One of my teaching assistants hopes to become a filmmaker after he graduates. (He reminds me of myself, many years ago.) He’s changed his major to film school and is happily spending weekends making movies.
Some of the happiest moments in my life were working on productions. I met people, traveled places and saw things that would never have been possible had I had any other career. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to create films, but, this Labor Day, I was reflecting that knowing how to make a film is only a part of the equation.
In addition to the happy times, some of my poorest career decisions came when I was working in media. I’ve mentioned in the past that understanding the technology and techniques of filmmaking are not sufficient to career success. Craft, too, while essential, is not enough. You also need to know how to run a business.
In looking over my media career, three business lessons stand out:
When I was young, I felt I was in charge of my career. While technically true, this was also myopic. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and therefore made bad decisions due to not understanding myself, the media industry or how business works. I didn’t discover how helpful mentors could be until I left directing. It was a painful discovery – realizing what I had missed.
It is critical to realize that we are NOT alone – there are people who can and want to help us succeed in our career. It never hurts to ask for advice. You are not asking them to make decisions for you, but to help you understand yourself, your current situation and your options from a different perspective.
The hardest thing to accept is that you don’t know everything essential to making a decision. Worse, you don’t know your blind spots. In these situations it is OK to say: “I’m not sure, what do you think?” Build a team of mentors you trust and can turn to when another point of view will help you make important career decisions.
WORK IS WORK
This was the second biggest mistake I made in my career. Sometimes, directing is just work. It isn’t creative, it isn’t fun, it just needs to get done. I kept getting tripped up by this. I felt that I should be doing exciting, challenging creative work all the time. I did not realize how lucky I was to do as much outside-the-box creative production as I was doing. Sometimes, all a job called for was getting it done.
It is called “work” for a reason. Work can be necessary, unglamorous and hard. Put your head down and get it done. Patience is a virtue that is hard to learn. I learned it late. Don’t get impatient too quickly.
There is truth in the saying: “God grant me the serenity to accept those things that can’t be changed, the ability to change those things that can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.” Not every task wins you an Emmy.
FILMMAKING IS A BUSINESS
There’s never been a better time in history for telling stories with moving images than today. Professional-grade technology is cheaper than ever, while offering amazing quality. Best of off, it requires fewer people than ever to create a quality image.
Still, easy availability means that more people than ever are entering the field. If you want to make movies for free, this is great news. But, if you want to get paid for your work, by definition, increased competition means lower budgets. If a service is widely available, you can’t charge very much for it.
At it’s core, filmmaking is a business. When all is said and done, the projects you work on need to generate enough revenue to cover production expenses and pay your team, with enough left over for you to pay your bills. It is perfectly fine to create films for free, provided you have some other means of supporting your hobby.
But our goal should not be pursing a hobby, but running a business. Your ultimate goal is to transfer money from your client’s bank to your bank so you can pay the bills. If you are lucky, you can also be creative. If you are really lucky, you get to work with other talented people in the process.
Understanding how business works, finance, billing, accounting, HR and all the non-creative elements of running a company is even more important than deciding which camera, or script, you’ll use for your next project.
A career in media is a three-legged stool supported by creativity, technology and business. The creative side is fun, sexy and incredibly exciting. But, without the support of the other two legs the whole thing falls over.
I wish my assistant all success in his film career – which is why I keep stressing to him that filmmaking is more than simply making films.
Here’s an audio interview I did with award-winning Cinematographer and Director, Mark Toia, on the business side of running a production business. (TRT: 7:20)
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