For those who do not get a staff job, another way to get into the business is freelancing. This means you are an independent contractor, hired on a job to job basis. Working as a freelancer requires certain skills, knowledge, commitment and contacts.
A general starting point for a person who has no special experience, or who has not yet decided which specialty to pursue, is the Production Assistant (PA). PA’s are hired on a daily or weekly basis to work on the crew of a film, industrial or commercial production. PA’s work long hours (10-14 hours a day) for low pay as (gofers), drivers and all-purpose assistants. As you gain experience, you will be given more responsibility and can get a good overview of the department which best fit your skills and interests.
Not all individuals must start as a PA. Those with proven technical skills may begin at their own level as an apprentice in a specific department
Even experienced freelancers sometimes go for long stretches without work. Until you get yourself established, you may want to consider a flexible part-time job that will allow you to take time off when a production job comes up. Many freelancers wait tables, tend bar, work for temporary agencies, or substitute teach.
"So, now you’re a freelancer . . . Where’s the work?"
To find these jobs, you’ll have to make many, many contacts, prepare a cover letter and a resume, get some business cards made up, and talk to lots of people. Speak to everyone you can. Ask questions. Be self-confident and professional. Find someone to follow around for a day. Feel free to be creative in your dealings with these people.
Success in the film/video business depends as much on who you know as what you know. This may seem discouraging, especially if you don’t know anyone. But you will find that most film/video people are friendly and often willing to help newcomers get started. Networking is the name of the game! Speak to everyone you can. Give them your card. That person may not be able to hire you, but they may know someone who can. Get lists of production companies from the directory or organizations. Systematically contact everyone on your lists by phone or mail. Keep track of who you call, when, and the results of the call.
Attend meetings of industry-related organizations. Most of these meetings start with an informal “mix and mingle” before the program begins. Get there early and use this opportunity to chat with as many people as politely possible. Exchange business cards with potential employers, and ask to arrange a meeting.
It’s best not to drop by a production office, unannounced, resume in hand, asking for work. This is a fast-paced business. Most people work long, crazy hours. Many times there is barely enough time to eat and sleep, much less time to talk to someone who drops by. Call for an appointment with the production manager. Ask for a short interview or send a resume with a phone call as a follow-up. Continue to check in with that person on a regular basis. Production people receive scores of resumes each month – a timely reminder that you are still interested in their business is essential.
One very effective way of making yourself known in the industry and gain exposure is by listing with a reputable agency that posts your details and resume on their web site. For most production companies this is the first point of contact if they require freelancers so your chances to be seen and hired are increased tenfold.
“What do you need to get hired?”
1. Business Cards: with your name, phone numbers and occupation, if you’ve decided which department to concentrate on. (Example: Joe Smith, Grip/Electric; or Jane Doe, Production Assistant). If you are still undecided, put “Film & Video” or “Production Services.” A home address isn’t always necessary, and if you live alone, isn’t always wise. Some freelancers rent a P. O. Box for this purpose.
2. Resume: (plus demo reels, portfolios, etc). Don’t clutter your resume with work that doesn’t really apply, but do include other experience such as computer or foreign language skills.
“What else do you need?”
1. Answering machine or service: A reliable method of retrieving messages is absolutely necessary. Check your machine frequently.
2. Mobile phone. Must have! Most freelancers carry it always so they can be reached anytime, anywhere.
3. Calendar or Day Timer: Use this to book to keep track of jobs and your billing.
4. Invoices: You can pick up pads of blank invoices at any office supply store, or you can have them specially imprinted at any print shop with your recommended. (You can also generate blanks on your computer.)
5. Tools of the trade: These vary by department. Make sure that you carry everything you need to do your job, whether it be make up, blank video cassettes, production forms, stopwatches, etc. If tools are required, bring your own. In the grip and art department, for example, a cordless drill with screw bits is a must. Every crew member should have a pencil or pen, something to write on, and emergency clothing to handle changing weather. Other useful things to put into your kit are bug spray, sun block, sunglasses, spare change for pay phones, etc. You motto should be: “Be Prepared.”
“Freelancing is a business.”
As such, you are selling your services, knowledge, skills and, above all, your professionalism.
