How to Get a Job, That First Job, in the Film / Video Industry
This is actually one of the most important questions that any recent film / video graduate is probably asking right now. With the Spring graduating class getting ready to flood the market with their carefully enhanced resumes and finely tuned demo reels, looking for just the right job opportunity, it is a question on the minds of not only recent graduates but also those looking for for their next job in a difficult and challenging job market.
The reality is, anyone graduating or entering this fickle, cyclical market should have done their homework long ago. For some reason, people wanting to enter the “glamorous” field of film directing / producing, photography, editing, and general Digital Media production have done little homework to see what opportunities are available once they do graduate and typically have no idea how much they should expect to be paid if they do land a job.
Based on e-mails and phone calls I have received throughout the years from prospective employees, little has been done to research and prepare for work in the field the eventual graduates hope be employed in. If they had done their homework, even before taking classes in video/film production, they would have found that the market is fickle, and the path they have taken is not paved with gold, but rather broken dreams and misinformation about their career paths. I cannot emphasis enough the importance of researching the job market before spending what can be enormous amounts of time and money to pursue a dream job that just does not exist or understanding how to get a job once you have graduated with a degree that actually means little to future employers.
Call a prospective employer and ask for a one-on-one interview. Tell them you heard / read that they were the best, most innovative, cutting edge, wisest, longest lasting person / company and that you just want to pick their brain for 15 minutes. To learn about the changes in the industry. To perhaps shadow them, or their workers for an afternoon or the day. For free, of course. They were once in your shoes and many times will be willing to share their experience, tell their story to the next up and coming employee. Many of us in the business are now in the position to help train the next generation and mentor those interested in helping our companies in the near future. If they say they cannot do an interview / are not hiring at this time, don’t just say thanks and hang up. Ask if they know anyone else they know who might have the time or opening. Use the opportunity to make a contact and see if they are willing to have you call later to see if things have changed in the company.
Don't be a nuisance, but be persistent.
I am very direct when I talk to those folks who call looking for a job. I ask them what have you done that can help me. Do you even know what it is that we do? What do you want to be when you grow up? No, I mean it. What is it you want to do? Direct? I’m the director. Why should I hire you to direct? Photographer? What have you done? Show me. Have you done an internship? Where? What did you learn? What makes you think I should hire you? Oh, you have a “passion” for photography...I don’t hire passion. I hire experience. Based on a very strong demo reel and willingness to work hard….and show up on time!
I have seen resumes, sometimes three, four, even five pages long touting what seems like a lifetime of experiences, all earned in just a few years. Every experience is listed complete with the title of the film / tv program, who directed it, where it was shot, who edited it and who did audio, narration, graphics, year it was produced and on and on. As if more was better. It is not.
And the jobseeker can do it all. They have an expertise in shooting and writing, and producing and directing and lighting and editing. In fact, they list themselves as “Director of Photography”, so they must be good! I once hired a PA, Production Assistant, to work a BTS (Behind the Scenes) on a Christmas film we were hired to shoot for a national client. On his resume, he listed he was a Director of Photography amongst other talents. I initially thought our lowly PA job must be way beneath his capabilities. I asked him to take a couple of C-47’s and clip some Opal to the barn doors of that Mole tweenie on the C-stand. He looked at me, confused, holding up a couple different clamps and knuckles on the production cart and shrugged his shoulders and said he had never heard of a C-47 and didn’t know what Opal was and what exactly was this “C-stand” I was talking about. I showed him of what I spoke and told him to never mention to any of the production members on the film crew that he was also a DP himself. That is something that is earned after many, many years of working in the industry, not a title you get with a college degree. I’ve not used him again.
So, again, what do you want to be when you grow up is a relevant question when reviewing a resume like that. And apparently, no one had asked this prospective employee that question before.
Demo reels. A well produced Demo reel can make or break you. And you have 42 seconds to show me and anyone else that you are capable of doing the job we might have. No, make that 31 seconds. You need to get them into the tent with your very best images, or words or composition or lighting-and keep them entertained, astonished, amused, engaged. Perhaps tell a very quick story, and get out, leaving them wanting more. My early background was in documentaries, news and news magazine shows. In the early days when prospective employees would send their demo reels on a VHS tape, they could find how much of the tape the employer actually watched by retrieving the tape and put it into their home player to see how much the viewer actually watched. It was frequently less than :30 seconds. And the response was typically,”They didn’t even get to the best stuff!!” Your best stuff had better be the first thing they see.
So, how to find that first job in the industry? Figure out where you are willing to start. If you had taken an internship, a meaningful internship, then ask those you worked with if they have any openings for a person of your qualifications. I say meaningful internship because I once spoke with a recent grad who had done an internship with a local sports program and they had some video gear laying around and wanted the intern to film the games. On a wide shot preferably. Practices as well. And whatever he got was just fine with them because it was better than nothing. So his resume and demo reel reflected that limited experience he received. And he ended up vividly describing what was actually going on but we couldn't see, whilst viewing his demo reel. I watched for a minute or two to be polite and said I had seen enough.
The best, almost guaranteed way to get a job is to have a relative, parent, or good friend who happens to own a production company. It’s how my son and many friends kids ended up getting into the industry. Not me. I used persistence. Which is the next best way to get a job. Once you have identified a position you want, are somewhat qualified for and think you would like, be persistent. Not annoying, but persistent. I’ve heard this over and over again from fellow workers in the industry.
I have frequently told prospective employees and interns that I might not have anything available today as we tend to hire qualified freelancers, but to call me on Monday and I would have a better idea how my week is shaping up. Call me. I’m the president of our company and I’m telling you to call me on Monday. I’ve had 2 or 3 people call in the last ten years. I would have been all over that when I started. Persistence.
Research potential employers on the internets. Pleeze! Don’t call up and ask what it is that we do and do we have a job opening. Do some research to see if the production company or employer is even still in business. Most production companies go out of business within the first three years. Like a large majority. And of those that survive the first three years, many more do not last for five years. We started in 1989 and did not know of those statistics and plugged along in an ever changing job market and made it.
You can also find alumni from your college / university who have made it in the business / production world and reach out to see what it is they are doing and would they have an opportunity for a fellow grad like yourself. They are much more likely to talk to you about it than any cold call they have received. I once had someone from my college, Washington State University, call to hit me up for a donation. I was polite, asked what changes had happened and how the teams were doing. He asked what it was that White Rabbit Productions did. I told him we were a TV production company and he said that is exactly what he wanted to do and he was actually from my home town and actually had my school teacher dad for one of his classes and what would it take to spent some time with us during Spring break. We had him for Spring break and then Winter break where he helped us learn our new Avid system and he ended up getting his first job in the industry based on our relationship. He has since invented some innovative software that he sold to Adobe and is continuing to do well in the industry. All because he was a fellow WSU Cougar.
The reality is that most college graduates with degrees in film / video and / or digital media are not going to get the jobs in the industry they want. Or even related to their degree. It’s not something schools publish, but it is the stark truth. So if you are still in school, concentrate on that demo reel and making contacts and being persistent in visiting workplaces and networking with associations and working on as many productions as possible. It can be a fun, rewarding and profitable career if you are prepared for it.
Next Blog, “What does it pay?”