The Freelancer’s Survival Guide

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide

Byline: Bill Miller

My name is Bill Miller. I am 59 years old and I live in a suburb of Boston. I’m a Migrant Video Worker and have been for most of my 40 years in this profession. And I’m proud of it.

Of course, I am not alone. Most people in the business of making videos or movies are migrant workers – from the $20-million-per-picture actor to the lowly gopher who runs out for snacks at three in the morning. Chances are, you too are a Migrant Video Worker. If so, this article is for you.

“Migrant Video Worker” is a pet name I thought I had coined many years ago until I hired a group in Los Angeles who showed up with jackets embroidered with “Migrant Film Workers of America.” Other folks – cameramen, writers, best boys (what is a best boy?), sound geeks, etc. – like to refer to themselves as “freelancers,” a term dating back to medieval mercenaries, some of whom are still working in video today. By whatever name we’re called, including “hey dude,” we’re all faced with the same dilemma – finding the next job, whether it’s around the corner, around the bend, or around the world. So how do you do it?

Name recognition

First off, you need to make people aware of who you are, what you do, and why they should call you first. Just sending a resume out is very ineffective. I am inundated with resumes both in the mail and now online; unsolicited paperwork from migrant workers unknown. Unless I have an immediate need for that particular person or skill, the resume is going into the round file. This sounds cruel, I know, but unless you’ve been on the receiving end of hundreds – if not thousands – of resumes, you can’t imagine the logistics of reading, filing, and then finding that piece of paper. And since our profession is growing in popularity, the number of applicants for each successive job eclipses the last. So you need to stand out, and simply sending a resume isn’t going to cut it.

When I first set out to be a freelancer, I developed a newsletter that I still send out. It’s a one-page document that I call “As I see it…” I send it to past and prospective clients, and use it to advertise my abilities and to entertain, keeping it short and lively. Sometimes I don’t even talk about myself, but rather pass along tips, jokes, or amusing anecdotes. The main purpose is to keep my name fresh in the minds of people who might use my services. I send it out about once a month. It’s costly but effective. In fact, it’s so effective that I sometimes delay sending it for fear I will have too much work and will have to turn down clients. (This is another real problem for the freelancer; having to say, “Sorry, I’m booked on another job this Tuesday.” I am always fearful that the rebuffed client won’t call back.)

In lieu of a newsletter, the next best thing, I find, is a postcard. It can be anything from just your name, address, phone number, and a list of your credentials, to a photograph, drawing, or poem – anything that will draw attention to who you are and will keep your name fresh in someone’s mind. Postcards are good because they are immediate. The person on the receiving end doesn’t have to open an envelope, and even if they throw it away they will notice your name. Make sure it’s in bold letters. Plus, sealed envelopes – especially if they look like resumes – often get tossed before being opened. Trust me, I’ve done it myself. Postage costs are going up again, another reason to use postcards.

It’s very important that you develop an accurate and effective mailing list. This can be compiled from the yellow pages, the Internet, your own personal experiences, or by asking for referrals. You can even buy mailing lists if you have the money.

Telephone solicitation. This is a real catch-22. You’re hated if you do, not hired if you don’t. Think of it: When you make a cold call you are in the same category as someone selling insurance, credit cards, or even worse, vinyl siding. People don’t like to get annoying phone calls. Everyone hates the telemarketer. Sometimes I field 20 to 30 calls a day from people trying to sell me something, whether it’s a vacuum cleaner or canned music – a call I just took while writing this article.

So don’t just make cold calls simply to offer your services. Have another excuse:

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“Harold, who works for you behind the camera? I thought it would be a good idea if I called…”

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“I saw your last spot on the air and had to call to tell you how brilliant I thought it was, especially the lighting. I have a keen eye for lighting and I was hoping I could send you my reel…”

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“I am just starting out in the business and I was wondering if you would spend a few minutes giving me some advice on getting a foot in the door…”

While the last of these examples seems far-fetched, I’m a sucker for it every time. Perhaps it’s because the industry has been very good to me and now I feel I should give something back to the community. So I take these calls and spend as much time as possible with up-and-coming migrant video workers. Or I answer their emails. If you can find a mentor, it can be a huge step forward, especially in getting your first break.

