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7 Tips to Help You Succeed as a Freelance Filmmaker

02.21.13 @ 7:35AM Tags : , ,

This is a guest post by Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters.

So, you’ve decided to quit your day job and venture into the exciting world of freelance work, where you get every day off, you set your own hours, and life is always enjoyable? At least that is how it feels as you sit behind your desk finishing out the remainder of your two-week notice. It is true, there are many perks to living life in the freelance world. However, it is not for the faint of heart, as it brings with it a whole new set of struggles. In what follows, I’m going to give you seven tips on how to succeed in the world of freelance, so that those struggles will be fewer and easier to bear.

Tip #1: Know Your Budget and Have Savings

If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend reading the article I wrote on determining your day rate. Knowing how much you need to make down to the penny will enable you to realistically put a plan into action. In addition to knowing what your minimum budget needs to be, I recommend having at least 3 – 6 months of savings. Not only will this enable you to make it when work is slow, but it will give you the financial security you need to have to be able to say “no” to jobs. There are a TON of low-to-no paying projects out there, and there are just as many people clamoring at the chance to fill the role. But that doesn’t mean those projects are any good, or worth your time. If you have savings to fall back on, you’ll know where your next meal is going to come from, and you can be more selective in the jobs you take (even the well-paying ones). If you have decided that taking low-to-no paying work is acceptable to you, then it would be best to develop criteria that will help you decide if the project is a good fit.

Periodically, I will take on low-to-no paying work if it falls within the criteria that I have decided on. For example, some of the questions I ask myself are: Will I be working with people I enjoy working with? Am I interested in the project/does it excite me? Will I get the opportunity to learn something new? Will I get the chance to be creative and push my limits? Will the project get completed? Do I trust the people I’m working with to follow through on their commitments? How will this impact my current workload/schedule? Will I have the tools and time I need to deliver results I will be happy with? The answers to these questions directly inform my choice to say yes or no to any project that comes my way, and especially those projects that have little-to-no pay. By knowing your budget and having savings you free yourself to make smarter business choices that will further your skills and career, rather than just taking any job that comes your way because you need to pay the rent. (Side Note: Having savings has allowed me to also turn down well-paying work where I was less than confident in the people behind the project. You will be better served if you make choices that are not purely motivated by money.)

© 2009 Ryan E. Walters – Stock Footage

Tip #2: Give 110%

Every project you work on is an audition for the next project. That is why it is essential if you say yes to a project, that you show up and give it your all regardless of the circumstances. As soon as you start using excuses like low pay, long hours, and less than ideal circumstances, and it impacts how you perform, people will notice and they will be less likely to work with you in the future. So be professional. If you say yes to something, follow through on that commitment no matter what. If you do good work, and give it your all, you will get noticed, and people will want to work with you.

Tip #3: Network, Network, Network…

It is all about numbers. The more people you know, and the more people who know you and what you do, the bigger your referral stream, and the more potential you have for work. So get out there and develop relationships with people in the industry and film community who could be sources of referrals. I have had referrals from PA’s, actors, editors, other cinematographers — you never know where your next job might come from.

I admit that this is not something that I am naturally good at, or inclined to do. This means that I can’t offer you any solid advice at how to get the most out of networking opportunities. (I can point you towards this hour and a half interview with Owen Klaff on How To Sell Your Work.) But what I can say is that the more you do it, the more comfortable you get, and the more relationships you’ll build. The less you do it, the longer it will take to develop your referral stream. So get out there and do it even if it feels uncomfortable.

Tip #4: Be Adaptable

This industry is full of change; it never stands still. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the new cameras that have been released since NAB 2012… If you decide to remain stuck in your ways, fighting to keep things the same, eventually you will be passed over for someone else who is adapting and keeping up with the ever-changing landscape. Be open to doing things differently than they have been done before. I think a quote from Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” sums it up best:

“Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life… The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.”

