When Not to D-I-Y…

I love the Do-It-Yourself world and do, indeed, do many more things than I ever imagined possible. Being able to do some rudimentary things like download and organize footage that’s been shot allows me to get things done cheaper and on my own timetable. Being able to create basic websites and instructional videos and webinars has allowed me to reach a lot of people with really good information. On my last film, I did all of the accounting including payroll and handled most of the legal work. Having technology help me get routine tasks done myself saved money and helped make the movie a reality. When I think back on it, I even became a screenwriter many years ago just so that I would have something to produce!

But there are situations when D-I-Y should be handled with caution.

I met recently with a young person who had worked in the film industry for a number of years and was quite successful in her niche but, like many of us, had grown restless. She initiated the meeting because she wanted to talk about “moving into producing.” Her reputation and her skill set seemed to lend itself to that goal. But as we talked she expressed the desire to tell stories and to control those stories as much as possible; in essence to be a writer-director-producer.

I met another young man who was about to direct his first feature. He was also producing it   alone, by necessity, and was planning on shooting and editing it as well. His script was quite good and he had some resources but was making the decision up front to “save money” by being a multi-hyphenate; doing the work of four people to conserve his cash.

My advice to both of these people was essentially the same: try to keep the number of hyphens in your title down to ONE as you start out.  Some jobs naturally lend themselves to working together like Writer-Director. There are certainly a few successful filmmakers who have other hyphenates like Director-Cinematographer. There are even some exceptional people with two hyphenates. But I think there is something very important about collaboration and about doing what one does best. Consider what you really, really want to be and what you excel at, then find good people to handle the other jobs.

My theory here is that even exceptional people are probably exceptional in only one area. Let’s say, as in the case above that you plan on being a Director-Producer-Cinematographer-Editor. Let’s say you are an exceptional Director (if you’re going to excel, I’d say THAT would be the area that will get your career the farthest!). So you are a great Director that is now working with an average Cinematographer and Editor and, possibly a not very good Producer. The question is, would the movie be better served with a great Cinematographer, a really talented Editor and a better Producer? I’d say yes to all three. Having skilled people in all of those areas will easily make up for the sacrifices you’ll make to have the money to hire them.

One word about the Producing credit – this is one where there are so many kinds of producers and contributions that can come from them that a lot of Directors do indeed function as producers in the early stages of getting their projects off the ground. Having a credit that acknowledges that is okay with me but I think it’s important to hand the actual job of producing off to someone who is capable as the production becomes real. I have had the Producer-Writer credit on several occasions and I have to literally take the Writer Hat off and put the Producer Hat on at a certain point if I am to be most effective.

The Editor hyphenate is especially tricky but is also more open than the others. It is possible to assemble a cut of your film yourself and then bring in an Editor or even a consulting editor down the road. It’s not my favorite scenario because the function of the editor is to be as objective as possible about the footage that was shot and it’s tough to be objective when you planned every setup and lived through the 18 hour day that it took to shoot. At the very least, if you’re going down this road you need to screen the film extensively and take careful notes of audience reactions. Try to take off the Director or Producer or Cinematographer hat when you are in the editing room and focus on making the best film possible from the available footage.

Generally, filmmaking is and should be collaborative. That can be scary and result in a feeling of “losing control” for filmmakers. But listening to other people’s ideas doesn’t mean you’ve lost control. Find people who share your vision and who can add to it, then hear their ideas and accept the ones that make sense for your movie. Don’t cut this process short by deciding to Do-It-All-Yourself!

What’s your personal experience with “doing everything” or “doing too much”? And how has it impacted the end result?

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