With no defined formula for becoming a director, the Australian Directors' Guild's recent panel "Innovative Pathways" at SUNSTUDIOS Sydney explored ways to establish your career and strategies for expanding your practice beyond your current portfolio into different opportunities.
Three local experts shared their tips for standing out and getting ahead.
1. Understand the industry is risk adverse – and work with it.
After struggling with making the jump from commercials and online content to television, Smith decided to take a strategic approach to her next project, "IT'S FINE, I'M FINE", intentionally designing a web series with a better chance of receiving funding, built in a modular format that could later be adapted to television or festival circuits with permission.
Smith crafted the program with some returnable characters and a variety of writers in the knowledge that even if it never made it to television broadcast, it would still demonstrate her ability to flex her creative muscles and show skill across genres. Using the greater capacity for experimentation available in a web series to the advantage of her portfolio.
"If I met with a producer and they said, 'But Steph, you direct comedy commercials! Can you do this? I wanted to be able to say, 'Yes sure, here it is'."
Steph Smith, Director with Photoplay shared her experiences during the ADG's annual conference.
2. Get to know your funding bodies and their priorities.
Honest and long-term relationships with funding bodies also contributed to the show's eventual success. Smith remained open to feedback and used her knowledge of their priorities, budgets and schedules from rejections to craft the best strategy for receiving funding.
"Because I'd formed those relationships in some way, they knew the work I intended to make. And they were very generous, both Screen NSW and Screen Australia, and also very honest. I said if I come in low, and fast and at a strategic time of year can you support this as a talent escalator for a lot of people?"
3. Design a project to serve multiple careers.
With Australian funding in short supply within a hugely competitive environment, it is smart to demonstrate that your project will benefit maximum careers beyond your own. Smith's approach above is also valued by the ABC's Head of Comedy Todd Abbott who commissions scripted/narrative comedy projects across the ABC's platforms.
His new program "Summer of Love" is an anthology series built to promote new talent.
"The thing that really appealed to me is that we got a series coming from an established production company ... but they wanted to do something that allowed them to mentor a whole bunch of other people through. So it is eight stories, each written by a different writing team, and there are four different director combinations with each episode either directed solely or co-directed by a woman."
Panelists at the ADG's 2022 Conference Director's Cut "Innovative Pathways" session.
4. Use the current skills shortage.
According to Todd Abbott it is a really good time, right now, to find a way into the industry.
"Because of Netflix and Paramount +, plus all the international productions that are being shot here, it is the hardest time in living memory to crew up a production. There are 20 scripted productions taking place in the second half of this year alone, and we are a small industry. Finding heads of department is really hard. It's a really great time to be uncovering new things."
If you can't secure a role as director on set, a different role may offer a chance to be-friend one and better your chances at accessing an assistant or attachment position.
5. Keep across streaming service opportunities.
Penny Smallacombe is the Netflix ANZ manger of its Grow Creative Program, a Netflix initiative to expand and up-skill local talent via investment in education and training.
"The whole initiative has come out of the fact that Netflix doesn't just want to be a detractor in the industry," explains Smallacombe. "We know very well the added pressure of having streaming services on the ground, in countries, competing for crew, competing for directors and producers. We completely understand the pressures that puts on the industry as a whole. So, my role is looking at what are those crew roles, those scarcity roles, and how do I create career pipelines and pathways for people moving into the industry?"
Part of this is bringing Netflix's international knowledge about what is working elsewhere and bringing that to a local context. Initiatives like director's attachments and best practice.
"We're looking beyond the entry level at people who have a few runs on the board, some short films, who we want to place on a show in the future. We'd take them through a long journey of a director's attachment and then look to put them on a show in the future."
The Australian Director's Guild 2022 conference was held at SUNSTUDIOS Australia, Sydney.
6. Understand how the industry is changing and the opportunities
Broadcasters like the ABC have recently launched inclusion guidelines to drive awareness and mindfulness of who is being represented and the stories being told.
"What that has meant is that by nature of the fact that we're looking into those underrepresented areas, you are getting innovation," says Todd Abbott.
"Innovation is defined by the fact that it is something new, and we have had too many stories about middle-aged white people, blokes, so we are applying that idea of innovation to the things that we are just commissioning generally."
7. Make short films.
In order to have work that stands out, it's essential to have the work, said Penny Smallacombe. And while she keeps an eye on budget-friendly video platforms like TikTok and YouTube for talent, short films are still the classic calling card to show the depth of what you can achieve in drawing out a great performance and creating emotion in a very short period of time.
8. Don't give up.
After Steph Smith's series was accepted into Cannes she still struggled to find local interest. Once hearing that the Melbourne International Film Festival accepted episodic works, she also learned that she had marginally missed their submission deadline. While begging didn't help extend it, her persistence did pay off in awareness of her late submission and enthusiasm for festival inclusion.
At the recommendation of a writer involved, she made some water to put out that full moon, asked her husband not to watch, and went out on the balcony of her western Sydney apartment to super charge the moon water and pray for a MIFF miracle inclusion.
The following morning a cancellation of the same length as her show had occurred and she was in.
"You have to commit to your idea and find someone who likes it," explains Todd Abbot. "That's the pathway for innovative things."