Directing movies in Hollywood is a pretty desirable job. You work with famous actors, travel the globe, attend red-carpet events, share your artistic visions with the world, and make large amounts of money.
It’s a great gig… if you can get it. So naturally, I wanted to know how a few successful directors succeeded.
It turns out there are a number of famous stories in Hollywood about young would-be directors who risked it all to put together the money to shoot and sell their first movie.
In 1991, Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids) sold his body to science by signing up for four drug-testing studies to finance his first movie, El Mariachi. Yikes. He writes about it in his book Rebel Without a Crew, which is a must-read if you’re interested in the business of making movies.
A few years later, Kevin Smith (Dogma, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob) raised his budget of $27,575 by withdrawing his college education savings and maxing out more than 10 credit cards despite making minimum wage. In his live tour An Evening With Kevin Smith, Smith actually tells his audience how to get credit card companies to let you open multiple credit cards, regardless of your credit history or even your ability to pay them off. Double yikes.
So one put his body in danger, the other put his entire financial future in danger. It’s time for a new Hollywood legend.
In 1996, a recently graduated college student named Chris conceived of an idea for a film. Rather than borrow money, he designed the movie specifically to be filmed on a tiny budget. It was more affordable to shoot on black-and-white film, so he wrote an atmospheric, detective-style story. He added to the intrigue and made it more memorable (for free) by editing it together out of sequence. He cast his friends and girlfriend as the leads.
Chris shot the film on nights and weekends while still working a full-time job. He couldn’t afford a crew, so he served as camera operator, director, and editor all in one. Because of the price of film, every scene had to be rehearsed for weeks so they could shoot it in only one or two takes. A year later, he had made Following, a remarkably polished and atmospheric black-and-white film with an intricate plot, strong acting, and clever dialogue.
It took a year of effort and about $6,000, making it one of the cheapest films ever made. It also got a studio to give him $3 million to make his second film, the smash hit Memento. This is how Chris kicked off a storied directing career that has so far included Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Inception.
Chris is Christopher Nolan.
In an industry where many feel obligated to raise and spend millions of dollars on a film just for it to be noticed, Chris actually found a way to hack the Hollywood film machine by doing three very smart things: He looked at the long view, embraced his limitations, and took the right risks.
Look at the long view
Christopher Nolan treated his first film like an opportunity to learn the process of making his next film. He approached making a movie like he was starting a business. His job supplied most of his start-up money (what many entrepreneurs call a “base”), and paid his living while side hustling on nights and weekends. His savings from his salary also acted as an emergency fund, enabling him to pay any unexpected overhead that arose from shooting and marketing the film.
Did you know that experts agree that the best thing you can do to keep from adding more debt to your life is to save up an emergency fund? How much will that be? $500 is a good start.
Embrace your limitations
Nolan kept his costs low by filling the main roles with his friends, rehearsing every scene, and figuring out low-cost camera and editing techniques. In the end, he not only made a good film, but he did so in a way that was unlikely to put him in debt. This takes both patience and creativity.
What are your current financial limitations? It could be the cost of raising your kids, your car payment, the interest on college debt, or an area of overspending. How might you be able to be resourceful and strategic in these areas, so you set yourself up for the thing you’d like to do or buy next?
How might you tweak your current lifestyle to reach your desired outcome? Because your own living expenses will be part of that picture.
This is why it’s helpful to budget: so you know what your monthly expenses add up to. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, less than a third of Americans keep a monthly budget system. Which is too bad, because a list of monthly expenses helps you see what matters most to you and where you can cut back to better protect that.
Thinking of your job as a base will help you get the most out of the smaller windows of time available, and the money saved will help you avoid compromising your vision of achieving your dream the right way, on your terms.
Take the right risks
Christopher Nolan took his risks with his art, not with his well-being. He didn’t take the risk of getting sick or injured through a medical experiment, nor did he risk destroying his credit by maxing out 10 credit cards. He took his time and avoided acting recklessly because he believed he would be doing this again in the future. He saved up the money he needed and spent it on what mattered most.
Christopher Nolan identified a goal, saved up for it, was self-disciplined enough to stick to the process, and, as a result, achieved the thing that mattered most to him.
His career is not just a success story, it’s a financial template for success. Now, that sounds like a Hollywood legend worth telling.
Featured everywhere from NPR to The Moth and Reader’s Digest, Colin_ Ryan is an award-winning comedic financial speaker (seriously). Listen to his winning story here. He is based in Burlington, Vermont.
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