Tips for Succeeding in the Freelance Film Industry

I am NOT writing this post from the lofty position of Executive Producer. I’m still considered a young’un by my far more experienced peers — and I still learn something new each day. But after being freelance for 5+ years without having to file for bankruptcy, move  in with mom, get a “real job”, OR live solely off ramen noodles (although I did have a period early on where I lived off of boxed noodles and off-brand Spaghetti-O’s), I’ve made up a list of semi-original tips that have helped me survive the freelance life thus far.

It should be noted that these are golden standards that I strive for, and try to adopt with each project.  The longer the hours, the more evil the boss, and the lower the pay, the harder it is…

 

Love the project as if its your own.

This mentality is key for any position on a film set, from the intern to the wardrobe assistant to the caterer to the director: Passion prevails. Somewhere, somehow, this project — what began as an idea and passion of one person — survived criticisms and traveled through enough channels to warrant the coveted green light, a budget, and the hiring of a crew. Even though it’s not your project, and even though you may find it dumb, respect the process: you’ve been hired to help see this idea to fruition. After all, on that day when it’s your dream project, you’ll want the crew to approach it with the same level of passion and care as you…right?

Passion doesn’t notice long days or late nights, and passion hustles. Passion wants to make this commercial, music video, television show, or movie the best possible. Passion always gives 110%. Passion is contagious.

It’s important to note: Good leaders have the ability to pull this out of their crew and make them care about the project.

Sometimes, the idea will be stupid AND you’ll be working for jerks. Simply surviving the project becomes your chief concern. In these moments, remember your fellow crew members — continue to do a good job to make their lives easier. Remember that your crew are the people you’ll be in the trenches with time and again, not the jerks. Look out for them. Get a tired grip a cup of coffee; tell a transpo driver a silly joke. Take care of them, help them get through it. They’ll do the same for you.

Locking up a door back in the day

Be professional.

This may be obvious, but because you’re working for a producer that’s known you for years and a crew that you’ve partied with numerous times — it can be a challenge to remain professional. Don’t stand around gabbing while others are trying to set up a shot: there’s still work to do.

Obviously, don’t be an ass and ignore everyone for the sake of having a good work ethic. A little goofing off on set is to be expected, and a bit of chit chat is the norm. Remember you’re being paid to complete a job, not to hang out. 

 

You’re only as good as your last job.

Even if it’s the same producer you’ve worked for a hundred times and you have a rapport and a list of inside jokes, always, ALWAYS remember: They hire you because they like you and you do a good job, not just because they like you. Your personality and spunk may get you on a set, but it’s your work ethic that ultimately brings in the paycheck — and the paycheck after that. 

Finish the job.

Crewing up on a job a few years ago, we hired two of the best production assistants we knew of– and as expected, they kicked ass for the first 8 weeks of the shoot. Then– it came to the last week of filming. We were all a little giddy with a “last day of school” fever, but we still had a job to do.

Our PAs, who had been awesome until this point, COMPLETELY lost the wind in their sails. They stopped listening, stopped taking initiative, stopped following through, and lazily walked somewhere when a crew member needed something NOW. They broke almost every rule you can break as a production assistant.  What should’ve been a smooth and glorious last day of filming ended up being miserable, all because our production assistants failed to be the integral piece of our well-oiled machine.

Consequently, those production assistants were blacklisted by most of the producing staff, despite the amazing job they’d done for the past two months. Just as you’re only as good as your last job — FINISH the job with the same work ethic you had on day 1.

2009 - working with george strait

credit: PCG2

Remember who got you the gig.

Nearly every job you get in the film business will be obtained by word of mouth — someone else putting their own reputation on the line by recommending you. Don’t take that for granted. Do a good job, and you’ll keep getting hired.

Additional Tip: Don’t do what is referred to as “phoning it in” — basically, don’t do a half-assed job just because you can’t find the effort to care. Ever. People notice.

You will have to prove yourself again and again.

