So, you wanna be in pictures, kid? Well, it’s a long road to the top. And that’s exactly what this column is going to be about—the ins and outs of production freelancing in the scripted TV and film industry, as well as a little sprinkle of the theater industry and some coverage of acting. For now, I will be your gal on the streets if you will, showing you the production world through my eyes.
To start with, how do you know if working in production is right for you? Well, there’s a couple of things you should know before you start. If any of these sound like something that you just can’t live with, you should probably explore other career options.
First, there will be a lot of physical labor involved. You will be getting your hands dirty, both metaphorically and literally. There are tremendous amounts of fetching and carrying involved and a lot of the equipment on TV and film sets is ridiculously heavy. If you’re not that strong, don’t worry, you’ll get stronger. But if the idea of manual labor isn’t up your alley, perhaps consider a career in post-production, working with computers and mixing boards instead.
Secondly, the hours will suck. Your call time can literally be any time, any day or night of the week. Chances are you will not have regular vacations, you won’t have weekends off, and you’ll probably work the graveyard shift more times than you’d feel comfortable admitting to your parents. The hours are also long, you might be called to work for 24 hours straight if it’s crunch time, and more than long, they’re highly varied and unpredictable. You might work from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. one day and have to be in at 3 a.m. the next. So, if you’re more of a 9-to-5 type of person, I would recommend working in movie marketing or accounting instead.
Thirdly, you won’t have a guaranteed income. Probably ever. Production staff are generally not hired by companies on a full time basis, instead, you work freelance and move around to different projects. While there are alot of pros to this—if you hate your coworkers, you’ll be done with them in three months—there are also cons, such as constantly worrying: “Oh my god, what am I working on after this is done?” Once you make enough connections and have enough experience in the industry you should be able to find pretty much steady work, because the flip side of freelancing is that everyone is always hiring as well. But, if you prefer to know exactly where your next paycheck is coming from 365 days out of the year, I suggest working at a talent agency instead, to still be involved in filmmaking.
Unless you are severely lucky, you will also spend a decent portion of your career doing unpaid work, and I don’t mean just internships. That’s how you start out to gain experience and make connections and, yes, it is extremely unfair. But at the current state in time, it’s also a necessary evil. Once you get experience working on indie movies and thesis films and your best friend’s neighbor’s cousin’s webseries, you’ll have a resume that you can actually send in to big budget films and TV shows that won’t immediately be tossed in the trash.
Location is also a major factor. While you can start working in video production from anywhere, chances are you will need to move to one of the major production hubs later in your life if you are serious about working on major motion pictures and TV shows. The top five film production areas are Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta, Louisiana and Boston. There are other areas that have major film circles such as the Carolinas, Florida, Toronto, Philadelphia, some parts of Texas and Vancouver, but in order to get a real foothold in this industry, you’ll need to be centrally located. If you really don’t want to move from say, Idaho, there are still plenty of digital media and video opportunities in every state, but unfortunately, big budget Hollywood films don’t film just anywhere.
Lastly, it’s tough. It’s just a tough business to be in. You will get trodden on, you’ll be the bottom rung of the ladder, you’ll have to get people coffee and make it for them, you’ll be the one going on odd errands to the pharmacy to pick up socks and 15-dozen chocolate bars and 12 bags of chips and get strange looks from the cashiers, you’ll be a sounding board for disgruntled lighting and sound techs, and you’ll probably be screamed at for something that is in no way your fault at least once in your career.
It requires a lot of effort, a lot of guts, a lot of spark and a lot of determination. It is not for the faint of heart or the lazy, it’s for people who are courageous and plucky and perhaps stupid enough to think and dream that they can make it and that they themselves can make it—and make a difference.