How To Become a Director Professionally by Making $0 Short Films
It's not ALL about the money.
I didn’t go to a respected film school. I didn’t make an amazing thesis project. I’ve never screened at a good festival. Those are all amazing things, and can have amazing results for a filmmaking career. But they just weren’t my path. My path was a Sony VX2000 camera, a PC barely capable of editing, some friends, and a lot of bad ideas.
Now, I’ve directed ads for the biggest brands in the world, 50+ episodes for TV and digital, a feature, and have been nominated for and won some awards. I feel very fortunate to make my living as a director.
But the question is how did I get to this point?
For me, it all started with making as many $0 shorts as I could.
Learn Your Lessons and Bury The Bodies
Whether you’re spending $0 or $10,000 on a short, you’re going to bone yourself hard in the beginning. Make your shorts, and learn your lessons when the stakes are low.
I made so many mistakes and cringe-worthy short films in the beginning, that now I’m able to tap into a deep well of shame and knowledge. I can course correct a mediocre line, a cliche story beat, or an eye-roll performance. Why?
Because I did it ALL to myself before.
Making these horrible mistakes changes your DNA as a filmmaker.
Now, when I’m directing a spot for Amazon or an episode of a Nickelodeon sitcom, I can see problems coming and have a quick solution. Not because I’m an amazing filmmaker... but because I was bad one.
Learn why two shots don’t edit together. Learn why you actually needed that wide. Learn why that line you thought was so clever on the page fell flat in the edit.
And once you’ve learned those lessons, and maybe shared them online... delete the bad ones.
Those shorts were for you, you don’t need someone from an agency stumbling onto your eleven-year-old sketch about a man with butterknife hands. Because they will, and then you get to talk to a creative director who has reservations about hiring you because of your eleven-year-old sketch about a man with butterknife hands.
Find Your People
If you don’t have a camera, or need help with some VFX, or want to build your lighting skills, there’s a great $0 way to do it:
Your fellow filmmakers!
The most important thing you can do is to build a community or become a part of one.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved to LA. But I found out about this monthly comedy video night at a Hollywood bar and I started hanging around and meeting people.
Eventually, through our mutual love of weird comedy and making things, I made some great friendships.
My community is called Channel 101. It’s a monthly festival/contest created by Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty, Community) and Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program). There, filmmakers create five-minute “pilots” that compete in front of a live audience. If the audience votes for your short, you then have 30 days to write, shoot, and edit another episode. If they don’t vote for you, it feels terrible and then you have 30 days to write, shoot, and edit a new show.
My friends and I made fun things every month, very cheaply or for $0. Maybe we bought a couple of costumes from the store or some cheap props. But the rest was us just running headlong into an idea with cheap boom mics, miniDV tapes, and a lot of energy.
I got to see stuff I made play on the big screen and get laughs and cheers. And other stuff I made was met with confusion and silence. It was my boot camp.
It was my film school.
I’ve met so many talented and amazing people there. And that has been the biggest boon to my career. I can trace almost all of my shows and jobs back to referrals from friends at Channel 101.
Find your community, or make one. Get together once a month and show off something you all made. Exchange notes and ideas. Help each other and inspire each other. And then when you’re all huge successes, hire each other.
This can cost $0 and is the most important thing you can do.
Hold A Boom For Your Friend
Quid pro quo isn’t gross when done right, and is a considerable factor in filmmaking.
Sure, you could write, shoot, direct, produce, put lav mics on everyone, run your own audio, edit, color, and make some VFX for every single project you ever make.
But that kind of sucks.
It’s much better when you have a group of talented filmmakers helping you out.
Even if your goal is to direct, volunteer to help your DP friend by offloading footage for him on a shoot. Edit a spec commercial your writer friend is putting together. Hold the boom for your roommate’s documentary.
You’ll want their help when it’s time to make a short. And when you need a group of people to help out on your $0 project, they are much more willing if you’ve done the same for them.
Say Yes To Everything, Make Money However You Can
My goal was to eke out a living in Los Angeles and not take a day job no matter what. I wanted to be available to say yes to whatever good job that came my way. So, I ended up taking lots of weird and not so great paying gigs during those first few years.
It was hard.
On Monday, I might have been shooting red carpet interviews for a shady charity event. On Wednesday, could be making the end credits crawl for a low budget horror movie. On the weekends I was out in the desert wearing a full face mask, dodging paintballs, and directing action sports videos for professional paintballers.
These weren’t jobs I was excited about. And some I even considered turning down. But a strange thing happened…I ended up meeting truly great people.
People who, like me, wanted to do bigger and cooler things. People I actually really liked and worked well with, and years later I would hire for “real” projects.
Some of my biggest jobs and longest friendships have started with a weird low budget shoot in the middle of nowhere.
The small amount of money might have been driving me, but the real value was the people I met.
Say yes to ALL the weird (but reasonable) jobs that come your way.
Say yes to something pays $0 once in a while.
The worst that can happen is you'll have a bad time and get to add another name to your secret list of horrible producers you never want to work for again (we all have one).
(Editors note: I might be on a few of those lists. We all start somewhere.)
Over time, I met people who liked working with me and they trusted me on bigger projects.
My reel improved, and my resume improved, and that helped me to get better jobs. But I think one thing that didn’t change was always trying to have a good attitude, even when the project is difficult, and giving each project my all.
I still approach a $100,000 project the same way I approached a $0 project: with a lot of energy and a lot of ideas (the ideas just aren’t quite as bad these days).
The bottom line is this is a hard career to get into, no matter what.
I read lots of books and articles about getting into filmmaking and then ended up ignoring most of their advice.
So, if you read this and end up ignoring all of this advice: welcome to the club, I’ll see you around town!