“Freelance work is totally different from a staff position in the sense that your relationships and how you make others feel is what keeps you going.” - Mort Rezvani, Sound Mixer (Commercials).
Success in film production work requires that you enjoy working as a freelancer in a business where your professional and social networks are key to employment and long‑term career development strategy. Obviously, the more skills and experience you have the better, but it takes more than technical skill or artistic talent to be successful.
Freelancing means to pursue a career in the industry without a commitment from any particular employer, at least in the long run. Because film production in all sectors is organized on a project basis, freelance careers are the norm for many production workers. Workers are hired to do a specific job for a specified time. In the film industry, freelance employment means you are hired for part or all of a movie or television project. A production company or a studio hires production crew on a project basis. Once you are hired, you are required to adhere to the rules of the production company in terms of when and where you work. You may be hired as a short-term employee and put on payroll or you may be hired as an independent contractor. The distinction can be important because as an independent contractor you are responsible for all Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes as well as personal income taxes and you gain no eligibility for unemployment insurance.
EMPLOYEE OR INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR?
The IRS has established 20 guidelines to help employers determine whether a worker should be treated as an employee or an independent contractor for tax purposes. Those 20 guidelines are:
If you have questions about these guidelines, call the IRS office closest to you.
Freelance employment is most common among production crew. It is less frequent but not unknown in post‑production, supplier and business segments of the industry. Since freelance work is often short‑term, crew and technical workers in the industry are frequently looking for work and managing a highly flexible and varied work schedule. A whole set of industry-specific conventions has grown out of years of freelance employment practices.
These conventions encompass critical issues related to freelance employment such as networking and social relationships. In short, the ways in which workers in the industry relate to each other professionally at work and socially with the industry specific community have been well defined historically. It is important to know what these conventions are. For instance, how do you maintain relationships with people you worked with previously? This is an important question for a freelance worker who must depend on other people to provide information about employment opportunities and referrals to jobs. This and other related questions are dealt with in later sections devoted to production crew, suppliers, post‑production and business.
Job security is a concern of most people about freelance employment. There really is no job security in the normal sense. Once you are hired for a project, you can be reasonably assured that you will be employed for the duration or for a pre‑specified time period. In freelance employment there can be continuity of employment but not job security.
“People who decide to freelance are doing so saying that they don’t care where their next paycheck is coming from. Many personality types cannot deal with this type of uncertainty” - Fran Wall, Head of Production, One Such Films.
This continuity of employment depends on performance, reputation, information and persistence. Employment continuity for the long term depends on many factors including the business cycle of the industry, your ability and willingness to do the job, your ability to network and develop relationships and your care and continuing contribution to your reputation.
However, individuals can make a difference in terms of achieving a certain level of job continuity in freelance employment. Individuals can have control over self‑promotion, networking, getting qualified for union membership and building a reputation in the production community. These actions can help you to steady work by getting the type and number of jobs you want.
First, it is important to realize that you are a business, a business with you as the product. And, as we know, a business may have a great product but not make any money if no one else knows about the product. Therefore, you need to invest a lot of energy letting people know what you have to offer, advertising your skills and talents. You need to do this with everyone you meet. Particularly in Los Angeles, where there is more film industry employment than anywhere else in the U.S., pretty much everyone knows someone who works in the film industry in some capacity. And when someone is putting a film production team together, they need people fast and use their personal networks to look for talent. Who knows: your local dry‑cleaner's brother may be putting a low budget movie together and need a production coordinator quickly. Perhaps your dry‑cleaner will put a good word in for you: “Hey, I know someone who works in production. She is always upbeat and very personable. Here's her card. Give her a call.”
What we are talking about here is the importance of personal marketing and networking. There are other characteristics which are also important: having a thick‑skin so you can withstand inevitable rejections that come in any job where you have to keep
asking; having the fortitude to withstand “dry” periods when you have no work; being adaptable and able to work with a variety of people in a variety of situations.
In business, your best customer for future work is your present customer. Likewise, in film production, pay attention to those around you when you do have a job. Your best sales point is making sure you perform your job to your highest level of competence. Second, try to go beyond your job description to be helpful without stepping on someone else's territory. This makes you attractive. Finally, be pleasant and upbeat at all times with all people. This expands your sales force because people like you.
