Why are you working on the gigs you take? Most likely the answer is “for the money”. If you can say you love the gigs you’re working on, you’re a part of a very small minority. I mean no one who wants to be a filmmaker or web series creator ever woke up one day and said, “You know what? I can’t wait to make the quintessential :60 second web spot for a local FREON RECLAMATION SERVICE right here in Kokomo, Indiana” (no offense against Kokomo. I’m sure it’s a lovely place).
Most people will tell you they do those gigs for the money. They will also tell you they wish they were doing something else, like getting paid for the work they’ve always wanted to make. However, they feel they have to stay on the “gig train” to earn money so they can make ends meet and pay for the projects they want to have realized. Below are the top 4 reasons not to take gigs JUST for the money.
1. You Will Never Make Enough
You will only ever get paid for the work you do. In other words, there are only so many hours in the day that can generate income. In essence, you are capped at the number of hours you can physically put in. It’s called “selling your time for money”. Even worse, if you find yourself working on a non-union gig for a flat day rate, you know you’ll be putting in 14 hours/day instead of the 10 they promised you thereby driving your hourly income to rock-bottom. Even if you find yourself making a nice income of say $100k, studies show the more you make the more you spend. Sure, you may have a nicer car, a bigger apartment and you might even be able to take a cool vacation once a year, but none of that has gotten you closer to your goal of producing your own, original work. Even worse, should the gig work dry up, so does the money, which leads to reason #2.
2. The Black Hole Of Debt
Being on the hamster wheel of freelance gig-work very often leads to the accumulation of debt. It all begins when we find ourselves out of college, paying back loans for the education we just got, whether that’s film school or another kind of university degree. Add on top of that, the inconsistency of freelance gig-work and you’ve got a person who finds themselves behind the eight-ball from the start.
As we see so often, when working for money soon becomes just another job, filmmakers often want to shake things up by producing their own work. Time and time again, we see filmmakers funding their own projects and often it leans on accruing more credit card debt. It soon becomes clear the purpose of your job is now about paying off debt.
3. Risk Of Stagnation
When your real job becomes chasing money to pay off debt, it is easy to get myopic, stop learning and the work you’re creating comes out of desperation rather than exploration. “I have to sell this project or else…”. It is at this point that filmmakers who find themselves here, become risk averse and limit their exposure to addition business opportunities. Opportunities that could lead to a self-sustaining financial life.
4. Your Identity Becomes The Pursuit Of Money
Once a creator’s identity becomes limited to the pursuit of money, they often begin losing sight of their greater vision and begin living from situation to situation. In other words, they jump from emergency to emergency, “If I can just get past this next car payment, I’ll be fine”. Once the broader vision is lost, it becomes a vicious cycle of looking for the next gig to overcome the next emergency.
Okay, So What Do I Do To Stop The Hamster Wheel?
The most successful filmmakers I know don’t concentrate on success. They know instinctively that success ensues and is born out of a commitment to a repeatable process. They develop daily habits that allow success to arrive. You’ve seen it, successful people who just seem to always have opportunity at their fingertips. Let go of the end destination and build a process that gets results. This takes some trial and error and is different for everyone, but in the end, a repeatable process that gets predictable results is lower risk to a hiring producer than someone who is figuring it out on the fly.
Next, those same people have multiple income streams. Four to seven to be exact. Having a single income stream that is reliant on someone else having your best interests at heart means a constant state of fear. Fear of losing your job, fear of not having enough. If that job goes away, you’re screwed. So, shoot stock footage, coach other filmmakers on your process, sell shit on ebay, but don’t get stuck in the single income trap.
Become an expert. Find a niche. The narrower the better. Maybe you’re great at shooting car sequences, or you’ve mastered stop-motion, or you have a unique way of shooting comedy. Do that one thing and don’t take work that isn’t that. Most people try to be too broad in their offering, but no one wants to hire a jack-of-all-trades that’s kind of good at stuff. Experts are easy to pay and collaborate with.
Finally, be a partner, not an employee. Building partnerships with people and organizations means you have some ownership and agency in what you make. Being an employee means you’re a slave to someone else’s ideas.
In the end, there is more money in selling in your ideas than there is in selling your time. There is more career longevity when you become a lynchpin hire rather than just a warm body who can accomplish a task. There is more opportunity and money when you know exactly what you do.