If working in the film industry doesn't suit you for whatever reason, but you still want to make a living with your film skills, client work might be just what the doctor ordered.
Client work—or taking your filmmaking skills directly to the market—comes in two distinct flavors: freelancing as an individual and starting a production company.
Now, to be 100% honest, there’s not much difference between these two options other than scale and capability.
Full-blown production companies often have greater resources and more complex operating agreements/partnerships, which means they can take on bigger clients and larger projects.
Individual freelancers, on the other hand, can choose either to take on smaller clients directly, or find work through existing production companies who need help on those larger projects.
In the end, though, the ideas and mindsets necessary to succeed at both of these are similar. It all comes down to doing work for clients and getting paid for it.
There’s a lot of opportunity for freelance filmmakers in the digital world
In the past five or ten years, demand for video content has skyrocketed. Quite simply, companies and organizations of all types want videos because it’s one of the best tools around for connecting with people. In a nutshell, there’s plenty of work out there for filmmakers because video is a very hot commodity at the moment.
On the flip side, however, there are also way more people freelancing these days, thanks in no small part to DSLRs and other inexpensive filmmaking tools that make the barrier to entry extremely low.
So while there may be more and more work each year, it might feel as if it's getting harder to win jobs because there's more competition. Don't worry though, most of that competition is in the lower end of the market, and I'm going to tell you everything I know about landing higher end clients consistently.
The two most important things you need to know to succeed with client work
As someone who’s done his fair share of freelancing both as a camera operator and a writer, there are two things I know for certain.
1. It’s not enough to just be a good filmmaker. You’ve got to be a businessperson. You’ve got to know how to find clients, pitch them, and close the sale. You have to know the basics of accounting, marketing, and plenty of other business-y things that creatives typically don't like.
So many filmmakers think it’s enough to just have a cool demo reel. They post it to social media sites and on their website and expect clients to come to them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and filmmakers who try to make a living without marketing themselves almost always fail.
2. The most important thing you can do is to make your clients happy. Client work is a relationship business, and once you get started, you'll find your best clients are repeat clients and referral clients. So it’s going to pay off if you communicate well, do what you say you’re going to do (when you say you're going to do it), and are generally pleasant to work with.
This sounds like it should be obvious, but you'd be surprised at just how much you can differentiate yourself from other freelancers by consistently implementing these basics.
Pros of doing client work for a living
You can do it from just about anywhere in the world where there are local businesses that need video content.
Even if you’re not in an area where there are local business, you can still do certain types of freelance work with nothing more than an internet connection.
You get to “work for yourself” and “set your own schedule,” although that might still mean working 60 hours a week. Regardless, it can also free up significant time for passion projects once you’re financially secure.
The amount of money you can earn is only limited by two factors. How much you work, and the quality and budgets of your clients. You can’t always work more, but there are surefire ways to get better clients, so your earning potential is huge if you play your cards right.
Cons of client work
The bulk of your income will come from projects that aren’t creatively fulfilling or even interesting, at least when you’re just starting out. Lots of talking heads and b-roll.
Unless you have a solid, repeatable system in place to generate new business, your income won’t be stable. You’ll go through periods of feast and famine, and it can be difficult to weather those slow times unless you’re financially savvy.
Taxes. The first time you do your taxes as a freelancer, you’ll probably want to cry. You can avoid this by diligently setting aside 25% of everything you earn in a savings account, as well as tracking every single dollar you spend on your business. You'd be surprised at the number of things you can write off, so keep track of everything.
If you want to succeed with client work, you’re going to be doing a lot of marketing and selling and accounting. If you see yourself as purely a “creative filmmaker” or as someone who doesn’t “do business stuff,” then I’ve got bad news. Freelancing isn’t for you.
There are a lot of bad clients out there, especially on the lower end of the market. People will demand free “spec” work, they’ll hold your payments hostage, or not pay you at all, and plenty of other bullshit.
My best tips for succeeding as a client work professional
When you're just starting out, your "clients" will often be established production companies who need a helping hand on their larger productions. This is a great way to get your foot in the door and learn the ins and outs of client work before trying to start your own business (if that's even something you want to do).
Like in the film industry, people who do client work live and die by their reputations. The best way to thrive as a freelancer is be someone who clients want to hire again and refer to their friends.
