Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The 2 Things You Need To Know To Break Into The Film Industry

(Filming A WWII Spec Piece)
After publishing my articles on How To Succeed As A Freelancer and How To Determine Your Day Rate I have received emails asking me how I broke into the film industry. As I have been reflecting on how I got my start, I realized it can be boiled down to two simple principles. By applying these principles to your career, you will be able to break into the film industry and grow your career.

Principle 01: It is not about what you know; it is about who you know.

I picked up my first camera in Jr. High School and ran around making short films on VHS with my friends. It was then that I realized I not only had a talent for the visual arts, but I had a passion for it as well. In high school I talked multiple teachers into letting me create video projects instead of papers. By the time I got to college, friends and family had started to pay me to produce work for them. This money was a great way to pay for the tools, but it wasn't the direction that I wanted to head in. I wanted to actually work in the film industry. I needed a way to break in.

As a young 20-year-old I had no clue how to get my start. So I picked up the phone book (yes this was a long time ago!) and found the listings for the production companies in town. For those of you who don't know what a phone book is, it is this book with a yellow cover that gets delivered to my doorstep every so often and makes the journey 20 feet into my recycle bin ;)  Next I spent hours putting together a finely tuned resume and samples of my work. When I thought I had the perfect resume and samples of my work, I sent them out to every production company in my area. I figured it would only be a matter of time before the phone calls would start to roll in and I would have my pick of jobs. But there was only silence.

During this same time I had a day job at a bank. Fortunately for me, I handled the transactions and account maintenance of our business customers. As I developed relationships with each customer I realized that one of them was a local production company. So I made a concerted effort to get to know the company and the owners. It was through my many conversations with them that I found my way to break in - they had an internship program. I asked if I could participate in the internship program and they said yes.  I didn't have to give them my resume, or show samples of my work. It was solely based on the relationship we had built. Lesson learned. It is not WHAT you know, it is WHO you know that matters.

This principle continues to hold true in my career today. Each new opportunity has come through relationships that I have built. The more people that I build connections with, the more opportunities I have and the more work comes in. With the proliferation of the internet, it is even easier to connect with people in the industry. Theoretically, networking should be even easier to do than when I began.

If you want to break into this business, I can't stress the importance of networking and building relationships enough. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Email - these are all tools that you can start using now to connect with people in the industry, both locally and internationally. But don't limit your networking to only the internet. Find ways to network face-to-face. In my area there are industry events that are put on by the OMPA, there are user groups, and there is the Film Office. These are all great ways to find local networking opportunities. Another idea is to use online user forums to find other people in your area to network with. The more creative you are, the better. Use whatever tools you have available to you to build these relationships. Otherwise, you will just be another face in the crowd.

(Stuck in a bucket, trying to get down ...)
Principle 02: Nobody cares what you know until you can prove that you are worth listening to.

One of the drawbacks that I experienced, having an education and minimal experience, is that I had knowledge with very little real-life experience to back it up. As I began my career as an office PA (creating and filing documents for production) no one cared that I had a wealth of knowledge to impart to the production. The only thing that mattered was my job performance. Could I be given a task and complete it? Each time I proved myself, I was given more responsibilities and more opportunities to be on set. And slowly I worked my way up. As I moved up, people would become more interested in what I had to contribute to the production.

The best piece of advice I can give you about moving up in the film industry is to know your place/role, and to work hard to deliver the best results possible. No task is too small or too mundane. The better you perform, the more people will take notice. The more people take notice, the more you will be able to contribute to a production. If you keep at it, and consistently deliver quality work, over time you will succeed- guaranteed.

When it comes to proving that you are worth listening to, here are some traps to avoid as you start your career.
  • Getting Distracted By What Is Happening on Set
    • You have a job to complete and if you don't get it done you will hold up production, which is a costly mistake. No matter how small the task, don't let what is happening on set distract you from the task you have been assigned. The time to talk shop is during lunch.
  • Not Knowing Your Place
    • A PA (Production Assistant) is one of the lowest positions on set. If you are a PA and you decide to adjust marks on set, readjust the lighting, or give notes to the actors, you are operating outside of your role. This can have disastrous consequences to peoples' safety, and to your career. There could be thousand of reasons why something is set the way it is. If you want to bring up a concern, you need to do it through the proper channels. Go to your immediate superior and talk with them. They will know if it should be addressed, and who should be addressing it. If it is a real issue, you could be seen as a hero on set by bringing it up through the proper channels. If it is not, and you handle it improperly, you could be shown the door.
  • Not Knowing Who You Are Talking To
    • When you get the call sheet, study it. When you arrive on set, figure out who everyone is. Talking to someone you shouldn't talk to can be the quickest way to be fired. I have seen PA's make an off-handed remark to the client, which led to the client becoming concerned about an issue that doesn't matter. This, of course, held up production (not a good thing). If you are ever in doubt, only talk about the areas you have responsibility for, and do not offer advice or input outside of those boundaries.
  • Talking About Your Other Projects
    • When you are starting out, it can be very exciting to be working on a number of projects, and you may even have some projects of your own lined up. But no matter how excited you are about them, keep it to yourself. If you are always talking on set about how great your other projects are, you will be perceived as not being present or committed to the task at hand. You are there to complete a job, not to pitch people on your other projects, or to tell them how great you are at X, Y, or Z. Prove that through your value through your work, not your talk.
Does anybody care WHAT you know?
What you know matters. It is the what, and your performance that will keep work coming in. If you don't know anything, and you can't perform, people will realize this and stop calling. However, the what is not important to getting your start, or to furthering your referral stream. It first starts with the who you know, and then moves to proving yourself through your work. If you focus your time and energy on these two things you will find that you will have an easier time breaking into the industry, and growing your career.

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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