(Originally written in June, 2013)
I’ve been on that stomach-turning freelance roller coaster in the production industry for nearly two decades. If you are a freelancer, you are all too familiar with the ride. Those highs of steady work fattening your bank account while being surrounded by like-minded war buddies, fully addicted to the rush and gritty glamour that is production. All followed by the inevitable depression of the phone not ringing for six-months straight, or spending 18-hour days in the soul-sucking trenches of a meaningless reality show, where all you can do is kick yourself for mis-spending your youth pursuing this crazy train instead of getting some Masters degree where you would at least have options. Yeah, I feel ya’.
Back in the day, getting work as a Producer in San Diego – the red-headed step-child of Los Angeles – was easy. We had big production companies banging out big budget commercials, documentaries and corporate videos daily. We had television studios cranking out cheesy scripted drama series and MOW’s. We had low-budget independent films shooting every month, opening doors for green hopefuls – which is exactly how I got my start. There was work for the taking and plenty to go around.
Today the game has changed. In San Diego, like many middle-market production hot spots, all the big companies have splintered off into DIY in-house mom-and-pops, the studios have closed or shifted focus, and most of us freelance producers and production managers have been left to start our own companies as bottom feeders, or are scrambling for the scraps of out-of-town companies coming in looking for local crew.
If you are a middle-market freelancer holding on to hope that those jobs will come back, you are sadly sitting in the cheap seats and you will never catch that fly ball. That game is over. With everything cheaper, faster and one-man-band, there’s a new game being played and it’s time to get in it.
While I’ve spent my career cringing at the idea of joining some agonizing attempt at industry mingling, I’ve finally realized how to go social in a way that works for me. I’m not talking about the useless Facebook pages that allow for job postings and pimping your services, or LinkedIn, where my 246 “Connections” has only gotten me one job since I joined five years ago.
If there’s anything I have learned over the years, it’s that when times are tough, you have to pull yourself up by your boot straps and get face-to-face social – weather you like it or not. Here is what I’ve learned about how to be, and stay, a busy freelancer.
1. Volunteer using your specific production skills.
Yeah, I know. You’re a PA on this job, but you’re “really a Director”. Well you could be when you volunteer for a non-profit. Working for free not only helps a worthy cause, it can allow you an opportunity to hone those directing skills for people who truly appreciate it, all while getting that title on your resume. I have volunteered teaching Creative Writing to at risk teens, combining my love for writing with my dream of helping troubled kids. It boosted my confidence in a creative realm, helped those kids, and kept me busy so when industry contacts ask me what I’ve been up to, I don’t have to say, “Not a damn thing!”
Volunteering can also turn into dollars. A year ago, I was dead in the water with work. I volunteered for a non-profit on a re-branding and fundraising effort using my skills in communications, marketing and event production. It was an opportunity for me to be more directly involved with the creative in a branding campaign, and to do more writing than I typically get hired for. The whole gig took 8-months of my free time, for free. I left feeling good for participating in something worthy, but without the “new clients” payoff I had hoped for. I wrote it off as not a viable option for networking.
Wrong. Cut to two weeks ago. My phone rings, it’s a fellow volunteer on that project, I submit a proposal, and my fledgling company gets the job. It took a whole year, but that person remembered what I had to offer and called when they were looking for someone with my skills. That seed finally spouted and now all I have to do is water it so it continues to grow.
Lesson here? If you’re slow, get off your butt and volunteer. It’s enough to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and the pay off down the road could be more than you expect.
2. Be friends with your co-workers. One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my career was assuming I had to be the consummate professional – keeping all work relationships at arms length, not intermingling business with pleasure.
Wrong again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to work with unqualified people simply because they were friends with the person hiring. Not that you should be unqualified for a position you take, but it’s ok to be friends with your co-workers because it will get you work. That doesn’t mean being fake or spending time with people you don’t like. But certainly foster the friendships with those you want to socialize with. Since I’ve adopted this motto, my reputation has bolstered, my support group has increased, and those paying gigs come around much more frequently.
3. Get together for coffee. It’s cliché, but it works. Use this as an opportunity to talk shop. You’ll find out what’s going on in the local industry, hear about upcoming work prospects and keep informed about up-and-coming talent you may want to work with.
