February 21, 2023

Is It Risky to Hire a First-Time Director?

Loring Weisenberger
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For producers, the decision to hire a first-time director on a feature film is never taken lightly. While the rookie’s lower rate could offer a budgetary advantage, their inexperience poses a serious financial risk. 

Or does it?

In this post, we’re dissecting the debate around first-time directors. We’ll see what the stats say about project profitability and experience, then take a look at how you can mitigate the risks when hiring your own first-timer.

What the numbers say about hiring a first-time director

Rather than speculate about the feasibility of first-time directors, let’s start with cold, hard facts. Real-world statistics will help us paint a more accurate picture of the risks of hiring a first-time director for your next feature.

In collaboration with the American Film Market and Bruce Nash of The Numbers, researcher Stephen Follows analyzed the profitability of more than 3,000 narrative feature films to gauge the performance of first-time directors. Below, we’ll examine four key takeaways from his study.

1. Two-thirds of micro-budget projects are helmed by first-time directors

First-timers direct over 60% of feature films made for less than $500,000. This is notable because debut films are not only common but make up the clear majority within the specified range, what the industry generally terms “microbudget” films. 

By itself, this statistic‌ isn’t all that surprising. From Eraserhead to El Mariachi by way of Pi, directors making their first movies on the cheap is a well-established tradition.

However, from a producer’s perspective, the numbers do provide objective confirmation of a simple truth. We can safely say that micro-budget productions are seen as an acceptable point of entry for directors with no feature experience. 

2. The number of first-time directors decreases as budgets increase

The percentage of first-time directors gradually decreases as budgets increase, dropping to just 10% for movies budgeted over $20 million. This observation further charts the production industry’s risk sensitivity. 

When it comes to micro-budget films, first-time directors are seen as a reasonable gamble. However, as investment requirements rise, the gamble becomes steadily more perilous. Producers are 50% less likely to hire a first-time director once the budget spills past $20 million. 

At the higher end of the budget scale, we also have to consider exactly who qualifies as a “first-time director”. For example, Jordan Peele made his feature film debut with Get Out in 2017, but only after accumulating more than a decade’s worth of writing, producing, and performing credits. 

Similarly, Wally Pfister was a renowned cinematographer before directing Transcendence, and Charlie Kauffman was a celebrated screenwriter before helming Synecdoche, New York

The point is that producers are generally (and understandably) less risk-averse to first-time feature directors with proven track records. However, that begs a critical question. Is that risk sensitivity real or perceived? How do first-time directors objectively affect a film’s financial performance?

3.  When comparing first-time and repeat directors, the differences in film profitability and failure are minor

The percentages of profitable feature films for first-time and repeat directors are surprisingly close. The seasoned pros are slightly favored with only a marginal advantage across most budget categories. Similarly, repeat directors are marginally less likely to create a financial dud.

This data suggests that experience matters but perhaps less than we tend to think. Repeat directors are not significantly more likely to produce a hit, and first-time directors are not significantly more likely to produce a financial failure. Taken together, these points bring the bigger picture into sharp focus.

4. Research demonstrates that hiring a first-time director does not have a meaningful impact on the profitability of a film

The biggest single takeaway from Stephen Follows’ study is that first-time directors have no statistically meaningful impact on either the profitability or financial failure of a film. As an isolated factor, the presence of a first-time director has little discernible influence over a project’s success.

This underlines the complexity of both quality and market performance in filmmaking. There is no one factor that can guarantee a positive or negative financial outcome, not even the inexperience of its creative leader. Statistically, first-time and repeat directors are just as likely to create low-budget breakout hits.

With that in mind, the essential question is perhaps not whether it’s too risky to hire a first-time director but how the risks of hiring a first-time director might be mitigated. 

What to look for when hiring a first-time director

Choosing to hire a first-time director doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. You can mitigate the risks associated with a director’s debut by seeking candidates whose resume and personality are well-suited for the job. 

Here are five characteristics to look for when hiring a first-time director.

1. They’re a team player

A director must understand that professional filmmaking is an act of collaboration. First-time directors, in particular, are dependent on the experience and expertise of the rest of their crew.

Teamwork provides a crucial bridge across a first-time director’s inexperience. It closes the gap that separates a director’s vision from a functional production plan, protecting the project from serious financial missteps in the process. 

On a debut feature, creative collaboration is more than an ideal. It’s a survival tool. If a directing candidate doesn’t seem like a team player, you should consider that a massive red flag.

2. They demonstrate strong communication skills

Communication skills are a must for first-time directors. Their most fundamental responsibility is to express their vision to the cast and crew. If a director can’t express a creative vision, the rest of the team cannot create. 

