How to Become a Filmmaker and Why

Videos are everywhere in the modern world, appearing not only on television sets and movie theater screens, but also on computers and smartphones. Some advertise products and services while others advocate for political and social causes. Many videos are designed to educate or entertain an audience, and some do both.

Because videos can include both sights and sounds in a single package, they can quickly convey an enormous amount of information, making film a powerful communication medium.

If you have ideas or stories you’d like to share with the world, then you may want to become a filmmaker. The median salary among U.S. producers and directors in 2020 was $76,400, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that the number of jobs for film producers and directors in this country will be 24% higher in 2030 than in 2020.

Meanwhile, the median compensation among U.S. camera operators and film or video editors in 2020 was $61,900, according to the bureau, which anticipates that employment within that area will be 29% higher in 2030 than in 2020.

[Read: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Film Major.]

Types of Filmmakers and How They Work Together

Filmmaker is a broad term that encompasses multiple types of professions within the film industry, and it could arguably be used to refer to anybody who is involved with the creation of a film, though the term typically signifies that somebody is either a director or a producer, experts say. Film jobs are varied, ranging from technical roles such as positions in lighting design and sound engineering to artistic jobs in areas like animation and screenwriting.

Directors and producers are considered filmmakers, but they serve distinct roles, with directors typically taking the lead on artistic decisions and producers usually having the final say on all financial and logistical choices, according to experts. Generally, a director’s goal is to make a film as interesting as possible and a producer’s mission is to maximize its profitability.

According to actor, writer and filmmaker Jennifer Lieberman, the responsibility of a director is “breathing life into a story, picking it up off the page and making it a cinematic experience,” whereas the domain of producers is more administrative.

Paths Into the Film Industry and Reasons to Make Films

It’s possible to become a successful filmmaker even if it wasn’t your lifelong dream. Critically acclaimed screenwriter, director and actor Brent Florence — who wrote, directed and starred in the prize-winning films “Eagles in the Chicken Coop” and “A Girl, Three Guys and a Gun” — says he accidentally discovered his talent for making movies while exploring his interest in surfing.

Florence was traveling the world as a semiprofessional surfer and wanted to showcase his sport in a movie, and the film he ended up making — “One Track Mind” — captured attention internationally.

Florence, an alumnus of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, says someone who is fascinated by a particular subject, has a unique take on that topic and is unafraid of expressing an unconventional perspective has the potential to make a compelling movie. He says the most essential quality that a potential filmmaker needs is the ability to see the world differently and the courage to express that vision without camouflaging his or her idiosyncrasies.

A curious and adventurous spirit is also beneficial, Florence adds.

“You have your own perspective on something, you’re drawn to something, you see it the way that you see it and then you trust that and you allow yourself to follow through with that,” he suggests.

Some filmmakers say that their desire to create films started during childhood. Amar Wala — an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who founded the Scarborough Pictures film company — says his passion for film started when he was young.

“My family is originally from India, from Mumbai, which as I’m sure you know, has a huge cinema culture with Bollywood, and it’s just something that’s always been a huge part of my life,” says Wala, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film production at York University in Canada.

“We were just surrounded by movies all the time, and we had tons of VHS tapes around. My dad is a huge movie buff. So, at an early age, it just kind of became this thing that I really wanted to do, and after we came to Canada, that kind of stayed with me.”

Prize-winning documentarian Rudy Hypolite, whose recent feature-length film “This Ain’t Normal” was an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Social Issue Documentary, says his creative drive comes from his belief that certain segments of society are too often neglected. “I’m trying to give voice to the disenfranchised and underrepresented by illuminating stories that in the past have been marginalized or ignored.”

Hypolite, a Trinidad native and an alumnus of the broadcast program at Boston University, adds that one strategy he used to get started as a filmmaker was creating videos for a community access television channel. He recommends that other aspiring filmmakers do the same.

[Read: Everything About Acting School and How to Become an Actor.]

Experts note that film school is not mandatory for a career as a filmmaker, though it is often beneficial, especially for those who can obtain a film degree inexpensively without racking up significant student debt. Film school can facilitate networking, grant access to state-of-the-art film technology, make it easier to obtain entry-level work in the field and provide valuable lessons from master filmmakers.

