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Industry Insights: How to Sustain a Career as a Filmmaker

There is only one way to make money as a filmmaker and the vast majority of filmmakers don’t understand what it is. So, what is the answer?

Some think that if they get good enough technically, or if their work is brave or beautiful or sensitive, they will be successful. Others are certain that if they’re simply a better filmmaker than someone else, and they know someone who makes money, they are certain to succeed. They’re both wrong.

There is only one way to make money as a filmmaker, and that’s to make money for the people you’re working for. Film is so expensive that almost no one can afford to make films for fun, and if they can, they can’t do it for long.

The films you make need to cause people to open their wallets. They need to buy tickets or DVDs or downloads, or donate to a cause, or buy what you’re advertising. If your films don’t make people money, even if that someone is you, you aren’t going to take that chance again.


Orson Wells, considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, constantly struggled to finance his projects. His films were masterpieces, but he had a reputation for going over budget and not bringing his investors a return. He made only fourteen feature films in his long career.

Roger Corman, his contemporary, directed fifty-five films. He actually wrote a book called How I Made 100 Films in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. I’m not saying you should shoot movies like Roger Corman instead of Orson Wells, but if Wells had approached filmmaking more like Corman, we might have another dozen Orson Wells masterpieces.

Let’s consider a more modern example. This video fails on almost every level as a film . . .

The lighting is terrible, the framing, the set, the quality the audio — this is almost a textbook example of how not to make a video. But Gary Vee made a thousand episodes of this show, and it sold a boatload of wine. His videos turned a $3 million-a-year wine store into a $60 million-a-year wine store. He launched a digital media firm and has a net worth of $160 million.

Film is a powerful art form, and there is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake. But the bottom line is that if you want to get paid to make films, your films need to make someone money.

That person might be you. You can make money uploading films to YouTube, but only if someone watching clicks on an ad that plays next to your films and ends up buying that product. (Alternatively, you can use your YouTube videos to sell products of your own.)

It used to be that no one could really know if commercials changed people’s behavior. If you spent money on an ad, and something increased in sales, was that cause or correlation?

In the age of Facebook and Google ads, advertisers are privy to much more information. Companies track click-through rates — and pretty much everything else.

If you want to make money making films, and turn it into a career, I would encourage you to help your clients understand the best ways to use your skills to enrich themselves, because that is the only way you’re going to keep doing what you love.


Cover image via gnepphoto.

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