1

Learn the Basics of Film & Cinema

A film director is responsible for the creative elements in a film's production. During the filmmaking process, a film director will coach actors, approve any special effects used in the project, authorize costume design, determine filming locations, and make changes, if necessary, to the script. 

The job can be stressful, and film directors may go days without sleep when meeting deadlines. In addition, directing and filming requires working in a wide range of weather conditions; during rainstorms or extreme heat. On the upside, travel is almost certain, and filming on location in some of the most beautiful regions of the world is just one fringe benefit of the job.  And although many actors make much more than a director, film directors earn a median salary of about $68,440 per year, with a range between $31,780 for a director just starting out, up to $181,780 for a seasoned pro. 

Although training and formal instruction are not required in the world of film directing, formal education can up the odds in your favor when pursuing a career as a film director.  However, some in the industry say that all that really matters are the projects you’ve directed in the past and that you director’s reel, a collection of your best work, is all that is needed to land a job.  But, if you decide to earn a degree, finding one that covers a wide-range of subjects related to filmmaking will offer you the best start on your career, unless of course you decide to specialize in one specific area, such as animation or documentaries. 

2

Learn Advanced Filmmaking Theory and Techniques

An aspiring director may be inclined to pursue a bachelor's degree in the film, media or fine arts-related fields. A bachelor's degree program will usually last for about four years and tends to offer different concentrations, such as fictional or non-fictional directing, narrative, or documentary specialties. Concentrations help students develop essential technical filmmaking skills in the areas of camera application, acting techniques, text analysis, rehearsal procedures, and casting. Students will also learn how to make and utilize brackets, shoot scripts, and properly create storyboards. 

Other skills film directors are sure to learn include production, screenwriting, storytelling, and film history. In order to gain hands-on directing experience, students are oftentimes required to enroll in a set number of collaborative projects (with fellow students). It's important too that aspiring film directors watch movies, short films, documentaries, etc., and take notice of camera angles and set-up, how does the director position the actors, and what is happening in the background.  Additionally, a director can gain a great deal of insight by reading (and writing, if you are a talented writer) screenplays. After all, a director takes the words in a script and turns them into moving pictures. And, just like most everything else that needs to be studied, a director must get accustomed to the language of screenwriting, which is different than novels, newspapers, or plays. 

There are other skills necessary to succeed as a director, such as the ability to clearly communicate and collaborate with a team of other creatives, like producers, writers, and actors.  A director must have passion and extensive understanding of filmmaking, be able to delegate, motivate and inspire a team. They must remain calm and think clearly under pressure, have a great deal of self-confidence, be determined to succeed, make sometimes snap decisions, and have artistic and creative skills.

3

Build a Strong Portfolio & Industry Experience

Potential employers and studios are looking for people with technical and artistic skills, and familiarity with filmmaking is beneficial.  However, if you don't have professional experience, or haven’t graduated with a degree in filmmaking, then a professional portfolio may be the most important element in your repertoire.  Building a creative portfolio can be a long term project if you plan on landing the job of your dreams. You'll need to write a cinematic arts personal statement, include creative writing samples and short films or videos of past work; preferably your most current work. Examples of digital or traditional artwork, sketches, animations, and film or TV scripts you've written are also valuable in getting an interview.  After all, the career of film director is specialized and competitive and you will want to put your best foot forward when applying for a job, even at the lowest level in the industry.

To move forward in your career, you'll also need to brand yourself so you can get the kind of filmmaking jobs you deserve.  Branding is differentiating yourself in the market.  It’s identifying your biggest strengths and what makes you unique; what makes you authentic and enthusiastic. Maybe you are passionate about documentaries on global warming, or short films about small town USA. Personal branding may also require creating a profile on social media, and use sites like YouTube to highlight your best work. This is especially true of individuals pursuing a career as a film director. Then, ask colleagues and friends how they view your work, what they believe your best at, and what needs improvement.

Many schools encourage film industry internships, so students can develop their skill set and gain knowledge of the film production process. Entering an internship program helps build a strong contact base, which is incredibly important when pursuing a career in the industry. But, if you don’t plan to attend college and therefore don’t have the experience offered by an internship, then joining industry associations and attending industry events will help find and nurture connections. 

Because the film industry is so incredibly competitive, many directors tend to pursue additional training and education. The DGA (The Directors Guild of America) is well-known for its assistant director programs that train students on actual film sets. After training, graduates oftentimes become DGA members and work as assistant directors on film projects. Working as an assistant director is an incredibly important step as it can help launch your filmmaking career.

