The path to becoming a film director may not be easy, but it is attainable with consistency and hard work.
Here are some experts’ insights to get you started on your journey towards your goal.
Dean Lincoln Hyers
Director | Speaker | Trainer | Coach, Sage Presence
It’s all story
Deeply devote yourself to understanding the story in general, and the screenplay in specific. How does the beginning, middle, end, main character, and hero work? It’s the universal building block of any scene, sequence, act, or overarching story.
The main character is always in a bad place. They want to get to a better place in the end. The middle is the action they take to get there. Whoever is in the beginning and end is the main character. Whoever does the action is the hero. There are multiple heroes. And this simple story principle is the essential ingredient that will happen over and over inside your movie.
Learn to pitch
Pitching is as important as the idea itself. Pitching is simplified storytelling, where the main character is in a bad place and wants to get to a better place, and has to take powerful actions to get there. It’s using the same essential building block but really sticking to the broader movements.
Learn to network
If you can’t network, you can’t get anywhere. You have to be able to win people over and get the closed doors to open. Like pitching, networking is talking about the main character who isn’t you — it’s the person you’re talking to.
You’re listening for and where they are right now (their beginning) and where they are trying to get to, and how you and your film might do something to help them get there. Network to help others, and not to push your movie idea down their throat. That’s how you get through doors.
Develop a presence
You have to be confident (but not arrogant). And you have to be warm (but not too soft). Presence is a balance. Confidence that you enjoy being around.
Work the art form
Make movies in any form you can. If nothing else, make them on your iPhone. Edit however you can. Work with the medium. Filmmaking is like being the prime decision-maker who can pull the right answers out of a bunch of other experts.
You must have a vision, but the art is pulling that vision out of others who are also there to feel creative and involved. Directing is both dictation and a compromise. Work that balance so the people who help you feel a creative part of the process. (That’s why they’re in it too.)
Start an acting workshop
The best way to work the problem is to work it together. There are actors and camera people who want to practice, and you want to practice with them.
One of the smartest ways to practice together is an acting workshop where you create and work scenes together to discover what results when you try to take your thoughts and build them into something you can actually watch.
Just do it
A good friend once told me when I asked them how to become a filmmaker, “Just do it. Any way you can.”
This story may be too old as the industry is constantly changing, and that makes my 2001 story a bit old school. But I did start out from zero and make an indie film and do a distribution deal with Warner Bros. It wasn’t a big financial success, but I crossed the finish line.
Here’s my story:
In the late 80s, I wanted to make movies, and I’d been an amateur filmmaker as a teenager who got in several film festivals making full-length super-8 sound films.
I live in Minnesota and had no contacts nor money, and the dot-com craze was starting, so I decided to form a “new media” company when I got out of college. We named it Digital Café.
Over the next years I built a track record directing corporate films, a few TV commercials, creating advertising on floppy discs, then CD-ROM interactive videos and training films, and later web sites. We put the first computer game in a cereal box for General Mills (look up The Official History Of Chexquest on youtube) and electronic promotions for BMW, and we made movie promotions on the web for Godzilla, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Jumanji, and Die Hard III.
After 9 years, I sold my company to Campbell Mithun Advertising and formed a partnership to make a feature film with my business partner Mike Koenigs, and my lawyer, John Stout. We called ourselves “Dangerous Films” because we knew just enough to be dangerous. We each agreed to drop $25k of our own money (which I had for selling my company). Then we pursued business leaders we met and knew through our years of working together and raised enough money to make a lowish budget independent feature.
All we had (this being 1999) was a story idea and the partnership. We found a Hollywood-based independent film writer (Rob Nilsson) and my lawyer knew a smaller part SAG actor named Tom Bower who was the janitor helping Bruce Willis out in Die Hard. Tom was active with the SAG organization and knew a lot of Hollywood talent. Together we managed to get a script, and with that, we got John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop) onboard and I cast out of hotels for the other parts.
