The Myth of the “First-time” Feature Film Director

Posted: September 2, 2013 in Conscious Didacticism, The Art & Business of Filmmaking
Prior to directing Citizen Kane in 1941, Orson Welles only had three short films to his credit.  Since 1998 Citizen Kane has been rated as the number one film in AFI's list of greatest movies ever made. If Citizen Kane were being produced today, the studio would seek to replace him with another director.

Prior to directing Citizen Kane in 1941, Orson Welles only had three short films to his credit. Since 1998 Citizen Kane has been rated as the number one film in AFI’s list of greatest movies ever made. If Citizen Kane were being produced today, it’s highly probable that the studio would seek to replace him with another director.

For those of you who are director-filmmakers, there will come a time in your career when you’ll take on a project of ambitious scope.  Its scale will exceed anything you’ve previously created.  And, I guarantee, there will be many who will question your ability to direct such a motion picture.  They will cite “conventional wisdom”… and suggest numerous other directorial options.  They will appear adamant in their position – telling you there’s no way your project will be funded, unless you attach a “known” director.  They will even say that your film will not be able to secure a completion bond with you at the helm.  (That isn’t true – by the way.  But this subject will have to be addressed in another article.)

And in the midst of this derisive cacophony challenging your directorial merit, deep within, you know that no one else in the world has the ability to “see” the film in the way you envision it.  You’ve been with the project from its inception.  You’ve broken down every shot… You know the characters so well they’ve become friends and family in your mind.   You go to sleep at night with the movie on your mind; and it’s often the first thing you think about upon awakening.  Every day you can see it projected on a theatrical screen. Your movie lives as a creative obsession; and of course it’s that kind of near “insane” passion which is required to make it happen.

It’s more than likely your project has been in development for years, and now you’re right on the cusp of having everything you need – funding and distribution – to get the film made.  But suddenly all these outside voices, some of whom may be gatekeepers, are telling you that you can’t direct it.  And yet, you KNOW – in a way devoid of egoic drive – that without your creative leadership, the very integrity and potential box-office success of the film will be placed at grave risk.

If you are in that situation now – or if you aspire to direct on a larger scale – don’t despair. There is good news.  Plenty of it.

Before I proceed to explain further, there are some pre-requisites regarding the applicability of this article to your particular situation. For one, you must already have substantial production experience, preferably as a director…  You have to be able to demonstrate a veteran status kind of experience.  This means directing or working at a senior level on a number of productions.  (It’s assumed that you have no theatrical features in your directorial credits, which would make the point of this article moot.) But your experience can be any combination of, or all of the following – short films, commercials, episodic television, documentaries, music videos, corporate marketing and PR productions, fund raising films for major non-profits, etc…  You need to be able to demonstrate that you have hit what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, refers to as the 10,000 hours of experience that places you at a master’s status.  Having awards and recognized productions also work to your favor…

Why is so much experience important?  Because it gives you the clout to be able to look a decision maker in the eye and legitimately claim that you have more experience than many great directors, who had far less prior to helming their first major feature.  The history of motion picture production would not be complete if it didn’t include the many successful theatrical films made by first time feature film directors – from Orson Welles to John Singleton to Quentin Tarantino to David Fincher and many others.

I’ll give you a few examples… all of whom are directors who had less, or just as much experience as what I have outlined above when they helmed their first feature film.  Let’s begin with David Fincher who is famous for directing Fight Club and most recently, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  He also directed the first episodes for the acclaimed Netflix series, House of Cards.

David Fincher's first theatrical feature was the $105 million (in today's dollars) Alien 3 in 1992. His previous directing experience primarily consisted of three music videos for Madonna.

David Fincher’s first theatrical feature was the $105 million (in today’s dollars) Alien 3 in 1992. His previous directing experience primarily consisted of three music videos for Madonna.

Fincher’s first film was Alien 3 in 1992.  Prior to Alien 3, Fincher’s only directorial experience was three music videos he created for Madonna: Vogue, Express Yourself and Oh Father, as well as a short documentary in 1985.  Alien 3 was made for $63 million.  The inflation adjustment equivalent of a $105 million film today!  Theatrically it earned $158 million worldwide in 1992 dollars, not counting secondary market revenues.   Keep in mind however, that Fincher had worked as an assistant cameraman and a matte photographer on a number of features prior to directing.  He knew the territory… just as I assume you do, if you’re a director seeking to make your first feature.

