Hey friend, welcome to lesson one of the Fundamentals of Filmmaking Success.
Each of these lessons will be fairly in-depth, but at their core, they'll each contain a simple, valuable idea you can use to build an incredible career in film. I want you to come away from this series with the tools you need to make serious progress towards your goals.
In fact, my biggest hope is that you’ll use this stuff to kick some serious ass in 2018, just as I’ll be doing.
Also, each lesson will have an “interactive workbook” embedded at the bottom. When you click through, you’ll be able to to answer a series of questions to help you apply this new information to your life. You’ll even be able to share your answers with other students, which is super cool.
So let’s get into lesson one!
My personal story, and why defining success for yourself is so damn important
If you’ve been around Filmmaker's Process for any length of time, you know I LOVE talking about this idea of “defining filmmaking success for yourself.” It’s my bread and butter, if you will.
And I’m passionate about this idea because it fundamentally changed how I approach my life as a filmmaker. Here’s a short version of my story.
Back in the day, I thought I wanted to work in film industry. I wanted to be an acclaimed and respected cinematographer shooting dramatic features and shows for a living. That was the dream.
But there was a major problem. With the exception of my close friends, I didn’t really enjoy working on other people’s films that much. And I absolutely despised working 12, 14, or even 16 hour days on set, especially on projects I wasn’t emotionally invested in.
Most of the “joy” I got out of filmmaking came from working on cool stuff with people I cared about, and my journey towards being an industry DP consisted of very little of that.
And because I was doing these two things basically all day and every day, it’s not much of a surprise that I got seriously burned out and depressed. To be completely honest with you, I actually considered giving up on filmmaking because those years were so miserable.
At the core of this personal story, there’s a very important life lesson:
If you’re pursuing a specific destination in your career, but you know you won’t enjoy the journey required to get there, it’s probably not a worthwhile destination.
From my point of view, this is a big problem in the world of film.
Because when you pay attention, you’ll notice that society tells us there are only a few specific ways to be “successful.” You must be a famous director, a high-profile DP or actor or editor, or one of the rare indie filmmakers who “makes it.”
Basically, we’re surrounded by these culturally-driven expectations for what it means to be a successful filmmaker. And they get in our heads.
So most of us end up pursuing a common path like that, regardless of whether it’s actually a good fit for us. And oftentimes (but not always), it leads us into careers that aren’t as enjoyable or fulfilling as they should be.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? We all just want to live good, fulfilled lives doing work we love. There’s not much point in being a filmmaker if it ultimately makes you miserable.
So if chasing the “default” definitions of success isn’t the best way to go, what should we do instead?
The answer, we should intentionally design the career we want BEFORE we start pursuing it. Or if you’re already on a certain path, you should take a moment to challenge your current definition of success. Because I can’t imagine you want to spend time working towards something that might not make you happy.
So, now that you now WHY it’s important to define success for yourself, here’s everything I know about HOW to do it.
A list of very challenging questions to help you design your ideal film career
My first favorite tactic for figuring out your ideal definition of success is simply to ask yourself a few tough questions. And when I say tough, I mean it. Thinking through these should make your brain sweat a little bit.
So here are a few to get you started:
- What does your ideal body of work look like in two years, five years, and ten years? Hell, what about twenty years?
- What impact do you want your work to have on audiences? Does it entertain them, change them, make them think?
- What’s the ideal balance between work that you do for money, and work that you do for yourself? Or are those one in the same?
- How skilled do you want to be in the craft of filmmaking? Do you want to master one specific aspect of the craft, or do you want to be a well-rounded jack-of-all-trades?
- Is it important that you develop a unique voice of your own?
- How would you like the act of making films to fit into the larger picture of your life? Do you spend 70 hours a week in the throes of the filmmaking process, or do you spend time with family and friends, pursuing outside interests and hobbies?
- How much money would make you feel comfortable and successful as a filmmaker? I know this might seem a little taboo, but it can be helpful to figure out an actual number.
