Working in film and television is a cool job. It’s unique. It’s creative. It’s challenging, and every day is different.
Occasionally, people send me an email with a brief synopsis of their situation and if they have a chance of success in the industry. There are so many different personalities, skill-sets, and roads that lead to a career in entertainment, I’m not one to deter anyone!
But there is a major point that hasn’t been addressed, and that’s the freelance aspect of working in production. Nearly all on-set positions are filled by self-employed individuals. I recently told a friend she’d be great at production. Her response? “Maybe, but I couldn’t handle the instability.”
Ask yourself: Is Freelancing Right For You?
Freelance means work-for-hire, where you’re hired for x amount of time, whether that x equals days, weeks, months, episodes, or seasons.
Beyond x, there are no guarantees, there is little security. Ultimately, the only person consistently looking out for your well-being is you.
How do you know if you can handle freelance if you’ve never been freelance? Let’s explore a handful of real-life scenarios of being a freelance employee in film or television production.
Freelancing means being okay with the unknown.
You won’t always know when your next job is, how long your current job will last, or if the show gets picked up, if you’ll be asked back. Sometimes, a project can’t pinpoint an end date, or they’ll release you earlier than you’d planned.
Jobs come, but sometimes, they disappear. You’ll get booked on a gig one day, completely change all your plans– only to have it evaporate the next. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the business 5 days or 15 years; jobs always come and go, and rarely will a company compensate you for the inconvenience of having a job cancel at the last minute (it has happened one time in my 6+ years).
I’m a little superstitious– I won’t even mention I have a job until I’ve signed the deal memo and/or I’ve been given a start date.
Freelancing means always hustling and networking.
Consistently doing good work while working hard is the best way to get hired again, but that employer may not have another gig for a while. Sometimes, you’ll agree to a project that lasts several months, and it take you out of the loop with your other employers.
It’s up to you to get back in touch, and it needs to be genuine. One blanket e-mail that blind copies everyone in your address book isn’t personal– it’s lazy. Take the time to send personalized emails, or offer to meet up for lunch or coffee to reestablish those connections.
Freelancing means constant rate negotiations.
Towards the end of my PA tenure, I’d had enough of taking whatever rate was offered to me — which was almost always a lowball offer if the company was from out of town. I realized my experience was worth a certain dollar amount, and I started to stand by it.
These days, my position falls more in the logistics and creative realm, that Don Draper so aptly described as, “the least important, most important” faction. Even now, I almost always have to renegotiate the rate that’s offered.
Negotiating rates is a sticky task. Know the going rate for your position.
Freelancing means having confidence in yourself when no one else does.
There’s something to be said for just showing up, knowing how to do the job, and doing it well and efficiently — and not second-guessing every little decision and needing constant reaffirmation from your boss. The real world doesn’t give out gold stars.
Then there are people that excel at what I call prosucktivity– not knowing what to do, so trying to do everything possible, and stressing themselves out in the process. In reality, this just overwhelms you AND your boss. Don’t let this happen to you.
Freelancing means juggling job offers as gracefully as possible.
In my opinion, this is the trickiest part of being freelance. You’ll get calls for two jobs that fall on the same day (or days) — especially if you’re a budding production assistant or crew member. Typically, you are placed “on hold” before being “booked”. Being placed “on hold” means that if you get another offer, you can check in with Job Offer #1 and see if the project is still happening on the dates they gave you. If it isn’t, then you’re free to take Job Offer #2.
If both jobs are guaranteed to happen, it’s generally poor form to take Job Offer #2 over Job Offer #1, but there are exceptions:
1) it’s a significant title and pay bump (no one can argue with that),
2) the project extends for a much longer period of time, giving you more work.
There are other long-term factors to consider when choosing between two job offers:
- Which company do you want to work for again?
- How vital is your role in both projects?
- How much notice are you giving the producer?
- Which project will give you the best long-term advantage?
What not to do when juggling offers: I once heard of a crew member that showed up on a scout only to say he would no longer be available for the shoot. That was a bad situation for both parties: As a freelancer, he had to take the job that provided him several more days’ work, but the production that had booked him first was given no notice. It was useless for him to even go to the scout, but he still invoiced. (This is my two cents here: You should never show up on a scout to tell the producer you’re not available for the actual shoot; but if you must, do the scout for free or cut them a break.)
Freelancing means creating your own path for your own promotion.
After you’ve launched your career in the business and are starting to work steadily, it becomes less and less about paying the bills and more about forging your own path. You’ll have to determine what jobs you should be taking (and should not be taking) in order to advance yourself.
I recommend gunning for the department you want to work in as soon as possible, as an intern if you can. While “production assistant” is a great starting point, the production assistant position usually feeds into production management or the assistant director world. (Occasionally, workhorse PAs will get drafted into non-union grip and electric jobs.) Once you’re recognized as a capable production assistant, it’s a challenge to convince them your goals are actually in a different department entirely.
Freelancing means no work, no pay.
There’s no such thing as paid holidays, paid sick days, paid maternity leave in the freelance realm. It’s a basic principle dating back to prehistoric times: If you work, you eat, and if you don’t work, you don’t eat. (Occasionally, when I’m on a weekly rate, I’ve been allowed to take off days here and there as long as I make up the work somewhere else, but it really depends on the employer and the project.)
