HOW TO MAKE MONEY FROM MOVING IMAGE: DIRECTING

Cameras

This article is part of a series. Read part 1 here.

Okay, yesterday we talked about the very topline elements of turning that shiny camera into a revenue stream for yourself. Cameras are great because they’re so knowable. I change a setting, there’s a predictable outcome, I can plan for it, etc. etc. The concrete, objective, expertise related value curve of camera experience (now say that fast) is one you can hook a career onto. You may not be a very talented DoP, you may not have a very good eye, but if you’re strong technically then you’ll be just fine. Directing is a completely different ball game.

Not everyone sets out wanting to be a director, but most of us have found ourselves in the position of directing at some point. It’s a very natural skill, exhibited in the very act of being part of a society. We influence our surroundings, we direct other people all the time, we shape the world we live in and that is exactly what a director does. In many ways directing is by far the cheapest entry point into filmmaking. Your tool is your brain, its sharp edge your creativity and the hand wielding it will take many many years to train. Everyone can direct. Almost no-one does it brilliantly all the time. This is the reality of being a director. Most people completely suck at it.

But.

Surround yourself with great people and great equipment and no-one need ever know. And this is the great conundrum of directing. Really, all you need to know is how to make the right decision and the rest can be left to everyone else. Sound easy? Thought so.

First lesson

Here’s a scenario. You’ve made a couple of nice little videos, posted them on Vimeo and had some good reactions. People are now approaching you to direct something for them. Great, they’re actually going to pay you. You’re about to learn your first lesson. There is a very very very big gap between directing for yourself and directing professionally. It’s enormous. All those mistakes you get to make in your own time, forget it. This is real. And you own none of it. When someone pays you to direct for them, they own it, not you. Which means, if they don’t like it, you’re in deep trouble. The best and worst thing about being a director is that the buck stops with you. If anyone screws up in any of the other departments then sure it’s their fault, but if you sign off on something then it’s your fault. That’s pressure, and if you can’t deal with that pressure then you’re never going to cut it as a director. Fact. Forget about your creative expression as a director, that goes out the window. The skill lies in educating the client in the appropriateness of your approach and guiding them through it so there are no nasty surprises and they love what you do.

Second lesson

Get over your ego. Directing is not about barking orders and terrorising people. That image of directors is a complete myth. David Fincher may be a tyrant but beyond all that he’s a great leader. People work like they never thought they were capable of it when he’s calling the shots. And it shows in the work. Film is collaborative and if you’re a dickhead on set then you will quickly find no-one wants to work with you. Many believe they have great leadership qualities when they really don’t and things quickly get out of hand. Film sets are filled with strong personalities and if you don’t know how to handle a pigheaded DoP or a stroppy production designer then you will fail.

Third lesson

Reel. Reel. Reel. You are nothing without a reel. No-one cares about your background, how little it cost to make your little gems, how much potential you’ve got. No-one cares. If you want to attract an agent, or get representation with a production company, then you have to put the work on the table, stand and be judged. Building a reel is a long and tortuous process. Reels age fast and go rotten easily. I made some great stuff on DV and digibeta but in today’s glorious DSLR, HD world it just looks crappy and faded. You have to have to have to put your reel before anything else if you want to actually earn money from directing. Pick your projects wisely, look at the work that’s being produced by your peers and work damn hard to create a reel that shows you understand what’s required in your chosen subject.

Fourth lesson

Experience is everything. I thought I was incredibly lucky to have a camera as powerful as a PD150 at my disposal when I first started out. My filmmaking friend had the camera and I had a computer capable of editing what it shot. We thought we were gods. More importantly, we could shoot whenever we wanted to. Now, with a DSLR and a lens there really is no excuse for not getting out there and trying stuff. We used to have to make our mistakes on the job, and, believe me, you don’t make them twice when it’s someone else’s dime. Now, you can get all that out of the way before anyone has to put a penny into you. That’s great, but unless you have a good peer group to critique your work you’re going to keep churning out the same shit, and no-one will be interested. Vimeo is creating a community of me-too filmmakers whose work all looks the same. They keep churning out the same video because they find an idiom they’re comfortable in and before too long you’re stuck. If you’d be happy rehashing the same technique, idea or genre time and time again that’s fine by me but I would never hire you. I look for variety in reels because it shows me a filmmaker has balls and is adaptable. Shoot as much as you can and shoot with lots of different people. Different influences and ideas will enrichen your ideas palette. Nothing worse than having nothing to say.

So…

Where do you start?

