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April 12, 2012

Becoming a Filmmaker

by Howard Suber

During the course of having lunch with a friend who had recently been the C.E.O. of a major studio, I lamented all the creative people on planet Earth who might be just as talented as the people currently working in the industry and how they would never get a chance to make their films. He fixed my eyes and said: “Howard, I think all the really talented people are making films.”

His response reflected what I already knew about his Darwinian world view.  I thought of arguing the point but decided it would be fruitless, because you cannot prove a negative. That exchange echoed in my head for years, and in some ways provided the genesis for this book.

Is it true that those who “make it” are the most talented people practicing the art of film and therefore deserve to succeed? Or do other factors play an equally important role?  

A loaded question. Of course luck and other factors outside one’s own control have a lot to do with who “makes it” and who doesn’t.   Yet I also believe that knowing the realities of how films come to be made also plays a large role in determining who succeeds. Or maybe I should put it the other way around: ignorance of those realities plays a large role in determining who will not succeed.

What realities? At the top of the list is this: whether you are a writer, director, producer or other creative person, to a very large extent you do not make a film, you have to get the film made.

You may call yourself a filmmaker, but no matter how great your creative abilities, no matter how strong the force of your will and willingness of other people to let you exert it, you cannot make a feature film that large numbers of people want to see by yourself. You need dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of others to work with you. You need large sums of money to make a film, and whether you make Hollywood features or small budget independent films, almost invariably it is far greater than you can personally afford. You need distribution in order to get your film seen by enough people to pay back the costs, and you need marketing funds that often equal or exceed the cost of making the film. And you need large numbers of people to see your film, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions.

Whatever your creative role you do not make a film; you make a contribution to a film. Without the contributions of others, the film won’t come into existence and won’t reach an audience.

When I say it’s not enough to know how to make a film, you need to know how to get a film made, I mean to emphasize, as I do throughout the letters in this book, that others are as responsible for your film as you are. I’m not just calling for humility, I’m asking you to learn and understand what all those people you have to work with contribute to the process of film.

When I was a young film professor, I thought I could tell who among my students would “make it.” As the decades passed and I watched what actually happened to the constant passing parade of students, I gained more humility. People I thought surely had “the right stuff” often disappeared without a trace, while people I scarcely noticed while they were students went on to fame and glory. It took years to conclude that I’m not prescient.  Today, I believe that no one can tell at an early stage whether someone will be successful in film, television, and related media.

Doctors, lawyers, physicists, and other professionals are not “born”; they go through many stages of testing and examinations.  If they pass the boards, bar, doctoral exams, or other screening devices set up by their own disciplines (which are often licensed by the state) they are allowed to practice.

I don’t believe anyone is “born” to become a filmmaker, nor do I think filmmaking will or should ever be licensed by the state. Considering how cheap and widely available the technology is, anybody can make a film. This is a blessing as well as a curse, because there’s no way to know until after a film has been made and shown to others whether the filmmaker has even the most basic competence, let alone artistic ability. Even if the artistic ability is in full display, there is little assurance that the individual will become a professional filmmaker, which I define as someone who makes a career and a living from the process of filmmaking.

The film industry, or perhaps the press that covers the industry, has always mythologized early success — the person apparently “born” to make films. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane (1941) at the age of 25.  In the long run his early success was as much a curse as a blessing, since forever afterwards there were people who said he never lived up to his early promise.

Precocity is something journalists love to write about simply because it is a rare phenomenon, and therefore always “news.” Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success summarizes research that shows it takes about 10,000 hours of hard, intensive work – approximately a decade – for anyone to produce work that experts in the field will regard as substantive.

When we’re young, of course, we don’t want to hear this. Ten years? An inconceivable and intolerable amount of time. People who want to become professional filmmakers sometimes find it difficult to believe that the process is not all that different from becoming a doctor, lawyer, physicist, or other kind of highly skilled professional:  it requires a huge amount of effort and commitment.

[This is an excerpt from Letters to Young Filmmakers/Creativity and Getting Your Films Made] Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber.

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