There is no one way to define success as a filmmaker. But there is one definitive mark of failure.
It’s not getting rejected from some filmmaking lab or being unable to raise funds for your movie. It’s not even getting a bad rotten tomatoes score or even losing money on your project.
These are setbacks, not failures.
Every working filmmaker has experienced 100x more setbacks than they have successes. But it’s the one movie they made that blew up that you remember them for.
If you don’t experience any setbacks in your career, you don’t have a career. Or at the very least you aren’t setting the bar high enough.
Real failure though, can only exist when you quit and give up on your art.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what most filmmakers do.
They hit some inevitable obstacles, feel like they aren’t good enough, and permanently quit.
What they didn’t realize was that every filmmaker they love went through some version of this. The only difference is they kept going, and found a window when the door wouldn’t budge.
Persistence is the most powerful tool a filmmaker can possess.
But it’s not about blindly doing the same thing over and over.
It’s about constantly innovating, experimenting, and following the most intuitive path to you as an artist.
In other words, it’s about pivoting.
When you write any script or make a film, to a large degree you are just guessing.
You’re guessing it’s a story you should be telling. You’re guessing audiences will respond to it. You’re guessing it will open doors for you.
How close you get to any of those targets is somewhat out of your control. At least early on when you really don’t know what you’re doing.
But as you start making noise (AKA making movies), you begin to get some critical feedback. Sometimes in the form of successes, but more often than not in the form of setbacks.
These setbacks (seen through the right lens) can nudge you toward new projects or methods that might be better aligned with your goals.
Maybe your film failed because you hired the wrong DP, over-emphasized camera department, went way over budget, and neglected giving the actors enough attention.
Accepting that reality may be painful in the short term. But in the long term it may be the best thing that ever happened to your career.
It might lead to a new film that is shot in a totally different way, in which the actors are prioritized above camera. This may help define your style and attract a new level of talent that will elevate your projects.
This is the iterative process that any successful filmmaker follows, whether they are conscious of it or not.
And it never ends. Especially for the greats.
Recently Martin Scorsese echoed the thoughts of fellow auteur Akira Kurosawa, who at 83 years of age said:
“I’m only now beginning to see the possibility of what cinema could be, and it’s too late.”
Despite massive mainstream success, both directors came to the same conclusion very late in life. There is no end to the possibilities that exist within cinema.
Only through humble experimentation and a desire to always get better can we create our best work.
Most aspiring directors have concocted some version of success in their minds. Usually based on whoever their favorite filmmaker was, and what their path looked like.
When they experience different setbacks than their heroes, they quit. Not realizing the point isn’t to cross a finish line (there is no finish line). But rather to stay curious, keep innovating, and keep working closer to their true nature as an artist.
At all stages in your filmmaking career – whether you are 18 or 81 years old – the secret ingredient is curiosity and open mindedness.
Doing it for the money or the notoriety kills curiosity. So does measuring your success against some arbitrary metric (box office success, investment dollars, etc.) that you really have no control over.
When your curiosity dies, so does your creativity. And along with it, your career as a filmmaker.
Thankfully though, the opposite is equally true.
If you can operate from a place of pure creativity and have a relentless ability to pivot, you can’t help but get better.
You can’t help but succeed.
The path will never look how you imagined it. But the destination might be pretty damn close.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
1. Make a feature film today: The No-Budget Feature Film Blueprint
2. Build your network and sharpen your craft in our community: The Backlot
3. Color grade & polish your footage with my post-production tools on: Cinecolor