Get to Know Our Experts

Ben Feuer

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Atavision
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I became interested in film in high school after (a bit arbitrarily) deciding not to pursue a career as an actor. At the time I was very into Twin Peaks and Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, among other things. In a fit of inspiration, I bought a camera and started creating short films on my home computer. I was using YouTube the first year it came out, although it did not have much impact on my career. I began with a documentary about the Belmar Boardwalk and another about the 3rd American Idol auditions.

    Advice

    School is important

    I chose Wesleyan University for its film theory program. There, I became intimately familiar with film history and terminology, which later proved useful for early jobs like script coverage and shot listing for my films (an important task for a director). I also created my first ‘serious’ short films with scripts, casts and crews, including my thesis film, The Professor, which earned honors at the school. Over the summers, I crewed on several features, including the movie Beer League (starring Artie Lange) and CSI: New York.

    Get some experience

    Working on film crews is one way to become a film director, since the contacts you make can help lead you to the money you need to make a film and can help provide services for it. That said, I did not take that road because I found the long hours and dull work too oppressive. I also interned for production companies in New York, traveling two days a week from Connecticut to do script coverage and meet with executives. This was where I first learned that the vast majority of scripts are terrible, and the most important thing a director can do to help himself succeed is get his hands on a good script somehow. Also while at Wesleyan, I made a feature film on an ultra-low budget, but I decided not to release it. I had two reasons for this – first of all it wasn’t very good and, second of all, a director’s first feature film is a very prestigious thing and offers unique opportunities. If you want to be a director wait to release your first feature until you’re doing great work. Don’t release one just because you can. Anyway, after graduating from Wesleyan, I moved to LA and worked for two years in all sorts of roles – I worked in the mail room at Sony Pictures, I was an assistant editor for a post-production house, I crewed on a children’s TV show, and I was 2nd assistant to a busy independent film executive. Although LA is the heart of the ‘film business’, I found that for me it was keeping me from actually making movies. Film-making in LA is prohibitively expensive and director positions, although more numerous, are also much more competitive. I decided to leave and go back to school. So, at Columbia University I received a range of training in writing, directing and producing, all of which I still use today. I also made dozens of contacts inside the school and outside the school, many of whom later offered me paid gigs. Columbia offered me the structure and framework to make more and better short films, which began to earn recognition at film festivals.

    What I am doing today?

    Today, I do gigs in all sorts of positions and capacities in the film world, including directing small commercials, corporate videos and occasionally short films or webisodes. I am also working on financing my first feature and am shopping it around to production companies I met through Columbia and through the various festivals and competitions I have entered.

    You gotta want it

    My advice is two-fold: One for those with money and one for those without money. If you have money, attend a top-5 film school like Columbia, USC, UCLA, AFI or NYU. If you don’t get in on your first try, re-apply until you do. Once there, make friends with EVERYONE and help everyone– your talent is important, but success as a director hinges as much or more on the strength of your networking and the favors you can call in. But please understand that to make the most of this opportunity, you’ll need not only money for your education but also to pay for the films you make. Some successful filmmakers I know made their breakthrough short films for as little as $5000. Some needed $250,000. I wish I was joking. Frankly, it depends a lot on what kind of films you want to make. And remember there’s no guarantee your first short film will be successful or will break through. If you do NOT have money, create a YouTube channel, find four or five willing friends and make a team to produce YouTube videos. If you want you can make narrative videos, but be aware that there is much more of a market for informational and practical videos, and remember that if you do want to WORK (i.e. make money) as a director you will mostly be doing commercials.

    Be inspiring

    The most important tip for becoming a director is to behave as though you already are one. Pick your project and talk about it with everyone. Talk about it like it’s a sure thing, like it’s already happening. You’ll slowly attract people who want to be part of something exciting and glamorous. Then the challenge is holding everyone together while you finish the script, get the money, and actually put together the film. It’s a balancing act and it requires a lot of begging, pleading, cajoling and deal-making. You need a lot of heart to be a director. You must be inspiring.

    What to watch

    Watch a LOT of media- Films, television, YouTube. Cultural trends in film and video are evolving ridiculously fast these days and the incubation time of films means that that cool idea or shot you had thought up might have become ‘overused’ in the time it took you to make it! Film festivals in particular have cultural rabbit ears, constantly trying to attune themselves to the next big trend. Don’t pander, but do be aware when you’re swimming against the tide and be prepared to assuage people’s fears.

