When you’re just starting out as a filmmaker, editor, DP, or any other discipline for that matter, it can seem like making a living from your skills is nearly impossible. This is especially the case if you want to freelance as opposed to taking the steady path of working your way up in a production company or post-house. This article isn’t going to blow smoke and give you a magical recipe for success that simply doesn’t exist. But what it will do is outline is a realistic path to success that when followed will result in you getting paid well for what you love to do.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already freelancing or at least considering freelancing. The first question to ask yourself before fully committing to this type of work full time, is whether or not freelancing is for you. There are some huge upsides to freelancing which include being your own boss and setting your own schedule, but the reality is that it is much harder to make a living freelancing (at least initially) than it is to work for salary at a large company. It takes a lot of extremely hard work, dedication and persistence, but if you stick to it you can and will make far more income than if you were to take the steady path. With that said, freelancing is certainly not for everyone. Many of my colleagues have done very well for themselves by working a day job for various companies/post-houses, and there is something to be said about doing that. But if you have the entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to stick it out through the rough times then read on.
The first thing I want to talk about here is developing your skills. Before you start marketing yourself and applying for gigs, you need to make sure you have the skills to back it up. Even after training yourself, you will not know everything on your first few gigs, but the more you do know going into them the better off you’ll be, and the more likely the producer that just took a chance on you as a first timer will hire you back next time. So before you decide to go out and network and apply for every job under the sun, make yourself valuable by developing a very diverse set of skills. Years ago, the expression was “Jack of all trades, master of none”, but in today’s day and age, that saying couldn’t be less true. While it was once looked down on to have a widely diverse skill set (as people assumed you didn’t specialize in anything), today’s clients and producers are expecting that you will be able to wear many hats.
So what if you just want to be a cinematographer for example, do you really need to develop skills in other areas? The answer is YES! At least if you want to succeed it is. If you are a cinematographer that can also color correct really well, then it will be a no-brainer for a producer to hire you over the next guy if he is only capable of bringing half of your knowledge to their production at the same cost. Keeping with this example scenario, once you develop your skills as a colorist, your DP work will dramatically improve. You will know how to shoot for the color grade and will be aware of the limitations of what can or can not be fixed in post.
This point doesn’t only have to end at developing a second skill, in fact I would recommend you develop as many as possible as long as they are related to your primary skill. Your primary skill is the discipline of filmmaking that you want to ideally focus on long term. So if you want to be an editor, then develop skills that are related to editing and that you will almost definitely use on a daily basis. Examples might include learning: photoshop, after effects, nuke, DaVinci resolve, etc. This point is even more relevant if you want to produce or direct as both of these positions benefit immensley by having a thorough understanding of every facet of the filmmaking process. The goal is that one day you will only focus on the one or two things that you love and are passionate about, but in order to get there you need to be willing to learn related skills. And by doing that, you will only make yourself a better filmmaker in other ways.
In terms of developing your skill set, there is no right or wrong way. For me personally, I never went to film school or took any formal training in the creative arts. I learned by experimenting, making mistakes, observing colleagues, and reading. You do not need to go to film school and get a degree that will take you 4 years to obtain to start making money in this business. The most successful filmmakers my age that I know, mostly did not go to film school. However, some people thrive in the academic environment and if this is you, then by no means should you discount going to film school or getting more formal training. The point is do what is right for YOU to get the most knowledge and expertise into your head. Think of knowledge and skills as a bank account and yourself as a business. The more you put in the bank, the more valuable the business becomes.
So you’ve developed some amazing technical and storytelling skills and now you’re ready to apply for some gigs right? Not quite yet. You still need a demo reel and a website. And both need to be fantastic. Later on in your career you will find that you will want to specialize in one or two types of productions – music videos, commercials, narrative film, television content, etc. But when you’re just starting out and especially if you don’t quite know what you want to focus on yet, try to create a demo reel and portfolio that is diverse. If you want to focus on editing, go out and shoot/edit a few spec commercials, volunteer to edit an indie film, color correct a friends movie trailer, or do anything else that will add to your portfolio while still being related to your primary skill. It’s surprisingly fast to build up a decent body of work if you’re willing to work long and hard and just keep going. Once you have this body of work you can start to actually make some money.
There are a number of ways to get work in this industry. There are websites like mandy.com or Linkedin, there real life film networking groups, and there’s always good old fashioned cold calling. Again, there is right or wrong way to get work, but try as many options as possible and see what works best for you. You will need to continuously look for and apply for gigs and if you don’t get any responses then figure out why that is happening. Maybe your demo isn’t as good as you thought it was, or maybe your website just doesn’t load fast enough. Get out there and don’t be afraid to ask potential employers why they didn’t hire you. It may be harsh to hear what they have to say, but you can not succeed without falling flat on your face first. So expect to get some harsh criticism and accept that it is some of the most valuable feedback you can get as a freelancer.