I recently had coffee with a work friend who told me about a new company in town that’s winning multiple awards and got a local series on PBS. After checking them out online, I really liked their work. A week later I was meeting that company for coffee swapping backgrounds and future partnering possibilities. Believe it or not, these small coffee meetings can turn into brainstorming sessions that form prosperous partnerships. Keep an open mind and get caffeinated!
4. Take jobs beneath you. Don’t be such a snob. In today’s market, you take what you can get if you are a freelancer looking to pay your mortgage – and nobody will fault you for it. Yeah, being a PA after two decades of Producing will humble you, but it will also put money in the bank and, more importantly, keep your name and face out in the field. You can post pictures of the job on your social media pages and never have to mention you were a PA that day.
As the saying goes, you have to work to get work. Each job is a connection. I’ve now gotten several jobs I wouldn’t have otherwise by my associates knowing I’m willing take a lesser paying position when I’m slow.
Plus, a lesser skilled position makes for an easy gig. I PA’d a Motley Crue and Kiss concert last summer, with the bonus of seeing the show for free after my shift. Even though each of those bands should really put it in the bag at this point, it was still a fun, stress-free gig. Just remember, do the position you were hired to do with a smile. Don’t go around telling everyone you’re really a Producer. Now that’s cliché.
5. Be diversified. When you work in a small or middle-market, you must be a jack – and master – of all trades to stay busy. Many of my associates are people I can call for multiple positions – Editors, DP’s, Producers, Gaffers and Audio Operators all in one. For me, it’s been about crossing over into separate but related industries. As a freelancer out there hustling early in my career, I landed in video, television and live event production.The different worlds have overlapped several times in my career getting me the job over someone else because I had one or the other background – as well as kept me busy more often than I may have been in just one category.
Don’t believe the naysayers who think you have to do just one thing to be any good. Those are the people with desk jobs.
6. If you want to work in LA, forget everything I just said about being diversified. LA has a pick-a-box-and-get-in-it mentality. I’ve lived in LA on and off for several years over my career, and I must admit, I’d rather live and work anywhere else in the world but there. If you are a Field Producer, or an Art Director, or a Production Manager in LA, than that is all you are. Additional experience in other positions will not only be ignored, it will be looked upon as a negative. In LA, you are one thing and one thing only. When applying for jobs in that town, your resume better be filled with only that position title you are applying for.
As ridiculous as it seems, having any other experience confuses them. Most people doing the freelance hiring in LA not only have less experience than you do, but they aren’t the least bit diversified and have no comprehension of what life is like outside the big pond, so have multiple resumes, each filled with your work of only one specific title.
And do make friends in La La Land. Otherwise you have little chance in hell of getting in the door. I had 15 years of experience sitting in an interview once in the Vice President of Production at Sony’s office, and the guy said to me, “You probably have more experience than most anyone I’ve interviewed before, but you are unproven.” People in LA will hire someone, even if that person is mediocre at best, because at least they know what to expect from that person. That’s LA. I’m just sayin’…
7. Don’t waste time applying for freelance jobs online. It is not only a phenomenal waste of time, but it will take you to the depths of failure the likes of which you have never seen. It’s a digital abyss of lost hope and sorrow. You’d have better luck getting a job by defecating on Steven Spielberg’s front porch than you would getting hired by applying for a freelance job online. Seriously. Don’t do that to yourself.
8. Do your own thing. I used to say I never wanted my own production company, but that was when I was making tons of cash as a freelancer. After years of struggling to stay afloat, it became all I could think of. I have followed my own advice with all of these tips, which weren’t tips at the time – they were trial and error. But as a result, jobs are actually starting to fall in my lap. Instead of applying for freelance jobs online, I’m now finding jobs to bid on, and winning against other established production companies. I’m executing projects with decent budgets without the support of a large production company, something that had become somewhat of a crutch. I’m pulling in my contacts, partnering with my friends in the business, and I’m drinking a ton of coffee.
It takes a special breed to survive freelance production. If you’re in a rut, it’s past time to change your game. Stop doing the same crap that isn’t working and try these tips. I know you, Freelancer. You are slightly insane, a bit on the addictive side, and a sucker for making the impossible possible. This is your rollercoaster. Make it one hell of a ride.