The Nine Building Blocks of Filmmaking Success

The Nine Building Blocks of Filmmaking Success

There's no single "correct" path for succeeding as a filmmaker. But there are certain building blocks that exist in every filmmaking success story, blocks that you can use to craft your own path through the world of film.

That's the topic we'll be diving into in the season one finale of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast. Because so far in this show, we've covered a handful of very specific, very actionable topics—things like how to succeed in the film industry, as a production company owner, and as an indie filmmaker. We've also covered the topic of diversifying your income, how to make original work, and network like a pro.

All of that stuff is incredibly valuable, but it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees, to get wrapped up in the details and tactics of filmmaking success while missing the larger picture. But it's that larger picture that's ultimately important.

And that's what the building blocks of filmmaking success is all about. It gives us a lens to focus our decisions through, a way to make the most purposeful decisions in our careers and focus on what's most important at any given point in time, all without losing sight of the big picture.

Here's some of what you'll learn in episode 10: 

  • Why focusing on the bigger picture of your career is essential.

  • The 9 building blocks of filmmaking success, and how to get started with each of them.

  • A practical plan to make a massive leap in your filmmaking career in the next 90 days

Here's the episode. You can also listen and subscribe through iTunesStitcher, PocketCasts, and the Google Play Store.

If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!


The first season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is sponsored by my friends over at Music Vine.

You have a lot of choices these days when it comes to finding music for your films and video projects. But Music Vine stands above the pack.

Not only is it refreshingly straightforward to license music you’d actually want to use, but it’s also genuinely affordable, even for indie filmmakers on shoestring budgets.

And the best part is, the music is all thoughtful, expressive, and genuine. It’s sourced from indie artists all over the globe who put the same care and attention and soul into their music as you do into your films.

That’s why all of the music in this podcast comes straight from the Music Vine library. Here's the playlist of songs from this episode.

You can get 10% off your first purchase when you use the code FREEDOM at checkout. Enjoy.

The 9 Building Blocks of Filmmaking Success

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.

[For a deep dive on this topic, go back and listen to episode one]

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.

[For a deep dive on this topic, go back and listen to episode two]

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.

[For a deep dive on the three major ways to make a living as a filmmaker, go back and listen to episodes 4, 5, and 6]

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.

[For a deep dive on this topic, go back and listen to episode seven]

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.

[For a deep dive on how to develop your unique voice, go back and listen to episode eight]

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.

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... 

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

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.

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.

Boosting Your Success with a 90 Day Plan

Ok, so I just threw a ton of information that you. And I'm sure it probably felt a little bit overwhelming. But I just want to talk a little bit about how to put all of these pieces together in a way that is clear and systematic.

If you’re anything like me, you like to tackle big ambitious projects by going “all in” and trying to work on many different things at once. And if you’ve used this approach, you’ve probably gotten burned out time and time again. Trying to do too much at once is almost always a recipe for failure. You start out with a great sense of enthusiasm, but after a few days or a few weeks, you inevitably end up feeling like you bit off more than you could chew.

So instead of going down that road, here's how I recommend tackling this in a measured and systematic way that actually sets you up to be successful in the long term. First, the quick overview of the system:

  1. Pick one building block to work on at a time.
  2. Drill down within that block, and find the small daily actions that will actually move the needle in your filmmaking career.
  3. Set an ambitious 90 day goal, break it down into small parts, and use those daily actions to make it happen.

Ok, here's a little bit more information on each of those.

For starters, pick one building block that’s most fundamental to your success right now. I can’t tell you what block you should choose, but I’d recommend starting with coming up with a new definition of filmmaking success, since it's something you can do in an afternoon. It’s sort of like laying the foundation for your new house before you start building, which is always a good idea. After that, most folks choose to focus on the money building block, because let's be honest, money is never as plentiful as we'd like it to be.

Then, drill down within that building block, find the smallest, yet most consequential actions you can take, and start doing it daily. This is probably the hardest part because it will require you to do a little bit of research to figure out what specific actions you should take. You can always take the route of web research, but my favorite tactic to find and talk to other filmmakers who've already walked the same road as you and succeeded. Reach out to them and simply ask how they got where they are. Most will be more than happy to help you if you ask correctly.

After that, depending on the nature of what you’re working on, I’d recommend setting a 90 day goal. making it something ambitious that will stretch your abilities and move you closer to your ultimate definition of filmmaking success. Break that goal down into the smallest possible parts, and put them on the calendar over the course of your 90 day stretch. They'll act as roadsigns along the way to achieving your goal.

Then, it’s all about using your small daily actions (and really doing them consistently every single day) to make that 90 day goal come to fruition. If you take the right actions every single day, you’d be amazed at the kind of progress you can make this way.

And that’s really it. Repeat this process again and again, and you my friend, have got yourself a handy system to go about succeeding as a filmmaker in the modern world.

Obviously, this is just a broad outline of how to make it all come together, but if you’re looking for something that’s way more in-depth and hands on, I’d recommend checking out the freshly updated version of my course The Filmmaker’s Guide to Success 2.0, which is set to roll out in early September 2017.

Join the Podcast Squad

If you want to help with the audience participation segments of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast, just enter your email below and you'll receive occasional emails from me with a simple question.

Just record your answers into your computer or phone mic, and then you might just hear yourself on the show!