The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, ScriptNotes, where John August, one of the hosts, interviewed indie film producer Keith Calder. While I recommend the enlightening conversation, there was one point in particular that stuck out. Here’s the excerpt:
Keith: …It’s interesting because I think a lot of people, when they’re approaching independent film, are looking at the movies that exist in the marketplace, meaning like things you can just watch on TV or in theaters or on Netflix, and their assumption is, “Well, if I make a movie that’s better than the worst of those then that means I will get to be released in those same ways.”
John: The plus one fallacy.
Keith: Yeah. And it’s the same thing that happens with people writing spec screenplays. They look at the movies onscreen and they say, “Well, if I write a script that’s better than the worst of them then that means that I will be able to succeed.” And it’s just not the way that the world works.
The concept of being “better than the worst of those” made me stop and pull out my writing app and jot down the beginnings of this post. Why? Because I’m guilty of this paradigm, and I’d bet you are too.
This post will dissect what it is, how it hurts us, and what to do about it.
What Creatives Want
To be successful. To be seen. To be appreciated. To be significant. To change the world? I dunno, that last one feels a bit ambitious to me but maybe that’s 100% what you’re about. No judgement here.
We want to do fulfilling work and hopefully get compensated for it, either directly or indirectly. Sure, many of us dream of the huge payday one day, but most if not all of us will be just fine if our bills are paid and we get to do what we love for a living.
Is that too much to ask?
What Creatives Think
That as long as we’re “better than the worst of them” — than the worst that we’ve seen — then we’ll be successful. Except…that’s not reality. Not by a long shot, unfortunately.
Don’t blame the messenger.
What Really Happens
That “what we’ve seen” portion represents about 1% of the total amount of content that exists. That’s right. 1%. Now, because I love math and spreadsheets you’re gonna have to bear with me a sec here.
As an example, in 2016 there were 736 movies released in theaters, comprised of 93 studio films, and 643 indies. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg, and you probably only saw a few dozen of those movies, maybe more if you have a Movie Pass.
4068 films were submitted to Sundance in 2017. (18%) Let’s be generous and say that 1 out of every 10 films made in 2016 submitted to the Sundance film festival. So what we see in theaters represents less than 2% of the total output from filmmakers, and again, you only saw a small percentage of those movies.
In case I managed to make things super confusing, if you see 50 newly-released movies in a year, you’ve only seen about 1% of the movies that were made and submitted to Sundance or put into theaters. So, if your goal is to be “better than the worst of them”, you still have to be better than more than 4,000 other films, at least.
Put another way, even if you’re in the top 2% based on whatever metric you’re measuring this example by, the chances are you’re still not getting into theaters, let alone having a box office hit. That is reserved for the top .01%.
What really happens when you try to be better than the worst? You fail.
Why? Because you didn’t make your best work. You tried to just be a little better than someone else, without even considering what “better” even means. You were trying to score a touchdown on a golf course. Whoops.
What To Do About It
Focus on making the best work you possibly can, on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you”. Don’t hold back. Give it your all.
Find the people that are looking for “it” already, your so-called “tribe”. Learn how to tell people that you made something that they will like based on who they are and what they’ve enjoyed in the past. Keep making more every day and don’t let some arbitrary measurement of success like followers or subscribers or favorites get you down. Beat back the resistance with a massive stick and get to work.
Brian Grazer once said that “good enough equals shitty” . This is a man whose films and TV series have been nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 131 Emmys. He knows a thing or two about what “good” is.
The resolution we must make is to constantly improve. To seek out mentors, examples, and opportunities that will make us better. To do the hard things that lead to progress and growth. To never settle for “good enough” or “better than the worst” examples of what we’ve seen in the world. To strive to be so good that we can’t be ignored.