The fundamental activity of a freelancer is making contact with the people who have work available. So, you’re back to making phone calls. Using the telephone is inescapable. You are your own salesperson and you are the company. Your personal commitment and persistence gives a producer information about you even before your meeting.
“What’s your rate?”
It’s a question most often asked by producers and production managers, and you should have an answer for it. Do some research and find out what the going rate is for the job you want. Do not undercut your competition; producers are wary of very low rates and you will not be popular among your peers for bringing rates down.
“Will you work as a local?”
If you work out of town, the Production Company may put you up at a hotel and pay a per diem (“per day”) cost to cover your meals and miscellaneous expenses of being on location. As a cost-cutting measure, you may be asked if you will work “as a local,” or as if you lived in that town. Then the Production Company does NOT arrange for your hotel or meals, and pays only for your rate. Many people rely on friends and family to provide temporary housing while in another city or state, others try to find inexpensive hotels. Keep in mind that if you agree to work as a local, you will be expected to perform your job as well as if you were at home. This means you may need to be very familiar with the city and the facilities it has to offer. Obviously, it is not in your best financial interest to regularly pay for your own lodging and meals, but balance the amount of money you’ll make with other opportunities the job may provide. Accepting a job as a local is a personal decision, to be carefully considered.
“Will you work for free?”
This may seem like a silly question, however, working on a public service announcement (PSA), student film or other low-budget project may give you the experience, the promotion, or the foot-in-the-door that you need. Ask around if the project is legitimate. Does it seem to further your career goals? Can you afford the loss of income for a few days or weeks? Hopefully, production management knows that crew members are doing them a favour and they will understand that you may have to accept other assignments to pay the bills. A basic rule, unless a company is your regular client, is that you should not work for free for the same company or producer more than once.
“What about hold and cancellations?”
Many companies will put you “on hold” for the days of the production. This is not necessarily a firm booking, merely a way for a company to do some advance preparation. When they solidify their details, they will confirm your booking. If you are on hold and another company calls to book you for the same days, explain that you are on hold, and you will get back to them. Call Company A and ask if they can confirm the booking or if they will release you. Treat all holds as tentative until informed otherwise. Occasionally, a job will be cancelled. Depending on what you negotiated, you may be able to charge a cancellation fee. Negotiate in advance to clarify bookings and location fees.
“On The Job”
Be on time. Better yet, be a little early. If your call time is 7:00, that means at 7:00 you should have tools in hand, ready to work. If you can’t function without your morning coffee, adjust your arrival accordingly.
Arrive prepared. Bring all the tools and supplies you need, plus spares in case of emergency.
Suitable Attire. If you’re shooting outdoors, make sure you are dressed appropriately for any weather. Also, indoor stage temperatures can vary; morning set can be very chilly, even in the middle of summer. Count on the weather to change frequently and quickly. Always make sure you can perform your duties in whatever you decide to wear. And never wear anything with a competitor’s advertisement on it! A light jacket and a change of clothes in the trunk of your car is a good idea.
Pitch in. It’s best to stay nearby, keeping your eyes and ears open. If in doubt as to your duties, or if you are in between assignments, ask your department head what you can do to help.
Down Time. During down time, it’s perfectly acceptable to network, visit the craft service area, use the restroom, answer a page…. Just make sure you never leave the set without notifying your department head and/or the AD, and be ready to drop whatever you’re doing at a moment’s notice!
Input. As an entry-level crew member, you will not have as much responsibility as you may want. You may have different ideas about the production, but be careful what you say and to whom. If you have a suggestion that you are positive would save lives, money or time, discreetly tell your department head. Leave the directing, delegating and decision-making to those with the experience and authority to do so.
A word about abuse. This business is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. Long hours, hard work, tense situations and big egos are to be expected. However, you have the right to your health and mental well being. If you are constantly worked without meal breaks, adequate turnaround time or sleep, or if you feel you are being verbally, emotionally or sexually harassed, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Seek advice to determine if the conditions you are experiencing are truly abusive, and then decide on a course of action. Always conduct yourself calmly and professionally. You may be dismissed (fired), but no job is worth losing your health or self-esteem.
“After The Job”
Check out. Make sure you have been released for the day. Don’t forget to thank your co-workers for the great shoot and say good-bye. This is another opportunity to pass out your card. People will remember you this way.
