Selling Out and Other Lies #1
The Journey from Freelance to Full Time as a Creative Professional
I sold out.
After almost 4 years of freelancing film work full time, I got a "real job". Not at a production company, not for some small studio, and not on a movie or television set. I got a job in an office where I have to wear at least a polo, I clock out for lunch, and I can't watch a documentary in a sidebar while I do motion graphics. I gotta admit, that first time I loaded up Ancient Aliens Debunked to work to, I felt like I had cheated the system.
Right out of college, I got something that felt like a dream: my internship at a small studio had transformed into a semi-consistent position, where I would put my degree in Film and Digital Media to work! Well, almost a degree. I spent too much time on my senior projects, and one of the final gen-ed classes I had fell to the wayside, leaving me 3 credits short of that fancy piece of paper my parents wanted me to have SO badly. But hey, what did that matter? I was working on a project that would show on ACTUAL TV, where people would see it! My girlfriend, now fiance, would show me around at work parties, and I swear I still remember the high of those conversations.
"Hello Coworker, I wanted to introduce you to my boyfriend!"
"Hey, nice to meet you! What line of work are you in?"
"I work in Studio City, I do visual effects and motion graphics for film and TV."
"[Stunned grin forms on their face] WOW really?! Thats crazy!"
"Yeah, I'm pretty lucky for sure!"
Did I feel lucky? Of course, walking into a Newport Beach party and having the most interesting job in the room, a job that I loved, it felt fantastic. Lots of my friends had great jobs, but interesting jobs? I won hands down.
Even though I was only working sporadically 2 or 3 days a week, commuting 3+ hours those days, lived in a rough situation far from my friends, and was intensely lonely most days, having this trump card felt like it made it worth it for me. But, it didn't last. Work in Hollywood is dependent on making connections and diversifying your portfolio of employers, and living so far away, making new friends was never something I focused on. With so much free time, I launched a wedding film company specializing in 360 video, but I had misjudged the market, and it quickly failed. I felt stuck, having lost the job I had placed a large amount of my identity in. Looking back, I wasted so much time. I watched all the seasons of Entourage (which for the record, when compared to the flank steak succulence of Breaking Bad or Band of Brothers, is the equivalent of visual crack cocaine) in a week. I have 1,341 hours logged in Rocket League, a game I stopped playing a year ago. I lived on microwavables and granola bars. When I forget what my day entailed, it is because I did nothing worthwhile. Let's just say.
My girlfriend recommended me for a job at her work, just a bit of freelancing filming events, but it offered some stability. Later, I took a part time job there as an event tech, and found my footing. For the next two years, I freelanced, doing many worthwhile and fulfilling projects. I made huge paydays, worked with a few notable actors, and I honestly felt like I had made it.
My bank account, however, did not.
I made a minimum wage equivalent my first year of hardcore freelance, which all things considered, didn't sound like a bad place to start. Second year, I felt far more confident, and things started to work out for me. I even cut my hours as an event tech down, and then completely out of my career. I made cold calls and emails to businesses, I traveled to direct projects around the US, I even went to the Sundance Film Festival this year, ON A JOB, paid to film the stars and directors of this years incredible films. How much did I make?
Minimum wage equivalent.
What did I do wrong?
I believe I have narrowed it down to a couple of factors. It kinda hurts to admit a few of these, but I know they are to the best of my knowledge, the truth.
1. I have a Massive Amount of Trouble Self-Motivating
I have many ideas, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a short attention span. It is a genuine struggle for me to start projects. Remember that habit of watching a doc in the sidebar while doing work? That works great when you are sitting in a studio in Hollywood with deadlines to meet. When I'm working from home, that turns into:
"Alright, 8 PM, plenty of time to finish this project. Hey, Stargate would be fun to watch! I'll just throw that up, and... its 2 AM and none of my work is done..."
I was in denial that this was a problem for years. It was something I was "working on" or "dealing with" when it was in fact losing me jobs. My word meant next to nothing when I said "Yes, I can complete that by this deadline" and would make excuses as to why it wasn't my fault.
This also bites me in seeking out work. If I had work, I felt secure, and thus no drive to find more work. When I try to find work, I run into my next issue, which is...
2. I Am a Bad Salesman
I started learning visual effects in high school, when I realized I didn't want to be in other peoples stories; I wanted to direct. A couple of freddiew and Andrew Kramer vids later, and I could make the most basic of effects, a muzzle flash. A couple more, an explosion, a couple more, a POV drone strike. With After Effects, each tutorial gives you a couple more pieces, and all of those pieces can be used and mixed and rearranged to create what you want. I accidentally acquired the most useful skills of my career while trying to make a terrible action comedy with my friends.
I have an effective 9 years of visual effects and motion graphics experience, including some impressive-sounding credits and subjectively solid original work. What I do not have is a firm grasp on how to market myself or my work. This is where my bank account suffers; I struggle to sell myself. I can understand what I offer and why it is valuable to businesses, but either I was targeting the wrong business, the wrong market, or the wrong service. There is a lot I could have been doing it completely wrong. Selling myself is certainly a skill I can learn, but it takes time, and most of that I spend on bettering my filmmaking skills.
This one night, my fiance and I were meeting up to do a wedding registry at one of those stores that rich people send their decorators to with a black credit card. I gotta tell ya, $60 silverware sets are not something I ever felt like I could afford. After looking around, and my fiance having a bit of a breakdown over the prices of some of these items, we finished up and got to the car.
