12 October 2010

You Can't Eat Critical Acclaim, Part 1

I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

--Allen Ginsberg, "America"

This is probably a long time coming, but my process of moving and finding a new base of operations requires that I, you know, find a way to pay the rent.

Of course, you can always live in your car, but it's tricky getting the Post Office to forward your mail there.

There's all sorts of methods creative types use to pay the bills, but they've all got their downsides. Either the pay is terrible or the hours are terrible or there's no flexibility. Or you can temp. A lot of filmmakers shoot wedding videos or corporate HR videos or other such freelance projects. The problem quickly becomes that you spend so much time trying to get clients that you quickly become a guy who shoots wedding videos and cease to be a filmmaker. It's hard enough trying to keep one of those businesses going if that's all you want to do.

Got any good solutions? Let's hear them.

As usual, I'm sure there's a better way. (It's kind of something I'm good at, fixing bad processes)

For a filmmaker looking for a day job (and I mean a real, career-oriented filmmaker with an audience and a filmography, not someone fresh out of film school who's getting started), there's a couple of priorities in a day job:

1. A flexible schedule

It's commonly misunderstood. We don't lean toward freelancing because of our inability to get up early (well, that might be part of it) or because we don't have any shirts that aren't t-shirts (also part of it). It's because of the schedule.

The single biggest stumbling block in so many film projects is trying to coordinate schedules. So if you can get a schedule that's flexible enough that you can, say, film on a random Tuesday and Wednesday from 6am-8pm without having to use your personal days or anything, that's gold.

That doesn't mean you call your boss on Monday at 10pm and tell him you won't be in tomorrow. It means that as soon as you have a project on the horizon, you let your boss know. And then you keep him updated. There's no reason a forward-thinking employer and a forward-thinking employee can't figure out a way to make this work[1].

I can't even count the number of jobs I've lost/left because I've said to my boss, "In a month, I'm going to need a couple days off to do this project." The boss says, "Well, we can't let you do that."

It's not really optional, you know? Filmmaking is my career. The day job is my day job. Guess which is going to win?

This isn't really complicated. We need to be able to take time off without it affecting our rent payments. We need to be able to work from home, at least part of the time. In part 2, I'll explain why we're worth it.

2. Money

We like money just as much as you do. We have bills to pay, same as you. In a day job, we expect to be fairly compensated. I've worked several jobs where I've been paid less than other employees at my level, simply because they figured they could get away with it, seeing as I'm a starving artist. Bad karma for them.

3. Financial stability

It'd be really nice to come back from, say, shooting a feature in the woods of Northern Maine and have a day job waiting for me. Is that so hard to understand?

There's a truism in HR: "Replacing someone who leaves generally costs four times that person’s salary when recruitment and training cost are factored in." Four times!

Wouldn't it just be easier to get a good employee and let them go shoot a feature for a month or two? It'd be cheaper, that's for sure. I don't understand why more businesses aren't more cognizant of this. Isn't it Efficiency 101?

Let's do the math. You're paying a creative person $36,000 a year, which comes to $3k a month. Employee needs two months off to go to wherever and make a film. Even if you paid them for that time, the cost to you is $6k. They come back and not only do you still have that employee, but they're incredibly happy because they have such an amazing boss. Happier employees are more productive, etc, etc.

Or you could let them go. Four times $36k is $144,000. Maybe you get a better employee. Maybe you get a worse employee. Either way, you have an Expected Value of -$138,000. I can't think of too many reasons to make a decision with that negative of an expectation.

You could let them take two months a year to make a film every year for 24 years in a row before that became a losing proposition for you.

4. A sense of purpose

Here's the big secret: we don't get a sense of purpose from our day jobs. A lot of employees do, and that's great. We get our sense of purpose from our films. That's our career. That's what we want to be doing. So our "day job sense of purpose" is directly tied to how we feel it impacts our career. If it seems like we're wasting our time and it's getting in the way of projects, we aren't happy. But, if it feels like we're doing something that allows us to further our career by providing a financial safety net, we're much, much happier.

None of the other stuff that a company normally does to make employees happy matters all that much. When you have that pizza party that everyone in the office looks forward to, guess where you can find us? That's right, in the corner, working on a script.

We don't care about Employee Appreciation Day. We don't want a Dundie. We want to feel like we aren't wasting our time. I can't speak for other filmmakers, but what keeps me up nights is the fear of turning 50 and not having made any of the films I want to make.

Does that make me a bad potential employee? No. Actually, it makes me a really good one, given the right opportunity. And in part 2, I'll explain why.


[1] Obviously there are reasons, but they're pretty specific to situations. If you want to work at, say, Apple, you probably aren't going to be able to film during iPhone crunch time. But you know that ahead of time. You can work around it.


/britmic said...

that all really resonates with me. it was the reason my first stable day-job whilst living in London was working in the Ticketmaster callcentre - where schedules were done on a weekly basis, pick and choose your hours. this gave me loads of time to work on other people's stuff and for at least one British director who is now a household name (back then he just seemed like a quiet but well connected fellow - if only i had known then what i know now!)

fast forward, errr, 15 years or so and i now work at a large corporate which with my duration of service allows me 25 days paid leave. of course, i see that as 25 days to make movies full-time (though the rest of my family insists i take at least a couple of weeks with them - yes - somehow i also found the time to be in a stable relationship and have kids).

i'm not sure how i got from there to here, but i do know i've continued finishing my own movie projects along the way - and things like #2wkfilm and #lgm help rekindle the flame and let me know i'm not the only one.