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How To Make A Living As A Freelance Filmmaker

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.

If this article was helpful for you please help me keep the site running by using the buttons below to like it on facebook and share on twitter. Thank you!

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

24 Comments

  • Asher
    October 9, 2019 at 1:05 am

    Hey. This article is very helpful. I’m just starting out freelancing at 15(nearly 16) yrs old. I’ve made like 7 test commercials and sold 1 so far. I’ve made a small website, 2 test films and am nearly completed a new short film. Since I am so young I haven’t really discovered a clear path as of yet but this article has helped. Do you think I should charge less for work since I’m younger or charge more. Do companies/filmakers/directors and producers really care about age or do they just care about what you can do. I’m hoping for the latter.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 22, 2019 at 9:23 pm

      Wow, way to get an early start! If you have a really amazing portfolio and are known for your unique vision/style, I think your age could work in your favor. It may come across to some producers as really impressive to see what you’ve been able to pull off so quickly. There are always more corporate environments/production companies that tend to favor filmmakers who are a bit older than you, but even still I would give it a shot. Really, your work is the #1 thing that matters. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be just fine.

      Reply
  • Daniel Kovacs
    March 19, 2019 at 6:22 am

    Thank you Noam! This articel has not lost his value! It is still today (2019/03/19) as accurate like on his publish day (2013/10/16). After building an online business in german & a connected youtube channel since the last 3 years, i’m now going to path to sell my filmmaking skills to the local businesses of Melbourne. It is a risky & scary move for me. But your artical inspiered me to just keep going! cheers Daniel from Melbourne

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 9:48 pm

      So glad to hear, Daniel! Best of luck on your journey.

      Reply
  • […] Kroll. 2018. How To Make A Living As A Freelance Filmmaker. [ONLINE] Available at: http://noamkroll.com/how-to-make-a-living-as-a-freelance-filmmaker/. [Accessed 24 January […]

    Reply
  • Koda Porembski
    May 25, 2017 at 5:47 am

    Very helpful article, I feel as if my creative talent isnt lacking but it’s the social aspect of business is so crucial. Gives me hope having left my job 3 months ago. Excited to see what my new career path may bring and contributing to my family as a third gen. DP is worth so much more than money (still need that stuff though). Good attitude and persistence has mad it this far for me, thank you

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 25, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks for the note Koda! Keep at it and I’m sure you’ll come out on top. It sounds like you definitely have the right mindset and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

      Reply
  • TC
    May 25, 2017 at 12:48 am

    Glad I came across this old post! Big-time help and the right words at the right time. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 25, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      Good to hear! Thanks for letting me know 🙂

      Reply
  • Ivash
    July 13, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Awesome I love it !!!

    Reply
  • Caroline McCombs
    July 15, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Hey!
    Really awesome article, it was truly helpful as someone who is JUST starting in those beginning stages of a freelance videographer. I am currently working on my website and demo reel and have been overwhelmed about the marketing side of everything. I have been told that nowadays social media is everything for marketing – what are you thoughts on that? Having a strong following and presence on instagram, Facebook, etc is really key for marketing success? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      Hi Caroline – thanks for the note! I do think that social media can help, but personally speaking I get 99% of my work through word of mouth referrals. Even with this blog (which gets a lot of traffic), my work generally comes from other jobs or colleagues, and I definitely think there is no substitute for getting out there in the field. In my opinion, you should do as much high quality work as you can, meet some great people in the industry through it, cut together your demo reel, and then send it off to your network to get them calling you back for future gigs…

      Reply
  • […] N (2013) How to make a living as a freelance filmmaker [online] Available from <http://noamkroll.com/how-to-make-a-living-as-a-freelance-filmmaker/&gt; (October 16 […]

    Reply
  • Andrew anowrojee
    March 4, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Hi Noam

    Fantastic article! I’ve been a freelance director a few years and there is still
    a lot I’m working. Just two questions. When you work with clients do you use a service agreement
    or some form of breakdown on how you work?

    Also I do TVC work with a day rate of 3G’s this usually is inclusive of reccy, casting assessment, client meetings and overseeing post with editor and colourist. Should you charge for these? Should you set your pricing parameters regarding extensive pre and post in your agreement or pricing card. I often find clients think a day rate includes managing the project from pre-production to post. Anyway I just wanted your opinion as trying to cover the additional times required.

    Cheers

    Andrew

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      Hi Andrew – great questions. In terms of the service agreement, yes I always have some form of contract or engagement letter up front that states the duration of the project, deliverables list, revisions policy, etc. To answer your second question, I usually try to make it clear that a day rate only applies to the day I am on set. Every other day I work (pre-production, casting, etc.) would be billed at a day rate as well, unless the project had some very unique needs. For example, on a big commercial campaign where my day rate would be higher than usual, I may consider throwing in an extra day of pre-production to help sweeten the deal… Especially if I am bidding on the job.

      Reply
  • Scott Hilburn
    December 27, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Greetings,

    Well said my friend! Thanks so much for sharing all of your wisdom. It was reassuring to hear you share your perspective. I need to push for more corporate gigs, thats my next step. Ive been freelancing full-time for a little over a year, staying pretty consistent but just getting by financially. However I have really been focused on upping my skills each projects and learning, and also educating my self with more technical things behind the scenes. I am ready for that next upward level of evolution.

    I hope your day is well!

    Much Gratitude,
    Scott Hilburn

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 28, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks a lot for the message Scott. So glad to hear that this was helpful for you and best of luck with your corporate and commercial gigs this year… It’s always a challenging process to shift your working dynamic, but your head is in the game and I’m sure you’ll pull it off!

      Reply
  • Heri
    November 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    What about going to meetups and events? It seems there’s always 4/5 events networking events where I am. Is that recommended or it’s just losing time?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 3, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      It can certainly never hurt. Having a strong network is fantastic, but I would keep in mind going into it that most of the people at those events are looking for work themselves. So you may find a diamond in the rough, but the majority of people may be looking for you to give them work. You never know though, and on a slower week I would recommend giving it a shot.

      Reply
  • Steven
    November 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

    As someone who is just getting into this, I was wondering what you do about protecting yourself legally (do you recommend starting an LLC?), how and when do you get permits? I mean it seems like much of freelance is done without the proper permits as filming in most cities requires quite expensive permits.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 6, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      Hi Steven – You really have a number of options when incorporating (LLC, C-Corp, S-Corp, etc.), but I would advise you speak with an accountant about this. Outside of the legal issues, you will also want to know how to invoice/bill clients to ensure you are set up in the best possible way when it comes time to pay taxes.

      Reply
  • Aviv Vana
    October 20, 2013 at 10:39 am

    This was soo dead on! Nicely wrapped up and summarized here Noam. I hope beginners, and those that are in a rut, read this and “get it.”

    Thanks for putting such a thorough post together!

    Aviv Vana

    Reply
    • Noam
      October 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      Hey Aviv – Thanks a lot! Glad you enjoyed it and I too hope that some of the readers take something away from this one. It’s not an easy business to be in, but I think a little advice like this can go a long way…

      Reply
  • Randolph Sellars
    October 17, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Excellent advise for anyone getting into freelance work. I’ve been a freelancer for over 30 years and Noam tells it like it is. I agree with his advise 100% – especially concerning persistence. Everyone learns and advances at a different pace. Everyone makes mistakes and has set backs. But success comes to those who match their passion with persistence and never give up!

    Reply
    • Noam
      October 18, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Randolph and thank you for the kind words!

      Reply

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