If you’ve spent any time on this site, you’ve probably noticed a consistent thread — I talk an awful lot about the idea of “making films that matter.” But what the hell does that actually mean?
In truth, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And frankly, I’m not in a position to tell anyone what does matter or should matter to them.
However, what I’m aiming to do with this article is to give you a framework for how to view filmmaking with a more mindful, introspective approach so that you can then inject your films with a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
This is the logical followup to my last post, Filmmaking Doesn’t Have to Be a Business, in which I argued that while filmmaking has largely been treated as a business since the medium first came into existence, we’re now at a point where people who aren’t inclined to treat it that way don’t have to.
You see, when you take business out of the equation of filmmaking (at least out of the equation of making personal films that you actually care about), you’re free to treat film as a purely expressive medium. And what you choose to express is entirely up to you.
So in this piece, I’m going to argue that we should treat cinema as more than just another form of mindless escapism, akin to chintzy reality television shows and list-articles (listicles) about cats who’ve been photoshopped to look like Nicholas Cage.
I’m going to argue that film can be an intensely-personal form of art, and that you’re capable of infusing the stories you tell with a greater sense of purpose. I’m then going to argue that taking that approach is beneficial not only for you, but also for the people who consume your work.
Of course, despite all of this talk of personal art, you will likely still need a dedicated team of collaborators to help you bring it all to life. But still, it all starts with digging deep, finding what fuels you, then channeling whatever that is into the medium of film.
Just like the previous article about film not having to be a business, this one is a bit lengthy and detailed, and it contains its fair share of philosophical pondering about the nature of making meaningful art. So get up and go to the bathroom if need be. Maybe grab a snack. I suggest a banana.
Once you're ready, let’s dive down the rabbit hole again, shall we?
What it means to make films that matter
In theory, making films that matter is a beautiful, simple idea. We should make films that express our deepest-held beliefs and then hope that those films influence the world in some positive way. Seems perfectly straightforward, right?
But in practice, the whole notion can be a bit problematic.
The first issue is that “what matters” is an incredibly vague sentiment, and trying to pin down a concrete definition of it is nearly impossible.
What matters to me personally probably doesn’t matter to you. What matters to residents of the United States might not matter to our international friends. And so on. We’re all different, and we all care about different things.
The second issue is that while we all have things that we believe, I’m guessing that none of us want to be preachy condescending assholes. Most of us love film because it’s an incredible artistic medium, not because we hold some notion about how we’re going to win hearts and minds and change the world.
Based on those two issues, I’ve come up with a tentative definition of “making films that matter” that should alleviate any concerns people have.
So, my definition of making films that matter is simply: using the medium of film to express, explore, or examine the ideas that interest us, our personal struggles, and our personal and cultural beliefs on a microcosmic level.
The words I chose to use there are important. Expressing ideas and beliefs is straightforward, as it’s simply a matter of saying what you believe.
But when you explore and examine those ideas and beliefs, you allow for nuance and complexity. You allow for shades of grey to sneak into what you’re trying to convey, which ultimately (at least in my opinion) makes those ideas stronger and more compelling, both for you and the people who view your work.
And this idea of doing it on a microcosmic level means that you’re taking these much larger, more complex ideas and applying them to small, intimate stories. You aren’t necessarily trying to tell anybody what you believe in an outright fashion, but instead you’re illustrating it in a way that is hopefully entertaining and captivating. You’re telling stories that just happen to be imbued with these larger ideas.
This doesn’t mean that you have to make esoteric art films or preachy documentaries
This might be the most important thing I want you to take away from this. Making films that matter doesn’t mean that you need to make a documentary trying to get the world to see an issue from your perspective. Nor does it mean that you have to make avant-garde films that belong in a modern art museum.
While I’m not necessarily opposed to either of those things, if everyone went out and made “issue documentaries” and experimental films, watching films wouldn’t be particularly appealing or enjoyable for the vast majority of people anymore.
Part of what makes film magical is that it’s not only one of the most powerful and expressive artistic mediums known to man, but it’s also one of the most universal. Film is capable of transporting people to a different world, and when it’s done well, people can lose themselves in that world; they become enchanted with the characters and the places and the ideas.
However, films that are exceedingly esoteric often miss out on accomplishing this. They tend to alienate people rather than inviting them in with open arms. And frankly, that defeats the purpose.
Meaningful films can also be tremendously entertaining
Now that you know we’re not talking about overly esoteric films, it might be helpful to provide an example of a film that is accessible, entertaining, and still deeply meaningful.
For me at least, I can’t think of a better example of that than The Breakfast Club. It’s a cultural icon, something we often point to as the pinnacle of entertaining film. Plus, most everybody has seen it at some point.
