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Film Careers and the New Gold Rush

It’s an extraordinary time to be a filmmaker, says alumnus William Joyce (’81). To create a successful career, hold on to your vision, be open to critique and outlast the naysayers.

Rejection slips and the launch of a giant career

William Joyce knew what he wanted to do after he graduated from college. He wanted to be a published author and filmmaker. Over his four years at SMU Meadows, he combined his studies in art, film and journalism with his passion to draw, write and tell stories. Even before graduating in 1981 he had started writing children’s books. All during his senior year, he submitted his works to publishing houses, 129 in all. In return, he received 129 rejection slips.

“It was very disheartening,” he says. “One day I was walking with a friend on campus, going on about how discouraged I was. She listened, then said, ‘My mom knows a guy who knows a guy who might take a look at your work.’”

Joyce did meet with his classmate’s mother’s acquaintance’s acquaintance, a man named Christopher Cerf, who was a founding member of the National Lampoon. Joyce’s perseverance met that one magical connection that bloomed into a career writing and illustrating books, creating television series and films, and winning numerous accolades and awards.

Today, William Joyce has illustrated or authored over 50 children’s books. As co-founder of Moonbot Studios, he and the “Moonbots” have created numerous television shows, commercials and films, winning four Emmy Awards, 14 Cannes Lions Awards and 17 Clio Awards, and recent nominations for three more Emmys. In 2012, Joyce and Moonbot won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a hanky-worthy gem of a film that relays its entire story through images, sans dialogue. The film was followed by a book of the same name, of which The New York Times said, “If the book ends up as a classic, it will be, at least in part, because it feels like a classic: Joyce’s tale follows the incantatory order of a high Mass in print.”

Joyce is currently in the middle of developing a new feature-length animated film, The Extincts, for which he is director. The Extincts, based on a book of the same name by Veronica Cossanteli, is about the adventures of George, who has landed an after-school job at a farm of extinct and mythical creatures. The Extincts, scheduled to be filmed in France over summer 2018, is a production of Cirrina Studios. Producers on the film include Shrek 2 (2004) producer David Lipman, and Michael Siegel, executive producer on Rise of the Guardians (2012; based on Joyce’s book of the same name); The BFG (2016); and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). The Extincts is expected to be released in 2019.

William Joyce’s first book. First edition, Random House, 1984

According to William Joyce, award-winning author, illustrator and filmmaker, the entire landscape of film and video is changing, and the change is bringing more opportunities than ever before. The 1981 film graduate from SMU Meadows School of the Arts says three major shifts in the industry have helped usher in “the New Gold Rush in film”: the rise in the number of outlets needing content; the drop in the cost of good equipment; and the ability for a project team to work without having to be in the same city, much less in the same room.

“It’s an extraordinary time to be a filmmaker,” says Joyce. “Outlets for stories continue to mushroom. For example, in addition to Netflix and Hulu and network TV, Apple just hired two top Sony executives to head up its new original content production. You’ve got Vimeo, YouTube and social media.  And now anyone can get a reasonably good camera at Costco and start filming.

“And thanks to Skype and cloud storage, and apps like What’s App, you can work on projects with people who are all over the globe,” he says. “Take Moonbot Studios, for example. We’re not in L.A. or New York. We’ve always been in Shreveport, Louisiana. We’ve worked on projects with animators who are working from Thailand, producers from Canada, that kind of thing.”

With all these opportunities popping up like popcorn, Joyce offers a side of caution.

“I don’t mean to give young filmmakers false hope,” he says. “I want to be clear: Being a success in this business still takes a tremendous amount of heart, talent, patience and luck. To really get a foothold, you’re in it for the long haul.”

Oscar attention

One avenue of getting on the road to success in film and video has not changed: getting films accepted into film festivals. Do your homework, says Joyce, and pay attention to which festivals are Academy Award-qualifying fests, located all over the world in cities such as Vienna, Tokyo, London, New York, Austin, Nashville and more.

“There are close to 100 or so Academy-sanctioned festivals for film shorts,” he says. “But when you submit, you must be precise and careful. Follow their specs to the letter. Festival programmers have hundreds if not thousands of submissions, and if you don’t prepare your film submissions exactly to their specs, they are likely to toss it and go on to others that did.”

A second way to get your film on the Oscar radar, he says, is to rent a theatre in Los Angeles and invite your friends and members of the Academy to come to the screenings.

Setbacks?  Check your work, then hang on

If your projects aren’t getting picked up, says Joyce, you have to be ruthless with yourself. “Ask yourself,” he says, “Does your work suck? Can you be open to hearing criticism and revising your work to make it better? Maybe your work is already great but the way you express it isn’t getting through. You might have to change the way you express yourself. Be open to that.

“Setbacks will happen. Delays will happen. And they can weed out the weak. But talented people, people who at the core believe in what they are doing, will outlast the barriers.”

Joyce offers his first project with Disney, Meet the Robinsons, as an example. It took 11 years after acceptance to make it to the big screen. “The executive assigned to my project loved the show, but he got fired,” says Joyce. “His replacement was not a fan, but then he got fired. The third loved it; the fourth, not so much. Finally, under the next guy’s watch, it was put into production. In short: you have to be tough, believe in what you are doing. Know that you may have to ride out the people standing in your way.”

It’s an epochal moment in filmmaking and video, one that Joyce sees as full of promise. “Don’t lose heart in rejections,” he says. “Gatekeepers and industry people who say no might be replaced by people who say yes. It’s not enough that your work is good. You need a champion, someone who puts themselves on the line within the system to get your work made.”

Read more about William Joyce and Moonbot Studios, and watch examples of their award-winning work.

Read about SMU Meadows Division of Film and Media Arts and keep up with the Meadows film blog.

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It’s an extraordinary time to be a filmmaker, says alumnus William Joyce (’81). To create a successful career, hold on to your vision, be open to critique and outlast the naysayers.

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