Billing. If the production is not using a payroll service, present your invoice at the end of the last day, or mail it soon afterwards. Charge for everything you agreed upon, and nothing you did not. Freelancers are generally paid 30 days after receiving the bill, so get it out promptly. If you haven’t been paid after 30 days, it’s a good idea to call the company and politely ask if they have all the information needed to pay your invoice. Make sure you talk to the person signing the checks, your immediate supervisor or the production coordinator in order to get your request heard. As the payment gets later and later, you may find that a series of calls, letters or personal visits might be in order. Document each contact, and always relate the job, the date and the amount due. Talk to a lawyer or a collection agency as a last resort.
“Now You Own Your Own Business”
When you are a freelancer, your skills and knowledge are your product. Only you control the amount of time and effort spent on making contacts and gathering work. The more serious and committed you are towards self-promotion, the better chance for success in your field. Your professionalism is one of your assets.
Self-employment can be complicated. As an independent contractor, you must bill and collect your fees, pay your own income tax and find insurance. These hassles, normally handled by an employer, are now your responsibility. Set aside money each month for taxes, or pay quarterly estimated taxes. It’s never too early to start saving for your retirement. Find a good accountant, insurance agent, banker and attorney to advise you on business and financial matters.
Attend seminars: Many groups sponsor workshops and seminars to help hone your skills. These are usually open to non-members, with various levels of experience represented.
Read the trades: Stay current with industry developments by reading relevant magazines and publications.
Advertise: Buy ads or list your services in as many state and local film/video directories as possible.
Join professional organizations: These groups provide an opportunity to network, meet other professionals in your field, keep current in industry news, make job contacts and socialize. Once you join a group, get involved! Volunteer to help on a committee, make phone calls, or stuff some envelopes. View it as another opportunity to network, while helping promote your profession. Surf the web: you can get leads on upcoming projects, network with other industry professionals around the world and learn more about your craft from browsing the Internet. Many freelancers have their own web site in order to promote their services. An e-mail account is useful to send or receive messages, resumes or scanned photos from your portfolio.
How to get a job in television
(This is an extract from a professional offering his tips)
As a director for a moderate-sized OB (outside broadcast) operation, I have been an employer in what I refer to as the "middle level" of TV production. This means I need competent operators who are able to produce high-quality content for national television, but I don't have the need or budget to hire the absolute best in the business. Therefore I'm more likely to hire people at the middle or lower end of the market, including students and new graduates.
Opinions vary about the best approach to take when beginning your television career. The opinions on this page are mine alone. I recommend that you find as many different opinions as you can before deciding which path suits you best.
Now, down to business...
What do you want to do?
The first question you need to ask is which area of television you want to work in, and in what capacity. The requirements for different vocations are varied, so you need to plan your training path according to your particular ambitions.
On the other hand, it's also a good idea to keep your options open. Many people find that they end up with a very different job to the one they had originally wanted. This is one advantage of beginning your training with a general media studies course - it will give you a good grounding in many different disciplines and may help you decide which you prefer.
This brings us to....
Formal Education or On-the-Job Training?
This is one of the most difficult questions facing those about to embark on a media career. Do you spend years and large bundles of money gaining an impressive qualification, or do you wander straight down to the local TV station and ask for a job?
Ask 10 different managers and you'll probably get five answers each way. The fact is that different employers have different priorities. Some will insist on qualifications, some will insist on previous experience, some will take any newbie off the street. Naturally, larger and more prestigious organisations will tend to have higher expectations.
If you have a specific career path in mind make sure you know what will be required. There is little point aiming to be Head of Programming at a large station if you don't first aim to acquire a formal qualification - you will simply be too disadvantaged against your competitors. On the other hand, if your goal is to be an excellent camera operator, you may be wasting your time at university.
The table below summarises my opinion about the requirements for several common job types:
AREA OF EMPLOYMENT - TYPE OF REQUIREMENTS
(Camera operator, editor, etc) Formal qualifications are less important, experience is the key.
(Presenter, actor, etc) Formal qualifications are not usually important. Personal attributes such as self-confidence and people skills are critical. You will also need to be "camera-friendly" (a dicey topic which we won't go into here).
(Movie or television critic, etc) Formal qualifications are usually important, or at least an understanding of academic protocol. Practical experience is not usually a requirement.