The film was to be called Bill’s Gun Shop and it was about a young man who felt powerless in his life so he took a job at a gun store to get a permit to carry, hoping the gun would make him feel powerful. In the process, he follows gun culture until he’s over his head after getting recruited by a bounty hunter to go on a stakeout that got out of control. (The story is based on three true stories from a Minnesota Gun Store called Bill’s Gun Shop, including the bounty hunter who would occasionally deputize gun store employees to ride along with him. This predated carry permits as America has today.)
The year was 2000, and somehow we got exclusive permission from LucasFilm to test out their first 24p High Definition video camera to make the movie. I think that happened because we got a lot of press and notoriety as Digital Café for being innovative. We did tests transferring the HighDef to film and it looked great.
But the week of rehearsal, LucasFilm pulled the camera deal because there was a bug on the chip and they didn’t want us to have a flawed camera. There were only two such cameras in the US at that time. Too late to change our plans, we shot the movie on one of Lucas Film’s 32fps high def cameras. So we knew it would look more like a video and that scared us. We were technically the first feature film ever to be shot in High Def. Would have been the first 24p film (matching film frame rates).
During rehearsal, as luck would have it, my father in law died and his funeral was on the first day of the shoot. I got cast and crew to agree to start at 4:00 am so I could shoot the crucial first day and also go to a funeral, which I did.
The second week of shooting, we got approached by a cinematographer’s guild representative in Chicago who got wind that we were the first HD film ever and that we were doing a non-union shoot, but our cinematographer was union. Normally this was no big deal, but they wanted to set a precedent with us that an HD film was still a film and the unions cared. They sent these two big thugs all the way from Chicago to bully us. They threatened to picket our film by driving picketers in from Chicago and rescind the guild status of our DP (Director of Photography) if we didn’t go union, or ask our DP to leave the shoot. We made the decision to become a union shoot because we had momentum with and rapport between me and the DP, and I didn’t want to knock myself out of my groove. Suddenly the movie got way more expensive but nothing more was going to go on the screen.
The third week my producer came to me and said, “several of your investors backed out so I am firing your entire crew at 5:00 unless you come up with $150k.” Having no more investors, I checked my bank account and had exactly $150k in it left from selling my company. I asked my wife and she said, “Well, that was our nest-egg for retirement, but that’s why you did all this, so go ahead.” I became officially broke that day, but I financed the movie myself.
The shoot was great. I was like a kid in a candy store. I was supreme at dealing with the pressure and maximizing my teams by making sure that everyone got a sense of ownership, was valued for their creativity, and nobody ever regretted sharing their thoughts and opinions. I was always happy, and we had a blast.
Toward the end of the shoot we discovered that we were in worse financial shape than expected, not because we weren’t on the ball with our budget, but because when we became a union shoot, the union recalculated ALL the days of the shoot at union rates, including the weeks where we weren’t union (which is not how we were calculating it), and suddenly we owed back-pay on the first couple weeks. For example, the rules are different for a non-union shoot than a union. Non-union allows you to film the day after labor day at normal rates (which we did, starting at 4:00 am to capture dawns glow) but union requires triple time pay up until noon. So that, and my early start on the day my father-in-law’s funeral, became triple time. Every number became retroactively more expensive and the only way to finish the last week of our 4-week shoot was to burn the post-budget.
Now we had a film in the can but no post-money. We got a local editor in Minnesota to make a cut of the film pretty cheaply, but it wasn’t really done. So our line producer Ann Luster picked up the phone book (remember phone books) as we walked around New York City and looked up Lee Percy (editor of Boys Don’t Cry and Kiss of the Spider Woman) and he answered his phone and she persuaded him to look at our rough cut, later signing on to re-edit the film saying he liked it and knew what to do with it. Shortly after, she leveraged some local connections to get musician Peter Himmelman to do our score. With these people, I was able to go to some family friends and get a tiny post-budget.
As we totally ran out of money and favors, we had a film, but it needed some tweaks, so I digitized the film onto iMovie format and did the final-final edit myself on a macintosh laptop in iMovie, then exported an edit decision list that I emailed to the post house and convinced them to make my few, easy, final changes.
