How to Earn a Living as a Filmmaker
Every new filmmaker dreams of making a decent earning from their craft, I was no exception. I started out in the industry back in 2012 as a self-employed 16 year old with a head full of ambition and a bag full of your standard indie DSLR gear, I’d started my own business and started attending every business meeting within a 20 mile radius I could in order to get work. Over the past four years I’ve built up my name as a business and as a creative professional.
I’ve crossed the boundary from looking for work to work looking for me, I have weekly enquiries and can command (within reason) whatever price I feel suitable for a job. Every month I have filmmakers who are just getting started email me asking for work experience, all of which I turn down officially but meet and invite onto certain projects to aid me and to help them with experience of the field. Whilst working with them, I always get asked a similar question: “How do I earn money whilst being a filmmaking?” and I always answer the same way: “Go and get a part time job.”
I can feel you flicking over to the next page, so please stay with me for just a paragraph or two more.. I have an interesting point to prove, I promise!
For the first two years of filmmaking as a career, all of my time went into running my business. FilmGrade (the name of my business) was my sole employer, and I gave her every day of the week in order to earn enough to be able to upgrade to the ‘next best camera’. I was constantly chasing after work, no matter how boring or lowly paid. Event coverage, promotional videos, music videos, corporate training, I did it all. I started to spend more time attending meetings discussing how to make films than actually making those films. Most of those meetings took place in Costa, so the amount of coffee I was consuming within the space of a day was possibly getting to a dangerous level too…
I stopped creating purely for the sake of enjoying creating things and because I was taking on so much work, it was inevitable that eventually I had a ‘bad client’ or two. In 2013 I spent the best parts of four months purely sending emails and making calls to try and sort out legal disputes over clients not making payment, all of which could of been avoided as I had slightly suspected bad business from the start of that project, but I hadn’t had any other projects for a while before so had jumped upon them. Somewhere around 2014 I stopped being a filmmaker and became a businessman instead, it was upon that realisation that I knew something had to change.
I went out and got a part time job at the local Apple Store. I didn’t necessarily need the extra income, I was still living at home and life was fairly comfortable. My colleagues there made up for it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the job. That said, it was the best decision i’d made in a long time, not because of the money, but because of the mindset it gave me.
Working there enabled me to become a filmmaker once more. I started making the films that I wanted to make again, I took on jobs as and when I felt like it, I got involved with other filmmakers in my area and started making cool stuff, all whilst earning enough to make progress as a human in this day and age (getting a car, looking at getting a house, all of that gross stuff you have to do whilst growing up). Sure, it wasn’t much fun when other filmmakers came into the store and looked down on me for having a part time job. At times I even felt like I might have failed as a filmmaker, but then I saw the stress encroaching on the corner’s of their eyes. I saw how tired they looked. I knew I was in the right place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting those other filmmakers down. For them, they might have felt like they were in the right place too and that’s what they loved and wanted, but I knew for some that wasn’t the case. I could see their creative flare slowly being smothered, their work started getting sloppy, they stopped learning. That’s the core of it really. Before I signed up at Apple, I’d noticed that I’d stopped learning. I didn’t care about the latest gear or techniques, I wasn’t watching movies whilst trying to work out how they did this and that, I wasn’t excited about filmmaking. It’s that that my part time job gave me back, it was the excitement to go out and shoot crazy awesome things.
Whilst working part time over the past year, I can say without a doubt I’ve been making the best work of my life so far. I took part in a couple of 48 hour film festivals, I’ve done quite a bit of exciting corporate work that i’m proud of, and I’ve almost finished editing my second feature length documentary that already has hype being built around it. Before working part time, my work if anything was going downhill and become boring and less-than-ordinary. Instead of working at the Apple store, I’m now helping out at my parent’s bike shop (cycling is also another key interest of mine) whilst contemplating on when the right time is to make the move to London as I’ve been approached by a few individuals to work on some extremely exciting projects. What I once thought of as taking a step backwards has paid of and is now accelerating me towards what I consider as the ‘next chapter’ in my career as a filmmaker. It’s cool stuff. I’m excited.
So, lets try and summarise this rant that I’ve gone off on.. Those of you who are starting out, I’d encourage you with everything I have to go and find part time work. Find your income from elsewhere as you start out, you can then pour all of that money back into your filmmaking. Keep getting excited about projects, keep making the films that you want to make. If shooting projects for other people excites you, take on the occasional job if you want, but don’t keep working for others without first chasing your dreams too. If you keep making great work, you will get noticed. Bigger and better things will come if you work hard at making the things you consider important.
To those of you already in the field, I know this won’t apply to everyone who reads it. Some of you are doing just fine as a freelancer, some of you will be in jobs within agencies or networks who are loving it, some of you are probably even being paid to do exactly what you want and are being funded to make crazy awesome things.. Even so, I think it’s a good thing to check in every now and again and ask yourself the question – Is what I’m doing exciting me?
If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to shake things up a little bit.