Tip #5: Don’t Rely On Secrets Or Complexity

Technology is a double-edged sword. It allows us to do our job, and at the same time it is making it simpler and easier to do. I have encountered people who rely on the complexity of the technology they use to propel the mystery of their craft, as if that is the thing that defines an artist or professional. If what you do hinges on this complexity, it will just be a matter of time before technology replaces you. You will be obsolete. I believe that today, and even more so in the coming years, technology has arrived at the point where anyone can step in and do just about any role. The few complexities that remain in software or hardware will eventually be ironed out. Additionally, if you are relying on a “secret sauce” workflow, or a specific way of processing your work in post, it will only be a matter of time before someone else figures it out and posts how to do it on the internet. You better have something more up your sleeve than relying on secrets or complex tools.

Going forward, the things that will separate people will be their vision, talent, and their style. Tools should be just that – tools that allow an artist to create without getting in the way. As an artist, I’m all for simplicity and ease of use. I want to create, not be encumbered by the tools. I can go into any art store and for under $20 buy some brushes and paint. They are affordable, accessible, and easy to use. But that doesn’t mean that I can paint the Sistine Chapel. What separates me from Michelangelo is our vision, talent, and style. (It would be a VERY bad idea to hire me to paint even a bathroom ceiling.) If the affordability, accessibility, and simplicity of todays filmmaking tools worries you, good. Use that to motivate you to hone your talent, craft, & your vision so that you stand out in the marketplace. The tools are abundant, but there is only ONE of you!

Tip #6: Diversify

Have as many different sources and types of revenue as possible. By having multiple revenue streams, as well as a diverse variety of revenue, you will be able to better weather changes in the market. For example, in addition to the referral system that I have built through networking, I also have revenue that comes from stock footage, as well as from affiliate programs with companies like B&H and Amazon. I’m also developing a training series that I will be selling to add to my revenue stream. But don’t limit yourself to just the examples I have here. This is where it will pay off to think creatively. Additional revenue could come through investments you make, gear rentalsadditional services

Tip #7: Own Content

The world of freelance work is essentially the world of constantly losing a job and looking for more work. In the film industry, all the below the line people (that would be us crew members), get paid to do “work for hire.” We show up, do our job, collect our check, and then move on to the next job to get another paycheck. There are others in our industry who get to continue to collect an income on work they have already completed. These people are the above the line people (typically producers, directors, actors, the studio, etc.). Personally, I’m a huge fan of creating work that will continue to generate an income for me while I am off on other projects, or when work is slow. For me, this has come through owning content, specifically stock footage. While it doesn’t make me wildly rich, it is nice to have an income stream that continues to come in even while I sleep.

By following these tips, you will be able to not only weather the financial storms that come your way as a freelancer, but you will also be able to enjoy your life and work.

What tips do you have on succeeding as a freelancer? What has worked, or what hasn’t worked for you?

This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Blog.

Ryan E. Walters is an award-winning Oregon-based cinematographer. His work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. His experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 65 COMMENTS

  • Solid honest advice. Great article.

  • Great article!
    I would also add developing and/or honing your business skills like writing grant proposals, understanding contract terms, negotiating, pitching projects, using social media, budgeting, scheduling, taxes, etc. For better or worse, it’s as much a business as it is an art form.

    • Very true. Thanks for the additional tips. You’ve got me thinking about grant proposals- I’ve never done that. Way to think outside the box! Looks like I’ve got another area to explore / learn. :)

      • Hi Ryan.
        What is your advice for a freelancer who doesn’t live where all the film jobs are. I live in England and most of the film jobs seem to be in London but living there is expensive.
        Should i move to London or stay where i am?

  • This is great, as was your last article about determining your day rate. Thanks man.

  • on 02.21.13 @ 9:29AM

    Is this a new post? I have a feeling I’ve seen this before.

    The tip about giving 110% is nonsense. You can’t give more than 100%, and zeal is not precisely what people want on a production. What you should aim to do is do the best job you’re capable of. Be diligent, aware of what’s happening on the production, where it’s going and look for ways to help when needed. Outside of that, an excitement over being in production won’t necessarily turn heads the way you might think.

    The goal is to do the best job you’re capable of; be willing to learn and improve, but also be a person of firm character that people can rely on.

    Ultimately, this entire article leads to one statement: “give it your all”.

    • Jorge Cayon on 02.21.13 @ 12:51PM

      Dude can you please stop posting on this site. Everything that spills out of your mouth is a long diatribe full of negativity that is of no use to the members in this community. So what if you’ve seen it before. There are those who are new or actually work for a living that might’ve missed this. Nofilmschool is a site where anyone of any level can come to live and breathe filmmaking. You sir, do not seem to understand this notion. Either respect this place or GTFO!

