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How many movies does it take to create a masterpiece?

I’ve always been intrigued by how many movies it takes to produce a masterpiece. There is a school of thought that proclaims one needs to spend 10,000 hours in any activity to master it.

Movies, unfortunately, have a very skewed timing system – a low budget indie film does not take the same amount of time as a $200 million extravaganza, yet the mental effort and filmmaking skill that needs to be applied is on par. The physical and emotional effort is much greater in the latter, but one does not improve one’s filmmaking craft in meetings.

I created a list of 36 directors – nothing special about the list in particular mind you, it’s just that I got tired after I reached 36.

However, I did have some conditions:

  • I have not counted TV series episodes, commercials, documentary work, short films and music videos in my count.
  • I have included feature-length films made for theatrical release and for TV.
  • I have only used IMdB.com for data.
  • My definition of a masterpiece or watershed movie might differ from yours. Also, I might have missed a great movie just because I haven’t seen or heard about it.
  • It goes without saying that all this is just for fun’s sake, and is not meant to be a serious study.

Here’s the list (click to enlarge):

Very interesting, isn’t it? Here’s what I learned:

  • The first big movie tends to appear on the 5th try or thereabouts.
  • The major masterpiece comes three movies later.
  • The first masterpiece comes at about movie number 8.
  • It takes a lot of time and energy to become great at something. Like the saying goes, it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success.

What’s the takeaway? I have no clue, except

  • It feels good to know that if your first movie isn’t successful, as mine wasn’t, there is still hope.
  • Obviously, one has to make enough money-making movies to reach number 8!
  • Every director on the list has at least two masterpieces, and maybe that’s what it takes to be a great director?

Oh, and by the way, how much time does it take to make a movie on average? I would say a year, out of which half the time you’re doing things non-creative. That leaves us 6 months.

At 8 hours a day, that’s 1,440 hours per movie, of pure creative effort. 7 movies makes 10,000 hours. The 8th one is it.

Is it a wonder that Fellini called his magnum opus 8 1/2?

Have you seen any such trends in your career? What do you think?