Why do we make films? It would be so much easier not to. The poet Charles Simic said: “I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me.” Whether or not we say it out loud (or even admit it to ourselves), recognition is always on our radar. As it should be.
When we talk about recognition, we’re talking about everything from a simple retweet to a major award nomination. We’re talking about people responding to your work in a meaningful way. We’re talking about you lobbing something out into the world, and an echo coming back at you.
Creativity at its best is a dialogue. A conversation between artist and audience. One doesn’t exist without the other. Recognition is how we know our work is resonating. Wanting recognition is not a pollution of our creativity; it’s the fulfillment of it. Our friend Ryan Booth has pointed out that the work itself is about empathy for people, and the recognition is just a result of that fact. The danger, of course, is when the desire for recognition overshadows our desire to say something true. We warp our vision to fit what we hope will get us the most acclaim, awards, staff picks, retweets, whatever. It’s a classic cart-before-the-horse scenario. It’s often disastrous, yet also educational.
Learning how to properly accept acclaim while continuing to create honest work is just another part of becoming a mature, healthy artist. The answer is not to stop wanting the accolades. It’s to grow up. Here are three guidelines to finding a healthy place for acclaim and accolades in your creative life.
Often, immature artists create work for themselves. As they grow, they begin creating work for themselves and other people. This shift fundamentally changes our creative approach and our desire for recognition. Rather than wanting acclaim just to boost our ego, we want acclaim for the work itself. The work becomes the point; the accolades are just a barometer. Unselfish art is not about fame. It’s about connection.
Visual artist Myneandyours has spent years covering cities with his iconic cloud image in an attempt to connect with his audience. He has very little web presence, and most people don’t even know his real name. It’s hard to think of a better example of an artist who’s struck a perfect balance between seeking success and keeping his work pure. Here is what the shift from selfish to unselfish art looked like in real life for Myneandyours:
I call it “selfish art” because it was all about me and my problems. I guess all of us feel that we’re at the center of the world. But when you think like that, you start to live in your own bubble. The work I was doing was coming from inside that bubble, and I guess I was trying to pop the bubble. I think loads of artists are venting frustrations. They make art for themselves, but other people still derive pleasure from it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. And I don’t think what I’m doing now is “mature art,” but it’s definitely less selfish. It’s coming from me, but I’m doing it for other people. Seeing other people enjoy what I’m doing makes me happy.…The most important thing for me is that connection with people, when you bridge those barriers and boundaries that everyone has. If you can do that through your art, it’s the greatest feeling.
As we move from selfish to unselfish art, accolades and affirmations naturally find their right place in our thinking. They’re not the point. They’re how we know our art is connecting ⎯ that our work is working.
Beyond the way we feel about our work, accolades also serve a very practical function. They get our films in front of a lot of people. Festivals, awards, staff picks, official selections ⎯ these things matter. If we’re going to play this game, at some point we have to start playing in the majors.
Our friend Reinaldo Marcus Green knows something about the major leagues. After trying out to become a professional baseball player — twice — Marcus eventually focused his talent on filmmaking, placing films in legendary festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, and Tribeca. We asked him what these accolades have meant to him and how they’ve affected his work.
The short answer: yes. Absolutely. An analogy I like to use is about colleges and universities. If you went to Harvard, people take notice. They just do. You’ve been validated by the top echelon of universities. The same is true with Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto, Berlin. These are well-respected institutions that validate your work, your work ethic, your abilities, your capabilities, and so on. So yes, they will help open doors for you. But just because you get into one of these festivals doesn’t mean you’ve made it. Once you’re in, the real work begins. It’s just a ticket to the game. It’s up to you what you do with the ball.
Also, more than helping other people respect you, they can help you respect yourself. The real reward is self-acceptance. Those schools and festivals are simply a symbol of that acceptance ⎯ of your freedom of voice, freedom of expression, freedom of artistry.
People take notice when you are confident in your abilities. Confidence significantly increases your chances of success, and accolades can significantly increase your confidence. There is no trick to it. If you believe in your work (not the accolades), then you can be confident when you’re pitching projects. People support projects they believe are going to be seen, and that belief starts with confidence in the creator.
When a 90 mph fastball is coming at you, you aren’t thinking about the World Series. You’re thinking, Man, I hope I hit this ball. And the only thing that can prepare you to hit a 90 mph fastball is practice. In baseball, if you fail 7 times out of 10, you’re considered a Hall of Famer. So get on base. Drive the ball. Don’t just try to hit home runs and eventually you’ll hit one out of the park. The same goes for film. Write a good script (get on base), direct a great film (hit the ball hard), and get into Sundance (home run).
There’s no wrong reason to make art. A person who makes art purely for the recognition is perfectly capable of doing incredible work. A person who makes art with no desire for accolades is perfectly capable of creating crap. There are no rules. Anything goes. But we like to think the reason for making art is because it connects us all on some fundamental, universal level. We like to think the reason for making art is because it resonates ⎯ across time and culture ⎯ unlike anything else in the world.
“Everything I do is personal,” Francis Ford Coppola said, “I have never made a movie that didn’t have very strong personal resonance.”
Behind the drive for recognition is the desire to create work that people feel. Work that people want to share. Accolades are on the surface. They represent a much deeper desire to do our jobs well and to make work that other people love. Films cost a lot to make — not just monetarily, but emotionally. In the end we are sharing ourselves. It’s okay to want a little something in return every once in a while. So enjoy the recognition. Enjoy the awards. Then get back to work.
To close, all of this talk reminded us of what our friend Jared Hogan had to say about the whole matter — and keeping things in perspective. In his words: