Pursuing a career as an independent filmmaker has never been more exciting. With the continual expansion of digital mediums and the growing demand for content, it’s easier than ever for new filmmakers to find an audience. This is especially true if they have a unique vision and a sense of social influence. Unfortunately, monetizing content creation remains challenging. The dilemma that plagues nearly all inexperienced filmmakers is how to make a living between projects until it becomes a stable career.
First things first: don’t quit your day job—just yet. While it can be tempting to abandon the “real world” and dive head first into your dreams, remember that the entertainment industry is a ruthless business. Gigs probably won’t be coming at a steady pace when you are first starting out. And while filmmaking may be your passion, you can’t survive off thank you cards and IMDb credits.
A genius is one who can do anything except make a living. — Joey Lauren Adams
The good news is that there’s no limit to the possibilities of making a living in-between gigs. Directors of 2014’s SXSW Festival were asked what they do to make ends meet. Their answers ranged from bartending and waiting tables to selling footage on Shutterstock. It may not be your dream job, but having a reliable income will help you get closer to the actual dream. Plus these side jobs may hone your work ethic for the “real” work to come. For example, one of the most overlooked opportunities those in the industry rely on is teaching. It’ll put some cash in your pocket, but also, passing on your expertise benefits the student, and the teacher as well. It’s what scientists call the protege effect.
Another way to ensure steady work is to cultivate the skills you already have. Your dream job might be to write, direct, or produce, but don’t neglect your practical skills as an editor, sound designer, or production coordinator. Not only will you keep your bank account in the black, you’ll also continue to hone your craft, increase your network of collaborators, and learn from those around you.
The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket. — Will Rogers
Of course, as you continue to take gigs, don’t underestimate the benefit of being frugal. Develop a budget and track your spending habits, always looking for ways to save a little extra cash. Having a financial cushion is a valuable asset and will give you the freedom to eventually be picky with the projects you take. Plus it allows you to work on your own passion projects, even if just on the side.
The average lifespan of an indie feature is about five years from concept to delivery, and being in a rush usually leads to an inferior project. The same applies to your career. You’re in this business because you love being creative, but it’s easy to forget that lasting success won’t happen overnight. Remember, filmmaking is a marathon. Building a realistic ten year plan to achieve major goals can go a long way. Within those years, establish shorter individual goals to keep motivated and headed in the right direction.
Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home… it’s your responsibility to love it, or change it. — Chuck Palahniuk
The bottom lines is, there’s no right or wrong way to go about making a living in this industry. Everyone’s path is different and you have to figure out your own for yourself. One way to help with this is being flexible. A lot of filmmakers end up with a career in something completely different than they originally intended, but they all have one thing in common: they’re working! The more you see yourself as a filmmaker instead of a more specific job title, the more opportunities will become available to you.