It’s difficult to talk about the filmmaking industry as a whole because it hasn’t been a monolith for quite some time. The Studio Age of Hollywood is long gone, and the move to digital media and the democratization of filmmaking technology has ushered in an unprecedented number of independent productions.
So when someone asks how they can get involved in filmmaking, it’s not the easiest question to answer. Is the goal to work on the next mega-blockbuster Marvel flick, or are they trying to blaze their own path in the world of indie movies?
There are some obvious similarities, of course. The actual work of taking a script and turning it into a movie takes cameras, lights, mics, and generally a sizable group of people, and no matter the size of the budget, filmmaking is always hard work.
Today’s article is about the similarities and the differences between large productions and independent productions, and to get some inside information, we’ve gotten in contact with a filmmaking professional who regularly works on both sides.
René Guajardo was born and raised in Mexico, where he cut his teeth on independent filmmaking projects of his own design. In fact, he made two full feature films in Mexico: Oscuro and El Circo Fosforescente.
Around the same time, one of Guajardo’s short films earned him the Best Director award at the Tecnologico de Monterrey Filmmaker Film Festival.
He also had a hand in producing a short film titled Respira, which was nominated for Best Short at the Baja California International Film Festival.
Guajardo later relocated to the United States, where he started working with a major production company, which gave him the opportunity to work on projects for major clients like Billie Eilish, Travis Scott, Doja Cat, Nike, Amazon, and Spotify.
Guajardo went on to work as a production assistant on projects for Disney, Fox, and Universal. Lately he’s been working as a PA on Seth Macfarlane’s new series, Ted.
But Guajardo hasn’t lost sight of those smaller-scale projects, either. He’s currently in post-production on his short film Tesoro Abandonado, or Abandoned Treasure.
Guajardo explained that everything comes back to his own filmmaking work. He always finds time to put some work into his next project.
“Working as a production assistant has been helping me pay my bills, but I’m also working on my own films daily. I’m finishing writing my new feature film, Cook Me A Dream, a story about a chef that wants to make it big in the food industry.”
Cook Me a Dream is set to be Guajardo’s first feature film produced here in the US. But that’s a more than ample introduction. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
What’s it like to work in the film industry at both the big-budget and small-budget level?
The big time
For the average person, major film and television productions can have this almost mystical air about them. Teams within the big-time Hollywood studios create media that goes on to have millions and millions of viewers, and outside of the occasional behind the scenes segment, there aren’t many opportunities to see how it all happens.
Within just a few months, Guajardo himself went from being fascinated by these huge studio projects to actually being a part of them, something that he’d been dreaming of for years.
“Coming from Monterrey, Mexico, it was more like a dream to think that I would work with the most prominent companies in the entertainment industry. Still, somehow I knew I would get involved with their productions someday.”
That’s just what happened. Following his university education, Guajardo moved to Los Angeles and got his start, first with the production company mentioned above, then with some of the biggest studios in the game.
He’s incredibly proud to have this level of direct involvement with professional Hollywood productions, and as he told us, his career has also become a point of pride for his family back home.
“I feel proud to be a Mexican and to have worked on these fantastic shows for huge studios. From my family’s perspective, that’s my most significant achievement. I started working for the biggest entertainment industry companies in less than four months with hard work and by making solid relationships.”
Getting a foot in the door is often the most difficult part of building a career in entertainment. Once you’re there, it’s possible to get plenty of hands-on experience and do some serious networking that can lead to long-term working relationships and many more jobs in the future.
But this doesn’t mean that big-budget productions are the be-all and end-all for Guajardo. In fact, he’s noticed some interesting differences between these operations and the filmmaking culture in Mexico.
It probably goes without saying that there are indeed significant differences between film production in the US versus film production in Mexico, especially when we consider the differences in the average budget, but Guajardo had some more specific insights to share on the topic.
First, Guajardo mentioned the differences related not only to scale but also to the intention behind the work.
“The movies produced here generally have a grander scale than the ones made in Mexico, but I would say that the original films made in my home country have a lot of heart. The filmmakers are very attached to their films, which are almost like an extension of who they are. Even though movies are done with a lot of heart here in the US, too, I think there are just too many tent-pole movies currently being produced.”
So at least in a general sense, US productions tend to be more commercial, while a lot of Mexican productions feel like they’re aiming for pure expression. We should also explain that ‘tent-pole movie’ is a term that refers to a project with a massive budget that’s designed to earn as much money as possible, money which will then fund other studio projects.
It’s hard to visit a movie theater in the US and not notice all the tent-pole movies, which for the least ten years or so have been dominated by Marvel movies and major franchises.
Also, we don’t mean to imply that tent-pole movies or commercial projects in general are inherently bad, but they are quite different from projects that have purely artistic intentions.
Another major difference that Guajardo pointed out is the sheer scale of US film and television production compared to Mexico, and that has a direct impact on the number of opportunities for getting into the industry.
“The entertainment industry is growing in Mexico, but the number of productions in the US is incomparable to those back in Mexico. There are many more opportunities here, and that’s my main reason for coming to the United States.”
Again, these differences are the only defining characteristics of their respective film industries, but for anyone hoping to build a career in entertainment, understanding these differences is key.
It’s a feat in itself that Guajardo manages to work his day job with major studios and still find the time and energy to develop his own independently-produced projects, but according to Guajardo, there are plenty of lessons he can glean from the major productions and apply to his own work.
In fact, Guajardo told us that some of his experiences on set can easily become a significant source of inspiration for the stories he wants to tell.
“Even though working on personal projects is challenging because of the long hours at work as a production assistant, I’m always writing and thinking about my next film project. I find inspiration seeing the higher-ups in charge working very hard to make the show happen. I’ve been learning about the industry by working with these major companies, and these experiences feed back into my own work.”
In the long-term, Guajardo hopes that some of his own films can be produced at this level, with seemingly endless resources and large teams of skilled professionals and artists.
But in the meantime, every production job is a chance to learn from the masters.
It takes a (video) village
“I believe that collaboration is the most crucial aspect of the art that is filmmaking. I couldn’t have done my films without the help of many people, and I am grateful for all of them. Working with other people and hearing their ideas that they can bring to the table is inspiring, and most of the time, it makes the project even better.
Enjoying the journey
No matter where you come from, making it in the film industry is a journey. It takes time, hard work, and persistence, even at the best of times.
Guajardo had been making movies for ten years before moving to the United States and getting involved in the heart of entertainment production, and even then, there were people saying it couldn’t be done.
Now, in hindsight, Guajardo is immensely proud of the place he’s earned in the industry and the work he’s able to do now.
“When I decided that I wanted to work in the film industry, many people told me that it would be impossible to work in Hollywood, but I can say that I’ve already proved them wrong. I can’t wait to finish writing my new film and start pre-production to make it a reality. I’m excited for the future.”
There are no guarantees in this industry, but it can be inspiring to see a dedicated artist pave their own way, and we’re looking forward to seeing what Guajardo has in store for his upcoming projects.