When I started making films in 1996, I came at it from a very different background than most filmmakers I know – I am actually a writer by education, having obtained a BFA (hons) in playwriting from York University and an MFA in creative writing with a thesis in screenplay writing from UBC.
My thesis advisor at UBC, Hart Hanson, gave me a piece of advice during my time in Vancouver that I took very much to heart and it is this advice that led me to become a filmmaker: as a screenwriter, if you want to see your works made, you need to become the producer who makes them.
When I entered the world of independent filmmaking in Winnipeg, I was very surprised to see how little effort was placed on story, script and creative structure. There was a lot of energy on initial story ideas and on the logistics of filmmaking, but my observation was that filmmakers tended to rush through the very foundation of film – which is the process by which you communicate to an audience. In the 17 years since I started making films and the ten years since I started programming, I’ve come to realize that skimming through the essential artistic fundamentals that drive films is actually the most common mistake made by filmmakers working at all levels and that this is not just a Winnipeg phenomenon.
Independent filmmaking is a soul-crushing endeavour
Independent filmmaking is, in its natural state, a soul-crushing endeavour. Over the years, it has become more difficult to make films that capture the attention of programmers and audiences. The festivals that are important to filmmakers’ careers now are, for the most part, the same ones that were important a decade ago, and yet the volume of works being made and being submitted for consideration has shot up exponentially in the digital age. It is much easier to make films now, and it is also theoretically easier to access audiences if you consider the potential of the Internet. But, the surge in volume has actually made it harder for individual films to rise up – works have become needles in an increasingly growing haystack. The digital age has not necessarily expanded the marketplace for independent films so much as chop up the smaller number of larger opportunities that existed before into a larger volume of smaller opportunities. Filmmaking is perhaps technically easier now, but the act of being a filmmaker may actually be harder today than it has ever been before.
And yet, even though it may actually be more difficult to be a filmmaker now, professional heart-break has always been a central experience of filmmaking. In his essay “From the Outside Looking In: The Films of Winston Washington Moxam,” commissioned by the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG) in 2009, filmmaker Matthew Rankin captures the essence of this process of devastation by filmmaking:
The hardships of getting a film made can quickly drag a human soul into the most destitute sub-strata of existential discouragement. The WFG film archive is littered with the sad ephemera left behind by the many “Three Year Filmmakers” who passed through its doors – those well-intentioned idealists who pursued filmmaking just as long as their self-confidence could endure its many disappointments and then gave up.”
In spite of this, though, in as much as it is difficult for individual filmmakers to rise up in an over-saturated field, rising up really only takes this: making a film that is both good and memorable. And sometimes, all it takes is making a work that is memorable – the perception of what is “good” can vary widely, and is often determined by many individual factors such as age, gender, education, and other socio-economic considerations of the person making the assessment. “Memorable,” however, can be far more universal a measure than “good.”
One Toronto-based programmer I often speak with has, in fact, articulated this concept with more specificity – if he finds himself thinking about a film days after he watched it, he knows he needs to program it, even if the film was not necessarily sophisticated.
Another Toronto-based programmer described his working discovery process for films as being one where he often watches work after work in which essentially the same scenes and scenarios play themselves out, and this becomes a fatiguing audience experience. When this particular programmer comes across a work that is truly different from other films, it immediately stands out in his mind and instantly becomes a contender for being programmed, even if it might not be as technically “good” as other works.
Understanding these important perspectives on how films are received is critically important to begin to break through in filmmaking. This explains why programmers have a tendency to lean towards works that have elements of experimentation in them, as it is easier for a film to stand out through unique technical elements; it is much harder for a live action fiction (what I refer to as drama) to rise up as memorable because true technical experimentation is often eliminated as a variable in these works. As a filmmaker, I have worked in several genres – documentary, drama and experimental – and I can say with certainty that while drama is the easiest of these three to logistically complete, it is actually the hardest of these three to produce in a manner that will enable the work to stand out, simply because there is so much drama being made in the world.
There are many ways for a filmmaker’s vision to be derailed. Things that stand out in particular are the lack of a comprehensible story or structure or purpose, a focus on blocking actors as opposed to directing performances, and a lack of directing the aesthetic qualities behind the cinematography and overall production design – or, in the case of experimental film, focusing solely on technique and not on structure or content. Basically, filmmakers often focus too much on the logistics of getting a film made, and not nearly enough on the essential artistic rationale that should drive every decision a director makes. One filmmaker I know has described this phenomenon as directors being unable to push beyond the “machine of filmmaking.”
And, although this is a common piece of advice that is given by all film programmers everywhere, it really does merit mentioning at every opportunity – most films that are made are too long (yes, even the short ones) and can benefit from much more skillful editing.
Having said all this, it is very possible for a filmmaker to make a film that isn’t picked up by film festivals or other exhibitors and perhaps that is not remotely good or even watchable from an audience perspective, and yet still absolutely be the film they need to be making at a certain point in their careers. Sometimes, the experiences that vitally develop a filmmaker will not necessarily result in an outwardly successful work, but will be important because of what a filmmaker learns in the process. I know this because I’ve been in this exact place myself.
If time and time again your works fail to achieve the
success you’d hoped for, go back to the drawing board
However, if you are a filmmaker who is finding that time and time again your works fail to achieve the success you’d hoped for, then I would really encourage you to go back to the drawing board on all of the working habits you’ve developed as a director because they are obviously not working. While it can be easy to blame a lack of success on others, and most especially on biases programmers or others involved in decision making processes may have, I can tell you with certainty that while those biases can indeed exist, they are extremely rare. Biases may exist on the part of one individual programmer or exhibitor, but they do not exist among even a significant minority. Programmers I know very rarely speak to each other about the works they are or are not considering for selection. If one film festival overlooks an exceptional film, I can assure you that other film festivals will happily snap it up. Part of the perception that some programmers or festivals have biases comes from the incorrect targeting of films – if you send a dance film to an experimental film festival, you need to understand that the likelihood of your work being selected is extremely low because dance as content is not, unto itself, experimental. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t submit your films to the festivals you want to target, but you do need to be aware that many festivals have limitations on what they will consider. This, unto itself, is not a bias.
While it may sound counter-intuitive, if you are making a film – any type of film – stop focusing so much on the machine of filmmaking and start focusing more on the work that requires no technological element at all – story, research, trial testing of ideas not connected to formal production work, etc. And, most of all, practice more disciplined self-criticism and do not let one process doubt that enters your mind about your work be left unaddressed – ever. Somewhere deep down within yourself, if your film has not been as successful as you would have liked, you probably already know the reason why.