7 Ways to Make Your Own Luck in the Film Industry
Photo by Injeongwon / CC BY-SA 3.0
Step One: consider a different career. No, really.
A few weeks ago, a recent film school grad asked me on LinkedIn how he should go about finding work in the film industry.
I thought about the question for a while, then I sent him this kindly rant in response. Step 1: Consider a different line of work.
Dear <name withheld>,
You asked for advice on finding work. I’m happy to lend whatever wisdom I have.
Some people step into the industry and just fly straight to the top. Maybe they made an indie feature, won Sundance, and suddenly they’re dating Mila Kunis. If you turn out to be one of those people, I’ll feel like a idiot for writing this screed on how to play the long game.
People who rocket to the top are usually fantastically talented, but immediate success will conceal at least one essential truth: your career is 90% luck. Quick success will convince you that your career is actually 90% talent.
And for those of us who are not fantastically lucky right out of the gate—we’re gonna have to make our own.
So: here’s an unordered list of ways to go about making your own luck.
1. Consider a different career.
Wait. Don’t stop reading yet. It’s never a bad idea to ask yourself the hard questions about your motivations. In the film industry that’s true many, many times over. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all got into this at some point because we wanted to stand on a stage with a tux and a little statue for “Best Film Ever Made By A Human Being“—like Steve Buscemi at the end of Living In Oblivion. If you’ve never had this dream even once, then, well, you’re lying.
I hit a moment when I had to honestly ask myself why I was really going to film school, working 18-hour days without pay on movie sets, and getting yelled at a lot. (I was not the world’s greatest camera PA.) Delusions of grandeur? The romance of standing close to B-list actors? If I couldn’t come up with a good reason, I told myself I might want to look into other, less fiendishly abusive lines of work.
For what it’s worth, I think I came up with a pretty good answer. Which I’ll tell you later, because you should answer this one for yourself.
Your long-term income potential sucks. Do you know how you’re going to swing health insurance when you’re no longer 25 and immortal? Do you think you’ll ever have kids, and if so, are you cool with them attending public schools in your area? Are you going to just pay the rent, or can you actually stash something away today? Or do you just figure you’ll start saving when you’re 45 and, I dunno, catch up really fast?
Like binge-dating, the freelance life is pretty sweet for the first 10 years or so. The flip side is a little darker. I see all kinds of industry pros—well-established people with impressively long resumes—and at age 40 and 50 they still have to desperately hustle the next job. Watching that is a truly scary experience. Did you think you were going to become established and everything will just keep getting easier and easier? Nope. For most folks, the hustle only gets harder.
It gets harder in part because there’s always a new, energetic generation dying to prove themselves, and work for peanuts while they do so. Guys like you today. Youth and disruption is fun, until you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of disruption. (At this point, the “old guard” starts internet forums to complain about it all, but to no avail.)
I’m not telling you to Cut Your Hair And Get A Real Job, Hippie. I didn’t make that choice, either. And I survived. I might even be doing okay.
But know what you’re getting yourself into. People who don’t count the cost will find themselves surprised, disillusioned, and next thing you know they are regional sales manager for a seltzer machine company. Nothing wrong with that! But your friends and film professors are not going to be brutally honest with you about this. So you need to be brutally honest with yourself, if you want to have staying power.
2. Do stuff that other people actually need.
I see you’re a cinematographer, and that’s cool. The Beastie Boys once said, “Too many rappers, not enough Emcees.” To that I would add, “Too many shooters, not enough DPs.”
In other words, there are a lot of pretenders out there because being an owner/operator/editor/genius filmmaker was never easier. That’s the bad news. Here’s more bad news: the film industry is not crying out for one more DP to finally join its ranks.
Remember: “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You.” (You might just forget my advice and read the rest of David Wong’s brilliant, NSFW article here. Why are comedians the most serious social commentators today?)
If you’re putting yourself out there, tell people what they can get from you. First: repeat after me. You are not a “visual storyteller.” You do not “passionately tell stories” and you do not “use picture and sound to create visual experiences.” When I have 300 resumes on my desk, that one goes straight into the recycle bin.
