Why I’m Not Making Films Anymore

The triple storm of rejection, money, and sexism

Shannon Litt
Apr 24 · 7 min read
Photo by Hunter Moranville on Unsplash

When I was 12 years old, I saw a movie that changed my life: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It captured me completely. The battle at Helm’s Deep, Faramir’s betrayal-turned-loyalty, the Ents taking down Isengard…man, just the thought still gives me chills. Director Peter Jackson created a world I could dive into, body and soul.

I knew immediately that I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to be a director.

I wanted to build worlds, goof around with actors, think up magical sets that other people would bring to life, spend weeks in the editing suite finessing the cut...being the boss was a definite perk, too.

Directing entails a lot more than those few things, of course—something I learned as I got older—but I loved all of it. I felt lucky: at a young age, I had already found something I was passionate about.

And it turned out I wasn’t bad at it.

I went to Ryerson’s prestigious RTA School of Media, where I started seriously writing and directing. The first feature screenplay I wrote, Cradle Song, was a Page Screenwriting Awards Quarter Finalist. My second, Gamer Girl, made it to the final round of the Telefilm MicroBudget program (now the Talent to Watch program). I directed half a season of The March Family Letters series, for Pemberly Digital. I directed web-series trailers, developed my network, workshopped everything. My next four feature screenplays made it to the Top 20% and Top 10% of the Nicholl Fellowship (the Oscars screenwriting competition). One was a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival. Another made it to the final round of the Telefilm MicroBudget program again. I directed profile pieces and webisodes for the hit HGTV show Income Property. Two of my short films, Follow Me and They Eat Your Teeth, have screened at festivals around the world. I directed two seasons of the KindaTV series, All For One, and then almost 200 web spots for CBC Life. All the while, I was learning how to shoot and edit so I could support myself while I pursued my ultimate goal of directing.

This all sounds like I was making progress—and maybe I was, a little—but the reality was that these positives were few and far between, awash in a sea of “no” emails. For every achievement in the paragraph above, there were dozens of “try again next year” responses.

1. Rejection

Rejection is part of the deal in the film industry. Every filmmaker gets rejected a lot. We develop thick skins.

Over the years, I posted both the positives and negatives on social media — the common “no” email, and the far rarer “yes”. People were kind, always encouraging me to “keep trying!” and “keep that chin up! You’ve got this”. While I appreciated the support, after years of fruitless submissions I was becoming exhausted and cynical.

No other industry demands such devotion for so little return (except for maybe academia). There’s also a pervasive idea that if you can stick it out, you’ll make it. This isn’t true. “Making it” is subjective. No one is guaranteed to get anywhere after decades of trying.

I was growing to resent the very thing I had loved. Filmmaking was no longer fun. I was bitter, going through the motions of submitting and pitching, expecting nothing to come of anything. Even when I did get a “yes” email, it didn’t fill me with the same excitement as before — there was a brief “huh” of disbelief, then I’d sink back into, “That’s nice. Too bad nothing will come of it.”

My life was a never-ending series of expensive applications and competition submissions, where I was always the bridesmaid and never the bride. And like many bridesmaids, after the wedding I was tired and my wallet was empty.

Which brings me to my next point…

2. Money

My short film ‘They Eat Your Teeth’ was runner-up for a $20,000 USD grant (it went to a white dude). There’s rarely actual funding for second place. I made it anyway, but it took a good chunk of my hard-earned savings.

Later that year, I sat down to a pitch session with an ACTRA representative. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m stuck when it comes to actual funding. I would love to make ‘Wilders’ but I don’t know how to tackle the next step.”

Him: “There are so many grants out there. You should apply!”

Me: “I’ve applied to several. Which do you recommend?”

Him: “I’ll email you a list.” (he never did) “I knew this one girl who wanted to make her feature, and she came to me with $90,000.”

Me: “That’s awesome. What grant was that?”

Him: “It wasn’t. She got it from private investors.”

Me: “So… where do I find these so-called ‘private investors’?”

