One of the most consistent pieces of advice given to upcoming filmmakers is to specialize and focus on a highly specific area of expertise. But is that advice still relevant today? I would argue maybe not.
When I first started out, everyone I met in the business told me to specialize. They assured me that if I became an expert in one very narrow field, success would be inevitable.
Over time, it became apparent that there was some truth to that. While my general skills would often help me get a foot in the door or land a small gig, my specialized skills were the ones that accelerated my career and helped me earn a better living.
When I first began working as a colorist (an early specialization), my income doubled practically overnight. Prior to that point, I’d been focused predominantly on landing directing or cinematography gigs, two highly sought after positions with no shortage of talent.
Colorists on the other hand, were in very short supply, yet the demand for them was growing by the day. So to make ends meet, I decided to explore that path – And almost immediately it paid off.
Even in my very early days as a colorist without much experience, simply learning the basic technical skills needed to do the job and marketing myself as a colorist was all it took. Practically overnight I went from never having a color job, to having my days booked solid with work.
On the surface, my story seemed to be a case-in-point for specialization. But it didn’t take long for me to realize there was a glass ceiling to all of this…
By choosing to narrow my creative focus to a very specific field, I inadvertently had narrowed my opportunities as well. I found myself less likely to land directing gigs (which was always my driving force), as I began to develop a name for myself as a post-production specialist. This began to feel like a trade off and I had to ask myself some tough questions –
Would committing to this highly specific line of work mean losing out on even greater opportunities down the road?
How many of my own projects would I need to sacrifice if I continued work within these constraints?
It didn’t take long for me to recognize that hyper-specializing as a service provider (colorist) would inextricably tie me to my work forever, and therefore stifle my ability to scale over the long term.
That’s not to say working as a dedicated colorist (or anything else for that matter) isn’t a fantastic career path for many creative people – it just wasn’t precisely what I was looking for.
Unlike some types of producers, directors, or owners of production companies, I would have little flexibility in my working life, and would always be on the clock for someone else. Those criteria were always important to me, as variety and autonomy have been huge motivators in my work.
I also decided I didn’t want to rely on only a single source of income from a single skill that may or may not even remain lucrative as industry trends change. Doing so would not only relinquish my control over my income, but more importantly my creative pursuits as well.
So as my career as a colorist was just starting to flourish, as the highest paying jobs were starting to land on my plate, I decided to take a hard left turn.
That didn’t mean I would stop working as a colorist, as I continued to have a passion for the craft of color grading… But it did mean I would re-configure my working life to be more well rounded.
For the first time, I actively sought to de-specialize and become more of a generalist, or jack of all trades. I’d done this in the past instinctively, but this time it was purposeful.
I aimed to engineer a working life that played into all of my strengths, and minimized my weaknesses. This meant focusing not only on color, but also on directing, writing, sound editing, blogging, design, business development, marketing and other complimentary skills.
By generalizing, I was able to take latent skills that other “experts” had told me to push aside, and use them to ignite greater potential. I didn’t stop doing any of the work I was doing before – like color correction – but I changed HOW I was working, and looked for ways to incorporate skills in new ways.
Before long, I was able to spend my days working on the things I really wanted to be working on, by diversifying my efforts and seeking out new opportunities. This manifested in countless creative projects, businesses endeavors, this blog, my podcast and newsletter, CINECOLOR, Noam Kroll Academy, and more. Each of these ventures were strategically developed based around my skills, abilities, and assets.
This all has resulted in a daily working life that I genuinely enjoy (most days at least!), and more time to pursue my feature film projects.
My exect path certainly won’t be right for everyone, but I truly believe there are thousands of filmmakers out there who would be happier, wealthier, and more creatively satisfied if they were to lean into their multitude of strengths.
Being a jack of all trades no longer needs to have a negative connotation. Many of the best filmmakers, artists business owners, executives and other incredibly productive people are by nature jack of all trades, and their success can be directly attributed to that factor.
And in light of recent events, I would argue that generalizing is more important than ever. When COVID-19 hit, we saw just how unstable any job or position in this industry really is – even the most specialized of them.
On the flip side though, many generalists have been able to weather this storm quite well, as by design their livelihood doesn’t depend on one thing alone. Their collective portfolio of efforts is able to sustain them, even in challenging times.
I suspect these type of issues will only become more pressing in the future, even well after the crisis we’re in.
To explore this a little further, let me briefly touch on a few key variables that are impacting this dynamic as we speak:
AUTOMATION & TECHNOLOGY
In the near future, many roles in the film industry will be lost to automation – just like every other industry. In fact, it’s already happening.
That certainly doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be a massive need for human talent, but it’s difficult to say which positions will remain in-tact…
Massive technological advances are already impacting the way DP’s light their shots and how AC’s pull focus (or don’t!) In some cases, these advances have eliminated the need for specific crew members on large scale productions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
How long will it be before the first “virtual sound mixer” or “virtual colorist” powered by AI handles a key part of the post-production pipeline? It won’t happen tomorrow, but it can’t be far off.
The film industry is vastly different this year from what it was last year, and that will continue to be the case over the coming decades. In that sense, is it worth putting all your eggs in one basket as a specialist?
