“Tips for when you’re a solo filmmaker and no one can make the decisions besides you”
I’m an independent filmmaker. That means everything begins and ends with every single decision I make. You may be a solo show and you may be feeling the weight of the world. We all do at some point. That’s not going to change.
My husband and I produce together, so the whole world isn’t on just my shoulders at every step. It may not be on yours either. But it still feels that way. Partnerships go through the same issues as solo shows. These tips apply to any type of leadership team.
It’s a long road.
Developing, creating, financing, hiring, producing, post, festivals, publicity, distribution… the list is endless. I quote to non-industry folks that an indie production is a 5 year experience from idea to the end of the first year of release. It can be longer (I’m going on year 9 of a feature) or shorter (My last feature was 3 years). But 5 years is the plan. So, how much can you really handle in 5 years of ‘handling’ everything on your own? And does it get easier?
No. It doesn’t get easier.
And Money doesn’t fix the problem either.
I call it “the problem of money.” It’s when you have a friend who makes a film with MONEY and makes poor decision after poor decision in front of your eyes and it KILLS you to watch (and still be happy for them) because they are using money to solve problems instead of making the best choices for the film (and usually money makes the right choice even harder to discern).
But, luckily, I don’t have ‘the problem of money.’ [insert terribly depressed audible sigh]
Since I know that money won’t solve ‘all’ my problems, here are a few tips I’ve learned to use when you come across the hard choices at every level of solo filmmaking.
- Review your goals
Have you sat down and written a list of goals? If you haven’t done so yet —no matter where you are in the process— sit down and do it right now. Is the goal to make money? Is it prestige for the writer? Is it a calling card for the director? Is it exposing social injustice?
One film I worked on, the sex trafficking crime drama RIDGE RUNNERS (Feb 2018 release), had 2 clear goals- eyeballs on the film & fighting the trafficking of minors. The film aimed to expose the reality that every single town in America is filled with people who actively traffic children. The signs are clear and the communities ignore the reality in their own backyard. The film was based on many true events and the information is startling. Getting the word out that it is a local issue (not just a global one) is the first step to fighting this injustice.
We encountered many difficult decisions, but we were able to collectively reflect on what would serve the goals of the film ultimately. If we want suburban audiences engaged, then we could eliminate options that didn’t fit that strategy and already have fewer options to sift through.
Sometimes it takes time to figure out which choices really match the film, but writing down and referring to clear goals at each step is the only way to ensure success. And success is measured in reaching goals!
2. Know who you’re working for
This may be the most important thing to establish. Your goals will be in contrast to this person or thing if you do not truly examine this aspect of your career. Do you work for the writer? Do you work for your parents? Do you work for the investor? Do you work for the real person this is based on? Do you work for someone who did you a huge favor?
In my last film PARKER’S ANCHOR (in theaters Oct 2017, DVD & digital Feb 2018), I realized that my husband and I were focused on serving others because everyone was doing so much for us. We used a lot of favors, discounts, sponsors, and good will. But our allegiances became muddled. I realized we were working for our casting director to keep her happy so she would keep working with us. I realized we were working for our director who was sacrificing financially to work on the film. I realized we were working for the kickstarter campaign contributors. BUT- I realized we were doing it to ourselves.
People wanted to be a part of this film, they wanted to give, donate, create, & collaborate. We didn’t need to tip toe around because everyone trusted us to make the right choices. We didn’t need to do what would make them happy over what would be best for the film.
It is particularly important for women to advocate for themselves and the film, even in contrast to what others may ‘want’ you to do, but you have to do what is best for the film. And when you eliminate other voices, you know what is best.
I wasted a lot of mental energy not working for myself the whole time I thought Ia was working for myself!!! If you can examine your motives and decide who it is you truly work for, then decisions will get even simpler.
3. Find a person in whom you can trust
My girlfriend and I call each other “My MOST trusted advisor,” in reference to the fabulous Jaffar from Disney’s Aladdin. Everyone needs a MOST trusted advisor. Not someone you work for or someone who is actually in the film industry! I’m not talking about a partner either (which is why you may be a solo filmmaker now, partnerships are not for everyone). You need someone that you can safely talk ‘at’ and share your thoughts while you work out some important problems. You won’t need them often. But it helps to know they are there.
On my feature GORDON FAMILY TREE (2014), my Most trusted advisor proved to be a great support throughout the entire journey. She was my biggest cheerleader and loved hearing about every step of the process. Call someone that doesn’t need you to be successful for your interests to be heard and appreciated. We all need a good friend or confidant in life where we don’t need to posture or sell ourselves. Someone who knows and loves the real you. Sometimes it’s just my Mom.
Talking to someone who doesn’t fully understand it all sometimes helps you explain what is most important in a situation, which may bring great clarity.
When you’re truly stuck or in a tough place, a MOST trusted advisor is a safe place to get perspective before you get back in the ring.
With every single film, the list grows, the complications grow, and the possibilities grow.
Create goals, figure out your allegiances, and stay in touch with reality. When hard times, tough decisions, and forks in the road come around (and they WILL)— you’ll be in a position to make swift and positive choices. Even if it seems impossible.
But I can do it (pregnant and breastfeeding a toddler on-set), so you can do it too. Trust me.
Thank you for your time. Jennica Schwartzman,