The profession of an artist is probably one of the least predictable occupations you can engage in, and success as an artist is a subject unfortunately never taught in school. School teaches you the craft, the trade, the method, the process, the result; and all at a very hefty price. But the moment will come when you will be faced with a realities that just about every artist faces: How do I fund my work? and How do I pay my bills?
Of course, for film makers, there’s film school (and the equivalent performing arts MFA equivalent for actors), but I’m sure by college graduation time (if you were lucky enough) you’ll realize that higher education is not free. You may also question whether or not the educational value matched the time and money that you put into it. It may come as no surprise to you that the prestige of film school is just a fancy facade for a place to get some contacts and an opportunity to create your first collaborative short film with like-minded artists (funded from your own pockets no less!). Okay, but then, now what?
Certainly the skill of film directing and acting doesn’t pay for itself (you’re essentially a contract employee), Craigslist is filled with so much no-budget aspiring productions attempting to solicit your so-called skills for free in exchange for a share of the profits (of course, since these postings were created by people in your same boat, they most likely have no idea how they’ll ever make money from it). And as we recently learned from our recent trip to Burbank, you could have easily qualified for a job waiting tables without an expensive degree.
Our production is currently in the later stages of its its fund-raising phase, and we’ve gathered enough momentum to see our project through, so we thought we’d take a moment to share some hard-learned lessons with actors, directors and producers out there on how to initiate success in your careers.
As you continue reading, keep several things in mind: success comes from balancing artistic aspirations with practical expectations, and growth stops at the point of resistance.
Aspire & Grow
This is probably the catalyst that propelled you to go into this field, but we mean this in the broadest sense. That is, you’ll have to grow on every front required for your success. It may mean constantly learning new ways to say a line, effectively budget your grocery money, programming your own website, intelligently reducing your tax liability, or fixing your car tire when it blows out on your way to an audition. You likely know your aspirations well, and you’ll likely know what direction you want to go in. Just be open to what you’ll have to learn along the way, and don’t hesitate to improve on something even if it may not feel directly relevant to your artistic goals.
Compromise (a.k.a. Don’t take your position for granted)
You knew you’d have to do this eventually, you just didn’t think you’d have to do it THAT much. A job is never waiting for you, it’s NOT just about the art, the production is not always the vision of one person, and exceptional talent is NOT all that there is to getting ahead. Do you hate dealing with money, the law, negotiating with insurance companies, the politics of film distribution, the politics of film unions? As an entrepreneur, you need to have the same attitude regardless of what field you’re in. And if you can’t compromise and learn what needs to be learned (and be good at it), be prepared to get a day job.
Treat Yourself (and others) Like A Business
Nothing is free. Your time and services should not be free either. And nothing erodes this more than projecting an image to others that you do not take your own work seriously. Separate your personal and business profile, create separate bank accounts. You can establish a sole-proprietorship at first, or even an LLC and a corporation depending on how you sell yourself. Create a website with samples of your work and your talent profile. When you pitch yourself, remember that you’re selling your business.
However, this does not mean you shouldn’t work for free. Spec work has its place, and experience can go a long way. When you work, try to get the most value for your time and services. But remember, treat every opportunity like a business, and be especially wary of people who are just asking for free labor (there’s a difference between working for free and working on deferral!).
Do you think that giving up your services for free now will land you big exposure, referrals and get you more work down the line? More than likely, it will not. The only thing you’re setting yourself up for is for more free work. Since you’re treating yourself and others like a business now, you’ll quickly learn that everyone knows that nothing is free, they won’t work for free themselves, yet they’ll always ask you to do it. So should you? It depends. You can usually tell if a production is serious by how they manage their business; and though it may not always mean they have millions of dollars to throw around, you can get a good sense of how much they value your services based on how they expect to compensate you for your time.
Finance and “The Deal”
It is one thing to dream, it is another thing to make it a reality. Money and power are the politics of the world, and there is no getting around this. Good intentions will motivate you to begin a film, but it will never complete it. A great idea will compel you to become a director, but it won’t keep the electricity flowing through the camera and lights. Film making, acting and film distribution is a business. One way or another, you need to view your own business in terms of investment and return.
This means planning ahead many steps to develop a clear goal, not only how money will affect your production (the equipment, the kind of actors you can hire – or should hire -, the kind of distributors you will talk to), but also how your work will be viewed, exhibited and earn that money back and more in order for you to continue pursuing your life’s passion. After all, if acting, directing and film making means everything to you, you should be doing everything in your power to keep it that way.
As an actor/director, do you know how to market yourself? As a producer, do you know how to hire and pay people? How to talk to investors? How to raise the money yourself? How to incorporate a company? Deal with lawsuits? Negotiate with vendors? Drafting a leasing agreement between yourself and the distributor? See a film from the very beginning to the very end? (and by end, we mean very very end to the moment someone hands over a $20 bill for a ticket)
Before you make any sincere attempt to convince yourself that your no-budget masterpiece will be the biggest thing next to curly fries, we strongly discourage you from thinking like this. You may not have millions to throw around, but that shouldn’t excuse you from approaching this as a professional endeavor. Approach it as you would any other business; NEVER take the lowest common denominator just because you “don’t want to deal with money and business”. You’ll get some experience from it, so it may benefit you, your cast and crew (beyond food, credit and copy if you even bothered to pay them) in that sense. But this mindset can be dangerous if you ever plan on pursuing film making seriously. Sure, your friends and family will come to see it (but then, that makes your film more like a “home movie”, doesn’t it?), but if you can’t convince a total stranger that there is something about your production that’s worth their time and money, your chances of ever seeing a return on your investment is practically non-existent. So while you COULD pay that unknown actor $100/day to star in your production, paying a name actor 10 times as much will infinitely boost your chance of getting some kind of distribution deal, even someone who is only locally well known.
Film making, theater, and the performing arts are very fun professions, but it is a business as well. And like any other business, and it is riddled with many of the same issues. Nine out of ten businesses will fail within five years. Of those that survive, nine out of ten will eventually fail. And if it took 100% of your effort just to get your foot in the door, it will take 200% to keep up the momentum, and 500% to maintain your success once you’ve attained it.
Aspire, but be realistic (artistically and financially) about your goals. It’s very tempting to just dismiss the business, financial and bureaucratic side of art and film making, but you have an infinitely greater chance at success adopting a practical step-by-step approach than you ever will taking a “I’m not interested in business or return on investment. It’s all about the art” attitude.