William B. Demeritt III
November 19th, 2012
I just wanted to wax philosophically for a moment. I used to joke a few years ago that when you work in film, people are amazingly uninterested in your job. Or perhaps people aren’t that interested in your job, and when surrounded by passionate filmmakers and film lovers, that we interpret that subpar interest as amazingly uninterested.
Last weekend, I was traveling to see some family, and I found that my discussions about work weren’t so much about camera operating, filmmaking, or the things I’m usually so passionate about and eager to discuss. Instead, a common question was about my work lifestyle and schedule.
“So you’re freelance?”
“Does that get scary?”
“Do you work for a company? Or do you mostly seek out your own work?”
“Are you worried that you might not get enough work?”
“How do you get work?”
The last question is obviously the magic question, because if I were able to answer simply, I’d be far more comfortable and stress-free. However, I think of freelance work as running your own business where you’re both employee and boss, marketing and accounts receivable, operations and human resources.
When I started working freelance, I approached it with a slightly trepidatious outlook: “Yes, I’m a camera operator in film and television.” Early on in your career you wonder how you have the audacity to call yourself the same profession as so many other reputable names you respect and emulate. As you work, as you get better, that statement becomes easier.
What doesn’t become easier are the dry months. The “things are slow” months.
I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest, SMARTEST, and hardest working individuals the American work force has to offer. I mean no disrespect to the skilled labor in other industries, but I feel like film and TV production crews get a marginal amount of the regard other industries do. Most of the time, we work 6 hours before lunch whereas most people work 8 hours total. We work an average of 12 hour days, and overtime after that. That’s 5 days a week, potentially for months.
A 1st AD once told me in film school: “Every filmmaker is bound together with other filmmakers and crews by one inalienable fact: there’s something wrong with all of us. We have something wrong with us, in that we want to work the hours we do, as long as we do.”
You may not know this, but the film crew labor force is hardly understaffed. If anything, it’s bulging with supply which has its own ramifications in our industry (rates plummeting, people undercutting, production quality dwindling). We have so many people running a business, just wanting to practice their trade and craft; their passion!
Why don’t more people follow that passion?
You can’t really argue job security, because if anything, the last 12 years of economic deflation has proven that job security means nothing in the modern workplace. National unemployment reached double digits just a few years ago. People who had shown devotion and loyalty, foregoing their passion in favor of the “safe” life were often unemployed and shell-shocked! Even now, as unemployment is slowly dropping, politicians are claiming that number may be new jobs, or it might be people stopped looking for work.
Freelance filmmaking has no security. You’re a serious injury away from retirement at any age, declining wages away from being shed by an industry trying to make sense of 21st century media.
The people I work with every day are some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever met, from the genius key grips who clearly played with Legos as kids, to the makeup artists who made amazing effects on a shoe-string budget, to the writers and directors who never gave up. I would guess we’ve all embraced the serenity of not knowing what jobs we’ll have next month, next year, whenever. If that notion is scary, then I ask: are you so certain you’ll be at your job next year? To brush against the morbid and morose, are you certain you’ll be alive next year?
The spirit I hope America’s workforce will embrace moving forward is one of awareness and passion. We are the architects of our own future, and we have only ourselves to blame. Paraphrasing the words of the late great camera operator/assistant Chip Monk, our time spent working is time away from our families, our children and our loved ones. What we do with that time better be important, and we’d better be proud of it.
So, to everyone fearing the freelance lifestyle, or anyone nervous to “take the plunge” in starting that business, opening that consulting firm or opening that baked goods shop, I’d offer this: yes, it’s scary, but at least you know it’s scary. For me, I have no fear of a pink slip, a corporate down-sizing or being “let go”. I have myself to thank for good years and myself to blame for bad years. I cannot cook the books and blame someone else, I cannot question why my savings is gone and not see myself as the culprit. Every success is mine to enjoy, every failure mine to learn from.
Yes, I do worry if the phone is going to ring. Yes, I have lean months. Life is even harder to budget, or perhaps your current mode of thought would make you think that.
Your life is your own, as is your job. Don’t question what could have been. Do what you have passion for, be responsible and be honest, in your work and in life. Inspire your kids, inspire your neighbors and friends, and leave behind something meaningful.
“I’d rather live with disappointment than regret.” -Andre Agassi
That’s lunch, walk away.