by John DeMaio
The world of television and film production is a magical place. It seems like a dream job for most, spending time creating entertaining shows and movies that people enjoy. Who wouldn’t want to do this for a living? Unfortunately, this business….like any other business is just that…a business. So here are a few things that will help ground you a little before you dig in and start working on your “dream job.”
The Freelance Lifestyle
Freelancing is the most coveted way to earn a living in this business… at least, it’s the most coveted way to earn a living by the people that work a 9-5 job. The misconception is that freelancers are the rock stars of the industry. They travel from city to city, telling tales of celebrity encounters and magical gigs where clients take everyone out for drinks and fancy dinners! Wow, awesome! So why isn’t everyone doing this?
The answer is simple…most people can’t make the numbers work. It’s a cash-flow thing,
something that I’m sure you ignored in high school economics just like I did. It boils down to this…if the money isn’t consistently flowing in, it gets harder and harder to pay your bills. You know, the bills that consistently show up each and every month.
Even if you get paid $500 a day to be a camera operator, you would need to get 8 days a month at that rate, each and every month to sustain a house payment, a car payment, food, insurance payments for you and the house and car, any debt you might have to pay off and of course any of the fun stuff that you might want to do on your days off. It’s not an easy thing to do…and the work doesn’t just appear. You have to work hard to get the jobs…let alone actually work the jobs.
You also have to learn how to do your own accounting and invoicing as well as marketing like going to local meetings and hob-nobbing with other freelancers so that you can start building a network of people that will actually call you to work.
Collecting Your Pay
Oh yeah…then you have to actually collect that money. Some companies pay you in 30 days, some 60 days…and then there’s the dreaded 90 day turn around. There are more and more companies paying their contract employees in 90 days than you might think. That means that the jobs that you work on today will not pay you for 2-3 months. That’s not an easy pill to swallow.
There are also several companies that feel like they don’t have to pay you at all. I mean, you already did the work…what do they care? This is a bad situation and it happens at least once or twice a year for me. So far I’ve been pretty lucky collecting… but it means time on the phone tracking down deadbeat clients. Time that I could have spent networking…so it’s definitely not as glamorous as you might think.
My point here isn’t to bad-mouth the freelance world - just to put it into perspective a little. Just like anything else, it has its pluses and minuses. My job is to help you decide just how many minuses you can take before you decide to rip up that resignation letter.
Some helpful tips to think about before starting out on your own:
If you’re interested in working in this industry as a freelancer and you haven’t been scared off yet, here are a few tips that will definitely help. I have learned each of these the hard way so benefit from my experiences:
1. Save up some money. If you’re going to jump ship from that 9-5 job, put some money in the bank first. Three months savings will make or break your new endeavor into the freelance world. Perhaps you don’t have that luxury…like if you happened to get fired. Do your best to secure a small loan to help you through the first few months. It’s not ideal, but it’s much better than trying to pay your bills with some sporadic jobs.
2. Network. You heard it in school and you’ll hear it until the day you die…networking is the only way to a successful career in the TV and film industry. Chat with everyone that you meet on new jobs and do your best to visit any professional meeting that you can find in your area.
3. Remember your colleagues. You won’t see this on any other tip list for freelancing because most people don’t understand how powerful it is…simply put, if you connect other people with work they will always remember you. Sometimes I go out of my way to hook people up with jobs. I do it because I like to help and because I want people to help me. People remember the nice things that you do for them and they will always be loyal. There may be a few people that aren’t interested in helping you because it might hurt their business but it simply isn’t true. Freelance communities are very tight-knit so there isn’t room for people to steal work. Word gets around fast and work dries up for people that are devious.
4. Multitask. This wasn’t even something that was considered just 5 years ago but now, more than ever, people are looking for freelancers that canwear several hats. If you can run camera and do audio you will get more work. If you can shoot and edit, you will get more work. There are more and more companies asking for a one-man-band (someone that can shoot, do audio, light and sometimes produce) to shoot for them. Personally, I think that a two person crew is as small as anyone should go…but then I would miss out on tons of jobs. It might not be right in my mind…but it’s the new trend and it isn’t going away.
5. Consider renting your gear instead of buying. It’s easy to assume that owning gear makes you more attractive than someone without gear. In many cases this is true, however be smart about the gear that you buy verses the gear that you rent. If you shoot, perhaps investing in a light kit or a tripod is better than investing in camera gear.
Some companies prefer Sony XDCAM cameras while other companies prefer Panasonic P2 cameras. You’re not expected to own both. This is why you rent…remember, if you go back to point number 2 and start meeting people - you’ll find that some guys have Sony cameras for specific clients and other guys have P2 cameras for other clients. Work out deals with them and rent their gear. Now you just opened the door to multiple opportunities, instead of bogging yourself down with gear that limits you. Tripods and light kits (if taken care of properly) will last a long time so spend your money wisely.
6. Incorporate yourself. In the state of Florida, where I live, incorporating your business is very simple. I’m sure that it’s just as easy in other states too. Creating an LLC will help keep you from paying a self-employment tax at the end of the year. It’s more work on the front end, but it’s a huge savings at the end of the year. There are many other tax benefits to having your own company too so I encourage that you find a good accountant to help you with this process. I struggled for many years trying to do this myself but now my accountant is a valuable resource to me and has saved me tons of money.
7. Get insurance. It’s expensive and chances are you’ll never make a claim…but on the off chance that you need it - it will be the most valuable thing you own. This means both
equipment insurance and liability insurance. Now, it isn’t that necessary if you don’t own gear and you simply show up and run someone else’s equipment. However, if you take money from a client to produce a video - using your own gear or renting from someone…you should have yourself and your company covered. Am I forcing you? Absolutely not. I’m just strongly suggesting that you consider what I am saying. Even with sandbags, C-stands can fall onto the hood of a car in a strong wind. Let’s just say that I’m happy that I had coverage…
8. Marketing. Unlike any other business in the world, there is absolutely no way to market yourself as a producer, camera operator, editor, etc. You can’t buy radio ads or spots on television. Even industry magazines are a tough sell. This is why you need to network locally and also utilize production related websites to help. This is where Productionhub.com can play a key role…it’s a great resource for those looking for work and also for those looking for employees. Online marketing is the only way you should be spending money on marketing, especially if you’re a freelancer. If you have a service to sell to the masses - different story. But if you’re trying to find jobs for yourself or your company, it’s the only way to go. I feel that it’s fair to say that I’m not being paid to say this…it’s just a simple fact.
It’s a Wrap
These are just some of the tips that have helped me in the last 15 years. I feel that my ability to keep getting work has been a direct result of my willingness to learn, my ability to hold a conversation without talking too much, my respect for others on the set, my common sense and lots of hard work. You don’t graduate from film school or college and start directing…you still have to earn what you do in this business. I think that’s why I love it so much and I think that’s what makes me happy to say that I’m a video professional.
John DeMaio is a Producer, DP and Editor working out of Orlando, Florida. He is the co-owner of Red5 Creative, a media company that produces broadcast content and original network programming. John is also the founder of ProductionApprentice.com a free educational resource for aspiring film makers and video professionals.
photo courtesy of: ProductionApprentice.com