HOW TO BECOME A FILM DIRECTOR, A PRODUCER, A SCREENWRITER OR AN ACTOR
Who’s who on the Set: Above-the-Line / Jobs and qualities required
You’re looking to start a career in film production. You want to be part of the creative team. That’s great. There are a fantastic variety of jobs for all types of personalities, whether you prefer working on set or behind your computer writing stories, editing the film, organising, planning the production or even juggling with numbers.
In this collection of posts and guides, we will explain who these key players are, what are their job responsibilities and most importantly what are the main qualities required to best fit that position and how to become a film director or producer.
Use these titles to help you decide in which film department you’d like to study. In this page, we focus on the jobs Above-the-line, those involved in the creative direction of the project: producers, directors, screenwriters and actors.
CHOOSING YOUR PATH – CAREER IN FILM PRODUCTION
Working in the film industry brings many rewards. But it takes hard work and discipline, as well as the understanding that there is no set routine. You’re always working on one or several projects, knowing that you have to look for the next one before the current one ends in order to work consistently. Work is never steady nor guaranteed. But you do it for the love and excitement of a life in the film industry.
The wonderful aspect of a career in the artistic film world is two days are never the same. You get to work with different people, produce new stories, even travel to new locations. But it also means long hours and serious commitment. Things don’t often go smoothly and you have to be prepared for anything, from bad weather on a shoot, equipment problems or the dreaded creative differences.
Note: Production jobs are defined as Above-the Line and Below-the Line. The terms refers to the budget where a line was drawn to separate key players on a film production. Those who are above-the line are involved in the creative direction of the project and have negotiated their pay prior to principal shooting. Below-the line comprises the crew needed to complete the production once principal shooting begins.
The Timeframes of Film Production:
Pre-Production (Prep) refers to the period prior to the shoot. It begins when the budget has been finalised and shooting dates are locked. At this stage, teams are built and preparation for the shoot begins. Depending on the size of the production, the prep can last between 8 weeks to a few months.
Production refers to the actual shooting period. It lasts between 4 weeks to a few months, depending on the complexity and budget of the movie production.
Post-Production refers to the period which follows completion of the shoot. It includes all the post-production elements (editing, VFX, grading, music score, sound mix, etc) as well as the admin tasks, such as closing the accounts, archiving files, etc.
There are two types of producers: the Executive Producer (EP) and the Producer. On smaller productions, these two roles may be performed by the same person. However, they do each comprise different responsibilities. This is important to know when it comes to factoring in your education. Each takes a different path.
The EP is most often the financier of the project and is not involved in the day-to-day creative process. They define the best financing strategy for the movie and work closely with the Producer, reaching out to the potential distributors, sales agents, public funding bodies or other partners.
Once financing is secured, the EP becomes the liaison between the financial stakeholders and the Producer. It’s vital that the EP has extensive experience dealing with finances, including budgets and expenses. Ultimately, it’s the EP’s job to ensure that productions come in on budget and on time. That means having business acumen and negotiating skills.
And when the film is completed, the EP is an important player in the marketing and distribution of the film. Even in smaller production companies, the EP may be working on several projects at one time. This means they must be experts in hiring the right people for the job.
Education: To become an Executive Producer, education should focus on business and economics more so than attending film school. It’s better to enroll in a business degree program and minor in film or take film courses as electives than to concentrate on applying to film schools.
- Key Qualities:
- Good business and negotiation skills. Financial expertise is important to a successful production.
- Legal acumen. Understanding laws associated with filmmaking and specific locations.
- Ability to designate. EP’s don’t have time to micromanage a production and need to entrust experts in each area of production.
- Multi-tasking. Often, an EP will be working on several projects at one time.
- Communication skills. The EP has to properly communicate with both the financiers for the business side and the Producer for the production side.
The Producer is at the heart of every movie. They are the boss of the production, hiring the director and the screenwriter(s) and are involved in every stage of the script development.
The producer’s role begins with the story. Either they have found a script they want to produce or they have developed a story concept and need a screenwriter to write the script. This may come from a story meeting for an original idea or from a property they wish to adapt into a screenplay, like optioning a published book.
At some point during the story process, the producer will hire key talent, such as the director and eventually actors. These hires usually come after a solid draft of the script has been written and are often used to build a package that will be attractive to financiers.
Once the film is ready to start production, the producer next hires the crew and manages the day-to-day aspects of the production. If there is a separate EP, the producer reports back to him/her to keep them informed as to how the production is running. This means ensuring the production keeps within budget and allotted shooting timeframe.
After principal shooting is completed, the post-production process begins. The producer oversees all aspects of “post”, including hiring editorial and effects teams, including the editing of trailers for marketing purposes.
Education: A solid business education is important along with some film-related courses. Like the EP, attending business school while gaining on-set experience is the best education for becoming a producer.
- Key Qualities:
- Problem solving. Proactivity and critical thinking. No production runs without a hitch at some point. Being able to think on one’s feet and solve problems is vital.
- Decision-making . With so many people to hire and so many creative aspects to production, the producer needs to make fast decisions,
- Time Management and Organization – Running a production is much like running a business project. This requires organizational skills and attention to detail.
