Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Three Reasons Why It Is Bad Business To Be A Cinematographer

Photo By: Levi Moroshan
As someone who is committed to lifelong learning and continual self-reflection, this last year has brought with it an evaluation of where I'm at and where I am headed. I've come to the conclusion, after a lot of soul searching, that it is bad business to be a cinematographer. That is not to say that I do not love what I do. I feel very blessed to be paid to do what I love. I still can't believe that people give me money to do this! But that doesn't mean it makes for good business. Here are three reasons why it's bad business, and what I wish I knew 5-10 years ago.

Although what I write here is geared towards the camera department and cinematographers, I think it applies to anyone in any creative field. As always, take what I say with a grain of salt- as I am offering my own perspective and experience.

Bad Business Reason 01: The Digital Revolution
Although I still have a soft spot for film, I love the opportunities that the digital revolution has opened up to the visual arts. Not only has it allowed us to get cameras into spaces that once were impossible, but it has lowered the barrier to entry. For well under $1,000, anyone can pick up a quality camera to shoot their films. That means that people can start learning earlier in life, get more experience sooner, and be more skilled at a younger age.

And while the digital revolution has brought with it new opportunity, and it has removed the barriers to entry, it has also brought with it an unintended consequence of the evaporation of the middle market. Over the last several years, I have seen a drastic change in the type of projects that I shoot. It used to be that my commercial projects would split as follows: 25% Low Budget (>$10,000) / 50% Middle ($10,000 - $100,000) / 25% High ($100,000+). These days it seems that the split has changed to 40% Low, 20% Middle, and 40% High.

People who value quality and experience will be willing to pay for it. But there seems to be a trend these days. People think that because the gear is so affordable, the crew behind the gear should be paid peanuts as well. So with the downward pressure of gear prices, and the struggling economy, it has been my experience that the cushy middle-range projects are drying up.

This makes for bad business, because it stalls growth and development of skills. These days we are being asked to deliver more with less-less crew, less equipment, less experience. Since anyone can buy a camera, at the low end there is a glut in the market. In my area, I have seen people rent themselves and their Scarlet package out for $200 per day. There seems to be a never-ending supply of people who offer themselves up this way. So, from a market perspective, why should anyone pay more than that? If someone has a choice between paying $1,200 or $200, and they are not picky, why not save $1,000?

But the problem is that the way you advance to high paying jobs is through working your way up the budget range. I didn't go from shooting a $5,000 commercial to a $250,000 commercial overnight. Although the principles of shooting are the same at either budget level, it is those mid-range jobs that paved the way for me to learn how to work with larger crews, tighter schedules, and higher demands. These were experiences that I could not get by just working on low end projects.

Yes, I know Autodesk is misspelled - so much for trusting auto correct! :)

Bad Business Reason 02: The Self-Employed Dilemma
When I first struck out on my own in self-employment, I thought it was amazing! Although it was filled with ups and downs financially, I loved that I was my own boss. I could determine what I worked on, and what my schedule looked liked. Over the years I was able to raise my rates, make more money and work on more rewarding projects. I thought I had a pretty good setup.

Unfortunately, that was short-term thinking. When you become self-employed, you are setting yourself up for a cap on how much you can make. By definition, there is only so much you can make, as there is only one of you. While you can raise your rates to make more money, there are only so many hours in the day, and there are only so many projects that will hire you at those rates (especially with the downward pressure on budgets these days…).

So, if we, the self-employed, want to make more money, then we are left with the following options: work every possible hour of every day, or lower your living expenses to open up a greater profit margin. This self-imposed cap to how much we can make just doesn't make for good business, in my opinion.

Bad Business Reason 03: Long-Term Sustainability
As I look at reason 01 and reason 02, and then project another 30 years in the future, the longer-term projections do not look good. Let's say that I take the route of working every possible hour of every day on every project that comes my way. I will now be making more money, but at what cost, and how long can I sustain it?

