Working in the entertainment industry usually means being self employed. The closest you can come to a ‘regular job’ in this industry is probably a TV show, most ‘jobs’ however, usually last from one day to a few months.
In this article I’ll go over some lessons I learned along the way, a lot of them are common sense but I see people ignore them all the time, so please take note.
Employed vs Self-employed
Before we get into the tips, let me start by the reasons I think not having a ‘real’ job is so awesome.
I’ve been employed a few times, and every single time I ended up getting sick of it. It wasn’t because the jobs were long hours, in fact I’ve had pretty flexible schedules compared to what most employees get, for example, in one of the jobs I only had to show up twice a week for a few hours, which is nothing compared to a 16-hour work day for a film. (which I’ve happily done).
For me, the main problem was that I simply got bored of doing the same thing over and over. Of course, I also don’t like having someone dictate what I work on and for how long. Being self employed they tell you upfront what you’re doing an for how long, you choose whether to take it or not.
Steve Pavlina wrote this article where he lists 10 reasons why he thinks getting a job is not the best way to go, this is one of his most popular articles, in fact, it is among the top 5 results when you google “Get a job”. After trying by myself both employed and self-employed routes, I agree with him completely.
As a freelancer you get to work on a great number of different projects so there’s much more variety, most important of all you have the freedom to take time to work on your own projects or to take a vacation whenever you want, you don’t need to deal with annoying bosses or even annoying clients if you don’t want to, you don’t have fixed schedules and the amount of money you make is only limited by yourself.
Of course, it’s not all roses and rainbows. Freelancing also can be very stressful at times especially at the beginning. I certainly remember several times where I had to pay rent/cell phone/gas or whatever the next day and I had less than $10 in the bank and no idea where the next check would come from… it was exciting! …ok, it was stressful, and I did get into some debt, especially when I had the brilliant idea of paying a semester of college (over $3,000) with my credit card. However, I learned my lessons and got over it.
Being self-employed is a set of skills, and as such, it gets easier with practice. Now I’m happy to report that I’m debt free, living in a kick-ass 1920’s loft in Hollywood and have been paying all my bills in time. I still get that situation every once in while, where I know I need to pay for something in a few days and I don’t know where it’s gonna come from but I’m much better now at handling it because I know there’s always a check coming from somewhere, it always comes and often enough from where I least expected it, it amazes me every time.
Forget about having a boss
I’m proud to say I haven’t used the phrase ‘my boss’ in a long time, I just call the people by their name or refer to them as ‘the producer’, ‘the director’, etc. It may not seem like a big difference on the outside, but it’s a huge difference in the way you relate to the people, they may be cutting your checks but you’re working WITH them not FOR them. If a client is disrespectful with you, there’s no reason why you can’t stop working with him. Unlike a regular job, your income is not tied to one particular person or company but it comes from different sources. You don’t have to stand anyone if he’s disrespectful to you, your time, etc. You might lose the job and the income that came with it, but there’s a million opportunities out there, and the next one is just around the corner. All you have to do is stay open to it.
That said you can of course choose to do stay with an annoying client and I do have some self employed friends who tolerate bad clients. I did so too at the beginning until I realized a couple years ago it wasn’t worth all the trouble. I’ve been doing fine ever since without having to work more than once with a bad client, when I let one of those deals go a better one always seems to come soon afterwards. As for my friends, some of them did make more money than me, but when I meet with them they always seemed stressed, overly tired and worse of all: None of them ever get time to work on their own projects! That’s definitely not for me!
Some clients fall in the grey area: They’re not disrespectful or treat you bad in any way, but they’re disorganized or hard to work with in one way or another. In that case you have to weigh the benefit of doing the job against the potential frustrations you foresee, if you think it’s gonna be more trouble than it’s worth you have a few options to make it a win/win situation:
- Not take the job.
- Set some conditions to have more control over the project (this one is tricky, you gotta make sure the client follows whatever you agree on or it won’t work.)
- Price the job higher than you would with someone who is easy to work with. Set a rate you think it’s fair for all the trouble you’ll have to go through and be firm, if he goes for it great! If he doesn’t fine, you saved yourself some headaches!
Keep your overhead (fixed monthly expenses) low
When decided to move to Hollywood and become a successful director, writer, actor, etc., you didn’t visualize yourself busting your ass just to make ends meet, yet if you’ve lived here for a while or if you’ve read my article about the 4 building blocks of a fulfilling carreer you know that to build a fulfilling career you need to develop your skills and your relationships (connections) before you start making any money, and that takes time. In the mean time you need food, somewhere to live, etc.
