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How Passion Can Ruin A Filmmaker's Career

11/11/2014 16:21 GMT | Updated 10/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Call it the paradox of filmmaking: The very thing it takes to make movies often ends up destroying filmmakers and their careers.

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I started Raindance in 1992 when many of the filmmakers submitting to this year's film festival were still in nappies.There is a consistent theme amongst the approximately 100,000 filmmakers who have submitted films to Raindance since then: Passion.

Filmmakers believe in their projects so strongly that they throw caution to the wind - they leave secure, full-time jobs and risk their life's savings to fulfill their dreams.

It gets worse. They have such an infectious enthusiasm and positive drive for their projects that they convince everyone they know to say 'hell with it' and throw their lot into the ring as well.

This is all the positive side.

Another theme I have seen is how this positive drive can blinker filmmakers. They become so convinced of the correctness of their ideas that they become overconfident. Then they start making a series of bad choices at the worst possible times, which ultimately dooms their film, and their career.

Only then do filmmakers appreciate that the origin of the word "passion" is the Latin word for "suffer."

Filmmakers are so impatient to get their show on the road that they get overly optimistic about the prospects of recoupment, or the possibility of landing a mega star in their project. Should a key team member get sick of waiting for the golden goose egg to drop and leave the project, they often can't read the writing on the proverbial wall and try to take on that person's role too. Or worse yet, often they can't see the financials where the difference between black and red ink is pretty straightforward. All of this leads to a recipe for disaster.

I know what I am talking about. I started Raindance on my own and for the first five years did everything myself. As Raindance grew so did the team members. Currently we are 14 in London and 27 worldwide, plus something like 33 mentors and tutors on our postgraduate film degree, and dozens and dozens of volunteers and interns. My London team members will tell you that I am always trying to do too much, worry too much, and take on far too much responsibility. They will also tell you that the major reason for the recent success and expansion of Raindance is due to the fact that they are getting better at saying "no" to my passionate ideas.

The fact that there is a fine line between passion and crazy is something I am going to save for another day!

So, let's get started. Here's 4 big decisions where filmmakers often let passion colour their judgement. I'm also going to give my strategies on staying clear-headed based on a zillion mistakes I've made:

1. Let's go to camera ASAP and start shooting!

Filmmakers I know are all deeply passionate. The first time passion rears an ugly side is when the filmmaker decides to start shooting. Passion blinds one to the realities of the shoot. It is so easy to kick potential nightmares under a carpet. Trouble is, they fester and end up as worst-case scenarios time and time again.

Let's have a good look at launching your shoot. There are three factors a filmmaker needs to consider before they hit the 'go' button:

1) Firstly, have you had really good impartial and trustworthy feedback on your script and business plan? At this crucial juncture the passion of the filmmaker will cloud their judgement and they will start believing their own press kit. BTW, and this isn't a blatant sales pitch, we have, in my humble opinion, the very best script feedback service in Europe. And it's cheap and fast!

I made a shocking mistake exactly like this in 1997 when I wrote and directed my first feature Table 5. Technically it's OK, but OMG the script really sucks. No one around me had the nerve to tell me the script needed some more work -- or if they did I didn't hear them. And a few years later I wrote a book on screenwriting! Basically 6 months of effort went down the drain.

2) Secondly, filmmakers need to think of their career arcs. Is this project, complete with its marketing and financial plans, the best possible project for this particular point in your career? Filmmakers blinded by passion often make the mistake of thinking they have all the skills and knowledge needed to make informed decisions.

Here is a painful tale from my chest of stories. In 2005 when YouTube was launched I decided that an online film portal of independent films delivered on the web was going to be the Next Big Thing. We were already pioneering day-date screenings with Tiscali (now TalkTalk) so I rushed to launch Raindance.tv on September 14 2008 -- the day of the financial collapse in NYC. The resulting bloodbath meant that we never ever really got the investment to get going, but new services such as Mubi and Netflicks were able to learn from our mistakes.

3) And thirdly, what about your own personal circumstances. Are you ready to devote every single cent, neuron and blood cell to your movie? The old adage of 'there ain't no life after the movies' couldn't be more appropriate. Be prepared of the toll starting a movie will place on your personal relationships.

Here's a big mistake I have often made, and it's painful to admit it here. I've often painted a rosier than rosy picture to significant others in an attempt to win their support and cooperation. I even started lying to myself saying things like "I'm just doing this for my family" and "my significant partner understands what I'm trying to do" or "I'll make this up to everyone by spending quality time." Of course these were total lies I was telling myself.

I've learned that the most important investment you can have is solid emotional support from those closest to you. But beware, those ties can easily unravel the minute you shout: 'Action'.

2. The Bigger the Better!

Here's a really easy hole to fall into when you are planning your first project: Over confidence. There is something about your very own movie that immediately starts to cloud your judgement. You might be meeting a sales agent and going through sales estimates. And lets say they say Mexico $25 -$ 500,000. which number do you think you hear?

I haven't really done research scientifically, but sitting here tonight listen to The Band as I write my notes up, I'd guess about 89% of filmmakers think their film is going to be a success when they start out. Yet, ask them about the success of films similar to theirs, the percentage falls to about 25%! Filmmakers never have any rationale or collateral to prove their rosy projections either.

I'm not going to win any academic accolades by pointing out that rosy sales and income projections rarely pan out, am I?

Filmmakers usually need more money to finish than what they planned for and their films usually earn less, and sometimes much less.

Successful filmmakers learn how to mix reality with optimism.

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3. Slicing up the pie

Starting a film project has many parallels with start-ups in other industries. Fledgling filmmakers try to get a team together, and start marching towards production and the delivery date like the Three Muskateers. It's very easy to assume that the starting team members are (a) the best for the job, and (b) are going to stick it out to the bitter end. It's also easy to assume that each member of the team will bring the same level of commitment to the table.

Here is what often happens: A filmmaker will say to the Three Musketeers: Here's your percentage. Then, suppose, the project needs more money meaning that everyone needs to have their percentages diluted. But if they have already engraved their percentage in stone, they will be reluctant to do so. And yet if they do, it could well harbour resentment.

It's a hard row to how as they used to say back home on the farm. Don't dish out equity too soon. I can tell you from painful personal experience that equity and deferments decided too soon leads to great pain in the future.

4. I'm The Best That There Is

Filmmakers who finally get a project off the ground will have learned many new skills and formed useful new alliances and relationships. But they are often shocked when a new investor comes along and tells them that they aren't going to be needed. This often happens right at the last minute with just one hurdle to be overcome.

There's good reason for replacing a filmmaker on a big budget. The skills that it takes to make an excellent $100,000 film are very different than those needed for a $10,000,000 film.

I'm at this really painful crossroads with Raindance. I have got it this far using my skills and with blood, sweat and beers. For it to really take off Raindance needs someone to manage and run it, using the vision I have always had but with the training and expertise running an organisation with thousands of members and several dozen employees. This would free up my time to do the things I am really good at which would make everything Raindance-wise even better, and perhaps allow me to spend some of the 80 hours a week I spend on things like admin on my own creative projects.

Fade Out

Passion is an essential ingredient in a filmmakers arsenal of weapons. But beware the perils of passion. As Steve Jobs warned, "Follow your heart, but check it with your head." Filmmakers need to learn about the business and how best to compensate for their passion.