Failing Upward

Writer-director Clay Liford examines how he's set himself up for failure in the past and the positive actions he's taking to break that cycle.

Let’s talk about failure. It’s the one thing we all have in common, regardless of the career phase in which we find ourselves. People tend to associate failure with the beginning of your work, since you’re still learning, and learning from mistakes is the best way to really nail something down. But what happens when failure hits farther down the road? How do you deal with a career slump when you’re still at the point where you can’t afford one? (Can anyone ever truly afford one?)

When you make a movie, there are three criteria for success: profitability, exposure and artistic merit. Profitability is the one we’re most familiar with, as it’s all the studios really seem to care about. We live in an age where your parents follow box-office reports, so you know, priorities. Exposure is often tied to profitability, except when it’s not. Shockingly, you can get your movie seen by quite a few people without actually turning a profit. But there’s still value there: a critical success via exposure can bolster your career, leading to your next movie or getting an agent or manager. Finally, and most amorphously, is artistic merit, something only you can quantify. Beyond money and exposure, did your movie achieve what you set out for it to achieve? Is it the thing you hoped to create?

All three of these forms of success are more independent than they might first seem, and we rank them in the order presented when it comes to our own sense of self-worth.

I’ve been fortunate to have three of my four feature films premiere at SXSW, once in competition. One of my shorts premiered at Sundance in 2010, and from that I got a manager I’ve been with ever since. All my films sold and are still available on most of the major platforms, but none made a lot of money. Good premieres? Check. Generally good (and sometimes great) reviews? Check. For the most part, I look back and feel good about what I made. But when it came to selling my movies, the offers for each one (each progressively better-reviewed and bigger-budgeted than the last) stayed at the same level. Essentially, a level that doesn’t turn a profit.

The distributor of my most recent feature, Slash, got it on a number of decent platforms, but as they lacked a significant advertising budget, the film floundered. We’ll make money eventually, but it’s going to be a slow burn. Slash had uniformly good reviews and a cast of audience favorites, however this didn’t matter when it came to profitability and exposure, leaving me in a weird spot where I began to question the third criterion: artistic merit. Prior to the sale, I really appreciated what we collectively created with Slash, but then came the second-guessing. “What if we’d only done this, or cast this person …?” All this helps not one iota, but can leave you feeling like you met none of the criteria for success. I’m still dealing with those thoughts, and the film premiered back in 2016.

Last year, I got back in the saddle and did something that maybe didn’t make sense in terms of career strategy: I made another short film. Honestly, there’s not a lot a short can do to improve my standing. But I’m a creator; I need to create. So I made the damn thing. I justified it to myself as it was a genre I hadn’t revisited recently. Oh, and it was also a pitch piece for a TV pilot. Ultimately, I was really happy with the results. It looked great. It had an amazing cast. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish tonally, and people seemed to connect with it. At screenings, people told me it really captured the teenage zeitgeist. For a guy in his forties, what more could I ask for?

But then I basically screwed myself. Though I didn’t conceive it to play at film festivals, I got the itch and began submitting anyway. There was nothing to gain from doing this, but much to lose: my confidence. As if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, the short that didn’t function like a short started getting rejected. A lot. Though I intellectually understood it had little to do with its artistic merit, my heart still hurt for the loss.

Why did I do this to myself? Why did I set a trap for myself and then walk right into it? After talking to a lot of people and trying to wrap my head around it, I found the answer: classic self-sabotage. But still, why?

Recently, I read a book that really hit home for me and which I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone in a creative career, but especially filmmakers: Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. In it, Dweck talks about the two basic human mindsets, the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. It discusses how those who adopt a growth mindset learn from their mistakes, and those with a fixed mindset stagnate in every failure. But that wasn’t the biggest thing I took away.

When we fail at a some personal endeavor, artistic or otherwise, we tend to take it as a knock against our “talent.” We are fed a myth that talent is something we are born with; we can improve somewhat with practice and training, but not that much. This sort of thinking will land you in the fixed mindset. You begin to take failure to heart, as a reflection on your immutable amount of innate talent. People with a fixed mindset believe talent should make everything seem effortless. I used to think I worked hard simply to make up for my lack of innate talent. I sent the short to fests – even though it wasn’t a fit – because I needed to reassure myself that my view of my natural abilities was accurate, painful or not.

So, what happens when you decide you’ve been looking at everything wrong and want to adopt a growth mindset? Well, you need to understand the value of hard work. You need to realize that “victory” in your career path may be a long road. With a growth mindset, nothing is a failure if it teaches you something. But it requires quieting that little voice that says, “See how hard this is? If you were talented, it would come super easy.” Because that voice is bullshit.

I’d love to close with an anecdote about the massive sale I just made, or the film I’m about to start shooting, but I’m still working on that. And honestly, that would invalidate the entire point of this article. I’m still failing, and I’m sure I’ll never move past (hopefully occasional) failure. But maybe it’s time to remove “failure” from our vocabulary, because there is only one true way to fail in art: to give up.

Society presents you with a ton of reasons to quit (and these only increase as you get older), and very few reasons to keep going. I’m here to tell you to keep going. And I’m not telling you from the other side of the fence. The best thing I’ve done for myself is change my metric for success, which means I can regain control of that third criterion: artistic merit. And once you’ve rediscovered your artistic worth, it’s a lot easier to keep going. We need you to keep going. Right now, arguably more than ever, we need artistic voices. Ones saying things that might not land you with a three-picture deal. Unpopular ideas. Revolutionary ideas. Your ideas. Don’t stop creating. Don’t fail.

Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.