I didn’t have the option of spending months or years working as a PA to make connections, moving up the ladder slowly, or learning on set as I go.
On the other hand, I also read uplifting success stories of many filmmakers who started their careers later in life, such as Ava DuVernay or Valerie Faris.
After a 20-year career in the fashion corporate world, I decided to go into documentary filmmaking—an industry that many thought would be too tough to break into and take too long to monetize. But just one year later, I have a documentary short screening at several film festivals and streaming on Amazon, a feature documentary that is in post- production, and a third in the planning stages.
So how can you accelerate the learning process and get on a successful track in the movie business? Here are some tips I can share through my experience in hopes that it will help other people who are in a similar position.
Credit: Jia Wertz
Learn Everything You Possibly Can
I enrolled in a 6-week documentary filmmaking workshop to learn the basics quickly. I considered the tuition costs an investment in my first film.
Rather than trying to fund my short film, for which I would’ve needed over $10,000 to shoot and edit (and that is being very conservative), I invested $6,000 in tuition and some gear. This investment gave me access to all the camera, lighting, and audio equipment I needed, a team of professors (who were seasoned filmmakers themselves) that I could get expertise and opinions from, and a crew of students to work with.
Not to mention the connections I made and the team of people who helped shape my film in the editing process, resulting in a better finished product.
Not only were the tuition costs far less than what it would have cost to produce my documentary short on my own, but in addition to hands-on experience, I got invaluable feedback from professors and industry professionals, and built a network of new filmmakers and industry people.
I attended every extra-curricular activity the program offered including elective evening courses, masterclasses, and additional shoots, and took every opportunity to ask questions and learn as much as possible.
Even once the workshop at the college was over, I took as many masterclasses as I could afford. To be exact, I took 43 masterclasses in the past six months. Some were a few hours long, some took place over the weekend. But I committed to learning as much as I possibly could, because that was the only way to fast-track breaking into a new industry and expect to have any level of success.
Have a Rock-Solid Plan
Pick a subject or a topic you are very passionate about. Filming a documentary takes far too much time, money and resources for you to delve into something you won’t want to be working on for the next couple of years (or more).
When attending workshops or doing test shoots, have a solid plan as to what you are going to shoot and what you want to accomplish while there. I had a rough idea of the film I wanted to make and the types of footage or sound bites I needed. This meant that if an assignment didn’t lend itself to shooting the footage I needed for my film, I opted to break the rules slightly and shoot what I needed, knowing that I may get a lower grade, but in the end I would be better serving the film I was making.
You also need one key factor—the dedicated time to really focus and work on your film with strict deadlines. With a one-year-old son at home, I wouldn’t have had the uninterrupted time to work on my film that attending a workshop provided.
Credit: Jia Wertz
Connect with professors, faculty, other filmmakers, festival programmers, and anyone else you come across in the industry, even other participants on Zoom calls. Getting involved in the community is key to keeping the momentum going, and getting organic word-of-mouth marketing for your film.
Every event or screening your film is a part of is an opportunity for future partnerships. It’s key to network and maintain those relationships long after the events are over.
Be Smart About Your Film Festival Strategy
For someone who had never even attended a film festival, let alone known how to enter my own film into one, I did what I knew best from my previous work experience—treat it as a marketing campaign.
- Research the types of films each festival has selected in the past, what they are looking for, and what other filmmakers have to say about the festival.
- Narrow down the list of festivals that would be a good match for your film.
- Think about how to “sell” the film to these festivals. What value can you bring to the festival if your film is selected, such as a large social following, press mentions, or anything else that they would find beneficial?
- Apply to the festivals that have a clear connection to your film or genre. For example, I identified festivals that my film had a clear connection to—festivals in my hometown, festivals in my subject’s hometown, festivals that focused on criminal justice or specifically documentaries—as these festivals may want to support filmmakers that they have a clear link to.
As your film is selected by festivals, be sure to send a quick note to any pending festivals to let them know of your success thus far. Sometimes it only takes getting into one or two festivals for others to follow.
Ask programmers who select your film what they liked about it and why they selected it. Get as much feedback as possible from everyone who sees your film. This will not only help you in future projects, but often you can share their positive feedback to attract more viewers.
Credit: Jia Wertz
Lean Into the Transferable Skills You Already Have
I had absolutely no filmmaking skills last year. But I did have marketing and PR skills, extensive photography experience, and decades of experience managing large numbers of people. These skills were 100% transferable to filmmaking.
Take advantage of whichever skills you have that can apply to the industry. You would be surprised at how many business skills—and not just creative skills—are required.
Maybe you have experience fundraising or operational management skills. These are crucial in funding your film or managing the crew efficiently, respectively.
I knew that my first film may not be my best work, but I could do a great job of marketing it. And in the meantime, could still work on perfecting the craft in other areas.
Market Yourself and Your Film
Marketing your film (and yourself) is a full-time job in and of itself, but there are some things you can do along the way that will help in reaching a larger audience and give you more content to share on social media.
- Reach out to popular sites within the industry—whether that be to write guest columns (such as this one) or to get a film review or an interview.
- It’s critical that you know who your audience is. Seed&Spark has a great article on audience building.
- Find your audience via Facebook groups, Twitter, meetups, etc., and engage with them. Identify a niche audience and meet them where they already hang out— make it easy for them to communicate with you.
- Put your work out there. By that, I mean everywhere you can. Host community screenings, contact schools if your film is a good fit for certain types of classes, reach out to non-profit organizations that your film is relative to, find bloggers who write about the topic, and reach out to podcasts to either have you on as a guest or to share your film with their audience. There are several ways to get a large number of people to see your film. Initial fans of your film become advocates and help spread the word, increasing your reach.
- Keep a well-organized folder of all your film festival laurels, quotes and reviews about your film, and anything else that would make for good social media content. Once a week, go through all your collateral and schedule at least one or two social media posts for each day of the week.
- Engage with everyone who shows interest and respond to your social media messages as soon as you possibly can. Make yourself available to the audience you have—no matter how big or small that may be in the beginning.
Credit: Jia Wertz
Ask for Referrals and Recommendations
People in the film industry have been so open and helpful in my experience. When asked, people have been happy to share pitch decks, hop on Zoom calls, and even share their contacts. Starting out in this industry has really been a breath of fresh air simply because of the openness of the community and how easily people are willing to share knowledge.
Of course, when asking for referrals or anything else, think about what you can offer as well. Make yourself a resource for the people you are reaching out to. This will go a long way in building a long-lasting connection. Going back to your transferable skills, you may be able to offer marketing, PR or web development tips, or services to another filmmaker in exchange for their time.
It’s like the saying goes. You only get what you ask for.