Steven Spielberg once described his job like this: “I dream for a living.”
A director’s role is often the most valued in a production. They create the vision for a story, run the set and call for action! for the performers. They are revered, respected and sometimes feared.
Most people are familiar with live-action directors like Spielberg, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee or Alejandro González Iñárritu. But there are many different types of directors, and the paths to becoming one are many.
Here’s an introduction to the profession and how to step into the role.
Who becomes a director?
Directors have been predominantly white and male for many years. “And here are the all-male nominees,” Natalie Portman quipped during the 2018 Golden Globes.
Like other Hollywood unions, the Directors Guild of America strives to diversify its membership. The DGA has various steering committees representing marginalized groups to increase their representation across the industry.
That improvement has happened, but DGA’s latest survey found that of 2,700 TV episodes produced in the 2020-21 season, 62% of directors were white and 62% were male.
The variety in the feature film world is much less than on television. In its latest survey, the DGA found that of the 651 feature films released in 2017, only 12% of the directors were women. Of the 145 directors of DGA feature films grossing US$250,000 or more released in North America in 2017, only 10% were directors of color.
As a director, strong leadership and storytelling skills are essential.
“It’s great that you understand the story, that you understand how to break down a script, that you have a very strong visual sensitivity,” said Regina Ainsworth, an LA-based short film director.
Management style varies from director to director.
“Their mannerisms and personalities can be vastly different, but at a deep level they impose their vision on the world,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University.
how do you start
Film school is an obvious path that connects aspiring live-action film and television directors with a community of filmmakers and future contacts.
Some directors also start at art schools.
“Lots [art schools] are looking for fresh, new voices and communities that want to express themselves creatively,” said Cheryl Dunye, who has directed episodes of Bridgerton and Queen Sugar. She started out in fine arts and earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Rutgers University.
Many successful graduates use a good student film or short film to direct a documentary or to raise money for an independent feature film.
Kevin Jones, chair of the graduate film program at Chapman University, said that about three to five years after graduating from film school, students typically used their graduation film or other short film to persuade producers to do a low-budget to direct a feature film.
Once established, Jones advised, students may also need to focus on other filmmaking skills, such as B. writing their own material.
One example is Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle, who wrote horror films before making a short version of Whiplash, which gave him the break-through to eventually direct the full-length Oscar-winning version.
Chapman’s Galloway said one of the school’s directing students recently landed a role as a production assistant on a reality show in hopes of climbing the ladder.
“But it’s very difficult and there’s no set path,” Galloway said. “For someone who wants a steady and stable income, it’s the worst possible career.”
Ainsworth began as an actor, training at the Pacific Conservatory Theater in Santa Maria, California, but then switched to directing. She describes herself as a multihyphenate. When she’s not directing, she does voiceover work, writes, or produces. She encourages aspiring directors to create their own productions.
“Find like-minded people and a unique story that you really want to tell,” said Ainsworth.
In animation, anyone who truly understands their craft has a chance to make the transition to being a director as they advance in film or television, said Jennifer Yuh Nelson, whose credits include Kung Fu Panda 2 and Netflix -Series directed “Love, Death & Robots.”
She recommends looking for a mentor at a trade fair or conference.
“Mentoring is incredibly important. That way, you can break down that initial trust barrier,” Nelson said.
What career paths are there?
There are numerous types of jobs for people with directing skills. In addition to feature film directors, there are also those who specialize in reality TV, documentaries, commercials and animation.
The scripted television boom has created a wealth of new job opportunities as each television episode requires its own director.
In animation, the typical career path for directors is through the story department, said Nelson, who started out as a storyboard artist. But directors also started out as character animators, editors, and heads of layout.
“It’s about the ability to tell stories in all forms,” she said.
How do you make money? And what money?
When it comes to making money as a director, Chapman’s Jones quoted the adage, “You can make a murder, but you can’t make a living from it.”
Jones estimates that a new director could make $30,000 over two years for a low-budget film. With that experience, a young filmmaker could get a break at a festival like Sundance, and the next directorial gig could bring in $250,000, he said.
Galloway estimates that the very best directors can earn anywhere from $5 million to $12 million per film.
However, each film can require years of work.
For live-action film and television directors who are members of the Directors Guild of America, the union sets minimum pay rates that vary depending on the production’s budget.
For theatrical films, the minimum rate is $21,765 per week for a high-budget production and $15,544 for short films and documentaries. The rate for a director for prime-time television shows starts at $4,230 per day, while off-peak rates start at $2,797, according to the DGA.
Nelson says there’s also a big gap in animation director pay.
“I know a lot of directors who work on a project for months without any pay whatsoever,” she said. “There’s often festivals and famines, so I seriously joke with aspiring directors that being independently rich or not having bills helps.”
How is this career different from 10 or 25 years ago?
As streaming television has boomed in recent years, the film director’s clout has increased has also changed.
“It’s been since the ’70s heyday, when these extraordinary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch were at the heart of the business [and], later Quentin Tarantino,” Galloway said. “They’re actually very few of those ‘authors’ who can command a huge budget just for their name.”
Instead, the dominant creators today are TV super-producers like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes – showrunners who hire directors for the material they write and produce.
“The directors that the public thinks of, and also the students, are the ones whose name is above the title, not 98% of working directors who are team players and executing on someone else’s vision,” Galloway said.
The advent of digital cameras, editing tools, and distributors (not just Netflix, but also YouTube and Vimeo) has also changed the possibilities in this space. The barriers to entry have all but been removed, making it easier to make and screen a film while increasing competition for audiences. Meanwhile, the advent of increasingly sophisticated special effects has made it possible to tell new types of stories and bend reality in new ways, allowing directors to bring more of what they could imagine to the screen.
What advice do professionals always hear that is wrong?
Aspiring directors will often hear that opportunities only come after they have attended a good film school, but this is not always the case, especially for marginalized groups.
“A lot of people from different communities attend these programs and just get overlooked,” Dunye said.
Ainsworth says she often hears advice like, “Just go out and film on your iPhone,” but she doesn’t think the technology is enough.
“I don’t think the iPhone stuff holds up in the market,” Ainsworth said. “It’s so hard to make it marketable or [comparable] to all other people who shoot with large format cameras. You have to be able to show the goods to get the job.”
What is good advice?
According to Dunye, short films give you a better chance of getting into festivals, so focus on that first. “Keep it short and sweet in the beginning,” she said.
Dunye also recommends looking abroad as more distributors focus on international markets.
“Look at international film festivals, events and screenings,” she said. “There are so many opportunities abroad, it’s ridiculous.”
Jones advises practicing as much as possible.
“People basically want to believe that they can shoot from the hip and that somehow their artistic experience will convince them,” Jones said. “No, it’s a repeat.”
Galloway suggests looking for new material — choosing books and articles, building relationships with writers who can help create a screenplay, and even taking acting classes.
“A lot of aspiring directors think it’s all about the equipment, the camera, and the lenses, but actually your job is to interpret scripts, get good grades, and guide the actors,” Galloway said.
Another little guide: Check your ego.
“Really good advice is not to take things too personally, good or bad,” Nelson said. “A director’s job is to protect the project, the integrity of that project and the vision of that project, and you have to listen to what that project needs.”