Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

An Untraditional Approach To Getting Your Start In The Film Industry


Since writing my blog posts on Film School and Breaking Into The Industry, I have received a number of emails asking for specific advice about getting one's start in the film industry. As I have responded to these emails it has helped me to formalize my thoughts into the following bits of advice. I believe that if you follow what I've outlined here, you will be setting yourself up for success in the film industry. It is not a traditional approach, but then again, this is not a traditional industry...

Before diving into my thoughts, I need to offer a word of caution. I do not know your situation, your values, or your resources. What I offer here is free advice- you are getting what you have paid for. ;) In the end you are the only one who has to live your life, and no one can make your choices for you. So seek as much input as you can, but be sure to go with route that is the best fit for who you are, regardless of what anyone else says. I cannot guarantee, or promise, success. I can only offer what I think are steps that will set you up to make it long-term in the film business.

An Untraditional Approach...

Get Rid Of Your Backup Plan
In my article on Film School: To Go Or Not To Go, I ran the numbers showing what the costs would be for school loans and what the potential income would be for someone starting out in the business. By doing some simple math it is easy to see that the burden of school loans will prohibit many people from following their dreams in the film industry.

Knowing the potential for these very real financial hardships, I have often been asked about smart backup plans- like majoring in business, finance, or another lucrative field. And while I think that there is a lot of wisdom in having a background in business (many artists are awful business people), that backup plan will most likely lead to the same financial hardships of Film School. Regardless of what you major in college, 6 months after you graduate you will be straddled with school loans, and facing an industry where you will start out as a low paying PA (Production Assistant). The film industry doesn't care if you have a film degree, and it cares even less that you have a business degree.

(You might also like: How To Determine Your Day Rate)

Those degrees will payoff in the long term with life experience, and networking opportunities. But if you can't capitalize on that when you graduate, and you are forced into another career path due to the cost of living, then really what is the point? If it isn't getting you to where you want to be, it isn't worth pursuing.

Safety nets are comforting- but that net could end up strangling you...


Get Out And Freelance / Intern
So if film school and a backup plan is not the answer, what should you do? Instead of going to college straight out of high school, I highly recommend that you go out and intern or PA. Spend at least 2 years, maybe even three, working in the industry. When you graduate from high school you are at a unique stage of life that you will never have again. You often have the safety and support of your parents, and you do not have the financial responsibilities of life/adulthood. I recommend taking advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Friends and family may look at you like you are crazy by not going to school. And that is okay. By spending time actually working in the film industry you will be accomplishing two very important goals. First, you will be gaining real life experience that will make you more marketable while you build your referral network. And second, you will be able to see if this lifestyle is a good fit for you. The film industry is tough, hard, and unforgiving. It is not the right fit for everyone. You are going to have to sacrifice a lot- sleep, a normal schedule, relationships, a social life... it is one of the most "glamorous" blue collar jobs out there.


The worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is to spend $80,000 - $160,000 on a program only to realize afterwards that it is not a career or lifestyle you want to live. A 2 - 3 year investment of your time upfront is worth avoiding that mistake. And the upside is that, regardless of the path you choose, when the 2-3 years is up you will not have an expensive school loan to pay back. Your options are still wide open.

Invest In Yourself
Always be a lifelong learner. Even if you find the dream internship where you are taught everything, never stop reading books or scouring the internet for further learning. And most importantly, get out and experiment as much as possible. If you are going to spend any money at all during your 2-3 years of interning and freelancing when you first start out, it should be in those areas.

Do whatever it takes to make your dream a reality. If that means moving to another part of the country to be near someone so that you can intern for them- do it. If that means living at your parents after high school to keep you expenses low and schedule open, do it. Think creatively, and don't conform to "the norm"...

No one in this business will hold your hand, so you are going to have to do it yourself if you want to succeed.

Become An Overnight Success (10 years in the making)
Despite what the media or social networks may have us believe, there are no overnight successes- especially in this industry. Two or three years of interning/freelancing will not make you rich or successful. It is a long, slow road. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. I've been at this since 1998, and only now do I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere, and things are starting to take off.

You are going to have to put in your 10,000 hours- that is how you will become an overnight success- just like everyone else. If you structure your life so that you can pursue what you love, and you have the time to actually do it, then over the long haul you will succeed.

So what are you waiting for? You'd better get started on those hours now...

What do you think? Do you have any other words of advice to give to those who are just starting out? What has worked for you?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
See Older Posts...