reading this should take it upon themselves to go out and try to reinvent filmmaking as we know it. Instead, I’m arguing for individual boldness in filmmaking, small acts of defiance towards how films are traditionally made that will eventually add up into something profound when taken cumulatively.
I’m also not arguing that everybody should pursue this definition of filmmaking greatness, nor am I putting down anybody who chooses to walk the path of being a good filmmaker.
Even though good filmmakers tend to play it safe and make content they’re reasonably sure will be successful, the world is genuinely a better place when it’s full of good filmmakers. There are never enough first-rate stories, well told in film form. Never ever.
But we also need great filmmakers. People who are willing to say “fuck it” and push forward with whatever they’re doing even though it may seem crazy and delusional and impossible. That’s how change comes about. That’s how film will continue to stay powerful and relevant for centuries to come.
A recent (non-filmmaking) example of this principle in my life
As you might have guessed, this idea of pursuing greatness is applicable to just about any art or craft or creative pursuit. For a quick personal example (that is vaguely related to filmmaking), let’s reference an article I wrote and published a few weeks back about why I make a distinction between “films” and “movies” and why it’s important to me.
That was an article I had wanted to write for years. But I didn’t, partly because the distinction between films and movies is totally arbitrary (although it’s useful for me, hence why I wrote the article) and because I was deathly afraid of being called names and judged for wanting to hold myself to a different set of standards.
So instead of writing it, I put out nearly 800 other articles over at No Film School. Of those hundreds of articles, only about 20 weren’t generic and lifeless. To say that I phoned it in for a couple of years would be an understatement. I conformed to what people wanted instead of saying what I really wanted to say.
What really happens when you speak your truth
After leaving NFS and running this site for nearly a year — and continuously publishing stories that push farther and farther away from what other film blogs share — I went ahead and spoke my truth and put that particular article out into the world.
And you know what, it was easily the most polarizing thing I’ve ever written.
I had people commenting on it to tell me that I was a pretentious piece of shit who should probably stop existing. But there were also people who personally wrote to thank me for putting it out there because it echoed their feelings on the subject and resonated in a meaningful way.
This is what happens when you speak your truth in filmmaking, writing, or art of any form. Instead of broadly and mildly appealing to most everyone, you alienate some people while connecting deeply with others.
As far as I see it, this result is far preferable to playing it safe and being generic. It’s those strong, genuine connections that are worth more than anything else, and they don’t come from phoning it in. They come from being bold and courageous and vulnerable.
All in all, this approach has put some newfound pep in my step. I genuinely feel like a happier human being than I was when I was crapping out gear articles and clickbait. These days, it feels like I’m grounded in a larger purpose that has nothing to do with generating pageviews or making advertisers happy. It feels like I’m helping to shape the future of truly independent filmmaking in my own small way.
Could this be totally delusional? Perhaps. But I don’t really give a shit. And neither should you.
Now go forth, my friends. Be open, curious, and courageous. Find your voice and develop your perspective, and be unapologetic when it comes to infusing your films with that individuality.
Pursue greatness, and strive to make films that turn the world on its head. Because with hard work and a little luck, you just might.
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