One of the hardest parts of working in the entertainment industry is the constant job uncertainty. Not always having a steady paycheck and not knowing where and when your next job might start can create significant stress and cause the faint of heart to swear off freelancing forever. However, constant change can also be a great asset. New co-workers, new challenges, and a change of scenery prevent you from getting bored, restless, and unproductive. For those of you who don’t have an agent and a phone that’s ringing off the hook with job offers, here are a few tips I’ve found to be useful in my burgeoning career as a freelancer.
1. Use every job-hunting resource available to you.
90% of the jobs you will ever get in this industry will be through word of mouth. As you start out, informally contact family friends or acquaintances who have worked in the industry. Alumni networks can also prove useful. When you contact someone (I find e-mail to be less intrusive than telephone), don’t ask if they can get you a job. Instead, ask them for advice and see if you can meet up for coffee. Follow up with them every few weeks or months so they don’t forget about you. If you make a good impression, your name might just pop into their head when someone asks if they know anyone available for hire.
There are also numerous web sites with entertainment industry job postings, a few of which I have linked to on the “Resources” page of this blog. I tend to find the jobs advertised on these sites to be either pretty demanding in terms of prior experience, lacking in fair compensation, or overcrowded with applicants. But it never hurts to apply.
2. Learn how to market yourself.
Develop a one-page resume that conveys your experience and strengths in an organized, visually attractive manner. Include your contact information (address, phone number, e-mail), as well as work experience, education, and pertinent skills. As your work experience increases and starts to be able to speak for itself, you can pare down the rest of the info to its most basic points in order to keep everything on one page. When you send your resume to interested parties, include a brief statement about your best qualities that your resume might not convey. For example, “What I lack in work experience, I make up for in enthusiasm and a tireless work ethic” or “My extensive experience in college with Final Cut Pro will allow me to do more than a typical post P.A.” People who are genuinely interested in learning more about their craft and aren’t simply looking to collect a paycheck are much more attractive candidates.
3. Try to limit yourself to jobs that increase your skill set, improve your contacts list, and look good on your resume.
We all have bills to pay, and money is the reason we work in the first place, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in what jobs to accept. As difficult as it can be to swallow your pride and kiss that new flat-screen TV goodbye, sometimes taking a job on a pilot or lesser-known show for limited pay will serve you better in the long run. As long as you’ll be making enough to live on (or have a substantial enough savings account), try to give preference to jobs that somehow get you closer to where you want to be. The relationships you forge and the skills you acquire on a challenging gig where you have a great deal of responsibility will serve you much better and longer than the few hundred extra bucks you might have made on an easy job where you’re a tiny fish in a big sea. I recently turned down a lucrative gig for a job that paid a lot less but treated me well and made me some invaluable contacts that will pay off for years to come. While it was hard to pull the trigger at the time, I’m incredibly glad with how everything worked out in the long run.
4. Never assume.
I saw these two words posted on a sticky note on a co-worker’s desk a few years ago, and it is especially pertinent for freelancers. Never assume that you have a job in hand until you actually show up and fill out the paperwork. That means don’t turn anything else down in the meantime – wait as long as possible before declining and see if the circumstances change on either gig. If one of the show’s schedule shifts, you might be able to head directly from one gig into the next.
Also, never assume that you’ll be employed for the quoted duration of the show; if a sudden budget crunch occurs, you might find yourself jobless again. As a freelancer, you are not owed the same courtesies as staff employees when it comes to notice of termination, severance pay, etc. If there’s one thing I’ve learned quickly in this business, it’s that things change in an instant (especially when it comes to time and money), and it’s best to be prepared for the worst.
5. Manage your finances.
It can be difficult to manage your living expenses when you’re dealing with months of steady paychecks, followed by weeks of no income whatsoever. Use a financial computer program or devise your own spreadsheet that tracks your monthly expenses and shows you how much cash you will have to live on based on how much you are earning at the time. Only spend money you already have. Build up your savings account whenever possible. Continually ask yourself, “If I were unemployed starting tomorrow, would I be OK?” Learn your state’s process of claiming unemployment benefits (there are often strict rules to abide by), as you will surely have to utilize it at multiple points in your career.
6. Make a good impression.
The best way to keep getting job offers is to make a good impression on everyone you work with. Do everything you’re asked with enthusiasm and without complaint. Be conscientious. Go out of your way to do a little bit extra and set yourself apart from your peers. If you show you’re able to step up to a challenge and are passionate about learning and moving up, you will be rewarded with a solid recommendation for future jobs, which is especially important when word of mouth is your primary source for landing jobs.
One of the trickiest situations you will find yourself in is already being committed to a project when a more attractive job offer presents itself. In certain situations, you can delicately excuse yourself from your duties, but because of the short-term nature of your employment as a freelancer, you will be expected to see each job through until completion. Keep in mind that if you continually jump ship whenever a new job crops up, your reputation as an irresponsible job-hopper will follow you from gig to gig.
7. Never be satisfied.
Good editors constantly question what they can do to make their product better; what lines of dialogue can be removed? Which scenes would serve a better purpose in a different place? Which character needs more development? Similarly, to be a successful freelancer you have to constantly question the direction of your career as well as evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Who can you meet that might be a useful contact in the future? What areas of your skill set do you need to improve upon to start moving up? Are the jobs you’re accepting taking you in a direction you will be happy with down the road? Does it make sense for you to get into the union, and what does it require? If you are your own worst critic and constantly ask yourself what you can do better, you will ultimately make yourself a more attractive job applicant and live a happier life, even if it means having to work hard to get there.