Suddenly we had a film. We submitted to film festivals and got into a few, including Denver, Mill Valley, Minneapolis, Avignon/New York, and London’s HiDef film festival. We were rejected by Sundance, Tribeca, and other prominent festivals, but at least we got in some. And, we went to the New York Film Market where we got a good writeup in the Village Voice as the most interesting fiction feature.
While at the market, someone said, “Dean, the Dude! The Dude!” (This is the real man on which the character “Dude” was based in the Big Lebowski. He was the Coen Brother’s first producer’s rep who sold Blood Simple to Hollywood.) “He’s excited to hear about your film!” I turned to see a very bored-looking man standing there like one might before calling customer service. “Okay kid. What’s your film?” he asked. I discovered that day that I had no idea how to pitch a movie. I said, “Well it’s sort of…” and Dude interrupted and said, “Seriously? You’re starting your pitch with ‘sort of’?” So I said, “It’s a coming…” and he interrupted accusingly with, “Please tell me you weren’t going to say ‘coming of age film.’ Everybody knows those don’t sell.” I thought, “Oh man, I was. I must be the only one who doesn’t know that?!” I hemmed and hawed, and for a moment thought I might have hit a cord with him because he smiled… but only to say, “Dean, it was nice to meet you,” and walked away, and I stood in the middle of a crowd very humiliated.
We got no sale or distribution deal.
So we did a tremendous amount of phone calling and did the hard work of getting about 15 distribution people to agree to look at yet one more low-budget indie film as the technology was getting to the point that they were getting saturated with them. This was extremely time consuming and nobody was very interested. All the same, we got at least 5 people to verbally agree to watch it, and 10 others who did not say either way but we had names and addresses and at least a receptionist looking out for it.
The biggest kick in the nuts of all was about to come. We duped 15 HiDef copies, packed them up with some marketing materials, and stuffed them in Fed-Ex envelopes. Get this. The date was 9/10 2001. On the day that our film showed up in the hands of our distribution targets, Bin Laden’s planes took down the Twin Towers.
No one returned our calls, and two weeks later, the few people we reached said, “We don’t even care about film at all.” Nobody watched our film. A month later, they didn’t know who we were. We were out of money and in the process of resorting to self-distribution. We got a DVD editor and a graphics person and charged our visa cards to create and duplicate 100 copies of Bill’s Gun Shop on DVD. We looked into how to self-distribute while taking one more run at the distribution houses that touched indie films. Meanwhile, the president of Minnesota Public Television saw it and liked and we considered editing a version for PBS.
We were about to go that route since most of the distributors didn’t return our calls, but one did. They were a small company called Polychrome pictures and they had a deal with Warner Brothers. The main guy watched the movie and liked it. He said it’s not for everybody, but it has soul, and some good performances, and there’s just something about it.
After some negotiating, we got a distribution deal through Polychrome and Warner Brother’s Home Entertainment. Our lawyer had some issues with their contract, and we went back and forth, but the main guy at Polychrome told me that the day we accepted the contract was the very last day before they would tell us to “fuck off.” He said he had just left a meeting where they said, “If those Bill’s Gun Shop people don’t just sign the damn thing let’s tell them to take a hike.” But that was the day we crossed the finish line. We got distribution.
Bill’s Gun Shop was like the marathon runner who crossed the finish line but broke the tape someone stretched across for them in the middle of the night after most people had gone home. It did a pay per view run, it was in Blockbuster Video and later was on Netflix (back in the DVD mailer days, but the contract ended before streaming happened). It made money, but when you deal with Warner Brothers through a middleman company, it seemed like every statement showed income, but our cut was always zero.
When we signed, we got an advance, but the actor’s union was on us like white on rice and took most of it. All in all the film made money, but I lost most of mine. The win was crossing the finish line. That was the journey and I proved myself to be a man who never quits.
In so many ways that were my “practice film.” I learned so much and know that I couldn’t wait to apply for the second movie, but I never got back to the Director’s chair. It was a many year venture for 4 weeks that felt like being a film director.
I got close about 10 more times but something always caused the deals to fall apart. I think at least 7 of the ten tries had really good stories, but if you don’t hit #1 out of the park, it’s hard to get another chance at-bat.