Work performance and attitude contribute to a person's current and future reputation in the production community. In an industry where employment depends on recommendations, it is important to be known within the production community as a person who is capable, fun to work with and reliable.
Foremost, professional competency on the job is essential to career development. For someone just starting out, the learning curve is high, and with a little bit of patience and attentiveness, one can quickly acquire the competence needed to do the job well. There are several occupations where formal training can be very helpful. These occupations include camera operators, sound mixers, costume designers and make‑up and hair artists. However, most production crew, including these occupations, acquired their skills through work experience. There is really no better place to learn the craft than on the job.
Since production work is based on team cooperation, it is important to display eagerness to take on challenges and an ability to get along with a diverse group of people. When work hours are 12 or more hours a day for several weeks, most people prefer working with people they like. Therefore, the ability to get along with people with diverse backgrounds and personal characteristics is one of the most critical skills or qualities that can help build a good reputation, which ultimately leads to future jobs.
In physical production, many different people work together with a common purpose of making a movie, TV show, or commercial. But, their specific jobs may often be at cross‑purposes. For example, sound mixing requires people to be quiet, while other people's work requires the movement of themselves and equipment which creates noise. So sometimes resentment can build up about a person being impeded from their work because of the requirements of someone else.
Getting along with people on the job is much more difficult than most people think because it involves a number of factors including a person's sociability, their perception in assessing particular and changing circumstances and ability to maintain good relationships.
A lot of people don't last because they can't get along with people in a highly demanding work environment. There is a lot of ego, politics and competition in this business.
Doing one's job well is part of getting along well with people. Even nice people, if they don't know the job, will clash with others whose first priority is to get the job done. A great deal of production work is problem solving. A successful crew member takes on challenges with confidence and a level‑headed attitude.
As a general rule, since production work is team oriented, this kind of job is more enjoyable for a person if he/she likes to be around people. Most crew members are gregarious and sociable. They are able to read other people's feelings, assess their mood and know what the appropriate behavior should be in a particular situation.
Desirable qualities for successfully getting along with other people on the job include:
“As people get on live production they learn set etiquette. They learn when not to talk and how to behave.” - Michael Kenner, Grip.
“Set etiquette” is important. This refers to adopting common sense principles that can be learned easily if one is observant. For example, modulate conversation when others are working. Production work is such that sometimes one might be waiting for something to get set up, but this may not be the appropriate time to engage in loud conversations or start asking questions of someone who is working. Others notice even small details, like where a person is standing on the set. For instance, don't stand in the doorway.
A newcomer to the set is expected to listen and be interested. Sometimes a PA may be wary of helping an over-enthusiastic newcomer because this person might take their job. A newcomer should keep a low profile in these situations. For instance, do not give unsolicited opinions. It is wise to not give advice to another member of the crew about how to do their job even if you have more experience than that person does. Exercise your ability to properly assess each situation and act appropriately, trying not to step on other people's area of responsibility. There is a fine line between enthusiasm and being overbearing.
While there is this special idea of etiquette on the set, all work situations demand attention to getting along with other people – fellow workers or supervisors.
Periods of unemployment due to normal or unexpected fluctuations in production are to be expected. Some people take secondary jobs to supplement their income during slow periods. A second job should be chosen carefully. Jobs that have flexible work schedules are obviously preferable so that when a production job becomes available, you can take it. This requirement also limits the kind of jobs a crew can take outside the industry.
Monthly Percent Change in Motion Picture Employment, Los Angeles MSA,
February 1983 to March 2001
Source: Labor Market Information Division, California Employment Development Department
Some crew professionals who own camera, lighting, or sound equipment may operate a rental business while working as a freelance production crew. Other production professionals choose to work in supplier firms as rental, sales or technical staff. Their production experience and familiarity with the equipment make production crew well qualified for such positions.
Before taking a job, it is good to make sure that your commitment to the job can be fulfilled. In other words, take into consideration the number of hours and days you have to commit to that job. In freelance work, it is not always easy to predict how much one will be working but meeting your commitment is very important. It is therefore important to have a work schedule so that you are not overly committed and have overlapping work commitments.
