Even today, after over 30 years working in the film industry, I still get people saying to me: Show me your resume. Can I see what film industry work you’ve done?
Fortunately, I have a body of work that can speak for itself. But what of the old conundrum: To get work you need experience. To get experience, you need work?
Young filmmakers, directors, screenwriters and actors have always faced this dilemma. And in today’s shrinking markets, established professionals like myself also face this on a daily basis. Whether it is to be laid off, or to be replaced by someone cheaper or simply made redundant by one of the new digital production technologies, older and younger film workers everywhere are constantly battling to make themselves marketable in a changing landscape.
My good friend Simon Hunter was waiting at his agent’s office in LA at the end of last year when in walked Frank Darabont asking if there were any commercials going. Imagine that! An award-winning director of feature films trying to earn a bit from a lowly commercial.
Whether you are starting out, or whether you are established and trying to strengthen your position in the job market, you can get around the Catch 22 of work and experience by using some creative action and energy.
Here’s how I got film industry work with no experience:
I went to art school in Toronto and then headed over to London without a single contact. I managed to get work at the BBC as a stage hand, during which time I applied for every single job I could at the Beeb: from Head of News to Scenic Artist. I never ever got promoted, and it wasn’t until years later that I found out from a career ‘Beeber’ that the rules of promotion are so strict and class-conscious that I didn’t have a chance of being promoted out of lowly stage hand into a so-called creative job.
However, life led me back to Canada where I ended up being interviewed for a job as a scenic artist. The questions I had been asked in my abortive BBC interviews, and the answers I was forced to give served me in good stead.
Then came the tricky part. Part of the interview was a skills test and I was asked to hang a fancy wallpaper on a set. Having hung wallpaper for my mum a few times I had a vague idea of how the job was done, so I asked: “I know how they hang it in London, England, but how do they do it here?” The examiner, a crusty scenic artist, sighed and demonstrated with me watching carefully. Fortunately, I was able to repeat the process and presto became a professional scenic artist without any previous experience.
After a few years of doing this, and wanting a change, I decided to use my organisational skills and get a job as a hi-tech project manager. In a film, you would call this the line producer. At the time I had no particular interest in working on another film – I had already painted on 68 features and over 700 commercials and couldn’t really see any other role for me in a film.
Imagine my surprise when no scientific or media company could see the relevance a successful scenic art career had in the world of hi-tech project development.
I met an entrepreneurial type character with a scientific research company with ‘numerous projects in various stages of development’ at a party and convinced him to hire me for a month. The pay was going to be a job title. My job was to find him new business. He couldn’t afford to hire anyone at the time. If I could get him just two appointments in a month, I would get a reference letter with Elliot Grove, Assistant Project Manager” on the card. Which is what happened.
With that reference and his recommendations, I landed a series of exciting jobs running R&D computer and scientific projects including early IBM computer clones, the Gnosis Medical Systems project which launched the Tens Pain Control devices and the Canada Space Arm Project.
The British Independent Film Awards were launched when a wanna-be-intern by the name of Fred Hogge pestered me to death to allow him to work at Raindance – he even threw himself to his knees at my feet until I relented. He had such excellent computer and communication skills that after a few weeks I could see he needed a new challenge, and he took my idea of the British Independent Film Awards and made it the premiere film event of the year in the UK.
Every single person working at Raindance has started off as a volunteer – and demonstrated their ability, and made themselves indispensable, followed by a salary.
How can you use my strategy and get out of the Catch 22 of no experience – no work – no experience?
Look for a company with a great idea and no money to make it happen
Get a great idea for a company that can offer a unique service
Approach the company and offer to work for the company until this idea starts generating cash hopefully to pay you.
Be very specific about what your boundaries are.
Be certain they realise you are not there as an intern or work experience person to fetch coffee or run errands – you are there in a position, equivalent in status to every other employee in every respect except salary.
Be very clear about the value that you need to receive in kind: it is for your resume, and be clear about the type of wording that you want on the resume. Compensation is about value received for value given – and you’re thinking too narrowly if you define value only in monetary terms.
Be clear about the length of your engagement. Make sure your commitment does not keep you from looking for other paid work. If you have another job, make very sure it doesn’t interfere with your commitments to this job.
Are you going to be too proud, or throw the rulebook at me for offering your services for no charge?
Get real and get a grip. This is the only way you can gain real film industry work that you can add to your resume, the experience you will need to get a job with a pay check.