To make this work most people take a temporary job they don’t particularly enjoy to pay for those necessary expenses, but too many times I’ve seen problems arise when people get too comfortable with the new income and forget the “temporary” side of their temporary job. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a waitress or a cashier, but I don’t think you moved to Hollywood to do that, did you?
You don’t have to be cheap with stuff you need, like a a smartphone if you get a lot of urgent emails or a reliable car to move around town. What i’m saying is that you definitely don’t need that 50″ TV or the brand new car if that means you’ll have to do do more work you dislike and will have less time to develop those skills and relationships that you came for in the first place… I mean, you could’ve been a great waiter back in your hometown couldn’t you? I bet the rent is cheaper too.
Unless you’re completely living off what you love, it’s better to keep your overhead low and work less just for the money, you can use the extra time to take an extra class, meet with managers, write your screenplays, go to auditions, work for free at some cool project or even develop your own project!
Like I said, this doesn’t mean you have to be cheap and let frugality get in the way of efficiency. Get decent equipment when it’s clear you’ll get your money’s worth, it doesn’t have to be fancy, it only needs to be functional and durable.
Fail your way up
I know, I know. Fail until you make it sounds cliché, but being a freelancer/self-employed means that you have to actively look for opportunities and know how to take action on them. The best to learn that that is not by endless planning but by doing and learning in the field. Yes, this means you’ll fail a lot but you’ll also learn tremendously and will eventually find your way.
Jack Canfield -one of the most recognized authors in the personal development field- puts it something like this “If you’re trying to shoot with a rifle for the first time, the fastest way to hit the bullseye is not by aiming endlessly to perfection. The fastest way is to aim quickly, shoot and see where the bullet hit, if it’s too far to the right you adjust to the left then shoot again and repeat the process until you hit the bullseye.”
Don’t take it the wrong way. Planning is important, especially if there’s a lot of resources at stake. But you can’t make a plan if you don’t know the field just like you can’t draw a map of a territory you don’t know. By failing and learning you’ll get a better sense of how things work and will ultimately be able to make better plans and take action more efficiently. Taking action is an essential part of success and you’ll fail a lot, don’t fear it, just think that for every failure you’re one step closer to success.
Get a proxy job
When I first moved into town I bumped into a common problem. For some strange reason, neither Universal Pictures, Disney nor any big studio wanted to hire me as a writer/director right off the bat. Still, I had bills to pay so I soon found myself working at a car wash. It was a job I was grateful for at the time because it helped me pay my bills but it was also a job I hated because it had nothing to do with what I wanted to end up doing! After a six weeks or so I was sick of it and I quit!… I still had bills to pay, so I eventually came up with what I now call a ‘proxy job’. It’s a simple idea, but I see lots of people overlook it, just like I once did.
Getting a proxy job simply means that instead of trying to get a generic job like a waitress or a cashier, you try to get a job you can do with your current abilities that is closer to where you want to end up.
For example, if you want to be a writer, instead of being a delivery boy at Domino’s Pizza you can be a delivery boy at Paramount Pictures. Everyday you’d be surrounded by ‘film people’ instead of ‘pizza people’ and hopefully some of their knowledge, habits, etc will rub off on you. Plus, if you’re already on their payroll and they know you is much easier for them to get you a job (paid or not, doesn’t matter at the beginning) as a reader or something similar, you just have to let them know your intentions and ask away. Even if that doesn’t happen, isn’t it much easier to show a script of yours to someone you see every day? (A bonus of being the messenger is that you can maybe slip in your own script to the readers as a delivery ;-)).
Sometimes the proxy you get is not that similar to what you want to end up being, that’s ok, just the fact of being around the ‘film people’ improves you chances dramatically, and seriously, what sounds like a better job? Serving coffee at Dreamworks or serving strawberry lemonades at TGI Fridays? They’re basically the same job, and while it’s possible that the job at Friday’s pays more when you include the tips, the job at Dreamworks gives you more chances of showing Steven Spielberg what you can do. And since you’re keeping your overhead low like we talked about, you don’t need the extra few bucks from Friday’s anyway, right?
Of the top of my head, here are some entry jobs that don’t require any ability specific to the film industry, some require some other skill and some you may have to do for free for a little while. Most aren’t glamorous but hey, this is the film industry!:
- Delivery boy
- Office assistant
- Casting assistant (great if you’re an actor)
- Art department assistant
- Production assistant
- Personal assistant
- Make-up, hair or wardrobe dept. assistant
- Copy boy
- Script reader
- Video store clerk (may not put you next to the top executives but you can watch a lot of movies and learn from them, it still beats being a waitress at TGI Friday’s in my book)
If you know me personally you’re probably wondering why am I talking about being organized. I’ll admit it, I’m not the most organized person when it comes to arranging my books, DVDs or even my desk. When it comes to a project though, I always keep my files in order, always try to keep lists of where things are, etc.