Right now my body is in good health, and I can work a 10-14 hour day lugging camera equipment and lights around no problem. But will I be able to do that when I'm 60? With the smaller crews today, I think it is foolish to think that I will have a large enough crew to do the work for me. I guess I could hope that the trend of lighter, smaller equipment continues - but I think that is a bit of a gamble. I think there will always a be a need to set up some kind of equipment…

As I look at the long-term sustainability of the path that I have chosen, it looks like it is adding up to a bad business move. The fact that I love it, I'm good at it, and people pay me to do it doesn't override the realities of business...

Small Camera + Small Crew + All Over Town = A Long & Tiring Day

What I Wish I Knew 5-10 Years Ago
As I look back over my career, I wish that I would have had this kind of foresight when I was just starting out. Heck, even having thought and evaluated this 5-10 years ago would have meant that I would be on a much better long-term financial path today. If I had to do it over again, here is what I would have done, and what I recommend to others who are just beginning:

Invest in yourself, not in gear.
It is tempting to own cool gear. Having owned many cameras, even a Red One and Epic, I know how much fun that can be. And while I know that at times it got me the job, I can't help but think how that was such short-term thinking. What I should have done was taken that same amount of money and put it into investing in myself (instead, what I did was I put a lot of money into other people's pockets, making them rich and financially successful).

What I should have been investing in was revenue streams that allow for passive income. That means buying other businesses, rental properties, building a larger stock video library, investing in the stock market, or developing my own business system that can make money regardless of if I am there or not. (And that is the key difference between the self-employed, and the business owner. The self-employed is the system, where as the business owner owns the system which works regardless of the business owners presence.)

(If you want to get into stock video check out my Ultimate Guide To Getting Your Start In Stock Video).

Don't buy into the "American Dream."
If you do what everyone else does, you can expect to get what everyone else has. And as hyped up as the "American Dream" is, as I look around me, I'm not sure that is it all that it's cracked up to be. The majority of Americans are overworked, under paid, and one or two paychecks away from bankruptcy. If that sounds exciting to you, go for it. I, on the other hand, am going to look for another path...

Get your finances in order and keep them that way.
Yes, I know, we're not supposed to talk about money, politics, or religion in mixed company. But as creatives, we don't have that luxury. The truth is most of us are self-employed, and if we are going to set ourselves up for long-term financial success, we need to have a firm grasp on our finances. We need to know where all of our money is going, and then we need to do whatever we can to open up as much money as possible to invest in ourselves. Eliminate your debt, and then use that to invest.

Get Educated NOW.
I am a firm believer that you can teach an old dog new tricks if the dog is willing to change. And although I'm getting a later start (I'm in my early 30's), I don't think it is too late for me, or for anyone older than myself. The only thing that holds me back is my willingness to change my thinking and admit that the path I was on wasn't making good business sense. (Even if it is a rewarding professional choice.)

Now that I've accepted that, and opened myself up for change, it is time to further my financial education. My financial education began by reading a pdf called Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and then following it up by reading The Cashflow Quadrant, and Think & Grow Rich. (You can get the audio version at that link). If you read them in that order, you will be well equipped to change your thinking and your financial future. I do want to provide a word of caution- your reading list will grow exponentially. I now have about 10 more books to read on my To Read List, and the list is still growing… I'd also recommend getting & regularly playing Cashflow 101. I've found it to be a helpful and fun way to test out different financial strategies without having to risk my own money or years of time.

So What Do I Get If I Follow Your Advice?
Honestly, I can't say that I'm there yet, so I don't know. I can say that I am now investing in myself, I have eliminated all my debt, and I am educating myself in the area of finances. So I am in the process of following my own advice, but I haven't arrived.

I do know that the model I see all around me doesn't work. So it is time to do something different. My end goal is to invest in myself, and invest in developing systems around me that can grow and provide income regardless of my own physical limitations. By paying attention to my business, I can ensure that I can continue in my profession (cinematography) indefinitely- even if it gets to the point where it only pays minimum wage, or my aging body can only handle a few jobs a year.

Working harder was great for the industrial age; that worked back then. But today we find ourselves in the Information Age, so it is time to work smarter. :)

I've got some exciting things up my sleeve for the coming year, so stay tuned there will be some fun changes ahead …

What do you think, am I completely crazy? What advice do you have when it comes to business and being a creative?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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