One very, very easy way to set yourself apart from all of the low-quality freelancers is to just deliver work on time and on budget, and communicate effectively throughout the process. Seriously, it sounds so simple and obvious, but a lot of freelancers suck at this, and it destroys their chances of getting referred.
If you price your work as a commodity, you’ve already lost the game. The price of your work shouldn’t be dictated by what amateurs and bottom feeders are doing, but instead by what top quality clients are willing to pay for someone who can solve their specific business problems.
Speaking of which, most clients don’t really care about you, your gear, or what makes you “unique as a filmmaker.” Instead, they care about improving their bottom line. When you internalize this, you can position and market yourself much more effectively.
It follows that the best freelancers are the ones who do their research and put in the work to understand what their clients want. Find a market that you can serve well, learn what clients need (often by doing web research and having real conversations with potential clients), and then position yourself as the person who can give them exactly that. This is how you get out of the “low end” of the market, where everyone’s competing for the same shitty generic jobs and undercutting each other with lower and lower prices.
Beyond just knowing how to make films, learn hard skills like marketing, accounting, pitching and persuasion, and storytelling. And develop “soft skills” like communicating better, creative problem solving, leadership, and time management.
There will be bad clients, but the best thing to do is to take full responsibility and build systems and processes into your business for dealing with it. For instance, you can have a policy in your contract (you do have a contract, right?) that makes it clear that clients don’t get their deliverables until you’re paid in full. Don’t let yourself be a victim of bad clients.
Don't be afraid to team up with other freelancers on more ambitious projects. You can often deliver superior results by hiring a specialist or two than you could if you did all of the work yourself. Plus this is a great way to meet future partners (if you decide to start a production company) and future collaborators on your passion projects.
When you’re just getting started, non-spammy self-promotion and networking are the name of the game. Get out there (both online and offline) and authentically connect with people. In particular, you'll want to connect with other freelancers and production company owners, as well as potential clients in the niche you'd like to serve. When you have a large network full of people who not only like you, but know exactly what kind of work you do and who you do it for, the chances of new clients coming to you go up dramatically.
Above all, client work is a relationship business. The best way to succeed is to make your customers exceedingly happy. That’s how you get repeat business, and that’s how you get referrals.
Other things to keep in mind with freelancing
There are enormous online marketplaces designed for connecting freelancers with people looking to hire freelancers. Upwork and Fiverr are probably the most popular and widely-used of the bunch.
Unfortunately, even though these platforms are super convenient, you'll usually find that most of the work posted there is “bottom of the barrel.” What I mean by that is that clients are usually looking for the lowest price for something they see as a commodity. The same usually goes for jobs you find on Craigslist and places like that.
So, unless you’re looking for some side income without the expectation of it becoming a profitable venture, I’d probably avoid those types of sites.
That said, you might check out Movidiam. I haven’t used this service personally, but it’s designed to connect freelance filmmakers with businesses and agencies, and I’ve heard good things about it.
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Further Reading and Resources
Book: Book Yourself Solid - Michael Port
Book Yourself Solid is the gold standard for how to build a thriving client-based business. Definitely check this out if you want to build a repeatable system for booking new (and desirable) clients.
Book: Win Without Pitching Manifesto - Blair Enns
I actually haven’t read this one, but it comes highly recommended from a few freelance filmmakers I know. Also, you can actually read this for free on the Win Without Pitching website.
Course: Selling Like a Sherpa
I took this course over the winter, and I can honestly say that it’s a no-brainer investment for any filmmaker who doesn’t have some kind of process in place for lead development, pitching, and proposals. It’s pretty expensive though, so make sure you’re committed to client work before forking out cash for something like this. Or read the books above and develop your own process.
Course: The Creative Class
Paul Jarvis is one of my favorite freelancers/businesspeople, and it’s due to his unflinching integrity and willingness to be uncompromising about the things that matter to him. If that’s the type of freelancer you’d like to be, I absolutely recommend The Creative Class, his course on the nuts and bolts of being a successful freelancer. Also, be sure to check out his books, his podcasts, and his weekly newsletter.
Software Tool: Freshbooks
When you're just starting out, you'll almost certainly want to use a software tool like Freshbooks to handle your business accounting, invoicing, payment processing, etc. There are a couple of tools like this on the market, but Freshbooks is a great place to start.