“It is completely possible to make it as a filmmaker without schooling but you have to be a student of film in your own right,” filmmaker and Baltimore native Daniel Hess wrote in an email. “Constantly watching, practicing, getting on sets, trying your hands at every level. No one just jumps into the director’s role (well very rarely) so you have to work your way up and prove yourself as a reliable contributor.”

Jennifer Lieberman — an actor, writer and filmmaker who earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and English literature — got a writing-related degree instead of a film degree because she intended to use her writing skills when making movies. Regardless of an aspiring filmmaker’s academic background, he or she will need an abundance of initiative, says Lieberman, the founder of “Make Your Own Break,” an organization that helps independent creative professionals design their own career opportunities.

“For my experience, the people who have had the longevity and who have had the most success are the people who have taken the reins, created their own productions, created their own production companies and who are not waiting for anybody to give them a job,” she says. “They give themselves work. They create their own work.”

Many wildly successful filmmakers have created their own film companies. For instance, billionaire entertainer Tyler Perry — creator of hit movies such as “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” — established Tyler Perry Studios.

[Read: What Can You Do With a Visual Art Degree?]

How to Choose and Get Into a Film School

Potential filmmakers who are sure that they’re interested in a particular area of the film industry, such as ads, TV or movies, can use that insight to narrow down their list of possible film schools. Prospective film students should identify schools in locations that they find interesting and where they feel comfortable, since where they study will serve as the “main character” in the story of their time in film school, Florence says.

One of the joys of film school for a future filmmaker is the opportunity to “be thrown with a group of likeminded people,” Florence suggests, noting that film school classmates can become long-term colleagues and friends.

Wala, who didn’t get into film school the first time he applied but got accepted on the third try, says the initial rejection ended up being a blessing in disguise since it allowed him time to figure out what type of artist he wanted to be before he enrolled.

“Getting into these schools is very, very difficult,” he says, adding that his film program gave him a chance to learn about “world cinema” and provided him access to great equipment. “They’ve got their own very serious forms of gatekeeping. They can be very costly, so there’s huge issues around privilege when it comes to going to film schools.”

Top-tier film schools typically require prospective film students to submit work samples. For example, someone applying to the New York University Tisch School of the Arts undergraduate film and TV program must submit a five-part creative portfolio, which is also true for prospective graduate students seeking admission to the school’s Master of Fine Arts program in film production.

Steps to Becoming a Filmmaker

Figure out what you’d like to say in an audiovisual format and begin experimenting. “Make a strong assessment of why you want to make films, and what stories you want to tell,” C.M. Conway, a self-taught filmmaker, wrote in an email. Conway, who wrote, directed, executive produced and co-starred in the pending feature film “How to Successfully Fail in Hollywood,” says a good start is to try creating a short movie. “Many people can record on a modern phone, and edit on public source software. You can reach out to a film group or community to collaborate with other filmmakers.”

Start making movies wherever and whenever you can. Jim Costa, a filmmaker with more than three decades of experience who specializes in creating commercials, puts it this way. “ABC: Always Be Creating,” he wrote in an email. “Regardless of your age, if you want to become a filmmaker, you should take every opportunity to create content. You don’t have any excuse not to as a high-quality camera exists in your phone. In fact, the camera in my phone is better than the camera I started out using when I first got into the business. There are free apps available to do the editing right on your device and, if you’re on the network or have WIFI available, you can post your work online. It’s simple.”

Consider whether you want to attend a reputable film school. If so, assemble an impressive portfolio. “Going to college will give you insider access to gigs outsiders don’t have,” Costa says. “You’ll have access to internships and other paid work outsiders can’t see. Experience is everything in this game. You need experience to get other work, but you can’t get work till you have experience. Catch-22.”

Create a reel you can show potential employers. “No one, and I mean absolutely no one, will want to hire you unless you can show them work you’ve created,” Costa says.

Develop skills that are valuable in the film industry. Conway notes that filmmakers not only need to understand the technical aspects of filmmaking such as camera types and recording techniques, but also must be good storytellers and marketers. According to Hess, a gritty demeanor is necessary for a career as a filmmaker, since the profession often requires irregular hours. “You must also be a good listener, there is no room for ego on a good set,” he says. “Everyone is there to contribute down to the production assistant so take advice from everyone you meet. You will never and should never feel like you know everything because you don’t.”

Get a low-level film job, prove your skills and advance to higher roles. “Whichever way you go, you need to understand that you need to start at the bottom and work your way up over a long period of time,” Costa says.

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