The Pursuit of Excellence

Here we are in the middle of the year, about to start the season when all the big fun movies come out. “Popcorn movies”, “tentpoles” – big budgets for hopefully big returns, and genre pieces that rarely challenge expectations, but are emotionally satisfying, if they are well done. They may not feature in the awards, but they are entertaining and many of them are beloved. People worked hard and did their very best work, attended to details, tweaked and labored.

One of the tough parts of working in the film industry, is that so much of our work is invisible. Did you know that most screenwriters earn much of their living through rewrites and writing-for-hire on projects that ultimately don’t see a camera? Many of us toil for years on screenplays or stories or TV pitches that sit in slush piles undiscovered.

Many people in TV spend a busy pilot season putting their all into pilots for shows that will never be seen by anyone other than the studio audience and the execs who said “no”. All of us who have worked on a film know the feeling of sadness when an entire shot scene is cut that contained some particularly nice piece of work – a sweet visual vignette, a hand made prop you labored over, a beautiful costume for just that moment, a strong performance. (Remember Kevin Costner in the The Big Chill? No?)

Many of us have worked on projects that weren’t very good. For whatever reason this was a movie that just wasn’t going to be considered anything more than mediocre or average. Perhaps it was a silly or unoriginal script. Perhaps it was all that could be done at that budget level. Perhaps it was the kind of genre piece that no-one held any expectations about, something for late night cable or Saturday morning filler before the sports started. Yet the people on the show still worked hard, at all levels, to do the best they could. If they couldn’t feel proud of the project as a whole, they could still feel good about their own contributions and efforts.

They say, “cream rises.” When we look back at the awards season for any year, we can see true excellence in all the nominations, and in the projects that just missed out on noms. However, I would say that not all the cream rises. While it is true that the rewarded projects are excellent, not all the excellent work is necessarily seen or lauded. Part of this is opportunity – the chance to bring your own excellence to projects that will be successful all around and, crucially, supported by the studios. Even in 2018, still it can be especially hard for women, and people of color, to be seen as having equal merit, even when they have a body of work to show.

But part of it is chance or timing or zeitgeist.

Mere excellence is not enough. It is not enough to be good at your job and a creative thinker. You also need the inner resources to keep doing the best work you can, even when it will ultimately be unnoticed or irrelevant to the final project. A lot of the time your work will only be noticed when it goes wrong – like continuity, the ultimate in invisible work, only remarked when there is a mistake. You also need tenacity. You also need persistence.