6 Tips to Survive Working As a Freelancer in the Film, Television and Video Business
1. Get the Word Out
Once you decide or the industry decides for you, that you are going to work as a freelancer, you have to become visible. Calling every TV station or production company in town and asking if there is work available will get you absolutely no where, except to annoy the person answering the phone. And resumes in the mail? They end up in the trash.
The simplest and easiest thing to do is social networking. Creating a profile on sites like LinkedIn.com, Mandy.com, Media-Match.com (Media-Match is a pay site, the others have free basic listings) not only helps to give you a place to show your stuff, it also validates you. Your profile on these sites holds more weight than a paper resume, it gives you more stars, so to speak. And it gets your name out on the internet in a searchable format-when someone hops on Google and types in your name, your Linked In profile comes up.
2. Being Paid-What Method?
I know this seems weird to be number two, but before you take your first freelance gig you must decide how you are going to be paid.
You have to be flexible, if you get freelance work at a TV station, then they are going to put you on the payroll as a W-2 employee. But what if you get a gig writing a script for a non-profit? How will they pay you? If have nothing setup prior, then you will have to fill out a W-9 tax form and give that non-profit your social security number. And guess what? They are going to report this income to the IRS on a 1099 form and they are not going to take out any taxes out for you, it will be considered Miscellaneous Income. So that means that YOU will be responsible for paying all of your Social Security Tax, Medicare Tax, (all that falls under FICA on a W-2) and your federal and state income tax. This is a very REAL problem in the freelance world and I have personally been on the wrong side of this, owing thousands of dollars to the IRS all at once.
The best thing to do is to sit down with an accountant and discuss your options. You may find a sole proprietorship that receives 1099’s works for you. Or you may want to Incorporate, form an LLC or something else. And an accountant will help you figure out what purchases you can use as write-offs for your freelance work. I can not stress enough, that speaking with an accountant and having your payment strategy set up a ahead of time, will save you from grief and potentially owing thousands of dollars to the IRS all at once.
3. Being Paid-How Much? And what about Cash Flow?
This is the hot button topic around my office. And it is tricky to understand what goes for what. So you think, well I used to be paid X amount when I was editing for this TV station, so that is how much I am going to ask for as a freelancer. I wish it were that easy. Rates fluctuate dramatically but there are thresholds that line producers use. The best thing to do is to talk with others and ask, “What do you charge?” And be honest, if you are in the process of getting your first freelance gig and the producer asks, “What is your day rate?” say, “I don’t have an established rate, I am flexible and I would like to work within your budget.”
And what about looking up day rates on the Internet? The info never is accurate. Rates are subjective to what type of gig, location, distribution platform, Production Company, and on and on. You just have to get into freelancing and see what others are being paid in your field of expertise and your location. Ultimately it is what is comfortable for you.
Cash flow is also a huge issue with freelance only gigs or when you run a small business. Don’t only accept gigs from large corporations. Why? They are slow to pay. And this is not because they are trying to stiff you or play the stock market with your money-large corporations have a system of check and balances for payment to outside vendors. It might take 90 days in some cases to be paid. So you have to pepper your gigs on smaller projects where you know you can get paid in 30 days or less.
Oh boy…….. Online job boards like Craigslist, Production Hub, TV JOBS, and the many more out there are a great way to find gigs. And they are also teeming with seekers of free labor. I cannot count how many ads I have seen like the following: “Seeking crew with their own equipment for a TV pilot, web series or Music Video that will be the next greatest thing. It has been written by the most amazing A-List Hollywood people and has Hollywood stars/Director attached. Don’t miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity. Please send your resume, a link to an on-line reel and a total list of all of your equipment. No pay but we promise, meals, a copy of the DVD, exposure and ONCE IT GETS PICKED UP, we will definitely bring back all of the crew to work on the project.”
Unless you feel like volunteering your time, don’t fall for that. Because it will be nothing more than a volunteer gig and 9 times out of 10, it will turn out to be a nightmare.
BUT-student projects or people just getting together to have fun making a video or for a worthy cause-do not post promises of future paid work. They state it is a student or volunteer project. They will be upfront! And hey if you feel like throwing your hat in for the cause, by all means do it, it is a way to meet more people in the biz.
There are valid gigs on Craiglist. You just have to filter through all of the noise and respond to the ones you think are valid. Use your gut, if red flags are waving, then click off.
Look on Craigslist in the following sections: Under Jobs-TV/Film/Video, Under Gigs-Creative and Crew.
5. Managing Clients
Yeah you have your first gig! But oh no, you got a call for another gig and they are both on the same day!
Here is where the art of the “hold” or “penciled in” comes into play. So many times larger production companies, ad agencies, etc, will put a whole shoot together without having the 100% green light from their client. This happens more at the large corporate level than anywhere else. Or the producers for a reality show may pull back on a shoot at the last minute and only want two PAs instead of four. And national TV new outfits have a whole system of “hold” and “release” terms with payment ramifications and cut off times from a “hold” to a “go.”
So what do you do?
Well first off, if you are booked and it is going to happen, then you are booked. You really have to weigh your options if you are booked on a gig and you get a call for another gig on the same day that is going to pay you a little more money or has better networking opportunities. You really have think hard about canceling on someone. How will it affect your relationship with that company or that person? This industry is very small, and word spreads fast if you don’t honor commitments.
But let’s say you are helping out your buddies on a short film and Martin Scorsese calls. Well, be honest and explain your situation to your friends and help them find someone else to replace you.
On the other hand if you are on a “hold” and another gig comes along, call the first gig and ask if it is really going to happen. If they can’t give you answer or need more time, then tell them that you can take another gig so you won’t be available anymore. Don’t worry!! Producers deal with this all the time, you won’t be black balled or talked bad about. The producer will respect your honesty. No producer or coordinator wants surprises; they want to know everything up front. And always say, “Keep me in mind for your next project.”
And if you are working for a small gig, like writing a script, just manage your time wisely.
Do you need to get a production liability insurance policy? Not unless you are going to be creating the entire production, hiring the crew, renting gear, etc. Then you are responsible for the production and you need it. You can’t pull permit or even get on some locati
ons without it. But if you are just being hired to be on the production team, then the production company will be responsible. And the production company should carry sufficient Workmen’s Comp insurance in case something happens to you on the shoot. It is a gray area, but even volunteers on shoots can be covered under Workmen’s Comp. Even if you are only on set for one day, you still will be covered. If you ever feel weird about a project, ask the producer if they have insurance. If they get mad at you for asking, then that is a red flag!!!
Medical Insurance on the other hand is the big issue. I still struggle with this. When I was at NBC as a freelancer, my union, NABET, worked with NBC so we could be part of the Entertainment Industry Flex Plan. I paid for the insurance, it was cheap because we were part of a large group and NBC managed the payments. And it was really great insurance. The catch was that you had to work so many days per year at a participating TV station to be part of the plan. When I left NBC, and after my Cobra ran out, I was faced with a huge dilemma.
There really is no one-way to go about this. And in some states, like Illinois, it is illegal for non profit member groups to come together and offer a group medical insurance plan. And if you have a pre-existing condition, until 2022, you can’t get individual insurance; you have to be part of an employer group. The state of Illinois has an ICHIP program to help people like this, but prices vary.
Michelle De Long is the Executive Producer/President of Mimi Productions, a television and video production company in Chicago. Michelle spent 15 years as a freelancer at NBC News, has freelanced for ABC, CBS, FOX, Hallmark Channel, the City of Chicago and many other media outlets. Michelle has never had a “full time” job in her entire working career and has used that savvy to build her business, Mimi Productions, from the ground up. http://www.mimiproductions.com