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Unfortunately for most filmmakers, the vast majority of their working lives are not spent making films.
They exert far more effort attempting to finance their films, land festival screenings, gain representation or secure distribution than actually creating anything.
When all is said and done, there’s little time or energy left to do what matters – make art. I alluded to this in a tweet recently which I’ll share here:
“Filmmakers struggle their entire careers to win over gatekeepers, when it would be much easier to become the gatekeeper themselves.
There’s no need to chase agents, distributors, festival programmers, financiers, etc. when you build a system that circumvents them.”
I’d be lying if I said there was such a thing as an easy path for any filmmaker. But what I can say with certainty is that most of us are spending too much time in the wrong areas, and not maximizing our potential as a result.
We mistakenly believe –
If only we could get that agent to rep us, then we’d be able to book that name actor in our movie.
If only we could premiere our movie at Sundance, then our film would surely find an audience.
If only a major distributor would buy our movie, then we’d be financially free.
But none of these speculative actions could ever actually guarantee results. Plenty of directors represented by incredible talent agents still can’t get movies off the ground. Countless movies premiere at Sundance every year that are never sold. Major distributors regularly get away with paying little or nothing to the filmmakers whose work they distribute.
Which is why it’s futile to chase after these things.
In our mind, these “gatekeepers” somehow legitimize our worth as artists, and we believe they are the stepping stone needed to take us to the next level. But 99 times out of a hundred that’s just not the case.
I don’t want to take away from the incredibly challenging and valuable work that agents, managers, investors, programmers, etc. offer. But the truth is, until you reach a certain level in your career – one that prompts the gatekeepers to chase after you – there’s no sense banging down their doors.
Filmmakers spend months writing query letters to agents only to have them find a home in the assistant’s trash bin. They send their scripts to competitions (many of which are scams) and wait for ages with their fingers crossed, hoping to be picked. They spend years and thousands of dollars to attend film markets hoping to sell their movie, usually coming up empty handed.
Consider how much effort all of this requires… How much time could possibly be left to develop new ideas, create new projects, or work on improving craft? Not much.
That said, I’m not here to suggest that we all spend 100% of our time/effort just creating movies in vacuum. That would be equally ineffective.
It’s a given that a certain amount of our working life needs to be dedicated to our career building efforts. These activities may lie outside of our artistic pursuits, but ultimately create the foundation for our creative work to thrive…
Or at least they can serve this purpose, but only if approached the right way – strategically, using a system that you create and control.
At the end of your career as a filmmaker, let’s assume you’ve spent 50% of your working hours actually making movies (which is very generous!). How do you want to spend that other 50%?
Do you want to spend that time knocking on door after door, hoping you’ll find the golden ticket? Maybe that works for some people… But I would go insane having such little control over my own destiny. It’s akin to playing the lottery.
Wouldn’t that other 50% of our time be better spent building our own system? One that rendered the legacy gatekeepers irrelevant or unnecessary?
Creating such a system is entirely possible, and while it will certainly take a lot of work over the life of your career, the rewards are impossible to ignore. Who wouldn’t full autonomy over their careers?
Being your own gatekeeper means never needing to ask anyone for permission to finance/make/distribute your movie again.
This doesn’t literally mean taking a day job as a talent rep or at some venture capital fund. Instead, it’s about assessing your weak points so you can decipher unconventional solutions to solve those issues.
I know filmmakers who have spent upwards of a decade trying to raise money for their movie, often only coming up with $250K-$500K after all that time. I have to believe in a fraction of that time the same filmmaker could have started a side hustle that generated far more money in fewer years. Then, they would not only have the ability to finance their own movie but hopefully many more to come.
By the same token, I know other filmmakers who have spent years of their lives trying to secure distribution for their movies.
In the end, they get a deal that leaves them with almost no profits and worse – they have no control over where the movie is seen. In far less time and with less effort these filmmakers could be building their own audiences to self-distribute to, launching their own VOD platform, or patterning with likeminded filmmakers for theatrical screenings.
There isn’t one formula that we can all follow to become our own gatekeepers, as we’re all on different paths. But I truly believe reframing how we look at the business/career aspects of our working life can create monumental change.
Building your own system may appear to be a greater undertaking than simply playing within the rules of the existing system, but that’s just an illusion. At least when you create your own system, you know the playing field, the obstacles, and what it will take to overcome them.
In the old model, you’re shooting blind.
The article above was originally published on my micro-budget weekly newsletter, where I share exclusive content to inspire and educate filmmakers & creative pros. For more articles like this every Sunday, be sure to sign up for the newsletter here, or use the form below.