Back to the phone calls: They should be short and to the point, keeping in mind the person you’re soliciting is usually very busy. If you can’t speak directly to the person doing the hiring, try establishing a relationship with a secretary or production assistant. They are usually more receptive to unsolicited phone calls, especially if you’re not too demanding. Make these people seem important – not you or their boss – and they will usually help you get through to Mr. Big Shot. And when you send your follow-up letter or resume, they’ll recognize where it’s from, giving you the slight edge since they won’t be as likely to throw it away immediately.

One final note about telephone calling: Don’t leave messages on answering machines. And don’t expect the person to call you back. It’s just not going to happen. Hang up and try again later.

Emails are an increasingly popular way to petition for work, but very risky. With so many viruses and junk emails out there, most people don’t open unsolicited emails anymore. I know I don’t. And when they delete you, you’re gone from the computer memory and their memory. Furthermore, some people get hundreds of emails everyday. They don’t have time to answer the important ones, nevermind the ones from people they don’t know. And your email name is probably something like “Tongue-tied,” so who would want to open your email?

The Internet can play an important role in finding freelance work. There are a number of websites and job placement boards where you can post your resume or search through files for open positions. A good example is the board at www.mandy.com. Besides putting your name in the files, the site will send you a free, weekly list of posted jobs either in a specific geographical area or from around the world. It lists both paying and non-paying jobs. If you’re new to the video world, don’t be afraid to take a non-paying or low-paying assignment. It’s a great way to meet people, network, and get experience. There are a number of similar job boards on the Web.

Also, most states and larger cities have film or video commissions with websites for posting credentials. There are also a number of services available where producers go to crew their jobs. There is a local service in Boston that charges freelancers $60 per month to be active. When jobs come through, they let producers know who’s available. It’s also a great way to keep track of your bookings. Other services may be available in other cities.

There are also national registers for freelancers such as Crewstar (www.crewstar.com) or Crew Connections (www.crewconnections.com). They take a percentage of your day rate, but registering is free. These sites allow you to register under several different skill and job categories.

It’s not what you know

I touched briefly on networking, and it is easily the best way I know to get work in this industry. There is just no better way to find work than by knowing people in the business. This means getting to know people.

One of the fastest ways to do that is to join groups like the ITVA or the Digital Video Professionals Association. As a member, you can attend screenings, meetings, and cocktail hours. The next step is to get involved not just as a member but also as a contributing worker in the organization. Once people see that you are adding value to the organization, your professional career will be kicked into high gear.

Whenever you are networking and meeting new people, always follow up with a letter or an email. It can be very brief. Send it out within one or two days of the initial contact to reinforce your meeting and to show that you care and are efficient. It’s also a good idea after you have been hired to follow up with a thank you note as well as your invoice.

And make your invoice looks professional. You can buy pre-printed invoices at an office supply company or create your own on your home computer. Nothing is worse than getting an invoice scrawled on the back of an envelope. Freelancers needs to maintain a professional appearance.

And be prompt sending out invoices. Productions are short-lived phenomena. If you send your invoice three months late, there may not be any money left to pay you. I knew of a lighting director who regularly forgot to send invoices and was upset when a production company didn’t pay his bill submitted 18 months late.

(A side note: Freelancers really aren’t subcontractors, so production companies should take out taxes and FICA deductions, and cover you for workers’ compensation. A number of companies have turned to paymasters for this very reason. Unless you have coverage yourself, or are a corporation, you are not a subcontractor. The law is very specific about this, yet most production companies refuse to comply. Also, make sure they have coverage for you when driving their vehicles or in case you are asked to drive your own vehicle. Lots of times production companies ask you to drive your own vehicle for which they are not insured and then they don’t want to pay mileage for its use. The going rate, by the way, is 31 cents per mile.)

Finally, make yourself attractive to prospective clients. Print simple business cards and a professional-looking resume. Make a demo reel, which should be short, with a professional-looking label. A Sony tape with a hand-scratched label doesn’t make it. And try to get copies of your work. I have tapes dating back to college productions 40 years ago. Don’t be afraid to ask people for written recommendations when the job is done. If you’ve added value to their production, even just getting coffee, they will usually be happy comply.

For newcomers to the business, try volunteering or getting a foot in the door as an intern – even if you’re 40 years old. Some of my most effective and best interns were people starting second careers later in life.

Good luck. Don’t give up. Stay optimistic. And remember: You’re only as good as your last job.

Bill Miller has been directing and shooting videos and films for nearly four decades, with work appearing on several major and independent television networks. He recently directed his first dramatic feature-length film, Bluff. Visit his website, www.directorsnet.com.miller, or email him at millerfilm@attbi.com.

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