The "Secret" First Truth Of The Film Business
No one talks about how & why it really works the way it does.
If you wanted to help someone just starting out in the film business, what would you tell them? It’s not a simple question to answer. On one hand, I want to tell them something that is true, but also what will help them succeed and that will empower them. Those things are not usually the same thing. Today is about the truth and not the advice. If you want to keep it all in a positive vibe, best to stop reading now.
Truths don’t always immediately help or provide comfort to the recipient. They certainly are not all noble. They can disappoint and discourage. Truths often even hide themselves, burying themselves beneath layers upon layers of utter bullshit. If you want to keep your idealistic innocence intact awhile longer, it may be best to stop reading right now.
Once you see a truth you can not unsee it. All the emperors are naked in the land of the actual, and that’s nice because you have to laugh — otherwise we would all be crying as our world is so pathetic and evolution is so slow.
This truth is about the film business. It is not about the art, although a cousin of the same idea sleeps in that bed too. Business and art always have different goals, although it is certainly possible to have them align. I do think the First Truth Of The Film Business (and yes, also the FKATFB) is in direct opposition though to film art. It’s killing it, and in the long term if we don’t change things, it will also kill the business. That is how it works in case you forgot: you let it fester and it eats you from the inside. You have to root it out early and flush it down the drain fast.
The great thing about our industry’s alliance of art and commerce, is that they are truly linked. If you only think of the business, you will maim the art, which in turn will hobble the business. Vicious cycle. Rinse. Repeat. We are doomed if we don’t change our ways, which is sort of great because maybe we will, if only because we have to. The real win is when we flip that negative, and promote the art so that it lifts the business. Wild unique ideas can do more than win 7 Spirit Awards.
So what am I talking about? The First Truth Of The Film Business is that it is all about people first and foremost working to keep their jobs — not make great cinema. I can’t really fault them over this. We have a society seemingly designed to increase our insecurity. There is no safety net. People are generally alienated from their own pursuit of satisfaction. To deliver the cure, we have to treat the whole body, mind, and spirit. But when the goal is stay employed, everything else suffers. When you use weigh things over whether it will help you get promoted or not, you are bringing down both our art and our business. Do you really want that epitaph on your headstone? I don’t fault folks for wanting a job; but I do fault them for not working to change things, particularly the priorities of the places they work or manage.
I think most people chose to work in the film business because they had a love of films and many truly felt movies can change a person’s life. They joined for all the right reasons — but they lose those reasons. It’s the hierarchy of needs again, and folks are going to do what they need to survive. Working in the business, people do what they have to stay working in the business. Staying employed generally becomes the goal for most executives.
“We are trained to do the bidding of people who are motivated not by curiosity but who are protecting their jobs.” — Charlie Kaufman
Executives start to love their job more than they love cinema, and that’s when I think they need to know they should quit. Or their bosses should fire them. But this is where I deviate from the rest of the herd. The executives and their bosses don’t feel the same as I do.
What would it be like if everyone who worked with you was first and foremost dedicated to great cinema and it having it’s rightful impact? What would it be like if everyone who worked in the film biz had the big picture in mind: how to make great cinema sustainable? F’n great! That’s what I think.
So you gonna quit? You know I am talking to YOU. You know who you are. C’mon, do the right thing!
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Topic adjacent - many years ago you were on a panel when I qualified as “first starting out” and the advice you gave to us as producers was - “do something everyday to make your film(s) inevitable”. That piece of advice was the single best piece of industry advice I received and I reference it all the time and with my own students now. It shifted my perspective completely on how to approach my work and was so empowering. (This post also resonated with me, but your first question compelled me to share this anecdote!)
It wouldn't be so problematic if those people who try to follow this first rule WEREN'T SO BAD AT IT! The only real way to keep a job in our industry is to prove time and again that you are better than the job requires. That takes taking the right risks, trying to improve the way things are as well as the way things can be. Achieving those on a regular basis show the higher ups that you have what it takes to do more and they need to fight to keep you in the position you're in to keep others from poaching you.
Too many are fearfully trying not to make mistakes to stay where they are and end up not DOING anything of value. They only remain in place because one, the higher ups don't notice them and two, no one outside is interested in taking them out of their positions to go anywhere else. Eventually these lose their jobs anyway when the assessments and layoffs inevitably find out that those who aren't doing anything worth keeping aren't worth keeping.
The TRUE goal that should be the number one truth is you should always strive to LOSE your job. Take those risks that will attract the offers of a better job. If you look at the most successful people in this industry, and we can use you, Mr. Hope, as a prime example, they are CONSTANTLY losing their jobs. They never stay in the same place too long. They take risks, sometimes failing, but, often succeeding in unprecedented ways. Then they move on to bigger and better challenges and new risk taking.
If only those minions realized they have the wrong goals all along, the world would be a much more interesting place, with lots of movement and new creations allowed to grow all the time.