Once you start landing work you’ll need to know what to charge. There are two ways that you can bill your clients – day rate or flat rate. I highly recommend you only bill a day rate unless it is a project that you are personally invested in or so passionate about that you don’t care if you don’t make money from it. A flat rate can seem enticing as you know up front you will bill let’s say $3000 for a 10 day job and that seems like a decent amount. But if you were to bill $300/day instead you would still make the same amount of money for a 10 day job, but be in a much better position. If the project adds on days (which just about every project will), now you are billing for the extra time you are working – as you should be. You should not give away your valuable skills for free, unless you are a few steps back and still developing those skills.
In regards to how much to actually charge, that will depend on many factors. You will need to calculate your estimated yearly expenses as a freelancer and do some number crunching to figure out how many days you need to work and at what rate in order to cover your day to day cost of living. This will vary significantly from person to person depending on your lifestyle, spending habits and other factors. Possibly the biggest variation here is whether or not you own your own gear. Let’s assume you’re a DP. On the one hand, you might never own a camera and simply have producers hire you for your brain. There’s nothing wrong with doing that at all. However on the other hand if you’re like me and you enjoy having toys around for your own projects, then factor in the cost of all of your gear when you create a day rate. You can even bill your client/producer separately for your personal day rate and your gear rate. However you want to bill your clients is up to you, but make sure you aren’t giving away your gear for free either.
One more factor to consider in regards to your rate is the type of work you will be doing. Indie films will have lower budgets than commercials and corporate videos, so you may even want to have two different rates for different project types. One rate would be higher, and intended for fully budgeted commercial/corporate gigs and the other would be a lower, reduced rate that you offer to independent films. And while we’re on the topic of commercials/corporate videos – don’t be afraid to take work in this field. While corporate work may seem dull, in many cases a single corporate video will pay more than 5 low-budget film gigs. It may not be what you want to do long term, but it will pay the bills and still allow you to develop the skills needed to work in the areas on the industry that you are more passionate about.
So you’ve figured out your rate and landed some great gigs with that amazing portfolio of yours. But the hard work doesn’t end here! The bottom line is, if you want to KEEP working, you need to develop relationships with the clients and producers and other filmmakers that you work with. If you aren’t good at what you do then you will not get hired back. This is a small industry which is almost entirely referral based and your reputation will make or break you, so not only should you do a stellar job creatively, but you need to be a pleasure to work with. Show up early for set, don’t complain, and generally be friendly. This sounds painfully simple, but I can tell you from first hand experience that on projects I have produced, I’ve specifically NOT hired back some of my crew members on other shoots because they were a drag to be around. In some cases these crew members were very, very good at what they did, but that does not make up for the fact that they were a downer on set and made the days unenjoyable. A good attitude will go a long way in this business. Producers can be highly stressed out people that are juggling a lot at once, and if you can make their lives easier then you’ll be hired back. Simple as that.
What I’ve described up until this point is essentially a cycle that you will continue to repeat over and over again throughout your career. You develop skills, create a body of work, land jobs, and develop relationships. Once you’ve been doing this for a year or two successfully, you’ll likely want to repeat this cycle to some degree. Brush up on new camera/software skills, update your portfolio, land bigger and better jobs, and develop more relationships. After your first year or two it is really crucial that you make sure that every single project you work on drives your career forward – either by paying you more than your last job, or by introducing you to new producers and contacts that are at a higher level than your previous contacts. I don’t mean to sound cut-throat here and I am not by any means suggesting that you don’t give the time of day to producers that you worked with when you were first starting. But it is very important in this business to align yourself with the right people, and as long as your conscious of this you will be fine. Consider everyone and anyone that you work with a potential long term client, and give 110% on every project.
This article has gone over some core fundamentals that will help you to get work and make a living as a filmmaker. But outside of all of the specifics I’ve listed above, there is one more thing I will leave you with – Persistence. Freelancing is not an easy career path, especially at the beginning. No matter how amazing you are, the fact is people won’t appreciate your work right away, you will be undervalued, and you won’t have the best contacts in the world right away. That’s okay though as long as you just stick with it. Persistence is the secret sauce of your success as a filmmaker and will by it’s very nature get you past all of the hurdles that have been outlined in this post. I can’t count how many immensely talented shooters/editors/writers/directors that I’ve seen give up over the years because it wasn’t working for them right away. The jobs that should have been theirs, in many cases are now being filled by people far less qualified and often less talented. But those people had persistence. The longer you do this, you better you will get, the less competition you will have (as your peers give up), and the more valuable contacts you’ll make. All of this will lead to more and more work and perpetuate your cycle.
I hope this has helped to inform or inspire some of you out there that are looking to take the next step and really give it a go. For those of you ready to start looking at gear so that you can increase your day rate, be sure to check out my post on The Top 5 DSLR’s For Video.
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