Anne Fletcher is another good example.  Her first time at the director’s helm was for Step Up in 2006, which featured Channing Tatum in his first major role.. Prior to that she had never directed a single film. Fletcher had worked primarily as choreographer on a number of productions.  The Step Up series has become the number one dance film franchise in history earning in combined revenue over $1 billion worldwide.

Jonathan Dayton’s feature film directorial debut was with Little Miss Sunshine. Prior to that he directed primarily music videos.  Little Miss Sunshine released in 2006 is one of the most well-known and successful indie films of the last 10 years – grossing over $156 million worldwide.

And the most recent example of a first time feature film director, with the equivalent of or less experience than I outlined, is Jason Moore, the director of Pitch Perfect.  Pitch Perfect was a $17 million film which has now grossed over $170 million worldwide.  Prior to Pitch Perfect, Moore had directed several episodes for varying TV series.  By the way, the cinematographer for Pitch Perfect was Julio Macat, who is well noted for successfully working with “first-time” directors.

Boyz n the Hood, one of the greatest classic films of the past generation, was directed by a 22 year old John Singleton, who was fresh out of film school . He had no professional  filmmaking experience.

Boyz n the Hood, one of the greatest classic films of the past generation, was directed by a 22 year old John Singleton, who was fresh out of film school . He had no professional filmmaking experience.

And there are many more examples.  Read this NPR article on the 20th anniversary of Boyz in the Hood, which delivers a fascinating account of how in 1990, John Singleton, as a 22 year old college graduate with only a student film to his credit was able to direct one of the most memorable features of the past generation. CLICK HERE.  In today’s dollars Boyz N the Hood would boast nearly a $12 million budget.   And it earned nearly $100 million inflation adjusted dollars theatrically, that does not include all the secondary market revenues, which may have ended up more than doubling its take.

Other successful directors like Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus has Fallen) had especially humble beginnings. Fuqua’s first theatrical motion picture was The Replacement Killers, a $30 million feature in 1998.  Adjusted for inflation that budget would be over $51 million today.  Prior to The Replacement Killers, his IMDb record shows only one video directed for Playboy in 1992.  Yet, he has become of the greatest and most successful, sought-after action directors of our time.

If you have a solid track record as a director, these few examples out of many, demonstrate that successfully directing a theatrical feature is not so much about having prior theatrical directorial experience, as it is about having experience… Period.

Next time a potential gatekeeper attempts to quickly dismiss you as the director for your film, remember these examples.  Your ability to stand your ground, and how you stand your ground, are vital to your success in maintaining the directorial helm.  When confronted, don’t throw an egoic temper tantrum, but rather see it as one of the many challenges a true director must successfully overcome.  Don’t give in when they say you can’t direct it, but always exercise civility.  And don’t just be the immovable object, explain and show them why you are the most well-suited to direct your film.

An experienced “first time” feature film director is in fact one of the best bets an investor or studio can make.  You will cost less, and because your focus is on the best interests of the film, you’re not likely to indulge your ego at the expense of the movie.

Like a well prepared trial lawyer, build you case.  And prior to building your case, make sure you have assembled a team around you that believes in you as much as you believe in yourself…  Always understand that in this industry, very few people will believe in you more than the trust and consideration you give yourself.   If you fit the criteria set forth in his article you have every reason to be confident.

Stand on that confidence, pull from what you know has worked for you as a successful director, and understand that leading the creative execution of a film, means leading period.  Articulate your vision with passion and reason, and others will follow – including those who at one time seemed eager to dismiss your directorial capabilities.  It’s now rightfully your turn to direct a theatrical feature.

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© – David Christopher Loya
http://www.imdb.me/consciousfilmmaker 

Conscious Filmmaker® is the registered trademark of David Christopher Loya-Bojorquez and Vision4Media Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

Note: ANY advertising placed on any of these blog pages is not controlled by the author; nor does it necessarily reflect his opinion or ethos.

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Comments
  1. Great article and inspiration.

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