You have to save for the rainy days (which turn into rainy weeks when it’s slow), the vacations, and the holidays. It’s more expensive than you think.
Freelancing means constant self-educating.
The landscape of film and television is changing as rapidly as technology. In the end, a good story is still what wins, but the way the story gets told is what captivates an audience. I’m not in the technical realm, but it’s equally important to have a grasp on what cameras are popular this month, how long it takes to set those cameras up, and what editing software is current (virtually no one is using Final Cut 7 these days, but I still love it for personal use).
Freelancing means taking responsibility.
Freelance can be carefree and fun — but it also means figuring out a lot of things on your own and educating yourself. Health care? If you’re not in a union, then yes, you’ll need to do research and pay for it out of pocket. Do you have a few nagging health concerns that require several visits per year, or do you just need catastrophic coverage? Should you open a HSA?
Freelancing means long-term fiscal prudence.
Similarly, you’re in charge of your retirement plan. There’s no Freelance 401k or getting IRA contributions matched. Several freelance filmmakers and producers buy property and become landlords (with plans to sell for retirement), and as long as the market cooperates, that works well for them.
Freelancing means staying strong when you don’t get hired.
You’ll hear of a show coming to town, and assume you’ll get hired — you usually do. The days go by, and the phone never rings. Why is that? Yes, sometimes it’s politics, but it could be a myriad of other reasons: The budget shrank, the executive has long-standing ties to someone else in town, it’s assumed you’re unavailable/uninterested, or someone just forgot. Regardless, it does hurt your pride — we all want to be in demand and successful, after all — but you can’t let this bug you. It’s their loss. In the future, you can ask why you weren’t hired, but try not to let it bother you — embittered people are less likely to get the first call.
Freelancing means RARELY knowing your schedule.
I saved the most irritating part of being freelance for last: you can rarely make plans as a freelancer in film and television. Sometimes, you might be in an environment that strictly enforces 9am-6pm (more common in post production, unless you’re up against a hectic delivery schedule). Want to go to a concert? You may be working late. Have a friend’s birthday party to go to? You may be out of town on a job.
Never knowing my schedule has turned me into a last-minute world traveler out of necessity. Production schedules are constantly in flux, and I can never book a trip months in advance, but if I suddenly have a month off, I’ll leave next week.
The Perks of Being Freelance
This post is more about highlighting the realities of a freelancer, but it would be biased to not include some of the perks.
Constantly changing environments. Locations constantly change; no two day are the same, even if you’re working on multiple episodes for the same show. If the location is the same, the characters are different, or the action/scene is different.
Always learning. Every job I’ve had has prepared me for the next one, and each project presents a new set of challenges and demands. It’s constantly forcing me to think in new ways, or freshen up on existing skills.
The freedom to take the jobs you want. You’re not going to love every single project you take — in fact, you’ll probably hate some of them, that’s another side effect of freelancing. But once your financial obligations are met, you don’t have to take every job. You can take a vacation, or be more selective. It’s a pretty great feeling when I realize not only do I not want to work on that new show about a nudist colony that custom builds motorcycles, I don’t have to.
Self-starting problem solvers are rewarded immensely. Problems that had a variety of solutions used to frighten me — what if I choose the wrong or least efficient method? — but having doubt and being indecisive is even worse. Pick up the phone, make a call, and figure it out. If you’re truly lost, ask a colleague for guidance.
The opportunity to travel the world in between jobs. This is the biggest perk of being a freelancer! When I finished college, the economy was in turmoil, and I was broke. I was nearly ready to take any job available — included a desk job — when I realized, “As a PA, I get paid about $175/day. I only need to work 7 days a month to cover my minimum expenses.” Anything beyond 7 days was a bonus, and could go into a travel savings account. I realized if I took a real job, I’d be lucky to get 2 weeks off per year, and at the bottom level of any non-entertainment job I’d be lucky if I made $80 per day.
A real job meant I’d rarely get the time to travel the world. I decided to stick it out in the freelance realm, and eight years and fourteen countries later, I’d still much rather work nine months of 65 hour weeks than 11.5 months of 40 hour weeks.
The opportunity to make a lot of money in short amounts of time. If you’re highly motivated and not taking trips every free moment, you can find a way to work almost every day in this business (provided you can recognize the need in your local film community and make yourself indispensable). Once you’ve proven yourself, some companies or situations will let you double dip.
There is a lot of money to be made in television and film, and in hundreds of ways. Don’t be misled: Like any other profession, it’s narrower at the top. If you want those $100,000+/year salaries, be prepared to spend years getting there.
Is Freelance Right For You?
To summarize into one coherent thought: Freelancing isn’t an exact science — at best, it’s unreliable and unpredictable. Some people are made for it, others are not… and that’s okay!
If you think you’d prefer a steadier position but still feel called to television or film, it’s still technically possible to get a staff job — although they’re becoming less and less common. Networks, post production houses, rental houses, ad agencies, studios, and some production companies are the most common places to find staffers.