The most common piece of advice given to new filmmakers is to specialize… But is that the right path for everyone? I would argue not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against specializing as a rule. I just don’t think you can tell any given filmmaker whether they would personally be better off specializing or working as a generalist. There are some obvious pros and cons to both.
Specialists tend to get ahead faster than generalists, because they’re laser focused in one area. That allows them to improve their skills at a more rapid pace, build their network, and work their way up the ladder quickly.
That’s the big draw of specialization, and why many people recommend it early on in your career.
The more specialized your skill set, the more hire-able you are. If you’re a VFX artist who knows how to run Nuke inside and out, you’ll surely have no problem finding work and making a good living.
Those of you who went to film school surely were advised by a professor (another specialist), to figure out your specialty. Why not become a DP for car commercials? Or an online-editor for reality TV? How about a sound designer for horror films?
I’m not knocking this type of advice, as it comes from a good place. They just want to give you the tools needed to ensure you can make ends meet, and they know specialization is one path to get there.
It’s not the only path though, and perhaps not the best path for many creatives.
The big drawback of specialization is that it doesn’t afford you the autonomy over your career that generalizing does. Unless you reach the absolute highest levels of the industry, most specialists are inextricably linked to their skill set of choice, and often their employer, for the duration of their careers.
For some, this is perfectly okay. They love doing one thing really well, and simply want to get paid by someone to do it for as long as they can.
But other specialists (at least some that I know), feel a bit trapped by their specialization. In some cases, they’ve lost a passion for the skill they developed all those years ago, but can’t fathom changing direction in their career. All their eggs are in one basket, and it becomes unimaginable to start over from scratch to pursue a new endeavor.
Some of these specialists also realize that they have little control over their time or income. Their employer will ultimately determine how much money they make and how much free time they have, which becomes a more pressing issue as you age into your career.
This is in direct contrast to generalists, who tend to have far more control in this regard.
When people think of generalists, the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” almost always comes to mind.
This leads many to (mistakenly) believe that generalists merely have an adequate working knowledge of a few things. That they aren’t good enough at any one thing to be as successful as a specialist, and that their potential is stifled as a result. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sure, you can make an argument against generalizing by pointing to a “one-man-band” filmmaker struggling to make ends meet.
But I would rather point to some of the most successful generalists out there: directors, producers, founders and CEOs of production companies, just to name a few.
These aren’t the roles that typically come to mind when you think of a generalist, but each one is in fact a generalist by nature.
Any great director or producer has worked every role on set… That’s what has given them the collaborative skills and leadership abilities needed to manage a creative team.
Similarly, business owners or CEOs need to be skilled in everything from development to production to sales and marketing, not only one specific task.
In a sense, CEOs or business owners are the ultimate generalists.
Framed this way, generalizing starts to look a lot more appealing. Many of the most sought after positions in our industry fall into that category.
But there are downsides too of course.
Unlike specialists who can find steady work/employment very quickly, it can take much longer for generalists to reach the same level or make the same amount of money.
You don’t just become a director or producer or CEO overnight, it takes years and years to get there. You’re not just developing a single skill, but a dozen or more concurrently, and you need a much longer time horizon to get each building block down.
Spending 5 – 10 years or more developing these skills in hopes that one day it will pay off is certainly not for everyone. You have to be driven by a very specific set of principles to actually thrive under those conditions.
For some of us however, the benefits of generalizing far outweigh the risks of failure.
Personally, my greatest priority in my working life is to have autonomy over my career. And autonomy is not something I could ever fully achieve if I exclusively worked as a specialist.
I like being my own boss, making my own hours, working on whatever projects I choose, and having the freedom to explore all of my interests and skills without limitation.
I like that on any given day I can write a few pages of a script, get on a sales call for my business, record a podcast, and color grade some shots from my next film. From the outside, all of these activities may look disconnected, but they very much are intertwined. Each helps to progress toward the ultimate goal of building a career that is not just lucrative, but specifically tailored to my strengths.
That’s just me though, and everyone is different. Ultimately, the only person who can tell you which path is better is yourself.
If you’re dead-set on doing one thing and doing it really well, specialization is great. You don’t have to deal with the headaches that business owners or freelancing generalists do, and you can spend the majority of your time doing the one thing you want to do.
If you have a multitude of interests and skills, generalizing might be the way to go. It can offer immense flexibility and the potential for creative and financial freedom that specialization typically doesn’t afford.
Let’s not forget though, your decision is never set in stone.
You can always start out as a specialist and then decide to generalize. Or the other way around. Try different things and keep experimenting until you figure out what’s best for you.
How do you prefer to work? Are you more of a specialist or generalist? Leave a comment below.