Of course, The Breakfast Club is a damn funny movie, full of lighthearted scenes and witty dialogue. It also happens to delve into the harsh realities of growing up, the strenuous relationships between children and their parents, bullying, class struggle, and even suicide.
Just check out this particular excerpt from the film’s dramatic “confession” scene where each of the misfit detention-goers reveals something shocking, yet deeply honest and heartfelt.
And even when it’s not tackling those darker subjects in a subtle, yet compelling way, it’s still presenting us with a tale of finding common ground with people with whom we seemingly have nothing in common.
To bring back my definition of films that matter for a moment, — using the medium of film to express, explore, or examine the ideas that interest us, our personal struggles, and our personal and cultural beliefs on a microcosmic level — it’s easy to see how this particular film fits the mold.
The Breakfast Club isn’t about class struggle or bullying or suicide or bad parenting. It’s not explicitly telling us how to think or feel about these issues. It’s a microcosm of them, certainly, but first and foremost it’s an entertaining story full of relatable characters. And that’s what makes it so powerful once it veers off into emotionally complex material.
All in all, The Breakfast Club is a meaningful film, made with intention, that accomplishes something profound while still managing to be wildly entertaining. Sure, it’s a bit cliche at times, but it doesn’t matter. If you’ve watched that film, the confession scene in particular, you most likely came away from it a slightly better person. And ultimately that’s the point.
The main takeaway here is that you can infuse any film with meaning and purpose. The style of the film doesn’t matter, nor does the genre. You don’t have to sacrifice entertainment or humor for some serious message.
Why it’s so damn important to make films that matter
At this point, I’ve hopefully convinced you that it’s not only possible to make films that are truly meaningful, but that these films can also be entertaining and have wide appeal.
But now let’s talk about why it’s important to take that approach. In my last article on the film business, I said:
Quite frankly, this weird, broken world we live in doesn’t need more watered-down films that pander to lowest common denominator audiences. We need more smart films, unconventional films, and films that challenge our foundational beliefs. Even if they reach fewer people, these films are vastly more important than the ones that achieve mainstream success, but are ultimately vapid and empty.
This is something that I truly believe at my core, and it comes from a simple idea that art is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
Sure, there are other forces that we can use to exert influence, money being chief among them. But most of us don’t have unlimited supplies of money. What we do have, however, is our unique perspective and the unfettered ability to create art.
How art makes the world better, one person at a time
I read something recently that summed up the point I’m trying to make better than I ever could. It was an open letter to the future generation of artists, penned by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, two of the greatest jazz musicians the world has ever known.
Though I suggest you read the letter in full, here are a few of my favorite quotes from it.
While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.
The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers.
The world needs more interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness.
Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.
Remember when I said earlier that it’s hard to define “films that matter” due to the fact that different things matter to different people? Well that’s also precisely why it’s so damn important that we all create things that matter to us individually and then share those things with the world.
When people from all walks of life make art, new perspectives emerge. And when people from diverse backgrounds immerse themselves in those perspectives, we grow more tolerant of one another, more empathetic. The world, quite literally, becomes a better place, one person and one perspective at a time. Sounds cheesy and overly idealistic, I know, but trust me on this one.
Creating art is therapeutic
The last benefit of striving for art is that it can help you grow and heal as an individual.
We’re all dealing with difficult things in some form or another. We’re all striving to make a living, maintain healthy relationships, pursue passions and hobbies, and probably tons of other things, and it can be stressful and demotivating when things go badly in any of those areas.
One of the best ways I know to work through those things is to channel the negative energy into something constructive. In this case, that constructive activity is filmmaking.
Write a script with characters who are going through the same things you are. Go work as a grip and manhandle some heavy equipment on a film your friends are making. Craft an experimental film of some sort. Just do something.
These creative processes can absolutely help you work through your shit. You can use film to learn about and work through whatever it is you’re going through and then send the finished product out into the world. And maybe, just maybe, it will connect with an audience of people going through the exact same things.
And if you cared deeply about what you were making, and you made it well, it will change that audience. It will help them. The change will be subtle, but you will have helped people along on their own personal journeys in this strange world of ours.
In a world where you’re free to use film however you want — as a hobby, as a means of employment, as a full-on business, — it is my sincere hope that you take the road less travelled and make a conscious choice to craft matterful films.
It’s not an easy choice. Making films that matter means that you have to dive deep and figure out what actually matters to you. It means that you have to fully invest yourself in the tedious, pain-in-the-ass process of filmmaking, a process in which it is notoriously difficult to meet or exceed the expectations of quality that we set for ourselves.
But I’m here to help you. In the coming months and years, this site will begin to fill up with articles, videos, and eventually a podcast, all devoted this core idea of making films that matter. And more than that, this content will break down the steps needed to achieve, both in a technical sense and an artistic one, films that you actually care about.
If you’re game for that, I’d love for you to join me.
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