TV

If you want to direct TV then get ready for the long haul. You have to do your time in the industry, spend time as a runner and learn the ropes. Before too long, if you’ve got some camera skills you’ll probably end up doing AP work where you get to shoot and do a little bit of directing too. Nothing major but it gets you time with talent and you’ll soon learn the all important rule of coverage for TV. You’ll also learn how quickly things need to be done. I directed TV as a result of winning commissions through my own production company. I hadn’t done that TV apprenticeship so that’s an unusual way of doing things but I enjoyed the time I spent in it. It’s always nice seeing your work broadcast. Contact TV production companies that make work you like, and just do the usual work experience, work hard, don’t complain routine. Make it very clear that ultimately you’d like to direct and then take every opportunity you can to learn as much as you can. TV is good fun, it tends to be lightweight and throwaway but you can get some great credits relatively quickly if you’re prepared to work hard.

Documentary

The tools we now have at our disposal mean documentaries can really look fantastic on tiny little budgets and it’s just a great time to be in documentaries. Feature docs have enjoyed a revival in recent years and there’s a real hunger for those top notch stories. Most TV channels program hour long documentary strands and often offer entry level commissions to first time directors. But to get there you need to do some short form first. Again, with the new digital tools these can be both beautiful and discreet productions and cameras like the FS100 would make perfect doc tools. If you pick the right subject then a crowdfunding campaign is another great way to get your project funded and make sure you don’t go broke in the process. Documentaries work better than other projects as they naturally speak to invested communities. Communities become audiences and audiences are powerful tools to speak to commissioners and of course make money from your film. Access is key and subject development remains the biggest impediment and challenge, after the lengthy shooting process of course.

Music video

I cut my teeth in extreme sports before hitting music videos and have directed around 37 commissioned videos. I.e. ones that someone else paid for. Yes, you can make a decent looking music video for peanuts these days but no that doesn’t mean you’ll make any money from them. In my 37 videos I barely earned a single penny. Everything went into the production. There is no form of production that is more abusive, ill-paid, undervalued, exploitative and disloyal. On the flipside it’s in music videos that you can really build a powerful reel. I miss all the crazy challenges and I miss the production environment where it’s balls to the metal for 16-20 hours. You will NOT make money directing music videos, so stop deluding yourself that you will or that you can. Most MV directors are poor as shit and work in bars. I was always too busy doing other production work to give music videos the kind of all out, obsessive, attention they require. The commissioning process is corrupt, unfair and heavily stacked against you. You will write hundreds and hundreds of treatments and direct maybe 2% of them, never the ones you wanted to make. Go into it with your eyes open, knowing exactly why you’re there: to build a reel – and you’ll be fine. But expect to work very hard and be disappointed more often than not. The best way to win the jobs with any kind of budget is to get representation from a production company. There are almost no music video only production companies anymore with companies having to arm themselves with TV, commercial and corporate arms in order to survive. Shoot some test videos that show real creativity and ingenuity and you’ll be in with a shot. Alternatively, approach those production companies offering to shoot B-Roll and EPKs for them and before long you’ll find yourself asked if you’d like to pitch on a trash can budget videos. The record labels know that someone somewhere is desperate enough and will happily throw a $800 budget at you. The production company will make no money on it but they might be prepared to hand a pm their first producing credit handling a young director. It’s a long old road. Learning to write treatments properly is a must and watching lots of videos also. Know your genres, know the conventions and work accordingly. Make friends with a production designer and a DoP you like and never ever let them go. Those two will be the difference between a great career and a decidedly mediocre one. BUILD THAT REEL.

(I wrote a series about music videos which you can find here)

Commercials

Commercials are where you can genuinely make a living as a director. You have to have a decent reel but if you’ve done your time in music videos a company will generally help you out shooting some test ads off spec scripts that never got produced. Those kinds of relationships with production companies are vitally important so nurture them. Budgets have come down sharply on commercials but the money is still out there and it is still being spent. Large scale corporate jobs for the web or iPad are increasingly rapidly and young directors can see plenty of opportunities if they’re prepared to cut their own work and make life easy for the production company. This is where you want to be if you want to earn money properly from directing. It might be months between jobs but the jobs pay well enough that it doesn’t matter. Ultra-competitive and people tend to want you to specialise.