My punctuality is something I’ve been working to improve over time and I still struggle with sometimes, however if I say I’ll be somewhere, I don’t fail. I’m usually on time and never more than 15 minutes late unless there’s a big accident or something in which case I always call as soon as I know I’ll be late to let the other person know.
In this matter you’ll probably never achieve perfection but you can improve over time. And if you don’t work at being organized, punctual, and dependable, rest assured you’re competing with someone who does.
Learn to price your services
This is a hard one at the beginning and I still struggle with it occasionally. I could write a whole article about it (and maybe I will). The main problem in our industry is that budgets vary a lot from project to project. And by a lot I mean they can go from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred Millions of dollars.
Since I tend to be somewhat selective about the people I work with regularly I don’t run into much trouble with this. Most of my ‘regulars’ are also my friends and they always pay me a fair amount for my work. Sometimes I just go and do the work without even asking how much is in the budget for me, I know they have my back. If their budget for a particular job is too low and they can’t pay me what they usually pay or what they think is fair they’ll ask in advance of course. If i’m available i”ll often do it because like I said, they’re my friend and when they ask me to work for cheap or sometimes for free it’s usually a personal project of them and they’d help me if the situation was reversed. I know that as a fact because when I was doing Bionique I got tremendous help from friends and friends of friends who are now my friends.
In the case someone I haven’t worked with before approaches me I have a couple of ways to go. Except in rare occasions I don’t do freebies to new people anymore. I’ve had bad experiences where people takes advantage of it because it’s not costing them anything and just wanna use me that one time, I haven’t been asked for a freebie in a while though. What usually happens now is pretty standard business stuff with a little twist; they tell me what they need and I estimate how many days will it take me to do it. I have a set daily rate which I’ve been raising proportionally to my experience and speed. The twist, which is not that surprising in this industry, is that I use that rate as my starting point and I tend to go by intuition from there, if I sense someone will be more trouble than it’s worth my time or if it’s a bigger project that can pay better I’ll adjust my prices accordingly. Similarly, If they have a fixed amount they can pay me and is lower than my regular rate I’ll weigh my time, what other projects I have going on, etc and either take it or recommend someone else who can do a good job for them. It’s not a perfect process but the more you do it the better you get at it.
Make win/win deals
The main goal of a deal is to come to an agreement both parties benefit from. In my experience the more detached you’re from the result of a particular deal the better the deal goes, in other words, the less you feel you need a particular deal, the better your chances of getting it. If you don’t feel you have to close a particular deal you’ll be able to better assess the terms so they benefit both parties and make it a win/win deal. That little piece of advice has worked wonders for me, I can’t think of a deal I made in the last year where I felt they took advantage of me, similarly, the new people I’ve worked with have hired me more than once and recommended me to their producer, editor and director friends, which in turn has brought more new people.
Pick the right people to work with
Like I mentioned before, one of the advantages of being a freelancer is that you don’t have to work with certain people if they bring more trouble than it’s worth. By now, most of the people I work with end up being friends or at least are people I could hang out with. I rarely find myself working with someone I can’t stand (when I do, I don’t work with them again). But how do you know who to work with at the beginning?
The real answer is you don’t. However, one of the advice most business mentors mention is to follow your intuition or your ‘gut’. I go more deeply into how this works in the article The science of following your gut, but basically, your subconscious can process more information and access way more experiences than your conscious mind can, therefore make a more educated guess than your conscious mind does. When it feels something isn’t right it lets you know by that ‘gut’ feeling that you get.
Since your subconscious can only draw information from your previous experiences, the more experiences you have, the more accurate your subconscious will be which is yet another reason to follow the Fail your way up section. So take action, educate your gut and learn to trust it.
I know a several people who are afraid of jumping head on into their dreams because they got attached to their current job and fear leaving the steady income. I can understand where they’re coming from, being broke sucks, but in my experience doing something you don’t like just to pay your bills sucks even more!
Though it’s true most jobs in Hollywood don’t have a steady income it is possible to get a good income consistently, usually a better one than you’d get from a ‘steady’ job, it just takes a good commitment upfront.
Some people say, “When I get the money I’ll follow my dream” only to find themselves a few years later in the same job they found when they first came here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but I have a better idea: Why not get the money while doing what you want?