For example, you might be called for a job that will start two weeks from now. In the meantime, you are called for a job that would last three weeks. Do you take the three‑week job? You need to decide how you will handle the overlapping week without comprising your commitment to both jobs. You might suggest someone else for the three‑week job rather than try to do both jobs.
“What often happens in the freelance world is that as soon as you find a job, you get additional offers that you have to turn down. If you get a job offer, but you are already employed refer two or three of your friends to the employer. Your friends may also do the same thing for you when they get a job offer they can not accept.” - Tom Joyner, Sr. Vice President, Production, Worldwide Film Completion.
Wages are relatively high in the film and TV industry. Production companies follow the union wage schedule in union projects. At least at the start of a career you are not likely to work continuously on production. To avoid being forced out of the industry by financial difficulties, it is crucial to set a life style appropriate to an expected average annual income and not one based on your best week.
Film union members qualify for health care benefits through the Motion Picture Health and Pension Fund. Eligibility depends on hours worked in a specific period. Some “excess” hours can be banked from period to period to help through slow times. If you're not in the union and a freelance worker you are on your own for such benefits.
From the above discussion of the mostly freelance nature of the industry, it is clear that, if you are going to succeed, you need to have the kind of personality that will be able to withstand the ups and downs of such a business. These personal factors will make the difference between success and failure. From all of our sources, we have identified three crucial factors:
Optimism: An optimistic outlook is essential if you are to succeed in a freelance environment. You need to believe in yourself. You need to be able to project an image as someone who is adaptable and can get on with a wide range of people. You need to be able to see the good in almost everybody you know. You need to be hopeful, overcome problems and learn from your mistakes. You need to have a thick skin so you can withstand the inevitable rejections that come in any job where you have to keep asking. During “dry” periods when you have no work, you need have the fortitude to withstand the strain and to have the will to use the time constructively to actively seek contacts and work.
By contrast, if you find that you spend a lot of time feeling resentful of others or getting depressed because you don’t seem to be able to be as successful as others, then you may not be cut out to be a freelancer. If you can keep up a happy demeanor and a positive outlook, then you have one of the three personal attributes required for free-lancing.
Drive: Successful freelancers keep pushing forward. They do not hang back. Rather, they are the first to offer help to others. When working on a project, they are likely to put forward their ideas and jump into action as soon as possible. They are persistent and overcome difficulties in pursuing goals. They do not get discouraged easily but re-double their efforts and follow-through remorselessly to achieve their goals.
Personal marketing: No, we are not talking about grocery shopping! The third factor that will contribute to your success as a freelancer is your ability to promote yourself. This does not have to be done in an egocentric self-aggrandizing way, but can be done in a low-key but persistent way.
To be successful at marketing yourself, you must first face up to the fact that it is important that you realize that you are a business, a business with you as the product. And, as we know, a business may have a great product but not make any money if no one else knows about your product. Therefore, you need to invest a lot of energy letting people know what you have to offer, advertising your skills and talents and promoting, “Me, Inc.” You need to do this with everyone you meet.
Particularly in Los Angeles, everyone knows someone who works in the film industry in some capacity. And, when someone is putting a film production team together, they need people fast and use their personal networks to look for talent. Who knows: your local dry-cleaner’s brother may be putting a low budget movie together and need a production coordinator quickly. Perhaps your dry-cleaner will put a good word in for you: “Hey, I know someone who works in production. She is always upbeat and very personable. Here’s her card. Give her a call.”
This is personal marketing and networking.
In business, the old saw is that your best customer for future work is your present customer. Likewise, when you do have a job in film production, you should pay attention to those around you. First of all, make sure you perform your job to your highest level of competence. Second, try to go beyond your job description to be helpful. Finally, be pleasant and up beat at all times with all people. Remember that the person who is lower on the totem pole than you are today could be hiring next week!
Here are some areas to consider when you are thinking of working in a freelance occupation:
To help you think about whether freelancing is for you take the Freelancing Quiz in the Self-Assessment chapter of the Resources Section.