Your First Film
This article was originally part of the Insider Cinema guide to Hollywood, a website from the mid-2000s. We are reposting it here as both a writing sample and a guide for those seeking to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.
A lot of people ask the question, “What should I do for my first film?”
There is no answer to that question, in terms of genre, or content. The only thing I can tell you is to make a film that you are passionate about, because then you will pour in everything you’ve got, and that passion you have will infect others. If you make a film that is an action/sci-fi/porno just to make money or breakthrough, you will fail miserably.
Make something you are passionate about, and something that at the end of the day you will be proud of. If you’re not passionate about it, it will show.
One last fact you should be aware of. 90% of filmmakers don’t get past their first feature, for one reason or another. In fact, even Kevin Smith was advised not to make CLERKS the way he did, and certainly not to act in it. However, he spent almost $27,000 of his own money to make it (before post-production), and he figured if he was going to sink himself into debt, he was going to make it his own way dammit.
That being said, there are strengths and weaknesses to each choice of your first film. Short vs. feature? Shoot on film or digital? Genre?
The main piece of advice that governs all these decisions is this: Don’t be a one-trick pony.
Short vs. feature?
A lot of filmmakers make big mistakes by making their calling card film a short film for several reasons.
1. Short films are meant to experiment with. That’s why they’re short. They’re meant to be exercises into how much information you can convey with limited resources, not whole Shakespearean monologue-driven plots. They’re meant to be cheap. They’re meant to be hands-on training and devices used on the short films are meant to train you.
2. You can’t sell a short film. The closest you can get to selling a short film is if you create a TV pilot that’s either 23 or 43 minutes long, and then possibly sell it to a network, but even that is rare. There have been a handful of short films that were made, and then a studio exec hired the director to adapt it into a feature, but those stories are few and far between.
3. Agents will look at short films, but they don’t really care unless you have a follow-up script, or two. What’s important is your next feature script, not your short film, because they’re focused more on your future potential, not your past.
4. It’s more impressive to have a feature film on your resume. Even if you don’t show your feature to anyone, and you walk away with only one good scene out of the entire feature that you can put on your reel, if you’re meeting on a potential commercial or music video directing job, you have a feature on your resume, and that says a lot.
Yes, a feature is more expensive. Yes, a feature is more complicated. However, the potential for a feature is greater, and while there’s a 90% chance this potential will not pan out into a distribution deal, it will still stand as a testament to your abilities.
Film Vs. Digital
Many romanticists in the film industry are still in love with the glamour of film. The celluloid mystique is very captivating, but there are many reasons to use digital.
1. Cost. Digital is cheaper than celluloid. Even High-Definition (HD) cameras (which are more expensive to rent) are cheaper in the long run because you save on development costs.
2. Maneuverability. Digital cameras are lighter and easier to move, thus being able to accomplish shots quicker.
3. Sound. It’s easier to sync up sound from a boom microphone to the camera, because you don’t have to go through an intermediate, like a DAT machine.
4. The Look. Many romanticists dislike digital because they say the look is too crisp. Others create a self-fulfilling prophecy by allowing digital to look poorly by not lighting it correctly. The truth is, digital can look just as good as film if one takes the time to light it as if one was lighting film. Some digital cameras perform well in low light. High-definition cameras traditionally do not perform well in low light. It’s an aesthetic choice that one must make based on their story, similar to what kind of film stock or color temperature film they should choose.
As I said earlier, this is your chance to shine. What do you want to say? Who are you? What kind of films do you want to make? What is your favorite subject matter? What do YOU find fascinating?
In the words of Mark Twain, “Write what you know.” and in the words of George Lucas, “Don’t follow trends, start them.”
Do you have your own thoughts?
Let us know in the comments!