After two years as a production assistant, I would take it personally if a producer I’d never worked with spoke to me in basic terms– or assumed a task would be beyond my capacity– simply because I was a {female?} PA. In fairness to my employers, there are a lot of bad PAs in the world, and you have to show that you’re not one of them.

I’m not a PA anymore, but I still have to prove myself whenever I’m hired by a new executive producer. I’ve learned it’s just the nature of the freelance business.

standing in

credit: Jen Bates

Don’t burn bridges.

The film industry network is very small, even on a nationwide level. (I recently realized I always have at least one Facebook friend in common with nearly everyone in this business.) Film shoots are stressful — and if you’re working for an evil person or haven’t gotten enough sleep for weeks (or worse– both), it can be easy to run your mouth and tell an executive off. As justifiable as it may be, this is almost always self-employment suicide, especially in a small-market town where there are only a handful of people are doing the hiring. Word gets around.

Tip: Most of the people at the top have known each other for years. They’re at the top for a reason.

 

When you get reprimanded unfairly, take it in stride.

If you do something dumb– such as, hold the DP at a lockup “because the camera’s rolling”, then yes, you deserve to be cussed out (not that I would know what that’s like…ahem.)

But sometimes, you’ll be working to the best of your ability and find yourself getting crucified. This can happen for four reasons, aside from the typical “tensions are high and not everyone can manage stress”:

1) You actually are at fault,

2) Someone is trying to save face in front of the EPs,

3) The EP is trying to prove their dominance,

4) You’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my experience — and it’s unfortunate, cheap, and lame– it’s #2 more than anything else. This is very frustrating, especially since you’re working your butt off, trying to build a name for yourself just to get hired again– and suddenly, someone sitting on their butt behind a monitor decides to blame you for their mistake. It’s not cool.

Suggestion for how to deal: React with a quick “Standby… I’ll check with ____ department”,  walk away with purpose, and find a member of that department to mention (gripe about) it to. I found this to be a successful response in most situations because: You’re not admitting guilt; you preen their ego by acknowledging their concern while reminding them there are other people on set other than you, and you’re being proactive.

 

“Confidence is preparation, everything else is beyond your control.”

I LOVE this quote and wish I’d heard it years ago — it would’ve saved a lot of unnecessary stress!

As a coordinator, producer, or assistant director, 60% of your job is preproduction and trying to anticipate any hiccups to make the shoot go as smoothly as possible.

Be as prepared as you possibly can. Make lists. Make several lists. Triplecheck everything with locations, coworkers, your boss. Think through the shoot day one item at a time and make sure each step, cast member, prop, and piece of gear is completely covered. If something isn’t guaranteed, have two backup options.

A large part of working in production is problem solving on the fly and implementing damage control. Regardless of how thorough the shoot has been prepped, something will change and you’ll have to adapt. That’s the nature of the business. Do your absolute best to prepare — but be ready to completely redo it all on the fly.

 

on set

credit: OHL

In the end: A good resume can help get you on a set, but once you’re in a circle of other filmmakers and producers, it’s your work ethic, attitude, and persistence that will continue to get you hired.

Occasionally, personalities clash, and you’ll realize you never want to work on a certain type of project again. Speaking from experience, and to reiterate several of the tips above — try not to burn that bridge — you may need that boss as a reference someday.

Author: Laryssa

Laryssa has spent 6+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. She writes about her experiences to help (and amuse) others. If she's not working, she's either traveling, reading or writing about travel, or planning travel. Follow , Twitter, or Facebook.

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3 Comments

  1. You’re such a great writer. This is awesome.

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  2. Being a sound guy, I sometimes think that were just one rung up from a PA on the set sometimes. Over 8 years now, and a few thousand days on production, I can see shit (and smell it) coming a mile away. Every producer thinks they are doing something no one has done before.. Its so crazy I can just about call it, every time now. But, because your ‘below-the-line’ crew, you just have to learn how to just, ‘go with the flow’, have a good attitude, prepare for everything and cover your ass.. It gets very frustrating.. but, support your crew, and do the best job you can. Out of all the crap that goes wrong, people will notice how the sound department was one that went right..

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