      Sorry Koo, Joe and the NFS staff, I know I can ignore it and move along but this guy’s negativity believe it or not is bad for filmmaking morale. It’s his ilk that are always brooding on sets because they aren’t where they “think” they should be. They should be out there learning the craft not bashing everything about it.

    • “Ultimately, this entire article leads to one statement: “give it your all”.”

      No it doesn’t. That’s nonsense.

    • Wow. Very pithy takedown. You may as well be a grammar Nazi. We all got Ryan’s point. You are merely rehashing it with different words. I understand fully what you are trying to say, but “an excitement over being in production won’t necessarily turn heads the way you might think” is your only real point here and you could have said that without referring to Ryan’s “give 110%” as nonsense. You need to say you’re sorry.

      • Jorge Cayon on 02.21.13 @ 1:16PM

        I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees this guy for what he is.

        • I thought the DIY Film Schools guy’s comments were a realistic assessment. It may not be warm and fuzzy, but there’s logic and practical wisdom in what he said. No reason to get upset because someone has a different opinion or disagrees with an article. We want a culture of open dialogue and freedom of opinion even when those opinions bother us, yes? It’s nice to hear those opposing view points because it makes us consider new ideas (even if we ultimately disagree), and helps us more deeply consider our own.

          • hahaahahah…..but c’mon..we all know we can’t give more than 100%. But saying that in a post where they are trying to help and motivate people is totally out of place and disrespectfull for the people who take some free time in writing these post to make people, like me, learn something new or refresh some information. So he shouldn’t be writing here. XD

          • Jorge Cayon on 02.21.13 @ 11:58PM

            Honestly, because all he did was regurgitate what was already written in the post, albeit unintelligibly. Look at his post over the last few months, they’re always negative towards NFS and somehow about him and his site.

    • As far as I am aware of it is a new post. Unless you already read it on my blog, as I published it a while ago.

      In the world of Math, you are correct- you can’t give more then 100%. Which is fine on paper. However, I disagree that you can’t give 110% in reality. For me, giving 100% is doing what is expected to get the job done, nothing more. Giving 110% is taking that extra step, or going out of your way to make sure things go well. It is what I expect out of myself, and it is what I expect out of my crew. For example, I was on a shoot where we were filming in a dog kennel, and the talent had to lay on the floor. It was NASTY. The PA’s were scrubbing it to get it ready for the talent. Giving 100% for that shoot, would have meant that I just stood there and waited for them to get done. But I gave 110% by getting on my knees and scrubbing with them. It made the job go quicker, which meant I was able to get the shots I needed. :)

    • pacifbeachca on 02.22.13 @ 11:45PM

      I speak for the grownups on this site when I say we are tired of your negative BS. Many of us are working pros with many years experience, and the fact that Ryan was kind enough to share some great advice to anyone thinking about going out on their own is wonderful thing. Seriously dude, like Jorge said, stop posting here. maybe you would be better of on RED User or even the Daily KOS, you would fit in nicely there.

  • How to be a successfull freelance filmaker in Spain. Tip 1 – no matter how good or bad you are, no matter what your costs are. Just be the cheapest one.

    • Haha, that’s a great one. Unfortunately…

      That’s exactly what I’ve noticed some time ago – more and more ‘clients’ don’t give a sh#t about quality, all that matters is cheap, cheap, cheap, most preferably for free.

    • It isn’t just in Spain- I see that here in the states too … it is sad when people no longer care about quality …

      • hurts so much when your effort is not valued and client just think in money, but anyway we are giving the most of us to give a decent result. And one question, what taxes do you have to pay, for example in the US just for being a freelance, even if you work or not? thnx

  • It feels like Ryan is the main person who actually writes something worth while and relevant on this blog. Great article, always worth while reading your posts!

  • Hey! Thanks a lot for this article.
    Be smart, work good, be kind. No matter what you get paid. its what i think will work for me…

  • More great advice from Ryan! I really appreciate his articles. So Ryan, thanks so much for the fantastic contributions (and for the thoughtful replies to comments on your blog)…I’m going full-time freelance in a month, so this article could not have come at a better time for me.

