When you get a call for a shoot where the rate is $$$, you’re mostly thinking, “I hope I’m available.” Especially if it’s with a solid crew or a really cool concept. But in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic, you also need to be aware of the exposure risks you’re accepting when you say: “Yes, I can do it!”
How to get Jobs in the Film Industry
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In an interview with American Cinematographer originally published five years ago:
I probably look for the same qualities everyone else looks for when they hire people. I generally look for someone who’s both pleasant and technically astute. For example, if I’m hiring a camera operator, he has to be able to fulfill his primary function, but I also want that person to be able to help the assistant get everything put together properly, anticipate any problems that might arise, and so on. I don’t want a situation where he’s operating one moment and making phone calls the next. The operator has to be intelligent and able to relate well to actors. I feel most comfortable with someone who’s smart, specific and easy to deal with. It’s the same with the assistant cameraman — who, I think, has one of the most difficult jobs on the set.
Being technically competent is an obvious prerequisite for the camera department and everyone wants to work with someone who’s smart, but being “pleasant” and “easy to deal with” are two underrated qualities that make those above-the-line more likely to hire you for the next job.
The rest of the interview is well-worth reading for more of the late cinematographer’s pragmatic wisdom and sarcastic cynicism: “…that’s the nature of the business: It’s okay to approve an extra 20 feet for the star’s trailer, but if you need one more grip for a day, you can forget it!”
Digital Bolex’s Elle Schneider writes about the company’s plan to offer a couple of D16 camera packages for free to productions that are lensed by women cinematographers:
Just listen to the way men explain technology to women at a trade show and this dichotomy becomes readily clear. Women are expected not to be able to use technology, instead of trying it for themselves and playing, they must be hand held, guided, ‘splained. And that’s a huge turn off to wanting to participate. It’s not a surprise to me that 99 of 100 requests I get to borrow one of our cameras for a project come from men. Women are taught not to ask. And if we as a company choose to work with, say, 5% of people requesting cameras, the numbers aren’t looking too great for the ladyfolk.
But let’s say that’s not the case. Let’s say a woman has surpassed all these odds, and has a fancy camera and knows how to use it. Would the industry be willing to accept the potential of such a woman and hire her to shoot a film?
I think so.
Which is why I’m going to stop soapboxing on the internet (okay, maybe not) and put my money where my mouth is. I’m very pleased to announce the Digital Bolex Grant for Women Cinematographers.
Starting this summer, we will be offering a pair of Digital Bolex D16 kits, featuring $10,000 in gear and accessories from some wonderful soon-to-be-announced sponsors, on a rolling basis to any narrative short or feature film project to be shot by a female cinematographer.
An excellent idea, especially considering how the numbers of women in film add up.
We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test — featuring women in stronger roles — see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.
On the first test, we ran a regression to find out if passing the Bechdel test corresponded to lower return on investment. Controlling for the movie’s budget, which has a negative and significant relationship to a film’s return on investment, passing the Bechdel test had no effect on the film’s return on investment. In other words, adding women to a film’s cast didn’t hurt its investors’ returns, contrary to what Hollywood investors seem to believe.
The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent.
These two charts from their analysis really say it all:
So, movies that pass the Bechdel test have a better return-on-investment, but the filmmakers working on these films are given less money. What’s up with that? FiveThirtyEight asked the same question:
In the top 100 grossing films of 2012, women accounted for 4.1 percent of directors, 12.2 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers, according to a 2013 study by Stacy Smith, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Of 4,475 speaking roles in those films, 28.4 percent were women. Smith says when more women were involved in the production of a film, it was more likely to have female cast members. In short, when one gender dominates the creative process for a picture, that comes out on the screen.
Bingo. Because women are underrepresented behind the camera, so goes in front of the camera.**
If more women behind the camera means more women on screen which, in turn, means more money made at the box office and pumped into the industry, well, that’s a win-win (not to mention the obvious moral imperative for more equality). Plus, as women fill roles above-the-line in greater numbers, I think you’ll see more below-the-line as well.
* As FiveThirtyEight acknowledges, the Bechdel test isn’t perfect. More on the limitations of the test here.