Even for highly complex tasks – like visual effects – advancements in technology are already impacting the workforce.
There’s no replacement for an amazing VFX supervisor/artist, but tools, plugins, automations, and software enhancements have made VFX far more accessible. The barrier to entry with VFX and other post-production roles is lower than ever before, and as the supply of talent goes up, the demand for talent goes down – along with average salaries and compensation.
This is just one example of course, but the takeaway here should be that nothing is set in stone.
Anyone choosing a rigid path of hyper-specialization should assess their role, the industry as a whole, and try (if at all possible) to project where things might be a few years down the line. If there’s any indication that disruption may occur, it might be time to consider diversification of efforts.
By now, we’re all well aware that film productions over the coming year or two will look vastly different than they ever have before.
Due to COVID-19, new regulations are in place that will drastically reduce the amount of crew able to work on set at once, and how productions can function as a whole. This may be temporary, but for the foreseeable future it’s our new reality.
From a management/hiring standpoint, I can only assume this will lead producers to seek out and hire generalists for many key roles.
A DP who also has experience as a gaffer/grip and as an AC may be invaluable for productions that need crew members to wear multiple hats. The same goes for the editor who can also run DIT, or the production designer who doubles as a wardrobe stylist…
Not every job will be eliminated of course, and every film set will be configured differently. But a key consideration when hiring crew members (or post-production talent) will be versatility. Can this person perform multiple roles effectively? Can they help us move faster on set? Can they keep costs down?
These are the questions being asked right now. And filmmakers who are comfortable juggling several tasks and actually thrive in that setting will benefit the most.
I would have to assume that once production companies and studios get used to working this way, it may become the new normal… Even after the crisis we’re in is well behind us.
Just as other industries are realizing just how inefficient they’ve been, the film industry will have an awakening as well. After a year or two of working this way, I can’t imagine anyone would want to go back to the same old system – one which required more people on set at a higher cost for the same final product.
In this sense being multi-faceted will benefit crew members just as much as it will business owners or other generalists. The diversification of skills and abilities leads to a diversification of opportunities and choice.
While many filmmakers have traditionally thought of themselves as craftspeople who strictly have to freelance for a living, that perspective is starting to change.
Thanks to many of the technological breakthroughs I alluded to earlier, opportunities are opening left and right for filmmakers seeking to supplement their income with business endeavors. And again, this in turn helps their creative pursuits.
It was once almost unheard of for a filmmaker to ALSO have their own thriving business, as traditionally the latter required a true 40 hr/week commitment… But times have changed, and being entrepreneurial is quickly becoming one of the most valuable skills a filmmaker can possess.
Take distribution for example. Armed with the right knowledge on sales and marketing, supply and demand, a filmmaker today can sell their movie directly to a hungry audience and turn a profit. They don’t need an MBA to pull it off either, just a little attention to the business side of things, and a willingness to take advantage of all the tools at their disposal.
This of course not only applies to selling movies, but any other entrepreneurial venture too.
Any filmmaker with a movie, an idea, a product, or a service can reliably create a system that generates multiple revenue streams. This in turn, will give them more time to focus on their next movie, their next venture, or whatever else they choose. It’s an enticing proposition.
Certainly, not every filmmaker is going to want to have their own business, but those who do (and have a wide range of skills to back it up) will be able to thrive. And let’s face it, it’s never been easier –
It used to be nearly impossible to land distribution, but now we can self distribute.
It used to cost thousands of dollars to set up an online store for your work/product/service, now it can be done for free.
It used to cost tens of thousands to advertise in the paper or on television, now for a few bucks a day you can quadruple your reach with Facebook ads.
Personally, I always saw myself as a filmmaker above else. But I still constantly made an effort to expand my horizons and educate myself on the world of business and entrepreneurship.
While some thought that was a distraction from my core effort to direct films, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Only by understanding how to create a system of my own, have I been able to free up the time I need to really focus on my creativity.
Would I have ever been able to achieve this if I’d narrowed my focus so much that I couldn’t see the opportunities right in front of me? Not a chance.
I want to re-iterate that there isn’t one path for everyone. Certainly, there are still individuals that will benefit by specializing in one thing and sticking to it over the long term, so don’t just take my word for it.
But with all of the uncertainty in our industry and the world as a whole, diversifying your efforts is never a bad idea.
For some, this might simply mean learning a secondary skill on the weekends that might help them be more versatile/indispensable on set. For others, it might mean diving head first into a new way of working, tapping into every unique skill they have (no matter how seemingly random), and integrating all of them to create a powerful business based on their strengths.
Regardless, the takeaway here should be the same: Keep your mind open to new possibilities, and know that the rules of yesterday no longer apply.
None of us should be scared by this new reality – we should all be incredibly excited to take advantage of the changing landscape.
Never before could a single individual have so much control over their own destiny, and the ability to design the exact working life they always wanted.
It’s only getting easier with each passing day, so the time to start is now!
If you’d like to learn more about the business of filmmaking and turning your creative projects into income generating assets, check out my brand new Online Audience Building For Filmmakers & Creative Entrepreneurs course on NoamKrollAcademy.com
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!