Do film buffs make better film-makers?

Martin Scorsese, Quinton Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch, Chris Nolan, Michael Haneke, Wim Wenders, Jean Luc Godard etc. all film buffs, but does it have anything to do with their success?

Do Film Buffs Make better Filmmakers

As pointless of a question it may seem, it is one that has been roaming around several cinephile circuits for a while now and one I have been contemplating myself.
I think the more practical question would be “what advantages would a film buff have that a casual enthusiast wouldn’t?”

Obviously an awareness of a mediums history would be beneficial in all crafts, even if the reimbursements are hedonistic. However, you could assume one of the most effective conducts that help comprehend the functionality of cinematic technique, is to understand why the techniques were used in the first place.

It could be compared to how contemporary biologists, geneticists and paleontologists research into the evolutionary history of the natural world. They attempt to understand an organism or a specific biological function by outlining how it reached its status in the first place. Natural selection and cinema are very similar in regards to their gradual trial and error practices (techniques that worked, continued and the ones that did not fell into extinction). Of course this is an over simplification of both natural selection and cinema, but what should be taken from it is the notion that, “to gain a better understanding, you must be aware of the experiments of the past”.

I believe the main reason why the majority of film dialogue scenes look alike (the over the shoulder sequences is a prime example) is a result of film-makers adhering to a contemporary convention. It is not about the effect over the shoulder sequences create, but an act of conforming to a film making consensus. How can cinema be fully utilised and evolve if film-makers are not conscious of their own techniques effects?

Over the shoulder - Scott Pilgrim vs the world (2010)

Over the shoulder – Scott Pilgrim vs the world (2010)

From Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Akerman, Ford, Godard, Antonioni, Wilder, Lubitch, Parajanov, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Tarr and Jancsó; they all used a diverse array of dialogue techniques that had numerous cinematic results. With all this variation and possibility, it seems impractical and artistically impotent that the consensus of film-makers abide solely to the over shoulder approach.

360 degree dialogue technique - Late Spring (1949)

360 degree dialogue technique – Late Spring (1949)

Be that as it may, an empirical problem arises, there are evidently more knowledgeable cinephiles than there are good film-makers, so surely being a film buff does not offer an advantage if the ratio is so low?

It would be naive to deny natural talent and a creative flair has little to do with becoming a great film-maker, but it seems a hefty majority of auteurs are incredibly knowledgeable film enthusiasts.

I have long accepted the fact I am not a naturally talented film-maker. I’m driven by raw enthusiasm for the cinema, and oh so often use it to compensate for my lacking natural ability. As my friend Blue Un Sok Kim once said, “It is so frustrating being able to recognise good art, but not able to produce it”.

The only logical conclusion I could come to is the possibly that it is a mix of both, a natural gift and a radical knowledge of the cinema. Yet this is challenged by the existence of great auteurs that do not have film buff knowledge, like the modern master Terence Malick. It is a somewhat notorious trivial fact that one of Malick’s all-time favourite films is Zoolander, not one you would expect from a film-maker that has made a career out of delving into the philosophical core of his characters and their predicaments.

Nonetheless, when you look at Malick’s work in retrospect it actually makes sense. His lifelong interests in nature, German/French philosophy, classical music, astronomy and ornithology, indicate that his passions have a greater influence on his film making than cinema itself.

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

The simple fact a life passion can be just as effective as an advanced cinematic awareness, really makes the original question void.

I feel we have to look outside cinema to gain a better perspective of this argument and look at art as a whole. Of course good knowledge will always provide a stable foundation for an artist’s work, but without a creative sensibility the art will always be impotent of visionary value.


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Matthew E. Carter


Film-maker and writer for the Black Country Cinema collective. My films often revolve around the changing cultural identity of the UK. An avid cinephile with a love for Eastern Cinema.

  11 comments for “Do film buffs make better film-makers?

  1. Jenny
    05/02/2013 at 15:07

    Film buffs usually have such a passion for film that they become too stubborn to take no for an answer. You don’t get anywhere in film if you can’t take rejection.

    • Black Country Cinema
      05/02/2013 at 16:15

      That’s a very good point. Cinephiles tend to respect their own opinions more than anyone else’s, so unless it’s their “no” it means nothing haha.

    • Kyri
      11/06/2014 at 08:09

      Stubbornness is usually the difference between great filmmakers and shit ones. Hence why so many directors who back down to the industry end up amounting to nothing.

  2. Craig JJ
    12/06/2014 at 17:31

    Nice write up, but there are far more successfully filmmakers than the ones you mentioned. I’m sure not all of them are film buffs.

  3. Olu
    13/06/2014 at 20:58

    Although Malick is an example of a non film buff that has made a significant stamp in cinema. It can’t be denied that some of the biggest names with the most impact on cinema are film buffs; including giants like Speilberg,Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, Tarantino, rising stars like Edgar Wright these guys are walking encyclopedias on all things cinema. Im pretty sure there are many more names i cant recall right now , but when you watch interviews with these guys you can tell how passionate they are about films , which i what translates into how they make their films and the influences that go into them.

    • Black Country Cinema
      14/06/2014 at 10:18

      It’s true, a hefty chunk of film pioneers are cinephiles; Wong Kar Wei and Hong sang-soo being more examples.

      But there is no denying the fact more cinephiles exist than great filmmakers. Which alone, should raise objections to the notion that cinephiles make better filmmakers.

    • Jimmy Madalle
      14/06/2014 at 14:21

      The biggest proof you need to challenge the whole “film buffs make better filmmakers” thing is early cinema masters. Lang, Bauer etc. All had nothing to be film buffs over, but they were master filmmakers (even to today’s standards).

      • Black Country Cinema
        14/06/2014 at 21:38

        I agree that film buffs do not necessarily make great film-makers (the article makes my views clear), but a lot of the early cinema practitioners were photography/theatre buffs and this contributed greatly to their techniques.

        Also, both Fritz Lang and Yevgeni Bauer were massive fans of the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies and D.W. Griffith. Lang was in fact, a fan of Bauer too.

  4. 16/06/2014 at 13:33

    No, you have to be a real snob to think a film buff is the only thing that makes a great filmmaker great. Just look at art student’s work compared to actual professional productions. To be honest, most film buff end up making homages to their favorite filmmakers, I hardly call that being a better filmmaker.

    • Matthew E. Carter
      18/06/2014 at 12:29

      As I say in the article, of course being a film buff wont guarantee you will be a great filmmaker. However, being a film buff and a director of professional productions are not mutually exclusive.

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