Going for Gold

By Rebecca Green

Normally, as I watch the Olympics, I am in awe of the athletes who are defying all logic and achieving the impossible. I get goose bumps as the National Anthem plays while winners stand on the podium to receive their medal. But something feels different this year. As I watched swimmer Katie Ledecky crush her competitors, I thought, but now what? Athletes thank their families for all of the sacrifices made to get them to where they are and I wonder, was it all worth it? What does it mean to be the greatest in the world?

Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open and Simone Biles taking a step back from the Olympics for their personal well-being has provided the world an opportunity to look deeper into the pressures we put on ourselves to achieve greatness. While watching the 2020 Olympics, I’ve been asking myself, how do I define success and what am I willing to sacrifice to get it?

Mega. Global. Blockbuster. Billions. These are words we see in the trades every day. Creators and companies in the race to become the most powerful in the business, to be the greatest. Here are just a handful of headline from the last few months…

Mega. Global. Blockbuster. Billions. Is that our industry’s definition of success?

On the indie side, the race to greatness is just as intense. According to Sundance’s own submission statistics, your film has a 1.6% change of being selected by the festival. As a comparison, you have a 4.6% chance of getting accepted into Harvard. And yet every filmmaker is reaching for that gold medal. 

But it’s no longer enough to premiere at the prestigious festival, now every investor and sales agent wants to be the next mega sale like CODA, which premiered at Sundance this year and sold to Apple for $25 million, smashing last year’s sales record when Neon and Hulu bought PALM SPRINGS for $20 million.

If you do end up being that unicorn film with the mega sale, then what? Is that accomplishment celebrated and satisfying or just a stepping stone to get you the agent who gets you into the bigger rooms, which gets you the studio gig, which gets you a bigger budget and so on and so on… When is it enough? 

Let’s go back in time to the 1996 Olympics when gymnist Kerri Strug won the gold medal. After her first vault, she injured her ankle and hobbled off the mat. Despite the pain, she did another vault, landed on one foot, immediately fell to the floor, and was carried off the mat by coach Béla Károlyi. The announcer said, “Probably the last thing she should have done was vault again.” But the USA Olympic team won the gold medal so it was worth it, right? Actually, the Americans would still have won the gold by a margin of 0.309 points had Strug not performed a second vault.  

The headlines at the time used words like resilience, overcomes, and persevered, when in reality she was being pressured by her coach in what has been revealed as a toxic and abusive environment. If what happened to Strug in 1996 happened now, would she have taken a cue from her brave peers and chosen her own well-being over going for gold?

In independent film, sacrifice comes in the form of working for little to no money, juggling multiple jobs to pay the bills, immersing yourself so much into the process that you neglect your friends and family, putting the needs of your project over your own, and not prioritizing your physical and emotional health. We tell ourselves all of this needs to happen in order in order to accomplish the impossible, to be that movie everyone talks about that gets the big sale that gets us into the bigger rooms and on to the next project with more money. We tell ourselves we need to sacrifice everything to win the gold. 

I reject that narrative.

I’d like to give you another way to think about sacrifice. I have a note on my phone from 2013 with a quote that says, “Sacrifice is to give up what no longer works, to bring us closer to what is sacred.” It was said by poet and spiritual advisor Mark Nepo who was being interviewed by Oprah. Nepo explained that the original definition of “sacrifice” has a deeper meaning than how we use the word today. He said, “When you make this type of sacrifice and give up what no longer works for you, you become closer to what really matters in life.”

I am someone who has had Sundance premieres and made films that have been both critically and financially successful and now I am producing for television. By any outsider’s perspective, I am successful. Despite my accomplishments, I can never seem to shake a gnawing feeling that I am not doing enough, that I’m not far along enough in my career as I should be. A feeling that I have to perform the second vault no matter what. However, by beginning to dissect how I define success, I’m realizing that the feeling I have to do more and be more is a symptom of the “Mega. Global. Blockbuster. Billions.” headlines thrown at us everyday and not a reflection of my actual value.     

I do not yet have an answer for how I define success, but I am committed to sacrificing the things no longer work for me to become closer to what really matters. Working for free, being available to others 24/7, losing myself in my projects, letting the moods of my collaborators affect my day. These are the things I am going to sacrifice to allow more space in my life to spend time with the people I care about and enjoy all the adventure and joy that life has to offer. 

When the movie you’ve been working on for years and years is finally completed, is that success or is it only successful if it gets accepted by a major festival? If your film premieres at a major festival, is that success or is it only successful if a distributor buys the film? If a distributor buys your film, is that success or is it only successful if you get a huge sale? If you get that huge sale, is that success or is it only successful if you are an awards darling? And on and on and on… 

Unlike Olympic athletes whose career culminates in winning the gold medal, there is no clear marker of success in our business, no final podium to stand on. Because of this, there is a constant pressure to do more and be more. Mega. Global. Blockbuster. Billions. But it is unsustainable and unhealthy to live in that mindset everyday. 

I encourage you to join me in taking the time to figure out what success means to you. Like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are doing, it’s time to redefine greatness in our industry.