Media Industry Career Trek

On Enterprise bridge, we see a film leader

Lots of people ask me: “How do I get a job in the media industry?”

This has always been a tricky question. But something has happened in the last few years to make this even more complicated. Naturally, it has to do with Star Trek…

But first, a little illustrative background

I went to film school and graduated as a screenwriter. My first job was… as an Avid video editor. Then I started producing and directing. Most of the writing I did was sculpting my boss’s politically sensitive interoffice emails. Flash forward past years of intense and circuitous skill-expanding mania—now I write, produce, direct, edit, and mograph (as of this moment I’m making “mograph” a verb) on TV shows, movies, commercials, industrials, docs, and live events. I do good work, get lots of creative control, get paid well, and there have been many rewarding and award-winning projects. But what do I want to do most and don’t have much time for? Writing.

Media careers on the Enterprise

Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise.In a nutshell, for any media project to get finished, a bunch to stuff has to get done. In the old days, there was a person for each bit of “stuff.” And that’s true today on well-funded movies, commercials, etc. and in big production companies. Each project has a producer, writer, director, cinematographer, production crew, editor, graphics guy, sound designer, mixer, colorist, etc. etc. as needed—and theoretically these people are all different people.

The idea is, if someone wants to be editor, they learn how to edit try to find a job as an editor.  Often, folks who specialize get really really good at what they do.

The shift from specialization to non-specialization has been going on for years now…

Spock spock spock spockHere’s the trick—most projects nowadays simply do not have the funding nor the time to get a full crew.  The mind-boggling democratization of media production power and the insatiable consumption of media by the public have created a new quadrant of the media galaxy, rapidly taking over the others. My first video production boss said: “Good, fast, cheap—they can pick any two.” But come on, have you ever had client agree with that?

In my experience (and rule #1 in this industry is get input from lots of different people), you are much more likely to get a job as an editor if you can shoot and you know some mograph (it’s a noun again). You are much more likely to direct something if you can write and produce. Many production companies these days simply can’t afford to keep a full-time writer or director, let alone editor. A few years ago they could charge $250/hour for editing time on their $500,000 Avid on hard drives that costed $1000 per gigabyte, and shooting HD was a wild extravagance. Those prices don’t usually fly anymore. Not when I’ve got uncompressed 4K raw running on a $2500 machine in machine in my basement baby!  The mighty producer-editor is someone to be reckoned with these days.

The idea is, a Starfleet cadet gets lots of skills and gets a job cranking out good, cheap media.  It doesn’t mean one person wears every single hat (as only Spock could), but the idea is that you make yourself very marketable by becoming a jack of many trades.

So am I recommending the all-Spock approach?

Not necessarily.  It’s just something to be aware of. I was well on my way to becoming an uber-Spock when I offered a job to a film school buddy of mine. He said, basically: “No way, man. I don’t want to get stuck.” Now he makes docs for HBO and directs big commercials. Other guys I know funded their reels right out of film school (by forking over the dough to produce super high-end spec commercials), got repped, and now make insane day rates.

On the other hand, I also know many master “specialists” who struggle to find work, big time. Ultimately, they’ve had to acquire new skills to get enough jobs to feed their families. A super talented actor friend of mine makes a living doing After Effects work. And I remember a high-end Director of Photography—whose reel blew mine away—who came to me for a job, and I couldn’t hire him because all he could do was shoot. Just writing that makes me feel like a jerk!

On the OTHER hand… Just because you have a DSLR and understand depth of field, it doesn’t make you a professional director of photography.  On the OTHER OTHER hand… just because you have an agent, it doesn’t mean you can write a screenplay worth a darn.  On the OTHER OTHER OTHER hand…

Ultimately, I think every media pro should…

…specialize. You can’t be awesome at everything. And I don’t think it would be that fun. For one thing, it’s too much work wearing all those hats! For another, it’s really wonderful to collaborate with others who are stellar in their individual fields.

The real question is, how do you make a living until you’re able to do what you love most?

Most of the biggest movies, TV shows, commercials, etc. are made with a full and specialized crew.  But then again, some amazing things, including feature films, are being made by indie nuts wearing lots of hats.

For me, starting out I couldn’t make a living without wearing lots of hats. And there have been some surprisingly fun moments in my quest for diversity—such as doing things I thought I’d never do, like producing live shows and feeling the energy of thousands of people going nuts.  And when it’s time for some job hunting, I flatter myself that I could get hired in a lot of different places.

It’s worked well for me and my family, but I’ve found that I’m good at lots of things, but not AWESOME at the skill I want most.  I’ve had put off my true passions for years and work ludicrous hours to get an audience with my muse.  Then again, had I focused on a specialty from the beginning, would I have avoided the challenges I had?  Uggh.  It’s maddening!

Engaging the warp drive

Star Trek UNO game cards

Star Trek UNO rocks!

I’ve duped you into reading all this way and I actually don’t have the answer! Sorry, everyone’s path through this tangled industry is different. I don’t have a ton of advice, just information. But when I got out of film school, I was too dumb to acquire much of either.

I’m fairly certain however that the answer for everyone lies somewhere between these five coordinates:

 

  1. Get advice from lots of people—industry pros, your barber, your kids, grandma
  2. Be nice to people
  3. Have integrity
  4. Network – whether you’re great at one thing or a lot of things, people will hire you because they know and trust you
  5. Don’t freak out. The best things in life don’t have much to do with your career

Thoughts anyone??  Maybe together we can save the next generation of filmmakers a lot of heartache!

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5 Responses to “Media Industry Career Trek”

  1. Bruce October 18, 2013 10:19 am #

    Well said, Mr. Durham, well said…

  2. Gary October 19, 2013 12:16 pm #

    Thanks for writing this article, I especially like rule number 5. I tend to do it alot and I am still in film school

  3. Kelly October 19, 2013 7:54 pm #

    Nice article Gomez!

  4. Paul-Thomas October 20, 2013 8:59 pm #

    Hey Tom,
    Thanks for the insight I was actually just reading another article basically about the same thing on but no budget filmmaking or something like that.com

    Keep up the good work if you need any of my special skills I would love to work with you.

    -Paul-Thomas Parnell

  5. romanbruni November 7, 2013 8:17 am #

    well said & written uberTom ! I’d like to add that most people depart to leave film school
    awaiting for a job that will last to the end of life, but they also do not want to be full responsible for their tasks in the general scheme of things, because ‘it is not ”’their film””’
    then, the environment realises that, in order for the product film to be fully produced,
    a lot of temp works must be processed within a Ford machinery production paradigma.
    In my opinion, after years being ready for next job as a service provider,
    the clear path to prosperity is to be able to understand the need of becoming an entrepeneur face unclear paths to financial viabilities and ”build oneself on the road”.
    Once upon a time 1999 they asked me usd 3.000 to upload a video on a website
    but the guy did not know how to do it then, so I hired myself, bught a new computer
    and did the site and video myself, that was my screenplay workshop online basis.
    ergo a new creative paradigma must be vis a vis engeneered !
    cheers from Rio de Janeiro, RomanBruni story development consultant

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