Why Smart Filmmakers Don't Make It - Raindance

Traveling through the provinces with the Raindance Tour has given me an entirely new perspective from which to view Planet Raindance. On one hand I have had some precious downtime to reflect, and on another I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting, talented and indie film-starved people you’d ever have the pleasure to meet.

I started Raindance way back in 1992. Since its painful birth I have often marveled at the fact that many of the smartest filmmakers I met on my travels failed to make it as filmmakers. Despite talent, opportunity and experience, somehow smart filmmakers often fail to hit the big time, when their less talented brothers and sisters do.

This has never made sense to me until one day when I stumbled across an article about how “smart people” (i.e, people with higher cognitive abilities) tend to actually be subject to greater (cognitive) “bias blind-spots”. Said simply, smart people don’t trust their gut instincts (heuristics) during their decision making and oddly, are less able to reason than the rest of us ordinary mortals.

On the Raindance Tour, in Newcastle, I reflected on this and wondered if this might have any bearing on the inability of my smart film-making friends and their ability to present themselves, be it during pitch meetings or their show reels, CVs or festival submissions. Could it really be true that smart filmmakers’ intelligence is actually an impediment to success?

I managed to get online at the coffee shop next to the cinema and while the excellent British comedy/horror Whoops! was playing, I dragged out the show reels and CVs of some of my really smart film-making friends and made some interesting observations.

1. Many smart filmmakers don’t have clear profiles

When we surf the internet we love to put people into tidy little boxes. ‘Research analyst’, ‘pianist’, ‘filmmaker’ etc make it easier to picture the person behind the social media profile. Many smart filmmakers try to get too fancy with their job description and try to tell us who they are rather than what they do. For example, one of my acquaintances calls themselves a ‘visual wizard’ when in fact what they do is make corporate videos. As a result I fear they will get overlooked. My advice is to be as specific as possible about what you do, or what you have accomplished. For example, to say you are an Oscar nominated short filmmaker is better than saying you are a narrative viral visualizer.

2. Smart filmmakers often have profiles that are too lengthy and detailed.

One of the by-products of high intelligence is the ability to do more activities in shorter amounts of time than most other people. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see a smart filmmaker’s IMDB spanning 10 years look like that of an average person’s IMDB of 20 or even 30 years. The trick to remember is that it’s not the story, it’s the telling of the story.

Filmmakers who list every single detail in their illustrious career could come across as insecure and trying too hard. They might even be labelled that horrible 3 fingers up gesture that looks like a ‘w’ and rhymes with banker. Far better to get to the point, highlight details that highlight skills, and show how good you are with your film-making skills. Create your pedigree in a logical, simple format.

3. Smart filmmakers often sell themselves short.

Sometimes filmmakers I know will turn down an opportunity because it demands that they try something new. They’ll say to me, “I’m no expert in that.” They say this because they feel they have to excel in everything.

How I lament this conservative compartmentalized way of thinking. I ask these Einsteins: Do you really have to stay in your comfort zone – the zone where everyone acknowledges you are really good at? Can’t you break out and try something new? If you do, I say to them, I bet you’d find that those highly respected skills and outstanding intelligence would transfer into another area of film-making.

4. Smart filmmakers express themselves in terms of results.

Most smart filmmakers I know are over-achievers. They rely on their films and screenplays and hope that their body of work will speak for them. Here’s the rub: no one wants to work with a filmmaker unless they know you can do the job. But first a filmmaker has to get past the crucial initial stage when producers and financiers are considering whether or not to proceed with you. Hence the importance of the pitch.

Filmmakers of the higher cognitive persuasion need to learn how to express themselves and display their past achievements in clear, concise and succinct ways that can help future collaborators decide to work with them. No one can rest on their laurels of having done something great.

A film-making friend of mine is clearly highly intelligent. Yet I get 3 paragraph emails – each paragraph 22 lines long – in which the main message could be summed up in a couple of lines.

Don’t do it like that! Learn to be able to convey your skills and abilities simply and clearly like a Matisse cutout.

5. Smart filmmakers tend to be humble.

For every loud and even over-bearing Tarantino, there’re a dozen exceptional, bright filmmakers who don’t see themselves as special in any way. It’s only through the passage of time that they learn that what they do is extraordinary by us ordinary types – and even strange by normal standards.

The result is that these filmmakers don’t know how to define or express their extra-ordinary skills. They don’t know how to describe what they do in terms that us mere mortals will understand or appreciate. They also don’t understand the basic principals of self-promotion. That is, how to promote yourself without coming across as an arrogant type.

This humility can be caused by a basic insecurity of their own self-worth, or by their inability to understand what it is that us normal types can’t understand about their special skills.

In short, smart filmmakers need to be smarter at how they present and promote themselves.

Have I forgotten anything? Please enter your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

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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