Film Director | Screenwriter | Producer | Author, The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking
- Learn the basics of filmmaking. It can either be through film school, apprenticeship or by doing it yourself and learning online.
- Start with good material. Either a great script, an improvisable story, or if it’s a documentary, then a compelling subject.
- Raise money, or befriend people who can.
- Learn how to cast and direct actors.
- Find a camera. Yes, you can make a movie on the phone in your pocket. Whether you should or not, is another question.
- Find a crew. You may not need that many people to make a movie, but you need a few. Pay them, and if not, then at least feed them.
- Make sure you have very good production sound. You can either hire professionals and/or invest in good microphones. Edit the film on a laptop at your neighborhood coffee shop. Other people there will be very impressed and will want to ask to see the film when it’s finished.
- Submit to film festivals and/or put it online. As soon as one person who didn’t work on the film sees it, you are now officially a movie director!
Director | Cinematographer
There’s an old adage for professions such as movie director that goes, “if you can do anything else, do it.” That pretty much sums up the amount of painstaking work and follow-through that goes into being a director. Everyone’s path is different, but in general, it takes a few key ingredients.
Have a point of view
This might not seem all that crucial, but believe me, it is. Having a distinct frame of reference and ability to tell a story through your specific understanding of the world is vitally important.
It has helped me greatly in my journey to be able to choose stories based on this question, “am I uniquely qualified to tell this story better than most anyone?”
If the answer is no, then you should probably move on. If the answer is yes, then you should be ready to double down on why and be ready to put in the hard work. This leads me to my next bit of advice.
It’s gonna suck, so be prepared
No, seriously, as Spike Lee once quipped, “Straight up and down, filmmaking is hard shit.” I think about this often because it reminds me that no job is quite like it.
Unless you win the situational lottery, you’re going to have to create your own opportunities again and again. This means that not only do you need to be able to put in 12 hours shooting during production, but you’ll also probably have to be producing, rewriting, and probably working on the next project as well.
It’s a grind, but that’s one reason it never gets old. For those people looking for a job that is always changing, this is it.
You need to develop a lot of skills that are not really “directing” related
Thinking about the filmmaking process as a complete multi-faceted journey that you are at the helm of is super important. Being a director is not just about drawing pretty pictures and handing them to the cinematographer or talking to actors about their motivation.
A huge part of filmmaking is putting all those pieces together in the first place. You need to be absolutely tenacious at “packaging.” This is the process of juggling the following balls simultaneously: Acquiring Story, Attaching Actors, Getting Funding, Securing Distribution.
It’s extremely difficult and you probably won’t succeed on the first try. It’s a game and it needs to be played fiercely because all the arrangements need to be made in concert which means that you’ll need one to convince the other but you won’t usually be able to convince either without convincing both.
If that sounds tricky, it’s because it is. This means that you’ll always have to ask more than once.
Follow-through is the most important skill you can have
After decades of struggling to get things done, I’ve become a fan of the following mantra, “Success will be measured at the 4th attempt, not the 1st.”
When I go into a situation knowing that I’ll have to keep emailing, calling, rewriting, asking, toiling, etc… to get what I need, I look at the process in a much different way. In fact, I’ve been working on my film Brick MADNESS for 10 years and it’s only just now getting distributed.
It can sometimes be an excruciatingly long journey, but setting realistic expectations can get you to the finish line. Never give up, because when you’re sitting in that theater and people are laughing or crying or oohing and ahhing, there’s nothing quite like it.
Director, Out of the Box
To answer this question in the most realistic way is to look at what components makes a movie and how can a director get chosen for the project. Here are the 3 main paths I have seen people take and succeed. It can be any of them or a combination:
- A script
- A Connection keen to be involved to help push you towards a potential project.
- Equity. It might be a studio or a private investor.
You might have written a masterpiece and with that, you can query producers, agents, and managers. If the manager or agents like the script, they might present it to their contacts.
You can then showcase your vision and if these people still trust you with leading a project where they will invest time and money, you’ll become a director.