    Agents are always handy

    At the end of the day, if you want to be a director you have to put yourself in a position where you are directing and then impress someone enough that he/she hires you to do it again. The first few times you direct, it will almost certainly be on your own dime. And if you do it well enough other people will want to hire you to do it for their projects. After that, it becomes a matter of displaying good taste – choosing the right projects to latch onto. That’s where an agent comes in handy, if you can snag one.

    Connor Williams

  • Title:
    Director/Actor
  • Company:
    N/A
  • Where:
    Eagle, ID
  • Experience:
    8 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    When I was about 8 months old my parents were pushing me in a stroller on Pier 49 in San Francisco. A casting director came up to them and said I should audition for a commercial. My parents thought it was some sort of scam, but they took me to the audition the next day anyways and basically other adult actors held me. I didn’t cry, so I got the gig. I shot the commercial about a week later. My parents didn’t pursue acting for me, but they did get a copy of the commercial.When I was older we moved from California to Idaho, and while unpacking they came across the video and they showed it to me. I then told them I wanted to be an actor. Since Boise is not known for making movies, my dad paid for a class where I was taught how to shoot video with a camera, use a boom mic and editing skills. At 10, I made my first short, and it played in festivals in Oregon, CA and Athens, Greece. I won some money and a karaoke machine. From there I just kept making shorts and entering 48 hour film contests. I won more awards with several of them. The only reason I made the shorts is so I could act in them.

    This past year I am in Jared Hess’s (Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) new comedy Don Verdean. It’s a very small role, but I’m also one of the leads in The UnMiracle, co-starring Kevin Sorbo and Stephen Baldwin. Anyway, when I was recently up for a series lead and didn’t get the role, I decided I would now try to take control of my own fate and direct, produce and act in my own feature length movie. The movie Spoilers is what came of this and is like a modern day version of The Breakfast Club, but with today’s teen problems: social bullying, racial profiling, teacher/student sleeping together, date rape, and sharing and believing in your faith. I cast teenagers from New York, Chicago, Texas and California. I was able to get Terry Kiser (Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s) in my film. We shot it in fifteen days working 10-12 hour days over a 17 day period. Seven of those days I had to work at Pizza Hut, so it was pretty exhausting. Spoilers was up for Best First Feature in two Film Festivals last month. I did not win, but it was cool to be nominated. I did win a great award at The Victoria Texas Film Festival. I won the use of 60,000 dollars’ worth of equipment and services usage as long as I shoot my next feature in Victoria. I plan to shoot in Victoria in 12-18 months.

    Advice

    Thoughts on education

    I have done all my films after taking a $75 class to get started. My first instinct is to say ‘no’ you don’t need a formal education to direct films. I learned so much on my first feature that I can’t wait to do it again with everything I learned. But, with that being said, I have applied to one film school. If the numbers (my cost) make sense I will attend. If not, I’m still moving to LA in August to network and audition for any and everything. I’m subleasing a place and will try LA out for a few months and see if I like the vibe and see how it goes. After 6 months I will either stay in LA or move to Salt lake City, Utah where my current agent is and go to community college and audition in the slower paced state of Utah and finish my script.

    Go for it

    Just do it. I go to different functions and listen to people talk about doing it but they never do. I’m not sure why. Just start out with short films. Once you get that part down, and if you are so inclined, go make a feature. Surround yourself with people that know what they are doing. I was very lucky in hiring my DP Andy Byrd. He worked his butt off. We went over the shot list, and of course, I told him I wanted different angles on the scenes and after the first day I knew I hired the right guy. I didn’t have to say much because he got the coverage I needed. Find out who is making films in your town and volunteer on a project. I’m not the best at networking, but I am getting stronger in that area. Go work for free and see how it all works.

    Be unique

    As I mentioned, I think doing your own thing is probably the most realistic way to get started in the biz. I was contacted by someone after they saw my film, and they asked me to direct their movie with a million dollar budget. They are raising money now, so we will see if that happens. I think for big budget films you aren’t going to walk in and become the director. You have to work your way up. But again networking could be the key of directing someone else’s indy film.

