There are so many things I wish I knew when starting out as a filmmaker that would have sped up my career trajectory.
So much trial and error that could have been avoided if I only understood some basic principles that are now so obvious in hindsight.
No matter what, it takes time to develop your voice, learn the craft, and find your way as a filmmaker. But most filmmakers take way longer getting there than they need to.
Today, I want to share a tactical approach that I wish I could share with a younger version of myself.
Essentially, it’s how I would approach my first year as a filmmaker to ensure I am experimenting as much as possible, learning quickly, and seeing real results.
It would go something like this:
- Learn to shoot with an iPhone
- Make a short film every month for a year
- Submit all 12 short films to festivals
- See which film performed best
- Turn that short into a DIY feature
Shooting on iPhone
I’ve long been obsessed with cameras, having owned everything from entry level DV cameras back in the day to Arri Alexas in more recent years.
You can of course shoot any film on any camera when you’re first starting out. But if you overcomplicate the process by choosing the most technically challenging tool, you miss a huge opportunity.
The whole point of your first few films is to learn storytelling. And it’s almost always best to choose tools that will get out of your way if you want to streamline that process.
Heavy cinema cameras that you’re not familiar with just add cost and complexity, ultimately slowing down your learning curve.
You can always play with the shiny toys later on, but for now pick the tool that has the least amount of resistance – whether an iPhone or a mirrorless camera.
Make a short every month
If I could, I would go back to my first year as a filmmaker and make 12 short films. One every month for a year.
This might sound extreme, but it’s completely do-able… Especially if you keep the films under 10 minutes and don’t need more than 1 – 2 shoot days for each.
That’s essentially one weekend a month to film and one to edit.
As for cost, I would keep these as close to $0 as possible. Ideally by shooting with next to no crew, and working with actors who are friends and also want to learn the creative process.
By the end of the year I would not only have 12 short films, but also 20 – 30 days of on-set directorial experience to carry forward.
Submit to festivals
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with festivals, and I definitely don’t suggest putting all your eggs in the festival basket.
This is especially true early on when your films are less likely to get selected, and the submission fees can really start to add up.
But I would still tell my younger self to submit each and every one of my 12 movies. I’d just find a way to get fee waivers or be really selective to avoid spending thousands of dollars.
The goal is to see what resonates with viewers, programmers, and audiences, and what doesn’t. Without this type of objective feedback, we can never improve as artists.
Plus, the inevitable rejection that comes with it is necessary for building the thick skin you need in this business.
At the end of this process, I would look back and assess my film submissions:
Which films got in the most?
Which films didn’t get in at all?
Why did some films out perform the others?
What type of feedback did I receive?
Where did I succeed by design, and where was it luck?
If a film didn’t get into a festival, that doesn’t mean it was bad.
But it does mean some of the other films likely had a wider appeal, or were more universally interesting.
Knowing what worked, what didn’t, and why, would be the key to figuring out my next project.
Make a DIY feature
As much as I love short films, there is no substitute for making a feature. At least in terms of how it can benefit your career.
If I could go back, I would make my first feature way earlier. Rather than trying to assemble a big team and put pressure on myself to make a “real movie”, I would keep it small and scrappy. Just like the shorts.
There would be very little budget, but it wouldn’t matter because I would do most of the jobs myself. And I would be working with friends who were also partners on the project and had ownership.
Ideally, the feature would be an expansion of the best performing short film I made the previous year.
That way, I would give myself the best chance of success by choosing a proven idea that I knew I could execute well.
At the end of the process, I would have a feature film that I was excited to share with the world.
And even if it were flawed (which it would be) I would still be 1000 steps ahead of where I was just a couple years earlier.
While I can’t go back in time and do this myself, I can still apply these principles moving forward.
Really, it’s about doing (and not over-thinking), honestly measuring your progress, and using feedback to make your next project even better.