Chances are very low because there are many components in there. A) Your script needs to be genuinely good and worthy of people taking it on B) You need someone commit to putting equity in to make it a reality, knowing that you are a green unproven director. In short, very unlikely that all the stars align.
You need to be a movie director and for that, you need to convince someone that you are one already or at least one in the making. So for that, you need to showcase what you’ve done. Short films, TV commercials, Music Videos.
You can query agents, managers, and producers or you can showcase your work at markets, award shows, and festival. Through that showcase, people need to be able to measure the talent an abilities and vision that you have as a prospective director or director in the making.
What makes it hard is that usually, people starting out, don’t have huge funds and production qualities are often low. This makes it hard to showcase your abilities when the sound guy records bad audio or that framing from the DOP is not great. Multiply problem down the line with every department.
To avoid this issue, you need to ally yourself with DOPs, Editors, Producers and other people who are in the same boat as you. You need to then output top of the shelf work and hope that it comes out above the rest. Above the thousands doing the same.
Related: What Does a Movie Producer Do?
Finding someone with equity is probably the shortest route to make things happen. If you have a project that is feasible and that there are good chances for good returns, someone might be interested in investing, parts, fully or at least development money to get the right parties involved.
The issue is that general investors don’t understand the film business and would not choose necessarily to invest in a high-risk project like a film when they can find surer investments for themselves or their clients.
Filmmaker | Producer | Writer
Establish your mindset
I am a firm believer in the phrase “actions speak louder than words”, but I think the first step in becoming a filmmaker is saying you are one. If you wait for someone else to tell you, it will never happen.
Practice on your craft
Once you’ve made the decision to be a filmmaker it’s time to stop saying it and start doing it. There is nothing worse than the person who calls themselves a director or filmmaker but doesn’t actually work. Now, I don’t mean people who struggle to find paid work, that different, I mean people who don’t work every day to get better.
When you are just getting started you should be actively filming, and makings low budget shorts, even if you have to do everything including act. It’s the only way to improve and define your taste, and without any content to show for yourself no one will take you seriously.
All it takes is for one person to see what you are working on, like what they see, and want to work with you, so make sure you put your all into everything you create!
Filmmaker, 4321 Films | Writer | Actor
The easiest way to become a movie director is to just start doing it
You don’t need to apply to for the position or ask permission. All you need is a camera, a story, and some gumption.
To give you some background, I graduated with a degree in Film from San Francisco State University and it did nothing for me. My creative partner, Dan West, and I wrote screenplays and tried to sell them into Hollywood for years, and no one would read them.
A number of years ago, when I was working at CNET, I got my hands on a Canon GL1 camcorder for review. It had a feature on it called “film mode,” which de-interlaces the video to look more like film. When I showed the camera to Dan, he said, “Dude, we can make a movie with that thing!”
I agreed and ended up buying the camera. Dan and I then wrote a script for the movie “Monsturd.” We cast our friends and family in it and directed the entire thing for around $3,000. We also did the editing.
When we were done, we sent it to a few websites that do horror movie reviews and got a few good reviews on the books. We then packaged those reviews and copies of the movie to a number of distributors.
We initially signed on to Dead Alive productions, who got us into Blockbuster (they bought 4,000 copies). The movie has since been distributed and reviewed around the world. We then shot the sequel, RetarDEAD. Both movies are currently available on Amazon and are streaming on a few sites out there. And we’re in the process of writing our next flick.
Writer | Director | Producer, Runaway Productions
My path to becoming a director was purely out of need. I worked as a producer and production designer on my first three films with a director that kept telling me I was a frustrated director.
Honestly, I just had a vision and I knew how to accomplish it with minimal resources, so when I took on directing my first feature film, “Halloween Party”, it seemed very natural. Just another hat to wear.
Build your crew and collaborate
My overall thought on directing is that I’m the captain of the project and I need to guide it to the theater or its end destination, but along the way, I want the most capable crew possible.
I try and definitely hire people that are at the top of their field whom I can afford, and I try and give them the room to be creative in their space. I’m a big advocate of collaboration and I really value my key creatives.
If it weren’t for allowing them to bring their best and then steering them slightly one way or another, I wouldn’t have the quality films I have.