Making it freelancing



I happen to live in a relatively small city, as they go, and trying to make it freelance is a lot of work. What shocks me, though, as someone who has been fairly successful, is the number of students graduating with degrees in film or video who have absolutely no plan for how to go about making a living after they get out.  Here’s what worked for me:


1: School.  I don’t think for a moment that a person needs to do school to get started, but it gives guidance that is otherwise missing.  If you know someone in your industry who does something related to what you want to do, you can pick up a ton of books, learn everything they’ve got for you, and spend your time with people who are making a living, learning how it’s done – and making connections along the way.  Which brings me to the next point:


2: Networking.  Too many people who I talk with have worked with other students on films, or were even pulled in by someone on a somewhat larger production when they needed a PA… but beyond that, they don’t know anyone, and they don’t even know what companies around are doing the work that they wish they were doing.  How can a person expect to get work if you don’t know who does it, and they don’t know you?  In 6+ months of freelancing, I haven’t made a single phone call to ask for work, and have given other people work, simply because I networked, worked hard on freebies to get myself established, and showed enough people that I do great work at a price they can afford that they’ve called me or given my name to others who have.  What groups in the area are there for your industry? In Madison / Milwaukee, MCAI is a wonderful group of… everyone who is doing exactly what you wish you were doing.  And getting paid well for it, and looking for help to do more work.  The price of entry? Occasionally as high as $15 to get in. $15 to spend the evening with people who may hire you? That’s a no-brainer.


3:  Freebies.  It’s not enough to get to know the people around, but you have to work with them as well, and it can be hard to give people a shot on paid gigs.  Freebies, though, give you a chance to get involved and show that you’ve got what it takes to make it.  It can be hard to be given the chance on these, even, it happens, if you have done enough networking and know who needs a hand.  Impress people on freebies and they’ll call you back later.  How do I know? Almost every gig I’ve worked on in the last 3 months came directly from someone who I worked on a free project with, and I’ve recommended others who I worked on free projects for other paid gigs.  It works.


4. Specialize, and let people know your specialty.  If you’re a “shooter editor AC grip colorist producer writer or just give me a chance I’ll do anything” person… I’m much, much less likely to bring you on board than the person who says they’re a shooter.  Or an editor.  Especially with a freebie, the “go-to shooter” will take A camera, but maybe we’ll let a new guy take B camera. Or maybe we’ll let the new guy have first stab at the edit, then have our go-to editor run cleanup.  If you do everything and specialize in nothing, you’re not going to get the gig, simply because you’re splitting your time between 16 skills and won’t have the time to fully develop any of them.


5. Work for a production company.  I can’t stress this enough.  How do you know that your work and pricing is competitive when you’re starting out? How do you know what types of businesses are after video work? How do you get used to working under pressure? How do you learn what a workflow is supposed to look like, and how to properly deliver your end products? What forms and legal issues arise? How long should it take to edit that video? What gear are professionals using?  All of those get answered if you work hard and ask questions… but they’re really not explained in school, and it takes time and mistakes to learn them on your own – if you learn them.  The single most important thing that I did, before starting to freelance, was to work for a production company. It’s amazing how many times, given the choice between 6 or 8 people vying for the open spot on a crew, I was picked because I could say that I worked for a production company.  Also, there’s nothing like someone who really knows what they’re doing taking you under their wing….


6.  Have a plan. How do you expect to make any money? Pay taxes? Find work? Survive for 4 months before that client pays you (if they do)? Who exactly is going to hire you, and what’s your rate? What gear do you have, and what do you need to work at the level that you’re expecting to get paid? What happens if you go 2 months without landing a gig?  If you don’t have answers in hand for all of those, you’re not ready to freelance.


7. Keep on learning.  And that means more than just reading headlines and marketing hype.  Meet people, stay up on what’s happening in the industry, read as many blogs as you can. Follow professionals on twitter or other networks and engage in conversation with them. Post on forums. Ask questions, give answers.  Help others learn, and give back to them as much as you can. If you’re known for giving back, it can’t be because you don’t know what you’re talking about.


8. Do good work.  Do better than good work. Do amazing work, every time, and show it off.  Put it online, on your website, on your social networks, make sure that people know that you’re doing great stuff. We have short memories – especially when we’re busy, and the people who we regularly see doing good work are the ones we turn to. Make that be you.


9. Do your paperwork.  Did you do your taxes? Did you send an invoice right away? If not, you’re just wasting time that you’re not going to get paid.  Did you have the client sign a contract and get half up front? How about that insurance paperwork, and those bills you need to pay? If you can’t do your paperwork on time, you’re doing nothing but hurting yourself.


Anything I’m missing? Other tips or advice? Stories about when you were getting started? Let me know.  I’d continue, but hey – there’s always another edit to be working on, and never enough time for all of it. Just the way I like it, since that’s how I pay the bills.

About Randy Lee
Shooter. Editor. Colorist. Filmmaker. Coffee Addict. Workaholic.
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