What percentage of directors, producers, and writers make more than one feature? with Stephen Follows

This week, Stephen Follows joins Giles Alderson and Phil Hawkins to talk about the facts and figures of the film industry.

‘One of the interesting things about the film industry is that we have this adage that no one knows anything – the William Goldberg quote. The thing is that’s only half the quote. The full quote is: No one knows anything. No one single person can know everything in the process.

And we have taken that on as no one can know anything. We use it as permission to know nothing, to be ignorant and safe. But you can know something and we should be more inquisitive as to how things have worked before, and then feed that into our own journey.

Let’s take that as our mission.’

Breaking It All Down

The main focus for this episode was What percentage of directors, producers, and writers make more than one feature? and Stephen shares his research and data.

He says that he ‘always has to pick apart the hidden subtext of what’s going on within this question or within its framing. We’ve defined success as making another film and we’ve bought into this idea of will you trust a first-time filmmaker?’

He says the non-stats question, as a filmmaker, is whether you make your first film to prove that you can do it, or whether you hold off with your first film until you have the perfect story to blow people away with.

Having a Bigger Budget on a Second Film

Phil suggested that the reason people make a first film, to prove themselves, has everything to do with ‘wanting to make money back because you’re more likely to have a higher budget on the next film. Unless of course, you make a film like ‘The Blair Witch, which probably skews it the other way.’

Giles agreed by saying that proving yourself was ‘the exact reason that you got more money for your second feature. But having more money often means it’s much harder to make the money back. And I reckon the statistics of someone making a third film, after their second, is much lower.’

According to Stephen: ‘You’ll get more support in your second film, on average, and you might have a bigger budget, which might make it stable. But the more money you spend, the chance of profitability goes down. Obviously, if you make a better product, then it’s different.

But the real truth is that first-time filmmakers are less likely to make money on their films. So ultimately first-time directors are not inherently worse bets than second-time directors. If that’s the only thing about them, obviously.’

The Consequences of ‘Failing’

With the film industry, ‘if you fail, whether artistically you make a terrible film or you lose money, you don’t lose your artistic license. It’s not like you’re no longer allowed to make films. And most of the investors will be new to each film. So, what is the consequence of ‘failing’?

Nothing really. 

You’re going to have to start from scratch on your second film, anyway. And it can be harder because you’ve used up all of your favours for the first one. Or it might be easy, or just as hard because you’re using the same skills. No one’s going to hand it to you. So failing, whatever you classify that as isn’t as bad as you’d think. 

If the film industry was motivated by money, we would see a very different industry. So I find it quite liberating because it comes down to hard work.’

Before He Answers The Question

Stephen believes that it’s important to discuss the other aspects before answering the main question of the episode ‘because when I used to jump straight into the conversation about second films, people would go to the idea that making a second film was a) the goal and b) if they didn’t, it was a failure. 

And that’s such unhelpful and untrue framing because as a director, you want to be able to pay for your family. You want to make art that you’re proud of and you want to have an interesting life with creative expression. Making a second film is not the way we measure any of those things.’

He goes on to say that ‘what makes a second film work is the narrative you craft around you. It’s great if your first film takes off, but if your second film doesn’t do very well (by whatever standards people are using) that third film is now a lot harder.

Whereas if your first film wasn’t great, no one pays attention. ‘Then you make this amazing film, now the third film would be so much easier.’

What percentage of directors, producers, and writers make more than one feature?

‘This was a study I did a few years ago. I looked at about half a million people, who had at least one credit across all the different jobs… there are not that many directors, but this was over a 20-year period, so I was looking at the big picture. 

Looking at the number of people who had at least one credit, and then another one afterwards. For directors, it was about 67%. So about two-thirds of directors never made a second film. That falls very quickly for directors who made a third film: under one in five – under 20%.

And many people produce because nobody else will produce for them or because they want to take control of their careers. So producers are very similar number to directors. They use their first film as a launching pad for themselves as a writer/ director/ performer.

I’m sure there are very few people who qualify as a lawyer or a doctor who don’t survive a second year because it’s so hard to get there. Whereas in film, you don’t have to ask for permission. So there are lots of people who go in without the intention to carry on.

For writers, the stats were taken ‘over a longer period of time – from 1950 to the modern date. It’s still only about 66% of writers – who have full writing credits (they’re quite well-regulated).

In 1950, about half of the writers that had one film wrote another one, and by the time it got to the 2010s, it was down to about 20%.

His Conclusions

‘The odds of making a second film or writing a second film have gone down drastically. But the opportunities to be a professional writer have gone up in other areas. There was far less television in the 1950s. And so it’s not got better or worse, per se, it’s just changed.’

For more from Stephen Follows, listen here. Or visit his website here.

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