I never once hired someone because the job was, like, totally their dream, man. Look, we know you’re at square A and want to get to square Z. We all want to get to square Z. But today you’re at “A” and I want to know what your plan is to get to square B. If you can’t answer that, you’re unfocused. Besides, your move from square A to square B is where we overlap and where we can work together. I can’t help you jump to square Z. (Nobody can.)
Just as one example. The one call I get all the time is “Can you recommend a good Assistant Editor?” I’m not saying you should be an Assistant Editor—although maybe you should. These guys have to know their tech forwards and backwards. They have to be the IT guy, the codec guy, the asset management guy, the post supervisor, and the digital lab. They have to interact with producers, directors, editors, and post vendors. They are alternately called upon to do the festival mix, the scrolling end credits, and maybe some light motion graphics and compositing. All in Avid or FCP, of course.
As a result, (1) AEs work a lot, and (2) I see a lot of AEs become post supervisors and producers in short order.
You might be an Academy Award-winning cinematographer tomorrow, but today you’re an AC. You’re a DIT. You’re a stereographer, an electrician, or an assistant editor. Figure out what people need the most. Find a skill that’s in short supply, that you can kill at, and that even a Dumbass Producer realizes he needs. Dumbass Producer might not know the difference between a good DP and a bad one, or a great color correct and a lousy one, but he sure knows when the footage didn’t get ingested and logged.
3. Leverage what you already have to get what you actually want.
We’ve all got skills that seem on the surface like they’re useless on our path to becoming the next Kubrick or Kaminski.
For me in the mid-90s it was all this lame computer and coding and networking stuff. Guess whether all that computer stuff came in super-handy when I built a post facility, or created 4K RAW DI workflows as one of the world’s first RED owners?
Back in the 1990s I was just a “web developer.” Then someone decided to call me a “web producer.” Suddenly I was the guy who was good with tech, but could also manage both engineers and artists and clients. (In film we say “producer” but in the rest of the world it’s just called “middle management.”) Then came Final Cut, Final Touch, and VariCam.
I can actually draw a straight line from picking up a book on Perl 17 years ago, and doing 3D RED Epic workshops for The Great Gatsby.
If you’re good at something, keep doing it. Because kicking ass is kicking ass, no matter what “it” is. I could have left all that nerdy stuff behind. (In fact, I tried that once, during High School, when I tried to be the world’s worst skater instead). But it actually took everything I knew and was good at, no matter how obscure, to become a halfway-decent entrepreneur. Which, for the record, is what you are as well: an entrepreneur.
Your path will be different. And you won’t see it until it’s behind you.
And no, I’m not trying to say that I’ve had such an impressive life. Plenty of friends right now are living out way groovier careers, right before my eyes, on social media. They probably pity me and my sorry shit. And that’s cool.
But don’t deny any of your own skills even if they seem tangential to your long-term goals.
Use everything you have, parlay it, and level up.
4. Become the #1 expert at something.
The catchphrase “thought leader” gets tossed around a lot by the startup crowd. It goes something like this: whatever niche you occupy, find your subtopic and own it. Kind of like a hard-knocks doctoral thesis. For me (today) one of those is scrolling end credits. Yes, I have that one locked up. I can tell you how scrolling white on black credits relate to Doug Trumbull’s work on 2001, how to keep them from shimmering, how to pick the correct typeface, and which logos you need to use for tax incentive programs in all 50 states. I can tell you how your scroll needs to be re-typeset on every render, re-typeset for every aspect ratio, and then bore you to tears about how my awesome awesome software handles that.
But you know what? Every movie needs end credits. And then—who you gonna call?
(Ghostbusters were serious thought leaders when it came to trapping and containing rogue spirits. They owned their niche.)
Maybe you’re the local underwater guy. Tabletop/water tank guy. Macro guy. Steady/MōVI guy. Multi-cam guy. Time lapse guy. (Ever heard of Tom Lowe? You probably have. And it’s not because he bills himself as a “Visual Storyteller.”) Maybe you know how to shoot Busby Berkeley-style musical pieces like nobody’s business. Maybe you’ll be the neo-neo-neo realist DP. I don’t know what your thing is. Figure it out, then grab it, talk about it all the time, wear that label all over town. Starting immediately.