** The stats are even worse for cinematographers (only 3% were women out of the top 250 films of 2013).
Linda Essig takes a stand against a donut shop company that sent a mass-email looking for film students to shoot a promotional video in exchange for “some good experience” and “a dozen free glazed doughnuts every week for an entire year”:
The email was sent to a long list of faculty members at film programs in the region. I hit reply all with the question “What is your pay rate for these skilled services?”
Predictably, there was no pay-rate – unless you consider a dozen donuts a week for a year payment.
(Side note: why not just take the cost of free donuts and make that the rate? Cost of a dozen donuts is $5 – $8. Assuming the profit is about $3 per dozen, that’s $150 right there. An extraordinarily low rate, of course, but these are students who are looking for experience and it can at least help pay the bills.)
There was no payment because it was a “volunteer/intern opportunity.” That triggered Essig to push further and she replied with US Department of Labor rules of an “internship,” but it fell on deaf ears.
Notably, Essig doesn’t rule out freebies or internships as a viable pathway to gain experience. Instead she’s speaking out against companies using them purely for free labor and not as a partnership in which the gains are less lopsided between the parties.
And so, to bolster that point of positivity, a few days later she wrote a post about saying “yes”:
Just – or even more – important than knowing when to say “no,” is knowing when and how to say “yes.” Giving builds community; giving builds friendships; giving builds social capital (although one need not think of it in those terms); giving lifts the spirit of both the giver and receiver. We may give of our time, we may give of our money, we may give of our things, we may give of our talent. Related to giving is sharing – we may share knowledge, share food, share an experience (good or bad), without any exchange of material goods.
I’m glad she wrote the second post because there are some genuinely good opportunities that unfortunately offer little to no-pay. I started off my career as an AC this way and have built several connections in my network with pro-bono work.
The key is knowing when you’re getting hosed and when it’s an investment in a relationship that could pay off later. That’s something I talk about in my post “Pay Me, Teach Me, or Create with Me” in which I basically say a project has to offer me money, worthwhile experience/networking, and-or creative satisfaction. The interplay between these things drives my decision to accept or reject a job.
Unfortunately, the donut project had no money, didn’t sound that interesting, the learning opportunity seemed limited, and it was a one-time thing with no tangible promise of networking.
Working in a rental house has always been pitched to beginners wanting to get into the camera department as a solid entry-way into the biz. The caveat is that you’re giving up some of what makes the film industry attractive – like a freelance schedule, working on set, making movies – in order to get your start. This rental tech, after close to 3 years on the job, agrees:
I’ll be honest, it did change me. I wanted to be a DP for the longest time, and I wanted to work from the bottom up over 20 years. Now, I’m not so sure. It definitely is a place you can get stuck. Remember the people that come in there are ACs already on shows not hiring, and if they need an extra hand, they don’t immediately think of the prep tech from the rental house.
That said, he does get work as an AC:
Lastly, I do get to set fairly often. I usually work as a 1st AC and am pretty well prepared to that affect, have a wireless FF, etc.
The rest of the AMA has great info on how consigned gear works, what cameras go out most often, and how camera assistants can work better with the rental house staff. Being a rental tech isn’t the most glamorous position, but it provides a stepping stone for a lot of people and they can be an AC’s best friend in a pinch.
Two of the hardest things to get a handle on in the film industry is how much you can expect to make and where the jobs are. Well, thanks to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can remove some of that guess work and find out about the average wage of a camera operator, where the most jobs are, and how much the industry is projected to grow.
Once the champagne’s gone flat and your hangover’s passed, it’s time for a fresh start in the new year. For many that means New Year’s Resolutions. While I’m not big on resolutions and promises to myself, there’s one thing I must improve on for more work and a better filmmaking career.
Recently I stumbled across a showreel for a camera assistant that I found, frankly, unimpressive and pointless. For a job that’s more technical than it is creative, do camera assistants do anything worth showing off in a reel? And, if so, is it valuable to have one?
Filmmaking isn’t only about directing or operating the camera. Crew, and all their various talents, fit into an incredibly complex filmmaking machine designed to grind hours into footage. So the question is: where do you fit within that machine? And what do you want to do on set?