The Talent Managers
Association, a self-regulating professional group with a goal of
providing ethical standards for those whose job is devoted to advising
and counseling their actor, writer, and director clients, recently
conducted a seminar on that most controversial of subjects: how
to get a job as a film director.

Officially titled “Building the Career of the Film
Director,” the panel of speakers was moderated by Dade Hayes,
senior editor for Variety. Included on the panel were Joe
Petricca, Vice Dean of the American Film Institute Conservatory;
director and author Mark Travis; Jim Valdes of Renegade Management;
and Ami Vitori, VP of Development for Shutt-Jones Productions.

The consensus of the panel was that directors don’t
get hired… projects get bought! And most managers and agents won’t
even consider representing someone who doesn’t have a script they’ve
written or have exclusive access to. Hayes cited American Beauty,
The Blair Witch Project
and Legally Blonde as examples
of the need for new voices amongst film directors, but he also allowed
those as exceptions to the rule. Following are a few of the questions
posed to the panel, and the answers that are relevant to every director
looking for his or her first big break.

The author, Eric Sherman, (right) with his father, director
Vincent Sherman, and actress Isabella Rossellini.

Is a director’s best route to success via an award-winning
short or feature film, or with a highly desirable script?
of the panel agreed there’s no one route. Valdes said he has an
equal number of successful clients who started with a short reel,
a mid-budget feature or a shoestring-budget picture. But, of course,
he reminded, it’s a lot easier to “break” a writer’s career than
a director’s—and it’s a lot cheaper!

Travis was blunt in saying “This town is interested
in one thing: a good property.” You’ve got to get a great script
or write one, attach yourself to it and, above all, be passionate about it. “If they know you’re going to find good material,
you become interesting as a director.” Vitori agreed that sustained
passion—represented by a commitment to the material—is the make-or-break
point on the road to commercial success.

Valdes advised that whatever the material, it’s got
to tell a story that people are interested in—what he calls “marquee
value” as a director.

Unlike the mandate of most film schools—where technique
is emphasized—Petricca says “It’s all about story.”

Regarding the film festival circuit, the entire
panel agreed that it’s excellent to win an award and/or strong reviews,
but without a follow-up project under your arm, there’s nowhere
to go. Adding to that the proliferation of festivals and film schools
has resulted in there being a lot more “winners of things,” says
Valdes. So what will differentiate you from all the other game-players?
The script for your next film!

Travis noted that writing isn’t just important for
the director, it’s crucial. In the film business, “you don’t
sit around and wait for your next job.” If you’re an artist, you’ve
got something to say. If you don’t have a script that motivates
you, “you’re not an artist!” Regarding the issue of how personal
the material must be, Valdes says that “It doesn’t have to be autobiographical,
but it must resonate.” Travis echoed with, “If you gave the script
for American Beauty to two different directors, you’d get
two different movies. Why? Two individuals—two messages.”

What are the biggest problems directors face? Travis was again up-front: trusting the wrong people.
You’ve got to recognize that in the high-stakes game of movies,
everyone has his or her own agenda. The director is at the center
of a huge machine. The common denominator to all directors
is the huge volume of questions asked of you. And you’ve got to
answer them, otherwise you’re giving up the
reins—you’re no longer the director! If someone says, “You’re wrong,”
the only appropriate response should be, “According to whom?”

As for the director-cinematographer team, Vitori and
Petricca both agreed that while it’s the key aesthetic relationship,
the main skill for a director is to be able to recognize the right
individual for the job.

Of much greater concern is the most fragile of all
pairings: the director and his or her actors. Travis says the most
dangerous work on the set is done by the actors. This goes so far
that even the crew

(grips, gaffers, assistants, etc.) should be selected on the basis
of who is most sensitive to the actors’ needs.

The ability to establish and maintain your viewpoint,
communicate that viewpoint and control others in the pursuit of
your artistic goals are the three most vital prerequisites for any
film director.

Overall, there seemed to be two paramount values promoted
by all the participants: story and personal persistence.
If you don’t believe in your tale, why should anyone else? MM

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