    • WAY TO GO! Congrats!!! That is VERY exciting. :) I know when I made my transition it was scary and exciting. Good luck with the transition- I wish you the best of success, and a smoother transition then I had. It isn’t always easy- but in my experience, it is worth it. :)

  • “The tools are abundant, but there is only ONE of you”
    This is just the thing for me as an aspiring author/director. How can I translate this notion with my ideas, films, approaches? How does my true voice sound like? For a long time I spent my efforts trying to figure out how I wanted my voice to sound like, or what voice would appeal other people. I think these are valid thoughts, but in my case they were blinding me from myself. Today we have so many references, examples, experiments, technologies and that makes easy for us to loose or never find our personal touch. I try to face this quest with grace and excitment, because a deep search can lead to deep places, whether good or bad. Thank you for the post!

  • After 20+ years with a “regular job” in TV – the last 12 with an NBC O&O – I left to do my own thing. That was 9 years ago and I could seriously write a book about how difficult it is :) One thing not covered in your article is client wrangling. This could be a book all its won. Here are some points in that regard from my website:

    • Brilliant Ronn. Thanks for sharing. Client wrangling is an art form for sure. I’m not sure I’ve mastered that yet- but I appreciate you providing that resource. :)

  • I’m 25 years old and starting my 3rd year of 100% freelance directing, editing, motion graphics, filming, etc…

    I think the “diversifying” yourself is essential part of being a freelancer in a service type business. You really need something to sell. I sell some motion graphic templates and I also helped start/co-found XProHeli (make multirotors for aerial video).

    One thing that I would like to add is make sure that you continue with your personal work (video work that interest you). My personal work is what has originally gotten me some really awesome clients. It is also a way to regain 100% creative control/freedom, something that you don’t have when you do work for others.

    • Thanks for the additional tip. Personal work is KEY. I know that I’ve done some of my best work there as I can experiment more and have complete creative control. :)

  • Excellent article, I’m going to share this article around! Networking is key as it’s sometimes not what you know, but who you know!

  • Spot on.

    I’d add one… “Have some irons in the fire.”

    Gigs that don’t pay off immediately, but offer long term potential. IE, a personal project, or a “deferred pay” project (with someone well-credited and reputable). Spec projects, sizzle reels, etc. Projects that COULD Be something great… but only if YOU choose to help. So long as you have the funds to stay afloat in the here and now, these projects will allow you to make new (high-paying) contacts, expand your skillset, and improve your craft by DOING, rather than by reading. Then of course the potential payday down the line…

    • Yes, yes, and yes. :) I can’t agree more. The more projects you have going on at a time, the better. I figure if I can have 10 projects in development, I’ll have 1 that actually hits / funds / follows through as planned. :)

  • Some people either have the skills/talent or they don’t. Factor in quality video equipment to the saying “Use the right tools for the job”. I am seeing so many kids finishing high school and putting the word “cinematographer” next to their name and call themselves professional editor using FCPX. Here’s a tip get real life experience and real qualifications if you don’t have that just leave you name and the word weekend warrior because you have no right to call yourself a cinematographer. #RantoftheDay

  • great advice!! wish i had seen this article sooner!

  • A very good article, and could almost be incorporated into the Raindance Manifesto. Well done.

  • great article, its exactly how it works, it’s always a mix of your creativity, technical skills, and personality.

  • Great advice, a lot to think about…thanks, Ryan

  • Hey Ryan! Thanks for such a great article. I only have one question about selling stock footage. I’m in several conversations with different stock houses about licensing my footage. I know that as soon as I pick one then it becomes exclusive to that website. I work in the the ad business and most agencies almost always turn to Getty for stock footage. I wanted to see if there’s a specific one you recommend based on your experience.

    thanks for the help!

  • I really like your suggestion of own your own content. I would love to have an income from stock footage I have shot.

    Are all the stock libraries much the same?

  • Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for the tips. There is really 2 websites I visit often, Nofilmschool and Hypebeast and I always found your articles very informative. Thanks for the constant feed of information in the film world! Cheers!

  • The most important tip has been left out — DON’T give up your day job!!