The rep didn’t give details, and I’ve come to assume this term means “family and friends”. I don’t come from money, nor would I feel comfortable asking loved ones to support such a risky venture. I feel confident in my work, but not confident enough to ask my community to put their pensions toward it.

And here’s the thing about directing corporate pieces: directing in general doesn’t pay well. I regularly made less than a third of what my camera operator was making…for triple the work. I had the skills to do the same job as the camera operator, so why wasn’t I doing that instead?

“Well, because you want to be a director,” my inner monologue said. But after years of this same conversation, my reasons for sticking to directing in lieu of these far more lucrative positions were running out.

3. Sexism

What made everything worse was seeing who got the prizes and grants: middle-aged, cisgender, white men. Almost every time.

(yes, I know that a white, cisgender, male writer’s screenplay could certainly be objectively better than all other contestants, but every single time? Nope.)

I have an idea as to why this is the case: when the jury deciding on a winner is largely middle-aged, and largely cisgender, and almost exclusively white…which story will they gravitate toward? Which story will they relate to, and choose to finance?

This undercurrent of sexism was obvious especially on bigger sets, which I won’t name. I worked on a set where a male producer constantly questioned the female director’s judgement, asking her why this shot, why that decision. It got so bad that she and the DOP communicated in their shared second language.

Less than a week later, with a male director on set, the producer could not have cared less about his decisions.

I looked both directors up. The female director had more experience. Sadly, this is far from uncommon, as all female filmmakers know.

The Triple Storm

Last month was the straw that broke this frustrated camel’s back. The triple storm of rejection, money, and sexism came crashing down on me, all at once.

One of my features made it to the Top 10 of the Harold Greenberg Fund: a prestigious $10,000 feature screenplay prize. It’s the only one of its kind in Canada, because it doesn't have any strings. As the person presenting the prize put it, “It’s a few bucks to cover rent and board while you do what you should: work on your screenplay.”

“Congratulations!” my fiancé beamed when I told him I was a finalist. “That’s awesome. We have to go so you can accept the prize in person!”

I laughed. “I’ll just be happy if a woman wins.”

The winner was a middle-aged, cisgender, white man.

My fiancé was surprised. I was not.

The announcement was accompanied by two film screenings. The first piece was a female director’s short film. The moderators celebrated the piece for its bravery and authenticity…it was about rape, and included a long, drawn-out scene that made one woman walk out. At the end of the screening, the filmmaker revealed she had submitted three short films to the festival, and this was the only one selected. She was also very transparent about the piece being self-funded, and asked the audience for money. What kind of industry have we created in Canada, that female filmmakers not only don’t have access to funding, but also feel like they need to rely on controversial topics like rape to be “celebrated”?

The second piece was a documentary about the largest black settlement in Canada, and its high level of sex trafficking and gun violence. It was great that the festival screened a diverse documentary, but it was helmed by a cisgender, white, male filmmaker. And in the whole piece, there were only two interviews with sex trafficking victims, relegated to mere seconds of screen time in a film otherwise focused entirely on men.

All this cemented my decision to stop making films, and desert the directing dream.

I’m out (but I’m happy)

As I walked out of the cinema, I felt a profound sense of relief that I would no longer have to deal with this toxic industry—one that largely ignored women, and held all the power in deciding which of their stories were “impactful” or “valid”. I wish this industry was different, and I know it will change…but slowly. Very slowly. Maybe not even within my lifetime.

Until then, I will continue supporting female filmmakers. I will see their films, and I will promote their work. I applaud the women still fighting the good fight, women who, no matter the obstacle, will keep pitching and submitting, but I am choosing a different path now.

The dream has changed… perhaps it’s even returning to a purer form of what it was in the first place. I fell in love with storytelling, so I’m going to tell stories. I’m going to write fiction. They’ll get out into the world, whether via self-publishing or a conventional publishing route, and they don’t require as much of the bullshit to get there as the film world.

Yes, I could have endured more rejection. I could have lived a starving artist life. I could have fought the good fight against the rampant sexism.

But I don’t want to die on this hill. I want to tell stories. So that’s what I’ll do.

Shannon Litt

Written by

Videographer at Sore Thumb. Occasional Writer of BookThings.