The Unrealistic Definition of Indie Film Success You’re Probably Chasing

The Unrealistic Definition of Indie Film Success You’re Probably Chasing

The articles on this site tend to be fairly inspirational. But not this one. No. Today I’m going to destroy a harmful myth about success in the world of indie filmmaking.

Based on the fact that you’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance that you frequently read blogs about filmmaking and creativity. And maybe you also read books and magazines on the topic, listen to podcasts, and consume as much filmmaking content as you can.

Good on you. When you pursue growth and become a lifelong learner, success is all the more likely.

However, when you immerse yourself in this world, you start to notice and internalize some recurring stories about what success looks like. There’s one in particular that is particularly harmful, yet it's parroted everywhere. 

You probably know this story already, but in case you don’t, it goes a little something like this:

An unknown filmmaker puts together a short film. It makes a nice festival run, landing the filmmaker some industry contacts.

Then comes the subsequent feature. That film makes it into Sundance, wins a few awards, and gets picked up for distribution. A major studio takes notice, offers the filmmaker a 3-picture deal and hefty sum of money, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Or maybe the short film isn’t even part of the equation. The unknown filmmaker just goes straight for the debut feature and then manages to strike the jackpot. Cha-ching!

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Any reasonable person would classify this narrative as the pinnacle of success for an indie filmmaker starting from square one. 

And it actually does happen from time to time. A great example would be someone like Ryan Coogler, who took Sundance by storm a few years back with his debut feature Fruitvale Station (which was a rather prescient film given the state of policing in the US these days). His next feature was Creed.

Of course, when success stories like this arise, the indie filmmaking sites and magazines pounce and spread them far and wide.

And for that reason, this definition of success gets cemented into the minds of young and aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Now they have a goal. Something to shoot for. A way to break from indie obscurity into the mainstream of filmmaking.

But there’s just one problem.

Why this is a terrible definition of success

In case you hadn’t guessed already, for every Ryan Coogler, Robert Rodriguez, or Duplass duo that goes from low-budget to Hollywood, there are thousands of filmmakers who’ve made feature films that haven’t broken even, let alone made it to a prestigious festival or a traditional distribution deal.

The biggest problem here is that this scenario requires filmmakers to place their faith in forces beyond their control. It requires them to submit to the idea that in order to succeed, they have to be chosen by the powers that be rather than by crafting their own path to success.

You can’t rely on miracles. Miracles are not a business plan.

It requires that they make something good and then pray for a miracle. I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t rely on miracles. Miracles are not a business plan.

Here’s the harsh reality we’re dealing with these days. Even if you make incredible short films and an incredible feature, if they don’t strike the fancy of a particular festival programmer, you’re out of luck. And even if you do make it into some great festivals, there’s a very real chance that your film won’t get picked up for distribution. Many independent films don’t. 

And the chances of a major studio calling because they’re fawning over your amazing directorial talents? Slim to none.

I don’t mean to be a downer here. This particular story does happen from time to time, and it’s a great victory for independent film every time it does. However, for the thousands of independent filmmakers who are actively trying to make this story come true for themselves, most will fail regardless of the quality of their work. And that sucks.

Why adopting this definition of success is so harmful

I know this article probably seems really cynical, like I’m a doomsayer trying to crush everyone’s dreams of making an indie feature and finding success. I swear that’s not the case. 

The reason this site exists is to help indie filmmakers navigate the world of film on their own terms, live by their own values, and make films they actually care about. In essence, this site is all about living a great life as a filmmaker.

When we attach ourselves to a definition of filmmaking success that is out of our control because it relies on miracles, our chances of succeeding and living contentedly go down the drain.

Yet when we attach ourselves to a definition of filmmaking success that is out of our control because it relies on miracles, our chances of succeeding and living contentedly go down the drain.

And I guess that’s the crux of this article. It’s about whether you want to participate in our current indie filmmaking zeitgeist that sets most on a path towards failure, or if you want to be more thoughtful about how you define success so that you can set yourself up for a good life.

Personally, I think the choice between those two is clear.

A better way forward for indie filmmakers

Here’s the silver lining in all of this. Just because that traditional avenue of indie success is the one we’re most often presented with, this doesn’t mean it’s the only way to succeed and make a living as a filmmaker. 

On the contrary, the world of film and media is changing rapidly, and it’s our job to adapt rather than clinging on to the old ways of doing things. With profitable self-distribution becoming more and more viable for any filmmaker who’s built an audience, there’s a world of possibility when it comes to defining success for yourself and forging your own path.

And ultimately, each and every one of us has the power to come up with definitions of success that are unique to our goals and ambitions, definitions that are not only attainable and within our control, but definitions that will ultimately lead us to be more fulfilled when we actually achieve them.

In my next article, I’m going to talk about a few of those alternative definitions for success within the world of film, and I’ll share some strategies for how to come up with your own. Until the next time.

-Robert Hardy

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