Like an affinity for teamwork, strong communication skills can counterbalance a first-time director’s lack of experience. It’s a quality worth prioritizing when vetting first-time directors. 

3. They know their stuff

Even a first-time director should understand the basics of their craft. They don’t have to be able to create a script breakdown, but they do have to grasp script analysis. They don’t need to understand lighting grids, but they do need to know how lighting can create a mood. It’s not required that they be experts in post-production, but it’s imperative that they’re familiar with editing. 

On a feature film production, the director is the chief storyteller. While you cannot expect a first-time director to understand every single component of a production, you must be sure that they’re up to the basic tasks of their job. Keep an eye out for first-time directors who demonstrate a working knowledge of film construction. 

4. They view budget constraints as creative opportunities

When learning how to craft a feature film budget, the first lesson learned is that there’s never enough money to satisfy everyone. Some would-be directors see budget limitations as reasons to complain. Others, however, see budget constraints as opportunities.

Budget constraints can be intimidating, but it’s crucial that they’re never paralyzing. A director who is unable to continue moving forward will inevitably hold back the entire production. 

Instead, look for directors who are creatively engaged by obstacles. With the right pair of eyes, budget constraints are the perfect chance to do something innovative, out of the box, or unexpected. 

5. They demonstrate a capacity for growth

The most important quality to look for in a first-time director is the ability to learn. Making your first movie is a trial by fire, and growth is very often the key to not getting burned.

By definition, first-time directors are thrown into circumstances with which they are not wholly familiar. If a first-time director can learn on the fly, they’ll be able to adapt to problems and challenges as they inevitably appear. Openness and curiosity will empower them with flexibility. From a producer’s point of view, the ability to bend without breaking is invaluable.

How to hire a first-time director

Now that we know what characteristics to look for in a first-time director, let’s talk about the process of looking itself. In this section, we’ll dig into the conversations you should have, questions you should ask, and boundaries you should set before hiring a first-time director. 

Ask for their reel or previous work

If you’re thinking of hiring a first-time director for your next project, make an effort to review their work as early in the process as possible. Of course, they won’t have a previous feature to show, but they’ve probably directed shorts or some other project. Asking to see the work is an obvious but nonetheless critical step in gauging whether their voice fits your production. 

At this stage, it’s a good idea to keep an open mind about the materials you’re willing to review. Short films and reels are always worth checking out, but a directing candidate’s prose, comics, or stage play might be equally persuasive.

Depending on the project, you might even want to consider candidates with whom you’ve worked before in other positions. For example, you may have worked with a cinematographer who has a fantastic eye. Your first-hand experience with them provides a unique window into their previous work.

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Discuss logistics and creative control

One of the most important conversations a producer should have before hiring a first-time director is about how the production will be managed. Before a single camera rolls, producers and directors must arrive at a common understanding on how decisions will be made and how work will flow.

For example, how much say will the director have in other crew hires? If they want absolute control, that could be a red flag; no one wants to work with a micromanager. However, if they express no interest at all in other crew hires, that could also be a red flag. A director must be invested in building the best team possible to execute their vision.

Logistics and creative control are huge topics that you won’t likely cover entirely with a single conversation. Nonetheless, it’s critical to approach them early on in a producer-director relationship. If you choose to hire the director, this conversation will set the tone for how you work together from that point on.

Make a clear time commitment for the duration of the project

The last thing you want is a director who bails halfway through pre-production. To avoid unpleasant scheduling conflicts, lock down clear time commitments for the active lifespan of your project. 

Lay out a timetable for everything from pre-production through post, plus foreseeable periods for promotion or your festival run. Of course, it’s impossible to nail every single detail with 100% accuracy from the outset, but earnest consideration in the beginning will mitigate conflicts down the road. 

Negotiate compensation 

Finally, negotiate any and all compensation with your director up-front. That includes salary, residuals, profit-sharing terms, and any other form of compensation that you might consider. 

Being forthright about compensation is the best practice on any project, but particularly so when working with a first-time director. For someone new to the process, financial clarity can provide confidence and peace of mind. Similarly, clear communication on compensation can help producers and directors resolve unnecessary conflicts before they ever occur. 

Wrapping Up

While hiring a first-time director is (statistically) not as risky as it seems, it’s still a decision that should never be taken lightly. First-time directors can come with both pros and cons. The producer’s challenge is to weigh those odds and make an informed decision.

At the end of the day, the best choice of director is a matter of fit. Whether you decide to hire a first-timer or a seasoned veteran, take the time to find the best above the line crew for the needs of your specific project. 

Last Updated 
February 21, 2023


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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