The Curse of the First Time Director

A few thoughts on filmmaking today, inspired by recent events and trends.

In addition to my screenwriting, novel writing and short stories, I also directed a couple of short films; On Edge (1999), Red Lines (2002) both with the now defunct Robber Baron Productions, and some TV promos; True Horror With Anthony Head (Discovery Channel, 2004).

So, I haven’t directed anything in eight years, and am often asked the question, in interviews and Q&As, why not?

Naive (and much younger) me thought that making a couple of award-winning shorts would pave the way to feature directing. Not so. I have scratched a living these past 8 years as a screenwriter/script doctor, secretly hoping those credits would also stand me in good stead for a feature debut. No dice, as yet.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Over the past decade I’ve had a number of potentially brilliant feature length projects in the works, writing and polishing and rewriting dozens of screenplay drafts for each at the behest of producers and executives keen on shaping the project to the demands of the marketplace.

Truth is, financing a movie seems to be the most difficult thing on earth. I recently completed a round of talks about one of my screenplays to which I’m attached as director and I was told point blank, by the producer that not one of his investors would risk financing a movie with a first time director attached – too risky.

So how do first time directors get to cut their first feature if no-one is willing to risk taking a punt on them? Surely the film biz is one built entirely on risk? “Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman reminds us – and even a seasoned director can make a turkey. It’s a frustrating chicken and egg situation and the longer it goes on, the greater the (perceived) risk.

All the meetings I’ve taken, all the unsuccessful funding applications I’ve made (for shorts and features) have taught me one thing – one simple, inconvenient truth: 

Movies cost money – and it is usually someone else’s money. Even if you go down the microbudget route, you have to pay insurance for your shoot, catering for your cast and crew, transportation costs, etc., etc.

Add to that the growing trend in the movie business; first-timers get it done for free. “Just pick up a camera and shoot” is an approach that has worked for some, sure. But it sets a precedent. First timers are expected to self-finance and prove themselves, screenplays are expected to be optioned for free. This is a difficult environment for anyone who has a family to support, bills to pay. It’s “a game for the young” as wise old Admiral James T. Kirk once said.

After reading Christopher Fowler’s revealing blog post on the subject of “the death of the script“, it seems the new wave of first-timers are eschewing a script entirely in favour of improvised microbudgeters, edited on-set on laptops. No risk to anyone else, and the filmmaker (no longer a first-timer anymore) then gets hired to do studio remakes…

See, after a decade in development hell I’m becoming cynical! Maybe it is time to give up after all.

But I might just take one more meeting first.


5 thoughts on “The Curse of the First Time Director

  1. I hear you man. I have been thinking the same after 10 years of writing on and off where all projects have ended up in development hell. And yet, here I am doing revisions on yet another script in the vain hope that someone might want to make it. I don’t think I will ever learn 🙂

    I have decided though that the right route to go is to write novels. You don’t need financing, a crew or anything else. Just your head and a pen.

    Just wanted to say that I think you’re doing just the right thing.

    • Thank you Adam, feature film development with no production is a hell indeed, but very much part of the biz. And as Panic Button proved last year, sometimes the movie gets made, hurrah! Onwards, and all my best to you!

  2. Mr. Frazer Lee, how sad that you are so unlucky with the movies. I think your two short films were great, I watched them several times. And the “panic button” was one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in the last two years. But maybe, if there is no hope for the movies, you should rewrite your scripts as novels? Who knows – what if one of these books will become popular,someone will want to make a movie out of it,and you’ll have a script ready. Okay,now I’m just trying to be optimistic. XD
    Good luck anyway.

    • Thanks! And bravo for your optimism 🙂 I have some cool projects in the works, both books & screenplays, so who knows what might happen? It’s good to know you enjoyed the shorts & Panic Button – thanks again for your kind words.

      • And thank you for your creativity. Pity that Urbane never realized. I have not seen the script, but I read your short story, I think If a few years ago you were lucky to make this film, it would’ve been popular.
        Good luck to your new creative work! Fans believe in you)))

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s