Look at all my money

Drama

Yes, you can earn money from directing drama. But it’s going to take a while. You need a really strong reel and some festival wins before anyone will really look at you. There are so many young directors shooting drama now that the producers are spoiled for choice. The unfortunate thing is that most people in positions of power within funding organisations that could help you seem to be far from expert in their given field. Which is a shame. Be ambitious with short projects, force yourself to dig deeper, fight harder, work longer hours in pursuit of that all important reel. There is so much crap drama around you wonder how on earth people can delude themselves that it’s good. The answer is that lots of people think it’s easy. It’s not. The biggest single challenge in directing drama is creating truth. If you don’t know what that is and why it’s important then you’ve got a lot of homework to do. If your work displays lots of this then you’ll be fine. It’s a good idea to look for an agent once you have those festival wins under your belt. For TV there’s lots of competition and not many premium jobs. There’s lots of non-premium jobs directing soaps and the like but I personally have no interest in them. Make yourself known to production companies that make work you like and build relationships with them. It takes a long time to break through but those contacts are always important. If you’re going into feature films then whatever you do don’t make the mistake of assuming that you can just make a feature film for $5k and suddenly you’ll be inundated with offers. Unless you’re very lucky your film won’t be any good. What you will gain is bucketloads of experience and that’s priceless. Time on the ground in drama is so important, and you need to have a loyal and patient editor who can make sense of all your mistakes and guide you through the terrifying process of realising you’ve got it all wrong. That’s okay, drama is very very hard. You won’t make any money on your first feature film but if you do a great job then chances are you’ll be okay on the second one. Make it to number three and you can call it a career but don’t begin thinking about ditching everything till you’re certain the career’s on its way.

Alternatively to all this you can do what I did and set up your own production company. I thought I was too smart and talented to work making coffee and decided I’d just get on with it. So, with the help of two friends that’s exactly what I did. I created my own 0pportunities to direct and, as a result, gained a far broader range of skills and experience than I could have got anywhere else. All of these served to make me a strong freelancer when I left the company and I’ve not been out of work since I did so. I now earn a living as a producer/director only directing the jobs I’ve created myself since I just hate directing for other people.

Good luck…

Next time: editing

Find me on Twitter @aka_skid for more unhelpful, long-winded nonsense

Jared Abrams
Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Carson

    Extremely Helpful read.  Thanks for the insight

  • http://twitter.com/mm0000 Matt Moses

    Best. Information. Ever.

  • Nick Murray

    It’s all a pipe dream and you need to have a proper job and consider the above an involved hobby….

    A Director

  • http://twitter.com/elskidblog El Skid

    It really is, I only make a living directing by combining it with producing. It’s just way too sketchy and irregular to plan around otherwise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nino.leitner Nino Leitner

    Good post Robin, some very valid points there. Particularly liked the music video part, it’s clear that’s where you got most experience … would have loved a mention of the fact that music channels have gone down the drain, and that it’s now all on the web, that’s why there’s no money for it left.
    Also, would love to hear your take on corporate videos – the bastard child of commercials. 

  • ConcernedGuy

    Drama? Why are you always referring to drama. Film is film, and great films are combinations of genres. Perfume isn’t just a drama – is it a combined Thriller, Drama, Period Peace: Yes. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn’t just drama – is it a combined Romance, Sci-Fi, Drama film: Yes. Barton Fink, what the hell is that? Narrative (not just drama) is hard, in-fact – in terms of genres, I’d say a decent Psychological Thriller is even harder to make.

    I feel that you’re either trying to use the word “drama” to refer to narrative film, or you have stereotypical view of the film industry, epically the indie film industry. Stop boxing yourself in and make films – not “dramas”.

  • http://twitter.com/elskidblog El Skid

    I think corporate videos are about as broad and unhelpful category as it’s possible to have. They include everything from infomercials to training dvd’s to epk’s. Music videos are corporate videos ultimately. I’ve done tons of them and I’m good at understanding what clients need. I’m balancing corporate with my own projects, just because it’s the most solid earner. It’s just a job really, but I’ve found a good one that has very few of the idiocies I normally encounter and it works for me now.

  • http://twitter.com/elskidblog El Skid

    Not sure what you’re really trying to say here? I’m from the UK, drama is the term that’s used to refer to narrative fiction, separate from comedy which is scripted but enjoys a different commissioning procedure. That’s it. It’s certainly not an attempt to categorise films or box myself in. If anything I find ‘film’ an even less useful term since it’s actually a misnomer, and is so broad that it effectively encompasses the entire canon of moving image work created since time began. 

    You say potato, I say, whatever.

  • http://twitter.com/Alanedit Alanedit

    Robin this is a great article.

  • Gemsonvhs

    As the punk kid starting with a DSLR, 0 experience, no help and not latching on to any industry jobs as the coffee boy, I feel like you probably hate me.

    But it’s like, what’s my alternative?
    Go thousands in debt for college?
    Work as a modern day wage slave in some miserable job?

    I love this work, and i’ll do a billion music videos before I work in a restaurant again.

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