This past Sunday afternoon, Myron, my dear friend and fellow filmmaker, treated my wife and I to a double feature of Shutter Island and The Aviator at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. A 75-minute Q&A featuring Martin Scorsese (via satellite from London) and Leonardo DiCaprio (via satellite from some undisclosed location in Southern California) highlighted the event, as Scorsese and DiCaprio were on the screen in real time while several audience members asked them questions about their craft. While the entire Q&A session was insightful and memorable, Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s most poignant responses came when a 24 year-old filmmaker asked them for career advice.
Martin Scorsese told the young filmmaker to treat his passion for telling stories through moving images as if his passion was air; something he could not live without. Scorsese also advised the young filmmaker not to wait for the studio system to accept him, but to make films outside the system whenever possible. Lastly, he urged the filmmaker to “never, never, give up.” On that note, Leonardo DiCaprio chimed in, by adding how many studio executives “scour the internet looking at $3,000 short films in search of new talent.”
Just as I filled myself with hope, DiCaprio added that he wasn’t sure if [period pieces like] Gangs of New York and The Aviator would be made in today’s studio system, due to the “sharp shift in what studios are willing to take risks on during the recent financial crisis.” Wow. Leo and I agreed on the state of distribution. Maybe I should have chatted him up when he sat right in front of my wife and I during game seven of last year’s NBA Finals (when my Lakers gloriously took out Boston 83-79 to win their 16th NBA Championship). Then again, maybe I would have gotten thrown out of Staples Center for trying to talk to Leo, which would have forced me to miss one of the greatest sports moments I’ve ever attended in my life.
Hearing Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s comments on Sunday reminded me that there is hope, and good things do happen if your diligence is equally matched by your patience.
Then I thought of Chip Gorman, my childhood friend who recently contacted me on Facebook to suggest I write an article about what to do after your film bombs. Chip wanted to know how to pick yourself up and move on, after your film’s “hope” turns into a “nope” from film festivals, distributors, and everyplace else you’re seeking validation from. So Chip, here’s some encouragement for you and all of our other readers!
Dispel The Myth Of Overnight Successes
One of the first truths that budding filmmakers should be aware of is that there are more UFO sightings worldwide then there are actual overnight successes in Hollywood. While there are occasional exceptions (with actors usually), an “overnight success” doesn’t account for the ten, fifteen or twenty years of struggle the filmmaker endured before they were discovered. I know it’s sexy to think you could be a part-time greeter at Wal-Mart today and a full-time filmmaking millionaire tomorrow. But, even if that’s the case, you have to remember how many years of struggle you endured to become an overnight success. Thus, don’t compare your struggle to the latest overnight success, because the “overnight success” probably took as long or longer than your struggle to get noticed. Just relax and enjoy your journey.
Career Clocks Always Tell Bad Time
Keeping with the theme of overnight successes, your “career clock” starts when you get noticed, not when you start trying to get noticed. For example, if you started creative writing when you were six, but didn’t become a paid writer until you were 32 (like in my case), your professional writing career didn’t start until you were 32.
Greatness Takes Time
While meeting Randall Wallace through a friend of mine in Nashville years ago, I was really surprised when Randall told me he was forty-six years old before his original screenplay to Braveheart hit the silver screen. “Wow”, I thought. Waiting until you’re forty-six until you break through on a high level takes a hell of a lot of patience and determination. I’m sure it was worth the wait for Randall Wallace, because he went on to become a creative force on several healthy budgeted epics, from writing Pearl Harbor to recently directing Secretariat.
Years before I met Randall Wallace, I met Frank Darabont after his lecture at California State University, Northridge. What I remember most about the experience is learning that Darabont wrote the 1988 remake The Blob before he wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption. That’s right, writing The Blob preceded making one of the greatest prison movies ever made.
Thus, greatness takes time. Never get caught up in thinking your first project will forever be your greatest work, because if it is, you’ll be a flash in the pan, and who the hell wants that?
Iconic Films Require The Perfect Storm
Your script may not have the right timing or social climate to work. For example, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, and Star Wars all head a laundry list of iconic films that took 9 years or longer to be brought to the screen. Even The Unforgiven took nineteen years to be made. Of course these films were always great scripts and worthy stories, but they not only needed the right climate to get made, they needed the right social culture to become successful. Since it takes a perfect storm for great films to be born, and perfect storms only happen about once a decade, don’t worry it your career is dry and sunny at the moment. If you hang in there, it’ll start sprinkling soon enough, and you need lots of rain before you see a perfect storm.
Always Know How Pretty (Or Ugly) Your Baby Is
Most parents firmly believe their children are the most beautiful human beings who ever graced the earth, and filmmakers are no different. But, the truth is that some children are more beautiful than others and some indie films are better than others. The key for filmmakers is to quickly assess which side of the spectrum your film falls on, so you can accurately create a strategy to get it sold and distributed.
For example, on one of the first projects I executive produced, the director kept denying television, cable and DVD deals for five or six years after the film was completed, in order to chase a theatrical distribution deal. We never got a theatrical release, and we never even got a TV, cable or DVD release either, because the film grew too old for anyone to want it. Trust me on this one, if your film doesn’t find a theatrical distributor in five to six months, much less five or six years, it simply isn’t meant to be a theatrical release.
Hence, you should figure out how pretty your “baby” is early on, and then find the right home to nurture its release.
Spend As Little Money As You Can On Your First Film
It’s probably a good idea to assume your first film won’t be the one you retire on, so there’s no need to break the bank for it. While you should break your “creative bank” to make sure the script is damn good, you should remember that your first film is more of a calling card and less of an American Express Black Card. Thus, if you’re spending your own money, try to only spend what you can afford to lose.
Look At The Big Picture
Over the years, I’ve seen far too many filmmakers get caught up in worrying about their current project’s shortcomings, or how they got screwed out of a film festival slot and subsequent distribution deal. The thing to remember is that you should never worry about where you are now, but rather where you want to be in five years. It’s all about looking ahead and moving forward.
As for myself, I’ll share a personal ritual that I’ve never told anyone before. Every New Year’s Eve, I go for a drive and listen to The Beatles while I assess where my career was five years ago versus where it is today. So far, I’ve always been further along The Long And Winding Road today as opposed to five years ago. So, I guess I’m doing something right. I just wish like hell I could tear down that open road at a must faster pace!
Film careers are never “smooth and easy,” but that’s not a bad thing, because “rough and painful” builds character. Besides, “smooth and easy” would never sell as a story in Hollywood anyway, because it lacks the conflict needed to be interesting. I guess it comes down to what I say about my own career:
“There’s a fine line between stupidity and genius, and the only genius that graces me is that I’m too stupid to give up on my childhood dreams.” Here’s to all of us remaining “stupid” until our last breath.
Until next Tuesday, thanks for lending me your eyes.