  • good article.

    I find finding freelance work quite hard, especially with so many people getting film degrees at universities and plenty of traditional freelance jobs are now not available as the people offering them can do something themselves with their iphone and fcpx.

    Recently Ive being lucky enough to find full time work for a media group (which was though word of mouth), though this means projects are given to me to do rather than choosing them myself. Often I struggle when doing client projects to keep on giving a 110% so to speak when my mind is a back at home with another project I’m working on. But consistent work does give an opportunity to save money for personal projects.

    From my experiences I would recommend trying to get a job in a media organisation where their are more experienced people and learning off them before trying to take on a lot of freelance work.

  • Thanks for this great article Ryan! Your second tip “Give 110%” is a great foundation for getting the ball rolling. I am not full time myself yet but and gradually working towards that and I definitely have a different attitude now than I did a few years ago when I started.

    I used to look at projects and say “If I only used a different lens” or “If I had this piece of equipment to achieve a better shot”. These are not bad things to say at all, but rather than focus on what I don’t have and can’t do I learned it’s about what you can do and how that will satisfy a client. Ultimately by pouring everything you’ve got into each project you will soon find that all of the sudden you are able work with what you have a lot better and that is where your personal style starts to develop and shine through.

  • Jonnytheloser on 02.23.13 @ 11:36AM

    Great article, thanks. A couple of other smaller points I would add:

    Don’t talk to much. The less you say on set the smarter you seem often times. Never talk politics. I’ve heard of and seen plenty of people getting getting blacklisted because they’ve made a comment about the president or immigration or complaining about the craft service

    Know your market. The people who understand the industry and their geographical region are the ones who anticipate most accurately whats next. They are the ones who are always booked and have the arri Alexa’s paid for by rentals and they work those jobs that everyone is jealous of.

    Keep your overhead low. Many people get to a point where they are pulling in large sums per day but after they pay for their personal studio and office and repairs and business manager and website and new gear every month their checks don’t spread very far. You take anything that comes along against your better judgement and you don’t enjoy the work anymore

  • Quality?

    Is the quality in the medium or the message? I agree that any one can record a message using everything from a RED to a phone, but what are they saying? What do they WANT to say.

    “Give me 60 seconds of your life and I will entertain you.” The opposite of Good is OFF!

    I believe the quality of the message is a combination of both.

    “Just shoot something fast and cheap” the client says.
    My reply is. “Is your message and product cheap and…..what ever?”

    “No, of course not,” is probably the reply.

    “Then why do you want to show it that way?” You say.

    You have to be interested in their message. You have to demonstrate that you really do care and are not prepared to compromise the quality for a few dollars. Are they?

    If you’re shooting corporate products or productions then look at what their competition is doing and make that part of your presentation/pitch. You need to do your homework.

    “Here is what your competition is doing. Why would someone buy your product over theirs?”
    What is the value proposition of their product, and how can you present it is a positive way?

    VALUE PROPOSITION of an electric drill……….as an example.

    First of all the VP is the solution to the client’s problem.
    Why buy an electric drill?
    To drill a hole.
    So, the VP of the electric drill is the hole. You need to have a hole somewhere and the challenge/problem is getting the hole. So purchase a drill and bit and drill the hole. Your problem is solved.

    What is the VP of your production?

    What is the VP of the client’s product/message?

    Answer these questions and the challenge of the PRICE will be placed behind the VP of the production, and you will get called back again. AND you can use this client as a reference point for your next shoot.

    NOW………being in demand will yield a better bottom line.

    It really is this simple. Perhaps it is not that easy…………or is it?



  • Renato Felipe on 02.24.13 @ 2:13PM

    Incrível artigo!
    O Brasil lhe deseja sucesso!

  • David Hooper on 02.25.13 @ 10:56AM

    Good post. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  • Thank u it was helpfull for me…

  • For a second I thought the thumbnail was from one of my films. It looks really similar.

  • Thanks for writing this article, Ryan.

    I am surprised how many “job” postings are out there with little or no pay (good for your reel), meanwhile they ask for top-notch quality. Sure, you can always try, but I guess the saying is still true that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

  • simple and cheap way to get high end effect for me has been shooting on film…which I never did before