Today we take a look at making the transition from directing videos to directing feature films. This is a nuanced discussion with many different angles, so let’s take a look!
Being a videographer can be a highly rewarding occupation. Whether you’re directing short films, commercials, or wedding videos, videography is the chance to hone your craft, whilst enjoying the versatility of short contracts. It can be a great opportunity to test ideas, gain a wide variety of experience, and have a highly dynamic career.
And as commercial work can be extremely lucrative, for many this is an ideal situation. Directing short format content provides much of the same creative experience as feature film directing, but with lower risk!
However, for many directors there comes a point where the desire to tell a long form story becomes increasingly irrepressible. It is, arguably, a much bigger canvas to paint on.
The test which this presents can be extremely appealing. It’s ostensibly the chance to reach a larger audience, engage in a deeper narrative, and potentially open up greater professional opportunities.
The challenge, however, is making the leap from directing short format. Because, while the technical considerations may feel significant, the much greater task is actually convincing gatekeepers.
A primary reason for this is that gatekeepers – namely financiers and producers – are, for good reason, typically exceedingly risk adverse. In an industry where one box office bomb can signal the end of a career (or at the very least, a significant period of probation) there is a strong predisposition towards the “tried and proven”.
Directing Videos – An Introduction
When millions of dollars, the producers reputation, and most likely an investment of several years work is at stake, the choice of a director is critical. As such, the level of due diligence which is brought to such a decision is considerable.
This usually puts nascent film directors in a catch 22 position. Essentially, a director is unlikely to get a job directing a feature film if they haven’t already directed one…so how does one surmount such a hurdle?
For aspiring feature film directors with a background in videography, here are several highly pragmatic actions to take…
1. Address concerns
If you are videographer who aspires to transition to feature film directing, you need to empathize with the film producer and financiers. The more you understand the reasons behind their concerns, and the realities which they have to be circumspect of, the better you will be able to address their fears.
Many first-time feature directors make the mistake of focusing on their own desires. They get wrapped up in what they want. This rapidly leads to directors being unreasonable, entitled, and irreverent.
If you are that rare person who can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, that it will allow you to identify what specific concerns you need to resolve in order to lock down the job. So really think about what your own concerns would be if this was several million dollars of your own money at risk, or a reputation that you’d taken several years to build!
One of the main concerns is likely to be that, while you may be wonderful at directing a team of 5, you may not yet be equipped to handle a crew of 50. Or that, while you’ve worked with large crews on commercials for 3 days, you may not have the stamina to handle a shoot of 30 days.
A great solution to this concern is to get experience working as an assistant director on feature films.
Working in that capacity on a number of long form productions, essentially under the supervision of the director, helps evidence that you have real experience of the rigors of that scale of production.
This will allow you to point to the fact that you do in fact have experience of this level of production.
2. Craft a narrative
As a director of short format content, you should lean into the creativity which short format work allows. Really spin the story of how much experimenting you’ve been able to engage in through this time of honing your craft.
Hiring you as a feature film director is going to be a major gamble for any producer, so you need to make them feel that there’s going to be something really innovative, gritty, or visionary about your work!
You must play to your strengths. From the viewpoint of a film producer, innovation is pretty much the only argument that could exist for such an unorthodox choice!
So the better you are at communicating this narrative of yourself as “the next hot director”, the more successful you are likely to be at landing a job.
Pointing to the plethora of innovation that you’ve engaged in as a result of the freedoms of short format work really helps paint the picture.
You could communicate this through a thirty second elevator pitch, a powerful bio that summarizes how groundbreaking your past work has been, or a reel that powerfully displays the diversity of your past shoots.
3. Create leverage
“Award-winning” is something which producers and publicists can spin. For this reason, if you’re wanting to land your first gig as a feature film director, you should intentionally pursue awards for your short format work.
When building your body of short format work, you should be constantly thinking about what competitions you can enter.
If you have won a prestigious award, that’s leverage that can be used to evidence the (largely unsubstantiated) belief that you’re an up and coming diamond in the rough! It’s a basis on which people can pitch you.
So make sure that you’re doing everything you can to gain the traction necessary. You can’t win competitions if you don’t enter them! You need to be very calculating, highly intentional, and intensely thoughtful about how you can maximize your profile through an aggressive award strategy.
4. Think commercially
You need to understand that there’s a whole world of commercial considerations that a film producer has, which your average short format client simply does not.
Most short format work is not made to sell as a product in its own right – it’s typically promotional in nature. (Or, in the case of short films, it’s almost always purely artistic.)
But feature films are a strange beast – not only does a feature need to be sufficiently artistic to hold merit in the audience’s eyes, but it also needs to function as a standalone transactional product.
As such, there are marketing strategies that need to be thought about from concept stage. Name actor value, and the financial potential of a certain theme or IP, are not typically considerations in most short format work.
However, when it comes to feature films, having a well thought out financial/marketing strategy from inception is key.
For this reason, the more financially minded you are from the beginning, the better. And the more effective you are articulating the analytical reasons behind your proposals, the more successful you’ll be.
In a scenario where you are actually pitching original ideas, you need to realize that, unlike most commercial work (where your job is primarily just to spend the money) in this situation your job is also to figure out how to get the money back!
You might have the most beautifully artistic pitch in all of history, but if you have a story that doesn’t have a clear widespread commercial appeal, and the intention of casting sufficiently valuable name actors, then you aren’t going to get very far.
So even though you are pitching for the role of director, the more you can think like a producer, the more the gatekeepers will feel that you understand the requirements of the job.
While certainly there are rare cases of patrons of the arts whose primary concern is purely the creation of great cultural masterpieces, those kinds of cultural benefactors are few and far between.
So an idealistic approach is a rookie mistake! You need to make sure that you’re truly approaching your pitch with the same kind of pragmatic realism that a seasoned feature film director would have.
Directing Videos – Wrapping up
The good news is that some of the greatest feature film directors of all time got their start doing short format commercial work.
Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, and Zack Snyder are just a few of the internationally renowned feature film directors who have proven that you can indeed make the leap from a career in short format work, to making a name for yourself as a feature film director.
As such, history has proven many times over that it is certainly possible to shift the film industry’s perception of the kind of director that one is. But in order to make the transition groundwork, positioning, and strategic thinking are vital.
Vanessa Frank is the presenter of Film Funding from A-Z, an on-demand course which teaches film finance to independent filmmakers.
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