    Sabina Vajraca

  • Title:
    Independent Film Director
  • Company:
    N/A
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I was born in Bosnia, a small country in Central Europe. My dad loved movies and we spent almost all of our dad-daughter time watching them. By the time I was 8, I was already bitten by the bug and declared to everyone I was going to be a film director. When I was 14, however, the Bosnian War broke out. Our first place of refuge was the neighboring country of Croatia, where we lived for 2 years, before being granted a political refugee status in the USA and relocating here. During that time, I discovered theatre, and by the time I was in the States I had shifted my focus from film to stage. I got a BFA degree in theatre from University of Central Florida and promptly moved to New York City upon graduation. I got a full time office job and spent my evenings and weekends creating theatre.Then in 2003, 11 years after we were forced to leave Bosnia and 8 years after the war ended, we were asked to go back and reclaim the property we were forced to leave behind. I had an idea to film this experience. I knew nothing about making movies, however, so I got a few books and arranged to meet with friends of friends who made documentaries before. A month later I was in Bosnia, filming what was to become my first film – a feature documentary titled Back to Bosnia.

    Two years later, the film premiered at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles and went on to screen at over 30 festivals around the world. I traveled with the film, meeting many people who have since become my good friends and champions. During this time, my childhood passion got fully reignited, and I shifted my focus back to film directing. Instead of film school (which I could not afford at the time) I decided to learn by doing and started making short films with my friends. I financed all of them (including my documentary) with credit cards, while still holding a full-time job to pay my bills.

    I also knew there is only so much that can be self-taught, so I looked for the opportunities to work with others whenever I could. A chance search for creative jobs on Craigslist led me to Max Mayer, a writer/director looking for an assistant for his feature film Adam. While working alongside him I also started writing feature scripts myself. Then, at a film party three years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Lawrence Mattis, who loved one of my scripts and a small music video I made called Bela Lugosi’s Dead, and he became my manager.

    Staying true to my desire to learn from others, I started reading other people’s feature scripts and a year ago came across one that I felt was written just for me. I got attached to direct it, and we are now looking for financing, with a plan to shoot it this summer/fall, if all goes according to plan. Fingers crossed!

    Advice

    Thoughts on education

    In terms of the technical part of film-making (i.e. how to talk to actors, how to breakdown the script, how to block a scene, etc.), I would say it is very useful to get some sort of education, but it does not necessarily have to come from film school. I myself never went to one, but I did have 4 years of technical training from my theatre degree, and it definitely gave me the confidence to “just go for it” when I eventually did. That said, everything I learned about actual directing I learned from doing it over and over again, making mistakes, learning from them, and going for it again. And all of that happened ‘in the field’, far away from any school. However, film is a business of knowing people, and the best place to meet them is at some sort of a formal institution, and I would say a film school is useful for that. I find not having that support system behind me made my path significantly harder.

    So I’d say no, it is not imperative that you go to film school. You can learn pretty much everything they teach you there by simply jumping in and doing it yourself (with some help from a workshop or two). But if you want to make your path a bit easier and approach the film school as a networking haven that it is, and can afford it, then go for it.”

    Three tips

    Persevere – You have to have enough confidence (or is it stubbornness?) to keep going even when all the odds are against you and (seemingly) no one is on your side. You have to ignore all those naysayers, both out in the world and in your head, who tell you it’s too hard, who compare you to other directors and ask how come you didn’t make it yet, who tempt you with “safe jobs” and “normal life” (this is particularly hard when you’ve been struggling to make ends meet for a while). In this business only those who keep at it, year after year, failure after failure, survive. Make sure you have that grit in you before you start off on this path.

    Be kind and generous – This really is a business of relationships. All my successes came from knowing people who were willing to help me out, be it my college friends acting in my films for free, or industry people who loved my work pushing me ahead of the line. As you meet people along the way, seek to create friendships rather than just business relationships. Help them with their dreams if you can, even if there is nothing (tangible) in it for you. Volunteer on other people’s sets, willing to do anything, even if it’s just holding traffic or getting coffee – you learn a lot by watching others do it.

    Control your ego – There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and it is very important you keep on the right side of it. Film directors have a reputation for being egomaniacs, but the truly great ones are far from it. You need to be confident enough in what you have to say with the film you’re making to convince dozens of people to follow you, come what may, but at the same time be humble enough to acknowledge when someone in that horde happens to have a better idea about one thing or another, and listen to them.

    Build relationships

    Find a film set and volunteer your time, knowing full well that you’ll be doing jobs no one else wants to do. It’s ok. It’s relationships that matter, remember? Build friendships with people around you, learn everything you can, and then go home, write a short script about something you know – this can be a story from your life or from your imagination if that’s where you spend most of your time – and then ask all those friends you just made to help you film it. And if you don’t like writing, then see if any of the people you just met do, and offer to direct one of their scripts instead. Helping others achieve their dreams too – double Jeopardy!

    Film Director Infographic