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Freelance filmmaking: how to decide if it’s the right move

Story & Heart
February 2, 2017 by Story & Heart PRO

Imagine the ability to work from anywhere in the world, anytime you want. In your pajamas. Sounds amazing, right? We’re talking about the life of a freelancer. Or rather, what the internet would have you believe about freelancing and being a digital nomad.

In reality, that idyllic picture fails to capture the hard work, challenges, and unpredictability of freelancing. But, just because it’s not quite so easy to work anywhere in the world (at least on your own schedule), and you certainly can’t show up to set in pajamas (unless … naw, it’s still not an option), freelancing offers some incredible opportunities, as well.

Join us as we dig into the perks, downsides, and how tos of freelance filmmaking, to help you decide if it might be the right career step for you.

Freelance vs. contractor vs. temp vs...

According to Freelancers Union (a super awesome site you should check out), there are over 54 million freelancers in the U.S. They define freelancing as “independent workers,” with Google defining freelance as “working for different companies at different times, rather than being permanently employed by one company.” (Google also has historical definition of freelancer of “a medieval mercenary” — it kinda works too!).

Think of it this way: a freelancer is self-employed and works for a variety clients, whereas a contract worker or temp worker — while they may also be self-employed — works for a single client for a set period of time.

In our industry, being a freelancer basically means you’re a solo filmmaker / DP / producer / etc., and that you’re ready to hop onto different projects for different agencies, production companies, brands, and more.

The major perks

You get to work on a variety of projects.
One week could be a feature, the next a doc, and the next a music video. As an artist, that diversity will push you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to learn new skills and approaches. As a business person, it means you can make a great living as a freelancer, since you’re in control of the types of projects you take on with the understanding of which ones pay more (the word “can” is important here ... which we’ll talk about a little later).

You get to meet a lot of people.
Filmmaking is, and always will be, a team sport. Knowing as many teammates (crew, clients, etc.) as you can will ultimately set you up for success. By freelancing, you’re effectively adding new teammates to your roster with every new project you take on. Having a giant network is not only great for growth, it’s just good business practice, with potential opportunities at every turn.

You can control your schedule (...kind of).
As a freelance filmmaker, you’ve got more say on your schedule. Need some time off? You can — gracefully — decline a project. Need a little more cash? You can — graciously — accept more. Again, we’ll get to the “kind of” in a moment.

This all sounds so great! Freelancing must be the way forward, right? Sigh. It depends. Like any career path, there are positives and negatives.

The key challenges

You’ll need to budget.
While you can make a great living, being a freelance filmmaker often means it’s feast or famine. Prepare for a bunch of stress when it’s slow, and learn how to budget and save (and be insanely busy) when times are good.

You need to be extra social.
While you get to meet a lot of people, you’ve really got to be a people person to thrive. Egos, attitudes, tempers, and bad work ethics will be the demise of your freelancing career. There is no one else to rely on when it comes to relationship building. When you only handle creative, you can’t exactly say, “See ya later, client relations!”, or just hand someone else the biz stuff.

It’s just Y-O-U.
While you’ll have a big roster of contacts (if you’re a team player), really, as a freelancer, it’s all on you. Which also means it’s hard to “turn off” and have personal time: even when times are good, you’ll need to be planning for tougher times, and even if you want some breathing room, you can only say “no” to same person a few times before they don’t contact you again. Either way, it’s easy to get burnt out and feel like you’re all alone.

How to make it work

For many other industries, the freelancing way of life just isn’t their cup of tea or relevant to their careers. But our industry, unlike many, is perfectly setup to be a freelance-based one. If you’re itching to give it a go and take on some of the difficulties, here are several quick tips to build a roster of awesome teammates and find great freelance work.

  1. Say “yes” often and get on as many shoots possible (paid or unpaid) to expand your roster. Use the diversity of the shoots to push you creatively and to build your portfolio and network. Speaking of your team...
  2.  Be friendly. Talent can only get you so far. If you’re not fun to be around, people won’t have you around anymore.
  3. Work hard, all of the time. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing (shooting as the DP, or picking up trash as a PA), do your job as well as you can. Work ethic, in a lot of cases, can make up for lack of experience.
  4. Get your best work online, and update it often. Did you work on a cool project that you had a blast being a part of? Add it to your site as soon as you can. You’ll get offers for the types of projects that you show, so present the work you want more of.
  5. Set up a polished website that houses your best stuff. You don’t need to spend a ton of time or money on this, and several web platforms have beautiful out-of-the-box templates with video-specific functionality. Again, just like your work, you’ll want to update this often.
  6. Create a demo reel. And do it every year. Highlight your best work and favorite projects. Show off what you’re capable and what you’ll bring to each project that you’re hired for. For more tips on this, head to this blog post.
  7. And lastly, put yourself out there. You can’t avoid social contact as a freelancer — it just doesn’t work. Join local Facebook groups in the market you’re in (and be active in them), leave comments on the videos you dig on Vimeo, sign up for a workshop, and go to whatever meet-ups are happening in your area. Keep yourself active and you’ll be a memorable part of your network.


p>Let us know if you’ve got any specific questions about the world of freelancing — or share your tips if you yourself are freelancing. We’re all ears! 


Exile Motion | Design Plus

This was a great read! I'm a motion graphic artist and just started freelancing full time. Times are stressful haha, but also rewarding. Being apart of major companies in my past, I have never felt so rewarded after completing a project as I do freelancing. I do have one question and that is Facebook groups. Have any suggestions, doesn't. I mostly work with creative film makers so anything in that category will help! Thanks for the article!

Story & Heart PRO

Awesome to hear!

For FB groups, I'd just recommend you head over to FB and start typing in the search bar for names of groups you wished existed (and then filtering by group in the upper nav). For example, if I was a Sony user, I'd type the camera model I own in the search bar to see if a group existed of people who also own that camera (right now the A6300 group has over 13,000 members!). Or if I was an NYC filmmaker, I'd search for NYC filmmakers (right now, this group has over 17,000 members!). It can take a bit of time to find groups, but it's definitely worth it. :)

For further reading, here's another helpful post on finding great teammates:

Kathria Tizon PRO

Great article + tips. I've been freelance for about 8 years now and it's the best. It started off rough and scary, but when I look back at everything I've worked hard for - I wouldn't change anything :) Plus

Freelance means working gig to gig, which is great when you are busy!! Here's a way to inject some passive revenue into your life and do what you love:

Bitesize Films Ltd Plus

Great read but I don't think it's helpful to recommend people work for free. This ensures only people who can afford to live without payment will enter the industry in the first place and skews the demographic of our industry towards richer middle classes. It also encourages clients to expect that people will be willing to work for free at the beginning of their careers and thus make it even harder for them. Freelancing isn't free! Promote that.

Kurt Ritta Plus

This is a great hit list for being a productive freelancer. Much of these tips work for any self-employed person: promote, hunt, schmooze and prepare for the "rollercoaster" of feast and famine, but the team effort needed in filmmaking adds another level. It's important to juggle networking, delegating and communication skills in order to get great results.

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