- Good listener . The producer will be working with many personalities and must placate them. It’s a bit like being a therapist.
- Positive attitude . Success starts with the top. A leader with the right attitude sets the tone for the entire production.
Director or Film director (Movie Director)
The leader of any film production is without question, the Director. When we think of great films, it’s the director that first comes to mind: Scorsese, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Coppola. The director is responsible for the creative vision of the film, making sure the story comes to life. They rehearse and work with the actors to get the best performance out of them, determine shooting locations, create shot lists and manage technical details like camera and lighting positions.
While some great directors, like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, are also screenwriters, most directors are not. However, they must have an extensive knowledge of how to structure, write and convey stories. This means that often, especially in independent films, the director is involved at an early stage of the script’s development. In larger productions or television, directors may not be involved with the script at an early stage, but they are considered the master creative technician and will have input on the final draft of a script.
Education: Do you need a degree to be a film director?
Film school with a director’s track that allows you to ultimately produce a short is a great option.
Many film schools offer excellent facilities and allow directors to write and direct short films.
Directing shorts films will help you to gain valuable experience through working with actors, learning writing skills and working on sets. In addition, studying film and getting a degree as a film director is a great path to build a team of talent with whom you might work all through your career. Many producers and directors met while obtaining a degree in film.
- Key Qualities to become a Movie director:
- Leadership – The ability to take a leadership role on the set is most important. Maintaining an air of authority is key to “winning over” the set.
- Creativity and vision – More than anyone, the Film Director will be responsible for the final product.
- Passion – Your passion for the project will permeate the entire cast and crew. If you don’t show passion, no one else will.
- Ability to develop a thick skin – You’ll be working with a number of egos. Being able to juggle different personalities to keep things cohesive is vital.
- Work well under pressure – Discipline is key. Things will go wrong. It’s up to you to make sure they go right.
The story starts with the writer. Without the screenwriter, there is no production. Screenwriters develop the story’s narrative and tone, then write the screenplay. This could be from an original idea or being commissioned to adapt a previously written work, such as a novel or an earlier draft of a screenplay written by someone else.
Becoming a screenwriter is not an easy task. It requires discipline as you, and possibly a writing partner, work alone during the actual writing process. Yes, there are production meetings to attend but that’s often to receive notes and feedback on your latest draft.
Screenwriters can become emotionally attached to their scripts. New writers often take criticism of their project personally and must learn to overcome this. Don’t be so precious about your writing that you’re not willing to accept feedback. Successful writers have developed the confidence to deal with criticism and make something positive out of it.
Education: While some screenwriters go to film school to learn screenwriting technics, you may find going for a literature degree more beneficial. After all, what’s better than learning from the classics. But the best education is writing scripts and writing more scripts.
- Key Qualities to be a screenwriter:
- Creative vision – It’s not just about writing scenes to get through a plot. It’s about writing a story that an audience will love.
- Passion for storytelling – You have to love telling stories and tell stories about what you love.
- Work well alone and collaborate in a group – Writing is solitary but collaboration with producer and director is the key to a successful project.
- Ability to compromise – Learning to “pick your battles” by compromising on some elements of your script while fighting for others will make you more professional.
- Work under pressure – Script rewrites never end until shooting is completed. And sometimes not even then. Being able to make changes under a deadline is important.
These are the talents who bring the words on the page to life. Actors are first auditioned for various roles, then selected, usually by the director, to be cast in particular roles. Note that this does not include Extras. Extras can easily be replaced without disrupting the creative flow of the production and do not negotiate their pay.
How to become an Actor in the film industry. More so than film school, acting classes and workshops offer the best formal training in the craft of acting. If you’re not sure that acting is the right career choice, a short 2-3 day acting class is a good way to get a feel for the craft. Also, if you’re not located where reputable classes are offered, there are many online classes available for beginners.
If you want to become an Actor in the film industry, the best education, of course, is practical experience. This can be accomplished doing small projects and student films. You may not get paid, but you’ll get invaluable credits for your CV and scenes for your demo reel.
- Key Qualities to become an actor:
- Charisma – Not just when the camera lights go on, but also in person when you meet agents and casting directors. Developing relationships with key decision makers will get you more work.
- Creativity – Having the ability to read a script and bring your own voice to a character shows your creative insight and intelligence.
- Confidence – When you walk into an audition, have the belief that there is no one better than you for the role.
- Persistence – Most likely, you’ll face more rejection than success when you first start your career. Accept this and you’ve cleared a huge hurdle.
- Physicality – Understanding your body and its movements are important as you use it as much as you use your mind when performing.
What an audience sees on screen is the result of a great deal of collaboration behind the scenes. The Above-the-line jobs are, by far, considered the glamour jobs of the industry. But they take a great deal of hard work, perseverance and creative talent. Do you need a degree to become a movie director, a producer, a screenwriter or to become an actor in the film industry ? Technically no, but you will certainly learn a lot by attending a film school, building your knowledge and growing your network.
And of course, that’s true of all film careers. Perhaps there are others that you haven’t considered yet. For more on the Below-the-line careers, check out our post or guide (Free Download), Who’s Who on the Set: Below the Line.