I do not remember what all was said, but I was giving her advice on her career. She is an organizational genius, but she has trouble standing up for herself, and I always want her to be valued correctly. In this case, she had asked for a raise, and they had said yes, but had not followed up for a month. She was having trouble with money, and was in despair. I think, offhand, I mentioned I was having trouble booking jobs, and didn't have any prospects. I didn't know where to go.
She looked at me and said, "You should look into some part time jobs"
Memories are odd things, I can remember the view from the passengers seat of her car fairly clearly. Fluorescent green cast concrete mall parking structure, the layout of empty parking spots, automatic sliding glass doors, only 3 other cars parked in the whole place. I can remember my disbelief. A job? Why would I do that, I have so much going for me in freelance...
I remember feeling failure. This is what my career had come to. I have no prospects, almost a months rent in my bank account, no retirement account. Pretty images, a well-followed Instagram, multiple cameras, and no money. What have I accomplished?
Three years I had worked for myself, for clients. I had worked hard, and it amounted to me failing that pursuit. What would people say? That I quit my dream job? That I gave up?
She was right. I needed to look for jobs.
I was unsure about the whole process, but when I got home that night, I forced myself onto Indeed. I typed "Filmmaker" into the search bar, expecting unrelated results.
There were at least 50 relevant results. I was taken aback. The last I had searched was 2 years ago, and I had found 3 video jobs. This was a whole new world. I didn't even bother sticking to just part time. Two car brands wanted someone in house to produce content for them, tons of production houses, and plenty of other brands too. How could I limit myself?
It took me months. I lived on Ziprecruiter, Indeed, and Glassdoor. I made a resume, then another one, and fixed that one, and themed it with my cover letter. I now know the basics of Adobe Indesign 'adds that to resume'.
I looked at the top paying jobs in my field, in my area, and did some math. Some production company job I liked was paying $50-$60k a year, which sounds pretty great. What could I expect in terms of salaries? What did I want?
Somehow, I landed way over what I was making, about 2.3 times my annual. That seemed worth it to me, enough money that I would be willing to give up some funner paying jobs to make that standard of living. I ended up telling this to a recruiter, and I could hear the hesitance in their voice.
"...and what salary range are we looking for?"
"I would really like to be at 2.3 times my current annual salary"
"(noticeably higher octave) ...Ok, yeah, we can do that"
I guess I shot a bit too high. Oh well. On to the next application.
I knew I was shooting high. I had a lot of faith in myself and my abilities, and I was determined to make my life work for me. This was a challenge to myself, if I can make this much, I am worth this much, and I am not just a bunch of talk.
The job application process feels like throwing your resume off of a skyscraper and hoping it floats into an open window onto the right desk. I got a phone interview with an underpaid wedding film editing manager to see if they would budge on their $20/hr asking price for a pro with 4 years of editing experience (really? Four years of experience? My first skilled editing job paid exactly that!). I was offered, and I declined. A few places looked at my resume 3 times, or so says Ziprecruiter. No calls. One well-paying job looking for someone who can speak Mandarin. I didn't happen to pick that skill up yet, so back to the search bar. About forty solid applications, and I had very little to show for it.
I began to doubt myself. If no one would hire me, maybe I wasn't worth that number. My opinion of my work was obviously too high for my own good, and I needed to lower my standards
Without any warning, I am offered 2 interviews. One with a company that my hesitant recruiter found. Another with a different agency. Not to mention, one of my long time clients wants to talk with me about being full time. This happened in the same week, over two months after I started looking for consistent work.
Walking in to my first interview in over five years, I really did not know what to expect.
I decided on the soonest slot for the first interview, 8am in two days. I drive up to a 4 story office building, kind of chuckling to myself. This would be an interesting future for me, wouldn't it? Me, commuting, wearing professional clothes. There is no way I'll take this job.
I should mention I hate interviews, freelance being a great way to avoid them. I never feel like I have interview-quality clothes that fit me correctly, and that causes me to feel out of place and more nervous. I am certain I will never give my best interview in anything but a t-shirt. When I try to recall my last interview, I realize it was at a coffee shop five years ago. Not for the shop, but for a summer job at a camp. Things have changed.
The company leases the whole building. The inside is all glass and modern white. Splashes of color in Bebas font declare the company ethos, in statements like "No Bull***t! Really!" and "Work to Be Your Best". I get to the empty front desk at 7:50 and try to check in on a specialized iPad, failing to find my interviewees name. I sit down on the couch, but start to panic. What if she thinks I am late? Should I text or email someone? Who would I-
My interviewer steps in, all smiles. She takes me her office, and we chat about their needs, the failings of the last guy, and I commiserate with her frustrations with people who don't understand making a connection before interviewing. She seems to like me, but I doubt I got the job.
And then, I got it.
At 2.4 times my annual.
Suddenly, a weight was lifted. I am not crazy. I do have skills. I am worth this much.
Then, another presses into my chest.
Am I really going to take this job? Will I actually give up freelancing and the work I love?
I consult my parents, my fiance, a colleague. They all see clearer than me, as none of them have emotional attachment to other jobs.
I take the other interview, I talk to the client. The interviewer at the creative agency says regardless of my situation, working will make me more marketable to them, and they will still offer me jobs. My client wants my expertise and ideas for his business, but can barely afford half of my recently acquired value.
Screw it. Lets try it out.
This is Part One of my experiences in freelance and full time video content creation. I am just going to keep adding to it as I progress, and you are welcome to join me.