Starting Out in Film, Now What?

· Joanthan Poritsky

Graduation Cake Guy by CarbonNYC

This time of year, I get a handful of e-mails from recent college graduates asking for jobs and advice about getting started in the film business. I always love responding to all of them. As a blogger, obviously I love it when people listen to my opinions. Naturally, I tend to repeat myself a lot, so I started thinking , why not just pile all of that advice into a single post that I can reference when people have questions. This advice isn’t limited just to college grads or even the younger set. If you’re in the mood for a career change there might be some tidbits you can use in here. So clean out those ears and listen up, here is the candler’s guide to starting out in the film industry.

1. Decide Where You Want to Live

The first question I ask every college graduate is “Where do you want to live?”. Some say “Wherever I can get a job” and I immediately let them know that this is the wrong answer. Economic meltdown notwithstanding, the only people who get jobs that will facilitate moving a new hire to a different city are executives, maybe lawyers or people with M.B.A.s. So you have to pick where you’ll be first and then it will get much easier to start looking for work.

For the film industry, the two main centers are New York and Los Angeles, though this is by no means your only option. Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Shreveport, and Vancouver are just a few of the other cities in North America with established or burgeoning film communities. It is an industry that is doing extremely well given the economic climate, so we are actually seeing more work pop up in a variety of places, especially in cities and states that don’t have a strong fim business yet.

Once you pick the place you want to be, then you can come up with your plan of how to get there. This will require pounding the pavement and getting yourself a bit uncomfortable for a bit. All of us, and I really mean all of us, had to stay on a friends couch until we found a job or apartment. Wherever you end up, it will be a process to get yourself set up. Don’t worry, it gets better in time.

2. Choose a Skill and Perfect It

This may seem obvious, but a lot of film schools in the U.S. teach you the basics of many different fields instead of forcing you to master one. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great to have a wide swath of knowledge as you start out in the world. Unfortunately, no one is hiring a writer/director/shooter/editor just out of school. If you want to make your own movies, then you simply have to go ahead and make your own movies. If you want to find a job within the film industry you will have to hone your knowledge in on one specific aspect of the biz.

There are so many jobs to fill on any one movie that it can be daunting to try to pick one area of expertise. Consider your long-term and short-term goals. Most likely, the short term goal is to make enough money to live, preferably even more so you can support your personal films. The thing is, any job in the world can fulfill that goal. Your long term goals are what will help guide you into your early niche.

For example, someone who wants to be a cinematographer might try to find jobs on film sets in the camera department in hopes of beefing up their resumé, meeting established contacts, and getting some face time with high end camera gear. What steps do you need to take to get a job in the camera department? Maybe you read camera manuals, subscribe to trade magazines, begin putting a reel together, and so one. Now you have three short-term goals that you can accomplish to start perfecting your skill.

3. Spend Both Your Time and Money Wisely

Another very common thing that recent grads will do is buy that camera or computer that they think will get them on their way. It’s true, you need these tools to get work, but you have to consider the feasibility of investing that much of your own money into gear. This is just like any other business, you’ll need to make enough money back from that purchase for it to be worth it. The same goes for training programs or seminars. If it’s worth it, go for it, just do enough research to be informed.

Here’s an example concerning your time. Apple offers certification in Final Cut Pro. The courses offer a great deal of information covering the entire breadth of the application. The tradeoff is that the program will take up a great deal of your time and costs a hefty chunk of money. I know plenty of people who have not taken these courses and get tons of Final Cut work. The certification is absolutely worth it for some people, but it is not necessarily required for everyone. No degree, course, computer or camera is going to guaruntee you work. It will always come down to your skill and tenacity.

4. Continuously Update Your Resume

This really only applies to freelancers, but in the film world you may find yourself freelancing a great deal at the beginning. There are many resources for writing a successful resumé in general, however there is some nuance for someone seeking film work. We can use mine as an example. (Click that graphic to the right. It hasn’t been updated in awhile…I’m not following my own rules!)

Most of it is familiar to any resumé: work, education, references. The one tweak is that I’ve divided my experience into “Film and Video Production Experience” and “Work Experience”. The difference is that one header is reserved for freelance work while the other holds my full-time work. It’s important to have both represented as they complement each other nicely. People hiring freelancers like to know that this is a person who can hold it together in a sustained environment while full-time employers are impressed that you can bounce from gig to gig easily.

Also, roll your freelancing work. When I first started out, everything under the first experience header was student work I did in college. As I got more pro experience, I would fill the new work to the top and roll the old stuff to the bottom. You may need to do this quite often depending on how much work you get. Hopefully you’ll have to change it often!

The other rule of thumb is to never underestimate your worth on any given job. The topmost freelance gig on my resumé is Assistant Editor for NASCAR in Primetime Opening Sequence, ABC Sports. Sounds semi-impressive, at the very least legit, right? In real life, it entailed about 3 days of work loading tapes for a 30 second sequence, yet it still takes up a full line, roughly 1/12 of the page. The point is that you need to focus in on the real work experience that you have, even if it doesn’t seem all that exciting when you’re doing it.

5. Keep Your Feet on the Ground and Have Some Fun

There is no question, the movie business is a very fun business to be in. You may find yourself working in exotic locations with celebrities and sometimes personal heroes. It is important to remember that it is very easy to get caught up in all the fun of it sometimes. People will tell you all kinds of stories. “I made my first film by maxing out all of my credit cards” is a classic legend that goes around. Yeah, that’s one way to get your work done, but there are always cheaper and better paths for you to choose.

Moreso than that, since there is that mystique surrounding moviemaking, many people are drawn into it and taken advantage of at the beginning. Do not fall into that trap. You have worked hard to attain the knowledge you have and you are skilled enough that it’s worth paying for. Many people get attached to films for very little or no money just for the fun of it, but you still have to pay rent and stuff.

That being said, a little bit of pro bono work in exchange for contacts and experience can go a long way. You simply have to figure out how it fits into your life. If you can swing a few weeks of no pay to learn something that will really help you out with your long term goals, then it is absolutely worth it. You just don’t want to find yourself hurting because you wanted to be on the same set as a D-list horror actor, you geek.

Alright, that was a whole lot of information thrown at you at once. The truth, obviously, is that there is no one right anwer. The film and video industry is incredibly fun and diverse. Have fun with it. It can take you to exoctic places and there is a great deal of room for growth. You can live the dream: start on the bottom and make your way to the top. You can also start on the bottom and work your way up to a nice living. Maybe start at the top and then even out somewhere in the middle.

These are just some tips to help you along the way. I’ve learned this all just from experience over the years and I am still learning more every day. Please add any helpful tips, or criticisms of my writing if you prefer, in the comments. The candler is a place for filmmakers and film lovers to come together and undertand our business, our medium, and our passions better. Best of luck to all of you. Now quit reading this and go out and make some movie magic.