Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The "Big Gloom" or Becoming a Feature Film Director

I wrote the following for Howard Suber and Ken Suddelson's UCLA class on Producing in early November.

Howard one of the my professors from the UCLA doctoral program is team teaching one of the few courses offered anywhere dealing with the business of the movie business. FTB-289B "Strategy" Sending dozens of provocative e-mails to his students and former students, he has encouraged an on-line debate

I took the hook and wrote about how difficult it is to become a feature film director. The posting follows:

You just got the money question:

"I'm a directing student, and I wanted to get your thoughts on strategy from a directing standpoint.."

When I wrote the article the "Training of Directors from School to Screen" in the early 1980s it seemed there was a 10 to 15 year process of moving from graduating film school and becoming a feature director. While we could always point to one or two a year who "made it" more quickly, on the whole, the process takes a long time. A long long time.

Today, almost 30 years later, I'd tell this student to go to business school or law school or any graduate program that would enable him/her to make a living--since it's more or less a closed shop. With at least 100,000 directors coming out of film schools since 1980 and Hollywood releasing a few hundred films a year and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, the Scotts, Woody Allen and others not retiring, almost no new slots open up.

As a producer, the last thing I'd do is hire a first time director or actor. They bring nothing to the deal. I start with Oscar winners or nominees. I need a filmmaker or a star who can bring money into the deal.

The big lie is that there is work or that making theatrical films is a career. One of my colleagues at USC called theatrical feature making a "hobby." He nailed it. As I ramp up to do my next series (documentary) for television I am hiring a number of "first time" directors as "story producers/shooters" a good start but the director is a fellow with gray hair.

Payne, one of your examples made his first feature 11 years after his short film CARMAN was released. He was 35. At 38 he did ELECTION, 41 ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS 2 years later. What's wrong with this picture? Payne is really talented both as a writer and director and 20 years after graduating from UCLA film school he's made 4 pictures.

You also mention Sacha Gervasi another major talent, faculty member at UCLA. 44 years old. His film writing is first rate. His film ANVIL might get an Oscar nomination. Started UCLA screenwriting in 1995. His career is moving along at rocket speed. 14 years from UCLA to his first feature.

My nephew less than a decade out of an unprestigious undergraduate college as a business major is well on his way to being a millionaire working as a buy side investment banker. I interview students who are applying for admission to Columbia Business School, if they go, when they graduate in 2 years, many will start with $200,000 salaries a year. This is not to say everyone should go to business school--the point I'm trying to make is that where do you go after spending a few years getting an MFA in film? Where are the jobs? the opportunities? It was like that when I got my MFA from NYU in the early 1970s. It's like that for my Peter Stark Producing students, except many have jobs since they move from their internships into the industry. They just don't make b-school kinds of starting salaries.

Howard, I am not a cynic. I want to see everyone make a living, live the dream, but things are pretty bleak. Film school does help students get skills, this class is one of the few in the world (at a film school) that seems to be dealing with the business of the industry--but let the truth be told.

--One needs more than just raw talent.

--One needs more than just socialization skill sets.

--One needs a huge amount of luck.

and then it's still likely a 15 plus year wait.

As someone who has mentored a number of filmmakers to Oscars, I can say that seems to be a good way to get some attention. Better than Sundance (which is not very helpful), but still not the gold ticket. I think a good thing to do is to tell the students to approach becoming a director as a "hobby" and then they will be miles ahead. Making a good short film might help, producing some money making features might help, writing some money making features might help--but this is a long way to an uncertain end.

Hope this is helpful.


Anonymous said...

thanks for this post. It's better to have someone lay out the facts, rather than sprinkle fantastical tales about making it big just because one is an alumnus of a name-brand film program.

I feel every film student or aspiring director should know the realities, so that they can focus more on personal growth , rather than external rewards, since the rewards are slim .

Though I am an ambitious film student, I keep myself grounded and 'sane' by knowing it's a long process. Any other thinking is a bit naive.

Ironically you mentioned the option of law and medical school for a young person. The issue is that in general humans get use to a certain patterns in their lives. it's hard to go from the regimented path of a white collar worker then to switch over to the risky waters of entertainment or business.

Many of us young film makers and students pursue these ' dreams' by forgetting the realities of this world. We dive into our own worlds, and in a way get lost in it. Since we're young, we can get by with our passion and crumby apartments. If we somehow settle down in our 30's and 40s with a big screen tv , dog and 2 kids, it's hard for most people to have ' passion' to do much else.

So in that respect, perhaps the most successful people are those who never settle for the ordinary, and continue to challenge themselves beyond what is routine.

It's interesting that your article just made me reflect upon random things. thank you again for this valuable post.

Anonymous said...

Great post! This is the tough conversation that needs to be had with every undergrad and grad student entering a film program anywhere in the country.

The underlying issue is that priorities shift in life. At 19, we understandably want to make a career of out something we find fun and interesting. But at 30, looking for gigs, working endless hours, and not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from pales in comparison to being home in time to have dinner with your family and saving enough money to send your kids to college.