During a session with one of my VIP clients earlier this year, he said he was a little overwhelmed by filmmaking, and the film industry itself.
“I don’t really get what makes a film independent, and why can’t an independent film be a mainstream film?”
He also said he was concerned about his own career.
Read more: Defining your filmmaking career path
“In a dream world, I’d make films with blockbuster budgets, but my films would also have the art and creativity that independent films have”.
He still thought of Hollywood as the big dream, the highest level to aspire to. But by the end of the session he realised that the highest he wants to go is indie features.
How to break down the industry
Looking at the film industry en masse can be scary. So here’s how I break it down for my clients during are very first sessions, so we can identify where they currently are and where they want to be.
The lines are often blurred between mainstream and feature films. But there are a few distinguishing factors:
- Created and funded by a studio = mainstream
- Secures distribution before production starts = mainstream
- Uses a festival run to secure distribution = independent
- Doesn’t get a theatrical release (or a wide theatrical release) = independent
Short films are easier to distinguish into professional and amateur. Amateur is a great place for exploring your passion and developing your craft, but you want to jump up to professional asap.
And no, the distinguishing factors have nothing to do with budget.
- The story/script was picked up by a producer = professional
- The crew all have on-set experience in the same roles = professional
- All of the paperwork (budget, schedule, permits, release forms) is done before the shoot = professional
- The crew are learning their roles on the shoot = amateur
- The main goal is to make the film (instead of release it) = amateur
The reality of the Hollywood dream
Hollywood likes to sell us all a dream. We seem it time and time again, and you can bet we’re going to see it as this year’s award season rolls around.
They like to push the story that someone had a golden idea, worked their ass off to turn it into a film, and then they came out of nowhere and started scooping up awards.
Sorry Hollywood, the game is up.
❌ No one ever comes out of nowhere with an amazing film.
❌ It doesn’t pay to only work on one film at a time.
❌ You don’t have to work yourself into burnout to get your film made.
Because filmmakers spend years making film after film, before they make the feature that starts getting them noticed on a national level. Greta Gerwig didn’t make Lady Bird overnight. (She actually started out as an actress in 2006, then got into writing and directing in 2008 – almost a full decade before Lady Bird was released).
So the first secret you need to know is that it takes a long. freaking. time.
It also costs around $100,000 for the marketing and publicity of an Oscar feature film campaign. You have to put a lot in to get close to being noticed at the highest level. It takes a ton of planning and strategy.
But Hollywood doesn’t want you to see the process behind how it happens. So they stick with the more magical version.
What Hollywood doesn’t want you to know about your idea
Alongside that magical dream is the idea that you should create one golden idea, and then push it for the next decade.
You send countless emails and have innumerable meetings with lukewarm producers. You get rejection after rejection but you keep pushing this idea. Eventually someone will fall in love with it and it’ll end up with a wide theatrical release and a ton of awards.
You could spend that decade
✔️ developing 50+ ideas
✔️ making 5+ films
✔️ getting in front of bigger and bigger decision-makers
Until someone falls in love with one of your ideas and gives you that big budget and major distribution deal you’ve been after since you started in the film industry.
But when you’re working your way up to that dream, you need a ton of ideas.
Read more: Why you need a slate as an indie filmmaker
The reason you need 20+ ideas, even if you’re not a producer or production company, is because you always need something to work on and you always need something to pitch.
People want alternatives. There’s no use going into a meeting committed to only pitching 1 idea. What if they’re already making something like that? What if they hate it? What if their audience isn’t right for your idea? That’s a wasted meeting and a wasted opportunity.
Don’t let Hollywood fool you. Unleash that creativity and develop as many ideas as you can.
The Hollywood working atmosphere and why it’s wrong
I have a first class degree in burnout. I was so focused on work, I ended up ignoring my health until I was stuck in bed for months. And I used to wear my burnout like a badge of honour. Now though, I hate admitting that I got to that point.
Hollywood expects a huge amount from its employees. It demands 14+ hour working days, a lot of travel and no time for family or personal commitments. It’ll constantly tell you you’re replaceable, and if you need to take time off for illness then you’re not dedicated enough.
It will absolutely crush you, and then tell you that it’s because you don’t want it enough.
Essentially, it’s The Devil Wears Prada with an Arri Alexa instead of a handbag.
The truth is that you don’t need to kill yourself to make your film.
Filmmaking definitely isn’t a walk in the park, but if you’re making yourself ill, you’re doing something seriously wrong.
The gamechanger for all of my clients has been their calendars. When I ask, what was the biggest change for the better you got from our time together, they all say, “when you created my weekly calendar”.
We start time-blocking, scheduling in white space and regular time off. The result is that they’re actually 10x more productive and creative without ever hovering near the burnout stage.
How to get over the Hollywood dream if it’s not serving you
- Identify what level you want to be at (personally I’m happiest at the professional short level)
- Develop a full slate of ideas
- Start scheduling and time-blocking
- Commit to making your own films (and watch the decision-makers come to you)