Yes, immediately. Dirty secret about experts: you need to have very little expertise at something to be a greater expert than 99% of the rest of the world. Experts fake it till they make it. And at some point (like all good philosophers know) you will know so much that you realize how little you really do know. That’s when you’ll know you really are an expert. But you’ll be long since established.
But there’s also a fine line between niche and getting typecast, so you should also:
5. Always keep more than one iron in the fire.
I see a lot of one-trick ponies. If you find it hard to differentiate yourself (see above), then at least have more than one plate spinning. For me, it’s currently being this Workflow Guy (day job), instructor (intermittently), and running a software startup. There’s more (we’ll talk about space policy some other day) but let’s leave it at that for now.
As a startup guy, I’ve had to learn to market and sell. I turn around and use those skills in my day job, giving presentations to persuade a lot of other people about a specific course of action. As an instructor, I’ve learned to teach non tech-savvy folks, which comes in extremely handy when I’m talking to non-technical customers at Endcrawl. Or talking to non-technical people at my day job. And on.
I know a guy who’s a brilliant multi-cam editor. He wrote the book on it. No, literally wrote the book. He’s also a public speaker, and an educator, and a swell dude. That’s having more than one iron in the fire.
If nothing else, this is a simple economic hedge. But it would be difficult to over-state just how much I benefit from the cross-pollinating of various disciplines, too.
6. Network in all directions.
You’ve started doing this: good, keep it up. I got my first set gig as a locations intern because I knew a guy whose cousin got me into a film party in Philly. I’m a bit promiscuous on LinkedIn, spend regular, targeted time on FB and Twitter, and I use Contactually daily. (Contactually is the greatest thing ever. Go sign up, then come back and read the rest of this.)
But personal interactions remain the most important. I try to schedule at least one or two lunches, coffees, or beers every single week. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with an assistant editor who is younger than I am. I’m also having coffee with a guy quite my senior, very distinguished, very smart. He’s in my “Mentor” bucket. Last week I had lunch with a buddy whom I’d consider a colleague. And so on.
Reach out to people you don’t know. You’d be surprised how flattered they are that you reached out for advice. Sometimes they’ll meet with you, or just write you 2,500-word screeds in return.
Network across all levels—people your junior, people senior to you, peers. First, it’s the right thing to do. Networking is give and take.
You should also do it because some of those goofy PAs today will be interviewing you for your next job in a few years. Absolutely count on that one. (A corollary to that: be nice to people. Film sets can be nastily hierarchical. Don’t let things go to your head.)
Networking will have one other surprising side effect: it will turn up real friends. Yep, networking is not a purely mercenary exercise. As you get older, career and family start to demand all of your time. It gets harder and harder to maintain friendships outside of work, let alone develop new ones. But it’s something we need as human beings—socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I’m really pleased that in the past few years I’ve been able to meet new people, kindred spirits, and call them friends. It’s no small thing.
I see you live in Chicago. If you’re serious about what you’re doing, you have to at least consider New York or LA. (Chicagoans, please hold the hate mail. I hear there are, like, 14 films in production there right now, including Transformers XIII. Mazel Tov.) I live in New York for family reasons, and because I kind of like cold weather. Sure, you can make a living in your town, and sure, people find their niches in places like Wilmington, NC or St. Paul, MN. But that’s usually after many years spent on a coast.
But serendipity is everything, and there just happens to be way more serendipity in New York and LA.
Personally, I hate not having the option of living in the middle of nowhere. (My startup co-founder is smarter than I am: as a programmer, he really just needs a laptop and a cafe.) But that’s a fact of life if you’re in this industry and serious about it. In fact, I’m sure plenty of people would tell me I’m not serious because I don’t live in L.A. Ah well.
That’s all I got. That’s how I think you make your own luck. I look forward to your response to this, if you care to reply. And if you’re ever in New York, hit me up. We can grab lunch.
Hey, while you're here ...
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