Tips for Emerging Filmmakers: Gaining a Foothold

Jun 11, 2024
A camera operator and a sound engineer interview an elderly man standing with his back to a white wall hung with black and white pictures of Indigenous insurgents in southern Mexico.
Filmmaking can offer great opportunities for creative expression, travel, and professional development. This photo is from the shooting process behind Rowan Glass’ forthcoming film on the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico.

By Rowan Glass

In today’s hypervisual world, film is one of the most powerful and ubiquitous forms of communication and storytelling. From feature-length fiction to documentaries and experimental short films, filmmaking as both a creative endeavor and professional industry is currently more dynamic—and, with the increasing availability of high-quality, entry-level equipment, more accessible to the creative public—than ever before. Perhaps you’re an aspiring or emerging filmmaker hoping to enter the field at this exciting moment in its development.

The ProFellow database includes a wide range of fellowship programs for aspiring filmmakers, which can help newcomers to the field gain experience and start producing work. However, as a novice or aspiring filmmaker, it can be difficult to start publishing and publicizing one’s work. In this article, I’ll lay out some of the approaches new filmmakers can take to begin getting their work out and establish their careers as visual storytellers.

Do the work

This first point might seem obvious, but it’s common for many young filmmakers—especially those who go through a formal film degree—to spend a long time developing a single project. They often expect it must be honed to perfection. For instance, most four-year film degrees require a thesis film, typically a short film shot and edited over the course of the student’s final year in film school. 

As a student, it’s okay to focus on perfecting each project. However, successful creatives often thrive by continuously trying new things without fixating on making each one their magnum opus. For novice filmmakers, the key to building skills and a portfolio is to regularly shoot, edit, and produce work without the pressure for each piece to be a masterpiece.

As one of my favorite independent filmmakers, Joel Haver, says, “You’ve just got to be willing to create something, and use your inspirations, and don’t be ashamed to make something bad. I love every film I make, but some are better than others, I will admit. But at the end of the day, I don’t care, because it’s fun to make them and there’s not one that I regret making or had a bad time making. You’ve got to let go of that pretense that if you really focus on this one film, it’s gonna be the film, because if you do that you’re never going to make anything.”

So grab a camera and start shooting!

Apply to filmmaking fellowships and field schools

Participating in a filmmaking fellowship can be a great way to develop your skills, build your portfolio, and network with other filmmakers and industry professionals. Many fellowships are also associated with organizations or film festivals that can assist fellows in producing and distributing their work.

For example, I participated in the Athens Summer School in Visual Ethnographic Practices, a summer program associated with Ethnofest – Athens Ethnographic Film Festival. After producing my first documentary during the summer school, it was automatically considered for the student section of the 14th edition of Ethnofest, taking place in Athens, Greece, in November 2023. Alongside some other films produced during the summer school, mine was selected and screened, marking my first successful film festival entry. Many other filmmaking fellowships and programs offer similar opportunities to get one’s work shown in a formal venue.

Looking for a filmmaking fellowship? Check out ProFellow’s list of 18 Fellowships for Emerging and Established Filmmakers.

A camera on a tripod is pointed at a bearded man wearing shorts and a green t-shirt during a filmed interview. On either side of the camera sit two women.
Rowan Glass’ first film, Light Across the Water, was screened at the 14th edition of Ethnofest – Athens Ethnographic Film Festival. This behind-the-scenes shot shows a filmed interview in progress.

Networking

Whatever your aspirations as a filmmaker, the industry has this in common with every other: it’s all about networking. Just as important as what you know is who you know—and building those relationships takes time and dedication. 

A great way to start is by attending film festivals, conferences, and other industry events. That will give you the chance to meet other filmmakers, as well as other important people in the industry, such as producers, editors, actors, writers, managers, researchers, and a wide variety of technicians. Not only can building those relationships help you identify people who may be interested in your work, but with some maneuvering, they might even lead to a job or other professional opportunities.

Online social networking and media platforms can also be a great way to network. People in the film industry typically love talking about and sharing their work, so connecting over platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter can be a great way to meet potential collaborators. Along similar lines, consider building an online portfolio, such as a personal website, to document and publicize your work in a shareable format.

Submitting to festivals

Here’s the big one: if you want to break into filmmaking professionally, you need to submit your work to festivals. But rest assured, you don’t need to start with Sundance or Cannes. Instead, start by identifying local festivals or ones that focus on a particular genre or theme relevant to your work. If you want to work in horror, find a local horror festival. If you want to work on environmental documentaries, there are events for that. You might be surprised at just how niche some festivals are!

Starting with smaller and more niche festivals means that your work, as a novice filmmaker working with a limited budget and no outreach team, will face less competition and will be more likely to gain entry. Smaller festivals typically also charge lower submission fees.

If your film gets accepted and screened at the festival, it could attract industry professionals such as distributors and studio executives who attend such events to discover new films or talent to support. Gaining a successful film festival entry can, therefore, be your ticket to a film distribution deal or a long-term relationship with a distributor or studio. It’s not uncommon for a film to go around the festival circuit for months or even years before finding an interested distributor—but once you’re in, you’re in.

If you’re not sure where to start, film festival databases like FilmFreeway and Festagent can help you locate festivals by region, genre, and date.

Self-publishing

Another option, if you don’t want to or can’t afford to enter your work in the festival circuit, is to self-publish. Many independent filmmakers publish their work predominantly on YouTube, forgoing film festivals and distributors to instead opt for total creative control and more direct relationships with their audiences.

For creators who can build a large audience on a platform like YouTube, by which they can generate revenue through ads and monetization, self-publishing can be a viable option. Even for smaller creators without large audiences, self-publishing can be a good way to put out publicly shareable work, as long as securing a distributor and profiting from sales isn’t a priority.

If you’re considering this option, however, it’s important to be aware that except for creators with very large, established audiences, self-publishing is not reliably profitable. While such platforms are great for the democratization of filmmaking, that comes with a tradeoff in the form of noise. There’s so much content available that the competition is huge, and building an audience can be difficult, time-consuming, and profitless for a long time. For this reason, self-publishing is not a reliable route to success for most aspiring filmmakers.

Are you ready to take the next step in your career as an emerging filmmaker? Remember these five important tips and let your filmmaking journey begin!

Interested in applying to journalism fellowships? Be sure to bookmark them to your free ProFellow account!


Rowan Glass is an anthropologist, multimedia journalist, writer, and filmmaker from Oregon. His research, reporting, and travels have taken him from Indigenous territories in Colombia and Mexico to primary schools in Senegal, Kurdish restaurants in Greece, and music festivals in Morocco. In all his work, Rowan endeavors to help tell engaging stories about underreported people and places through incisive research and creative endeavors. Whether at a keyboard or behind a camera, at home or in the field, Rowan is always looking for the next chance to apply his skills to both creative and socially impactful ends. Rowan holds a BA in cultural anthropology from the University of Oregon and is currently applying to graduate programs in anthropology.

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