Formal qualifications are very important and a reasonable level of practical experience will often be expected.
Obviously different companies will have different levels of employment criteria. Your local volunteer cable channel may take anyone who is willing to turn up for work, but large companies get so many applicants they may immediately discount anyone without formal training just to shorten the list.
Personally I don't care too much about formal qualifications when evaluating applicants. This is partly because I've seen enough incompetent graduates to believe academic qualifications don't necessarily result in practical abilities. I'm also somewhat biased by my own experience - my formal media qualifications are practically non-existent. I did start a media studies degree but I became frustrated with the slow pace and irrelevant material so I went out on my own. Almost immediately I began working in live television. By the time I would have finished my degree and been looking for my first job, I was already a junior director.
What Do Employers Look For?
There's no getting away from it - someone with experience is more desirable. However it's not always critical and you shouldn't be put off if you don't yet have it. Lack of experience will make things slower for you at the start but it needn't stop you.
It is also possible to be "over-experienced". If I interview someone with extensive experience for an entry-level job, I might be concerned that this is a fill-in job for them and they won't stay long. Sometimes it suits me to hire someone with a lot to learn because I expect them to stay with us for at least the duration of their "apprenticeship".
If you have no experience, the good news is that there are jobs available. You could look for entry-level positions such as camera and sound assistants, cable-runners, etc. Once you have a foot in the door you have made the hardest step.
Motivation and Commitment
The quality of our television production depends heavily on how motivated our operators are. As a director I rely on things like camera operators finding good shots. One highly motivated person can contribute more to the programme than several ordinary ones.
Reliability is essential. If you're the sort of person who always makes sure you use your full entitlement of sick days, you are unlikely to be popular in television. If you're tardy with time-keeping, forget this career. In live TV, one person being one minute late is all it takes to ruin everyone's day.
As an employer I also know that someone with enough motivation can go from being a newbie to an excellent asset in a short space of time, so this attribute will go a long way to compensate for any lack of experience.
When I first started employing I rated this as being very important. Since then, having seen a number of people flourish who didn't initially appear to be naturals, I have softened my attitude slightly. I still favour people who learn quickly but I won't fire you if you take a bit longer to pick things up.
Still, you need to be honest with yourself and seek genuine evaluation. This is a competitive field and if you don't have at least some natural aptitude you will always be at a disadvantage.
You will be required to work with people from many walks of life, often in high-stress situations. You need to be able to get on with people - those you work with and those you deal with as part of the job. For example, a typical camera operator or presenter may have to do things such as:
Make people comfortable appearing on camera for the first time
Elicit information from reluctant sources
Focus on the job whilst being harassed by members of the public
Deal with people who are grieving, under stress, in trouble, etc.
"It's not what you know, it's who you know".
There's no denying that having contacts in the industry is helpful. This applies not only to new entrants, but for any career move at any stage. I won't say any more because it's fairly self-explanatory. Just be aware that it makes sense to cultivate and maintain good contacts.
So What Do I Do Now?
If you feel that a formal qualification will be to your advantage, investigate as many options as you can. There are many types and levels of training and you must be sure that the school or college you attend will be the most beneficial. Do your homework and find out what each school offers, what the course objectives are, exactly what qualifications you will receive, etc.
If you want to leap straight into a job, find out who the production houses are in your area. Your options will (hopefully) range from small commercial video producers to large television channels. If you find a job in a large company you'll have all the advantages of their resources and experience, but small companies also have their bonuses. For example, a small operation may be more likely to give you a fast track to experience in a range of roles.
Learn learn learn. Buy or borrow your own camera and practice, practice, practice. If you can't find paid work immediately, see if there are any volunteer TV stations near you - you can get invaluable experience which will help you find employment.
One positive step for your career is to join the lists of a reputable agency. Your details and credits will be available to the production companies and the channels for all to see. Being represented also places you above your competitors whose approach to the market place is cold calling or sending CVs. A few years ago this approach was working. Today it is perceived as nuisance.
Television is a hugely rewarding career. Don't be intimidated, the people who work in the industry are normal folk just like you. If you have a professional, responsible attitude and are willing to learn and work hard then there is no reason you can't join in the fun. Good luck!