What makes a great filmmaker? Or what makes a filmmaker great? I’ve been contemplating this recently.
“I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star… I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be – and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.”
Lady Gaga

Cannes Film Festival receives 14,000 film submissions a year and shows about 30 shorts and a hundred features. That’s a hit rate of 1%. The Writers Guild of America registers approximately 50,000 new scripts a year, the majority of which are spec scripts. The income represents a major portion of their annual budget. The American film industry produces about 600 movies a year meaning 99% of the scripts registered in the WGA never get produced. That’s just in America

What are the qualities of the 100% who manage to get their films made and into festivals like Cannes and Raindance? And how do screenwriters go from script to produced screenwriters like William C. Martell, for example.

I’ve searched through my notes and come up with some common characteristics of successful screenwriters and filmmakers.

Go From Average To Great Filmmaker: 7 Qualities

I know I’m leaving myself wide open for attack. Go on– hit me with your criticisms and ideas here.

1. A great filmmaker can see beyond the curve

“Observing and commenting, it is a piece of cake.
Experiencing and sharing, that is a piece of work.”
Toba Beta, My Ancestor Was an Ancient Astronaut

A great storyteller will know how the story unfolds before they tell it, write it or show it. Be it on the page or on the screen. As filmmakers go it’s a huge advantage to be able to spot trends before they become part of pop culture. 

2. A great filmmaker has confidence

“Be careful not to mistake insecurity and inadequacy for humility! Humility has nothing to do with the insecure and inadequate! Just like arrogance has nothing to do with greatness!”
  C. JoyBell C.

The sign of a mature artist is someone who moves and creates with confidence. And this is a stage in one’s professional life that takes time and patience. It’s totally normal to face self-doubt and the insecurity that goes with it. Never mind the sheer terror of delivering a pitch to a room full of investors or development executives. I’m not trying to pat myself too hard on the back here, but our original Pitch Clinic is an essential for any filmmakers or screenwriters seeking to build the confidence for those confidence-shaking pitch moments. You can see the Pitch Clinic here.

It’s also easy to fall into the dark hole of ego. Saying things like: “My script is the best script out there ‘cos I’m the best writer you’ll ever see” certainly won’t win you any friends anywhere. Nor is it likely to attract the type of people you need for your project or your career.

Here’s my ego art school story from way back. I was studying ceramics along with sculpture. We’d show up each morning in clothes covered in clay ready to be creative. My wonderful mentor Roger Kerslake organised a special demonstration with a master of ceramics from Japan. I wish I could remember this man’s name. We showed up covered in our cool creative arty clay covered clothes as usual. Then Roger appeared with this master, who was dressed in a tuxedo! He did not speak a word, sat down at a potter’s wheel and turned an amazing vase using just the tips of his fingers. He then rinsed his fingers in a tiny cup of water and left. The point, of course, not lost on us cool-as-school kids that it wasn’t about how you looked, but what you did. We were humbled.

3. A great filmmaker knows how to collaborate.

“Don’t blow off another’s candle for it won’t make yours shine brighter.”
Jaachynma N.E. Agu, The Prince and the Pauper

There’s a lot of talk about independent film– when in reality all films and filmmakers are dependent. As a filmmaker you are dependent on the screenwriter, the camera person, the actors and editors. A great filmmaker or screenwriter knows how to inspire the entire team from the lead actor to the lowliest runner.

4. A great filmmaker knows how to deal with failure and rejection

“I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
John Keats

There is nothing like knowing how to deal with rejection and failure. This is part of the creative industry that newbies find most difficult to deal with. You are going to hit brick wall after brick wall. A great filmmaker soon learns how to reject rejection, to learn from constructive criticism and to ignore criticism not contextualised properly.

5. Know your industry

“{Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

It never ceases to amaze me how many screenwriters and filmmakers haven’t taken the time to understand how money flows in the film industry. They have even less of a clue of why a filmmaker would attend a film festival. Would it be reasonable to expect an investor or development executive to board your project or consider your screenplay if they sniff that you don’t have the faintest idea of how the industry is structured, financed and monetised?

I don’t care who you are, which level you are at, or what your filmmaking aspirations are– you really need to understand the ins-and-outs of the film industry inside out.

6. A great filmmaker knows exactly what the guidelines are

“Doing what needs to be done may not make you happy, but it will make you great.”
  George Bernard Shaw

Knowing the industry (above) is one thing. Learning what the expectations are is another. For example, a 162-page spec script is never ever going to be read. Nor is a 28 minute short likely to be programmed in a film festival.

Hunker down and read all the fine print. research online and see what the rules and regulations are for each and every single company you are applying to. Become familiar with copyright and learn how to protect the Intellectual Property you create. And please, filmmakers, learn how to clear music rights so you avoid dumb mistakes.

7. A great filmmaker knows how to handle success

“When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.”
Walter Payton

I’ve met dozens and hundreds of supremely talented filmmakers– most of whom have yet to realise the commercial and critical success they are due. It’s while they are waiting for this notice that some filmmakers become bitter and twisted. This is because they usually have unrealistic expectations that their work will achieve the notice and rewards that Christopher Nolan has achieved.

The trick is, I believe, to measure each piece you create on its own and evaluate it in terms of your own personal development. If you are satisfied with the progress you have made creatively and are ready to market your film or script, then do so. Always remembering that the read by a development executive in a small production company, or the acceptance into a relatively unknown film festival is success and should be valued and even treasured.

Fade Out

At the end of the day, the film industry is crying out for storytellers. Learn the craft of visual storytelling. Team up with collaborators who can visualise your stories. And never ever stop creating. Sooner or later you will achieve greatness.

About 

Elliot Grove is the founder of Raindance Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards. He has produced over 700 hundred short films and also five feature films, including the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead in 2006, Deadly Virtues in 2013 and AMBER in 2017. He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance trailer 2017

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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