7 Tips to Help You Succeed as a Freelance Filmmaker
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.)
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 rentals, additional 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.