You’ve probably already realized this, but these questions are difficult and a bit uncomfortable to answer. So no worries if you’re drawing a blank at this point. Think these over now, but don’t put too much pressure to come up with definitive answers. You can always come back to them at any time you want.
Define success so that it’s not a single event or destination, but instead a state of being.
I'm sure you already know this, but you won't wake up one day and magically feel successful. Our brains just don't work like that.
It’s an effect known as the “hedonic treadmill,” and it’s been studied extensively in the world of psychology.
Basically, we have a baseline level of satisfaction and happiness. Then when something awesome happens in our life—like achieving a big career goal or finally finishing a dream project—you get a big, but temporary boost in happiness. After that, it’s only a matter of time before you go back to the baseline.
That’s why I recommend defining success in a way that isn’t tied to a single event or some end destination. Instead, think of filmmaking success as a state of being that generally raises your base level and makes your more fulfilled more of the time.
So the trick here is to consider your answers from the above question, then put together a statement that addresses the state of being you’d like to achieve.
Here are some examples.
- Instead of… “I’ll be successful when I land a five figure video contract with a client I like,” try… “I’ll be successful when I have a thriving and profitable production company that serves businesses I believe in.”
- Instead of… “I’ll be successful when I sell my first feature film,” try… “I’ll be successful when I make a full-time living from my original indie features.”
- Instead of… “I’ll be successful when I get my first job as an editor in Hollywood,” try… “I’ll be successful when I make my full time living editing dramatic feature films and television shows.”
No matter what your career trajectory is, I’m willing to bet there’s a state of being that you’d be incredibly satisfied to reach and maintain. Your job here is to find it.
Define success for yourself on a “per project” basis
No matter what kind of filmmaker you are, the vast majority of your work happens in the context of “projects.” Whether you’re freelancing, working in the industry, making indie films, or tackling some kind of passion project, a lot of our time is spent on self-contained projects.
That’s why I recommend spending a few minutes at the start of every project figuring out what the ideal outcomes will be. Because, the more you understand what your ideal outcomes are, the more you can focus your energy on making them happen.
So here are some questions to help you define success on a per-project basis.
- What’s the ideal outcome for you personally in regards to the project? Are you in this just for a paycheck, for connections and relationship building, to learn something new?
- If the project is one of your films, what’s the ideal outcome for the film itself? Do you want it to sell to a distributer, screen at a bunch of festivals, be a hit on VOD platforms, or just be seen a gazillion times online?
- If you’re working with collaborators, figure out what the ideal outcome will be for them if everything goes well. What will they get out of this project?
Unlike before, the answers to these questions should be easier to suss out. But it’s still valuable to do because it gives you a better idea of what to focus on throughout the project.
Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind
Before we wrap up this lesson, there’s one last thing I want you to consider. Your definitions of success are never set in stone. Never ever ever.
It’s perfectly reasonable and healthy to let your definition change over time as you do. Not only is the world constantly changing, but we’re all growing as people and artists, whether we realize it or not.
Chances are the person you are today won’t see the world the same way as the version of you who’s 10 years older.
So don’t hold on to your definitions of success too rigidly. Life has a way of leading us in interesting new directions, so don’t resist when better things come along that don’t fit into your original definition.
Your homework assignment, should you choose to accept it
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I hope you found it valuable, and that you had an “ah-ha” moment or two.
If you’re a go-getter, the kind of person who doesn’t just consume information, but actually uses it to make their lives better, I’ve put together a workbook for you. Consider it your homework.
It’s just three simple, but not easy, questions. And by answering them and writing this stuff down, you’ll gain a better understanding of where you want to go in your career and how it will feel when you’ll get there.
Quick tech note: in order to use these workbooks, you’ve got to create an account with a software called OfCourseBooks. It’s a great little indie software company, and they’ll keep your data safe and secure.