The entertainment biz is booming, but the spotlight isn’t just for actors and directors. Those things need people to operate them. Films need large crews of technically inclined people to make the magic happen — people with varied trade backgrounds, from electricians to carpenters to tailors.
If you’ve ever wanted a chance to explore your creativity and push the limits of your trade, film could be a fantastic career step.
Just be prepared for a bit of a slog.
Getting a job in film isn’t like other industries. It’s not about submitting resumes and waiting for the offers to roll in. Contracts are temporary and competition is heavy, so you’ll need to get good at networking. Fast.
Be Prepared to Volunteer
Once you’re in, the pay is excellent. But it takes some time to get there.
Listen, I know it’s not right.
No one really has the time or inclination to work for free. But, especially if you don’t have experience or education in film (and even if you do), this might be your only way in.
Volunteering to pick up vital skills on film and television sets as you go can be just as good as going back to school.
Cold resumes and applications see a very, very low success rate in technical film. Crew heads and production managers prefer to work through referral, because they have very limited time and like to know that the person they hire for the contract not only has the skills to benefit the crew, but the demeanor to work long hours.
They like to know that someone is going to be just as good to work with on hour 60, or 70, or more, of the week’s shoot as they were on hour two. Oh, yeah, did we mention film crews work absurd hours?
The blog has talked before about the importance and effectiveness of internships for success in the entertainment industry. Getting your name and face recognized as a “good worker” is the absolute best way in, so if you can get onto a set, even if you’re not being paid — do it.
That’s your job application right there.
When You’re There, Network by Working
Networking is absolutely vital.
You need to get on the personal contact lists of the people who do the hiring. On sets, emergencies happen. People get injured or sick, or a crew comes up shorthanded as projects change.
In those times, no one goes looking through stacks of resumes.
They consult a quick list that they all keep, whether it’s in the back of their minds, a notebook, or an email. If you get on one of those lists, you’re placed in a position to save someone a lot of trouble.
So the first step to good networking is to never refuse a last-minute call unless you absolutely, 100 percent cannot do it. If you take a contract that way, and prove to be even marginally competent, you might as well have a halo.
That’s as close to guaranteeing more, better paid work as you can get.
Networking on set means something a little different than networking in other circumstances. Making contacts and developing relationships is a vital part of the process, but on a set you do that by working hard and keeping your head down.
Don’t try and schmooze the director, but do take on an extra task if it comes up. By all means laugh and joke with your fellow crew, get introduced and talk about yourself, but don’t take up too much time chatting, and never, ever complain, especially about the long hours.
(That isn’t to say you shouldn’t bring up important safety and legal concerns if they come up. Do that.)
Don’t Forget the Resume
Cold resumes don’t get you very far, but you still need a good one.
Spend some time sprucing up your resume and make it film specific. Once you’ve started to develop relationships with industry pros, then the resume becomes important. Because you’d better believe they talk to each other and share info about good workers.
Join Your Local Union or Film Commission
As odd as it is, the guilds and unions of the entertainment industry work a little differently. Most people are used to thinking about unions after getting a job. For film crews, joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is often a primary source of work, as many employers contract through them.
State film commissions also offer resources to filmmakers and workers, and often have job listings, so getting in touch with your local chapter is a good idea.
You’re a Freelancer, Harry!
Although permanent, full-time positions are available, the vast majority of crew members start out as freelancers. This changes your financial outlook considerably from the traditional job.
Freelancers have a number of additional financial concerns, and the tax complications that arise when working for many different companies in a year can be a nightmare. So you’ll want to get tax savvy, and start thinking of yourself as your own business.
You’ll also want to be extra careful about health insurance.
Even with the ACA in a precarious position, if you don’t keep up to date with your health insurance you could face a tax penalty. Learning to avoid some of the more difficult financial pitfalls will be key to your success, especially as you navigate the choppy waters of the first few years of your film career.
Working on a film crew is long hours, hard work, and it can take a long time to “break in.” But, if you’re dedicated to the craft of filmmaking you can find yourself in a valuable, fruitful career.