How to Succeed in the Film Industry

A lot of people aspire to work in the film industry. Yet only a small percentage of them ever make a sustainable career out of it.

Today's episode of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is all about what that small percentage does differently, and why they succeed when so many others give up.

In order to tackle this subject properly, I brought in a good friend of mine—someone who knows a thing or two about breaking into the film industry and working your way to the top.

His name is Zack Arnold. When he moved to Hollywood some 15 years ago, he had no industry contacts and no concrete plan for how to pursue his dream of editing dramatic shows and movies.

Fast forward to present day: Zack’s now an in-demand editor in the world of scripted TV, cutting shows like Burn Notice, Empire, and Glee.He most recently edited the pilot for a new scripted show about the murder investigations of Tupac and Biggie, and Universal has picked the show up for series.

Needless to say, the dude knows a thing or two about how to break into this notoriously difficult industry. Not only because he's been there himself, but because he regularly helps up and coming filmmakers break in as well.

So here's what you'll learn in episode 4: 

  • Whether or not you're cut out for the film industry (because it's certainly not for everybody).
  • The basics that anybody needs to know if they want to start working in the industry, including my single most important tip for getting gigs and getting referred.
  • 3 crucial steps you must take to break into your desired department and start moving up the ladder, as told by an industry veteran.

Here's the episode. You can also listen and subscribe through iTunesStitcher, PocketCasts, and the Google Play Store.

If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!


The first season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is sponsored by my friends over at Music Vine.

You have a lot of choices these days when it comes to finding music for your films and video projects. But Music Vine stands above the pack.

Not only is it refreshingly straightforward to license music you’d actually want to use, but it’s also genuinely affordable, even for indie filmmakers on shoestring budgets.

And the best part is, the music is all thoughtful, expressive, and genuine. It’s sourced from indie artists all over the globe who put the same care and attention and soul into their music as you do into your films.

That’s why all of the music in this podcast comes straight from the Music Vine library. Here's the playlist of songs from this episode.

You can get 10% off your first purchase when you use the code FREEDOM at checkout. Enjoy.

Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode

Before we get to any discussion of how to succeed in the film industry, we need to ask a bigger question: should you pursue success in the film industry?

Working in the industry is the default for many of us. There's an overarching narrative in the world of film that if you're passionate about what you do, the success you should be pursuing is industry success.

If you've listened to my story in the first episode, though, you know that I blindly followed that route when I got out of film school. And it made me miserable. It made me want to give up on filmmaking. The prospect of spending years upon years working 12-14 days on projects and with people I'm not crazy about sounds like hell to me. That's why I changed my definition of filmmaking success to something that doesn't include the film industry.

So in our conversation, Zack gave the following guideline for anybody who's wondering if they're cut out for work in the industry:

If you're one of those people who loves the craft above all else—like, thinking of screenwriting or editing or crafting images keeps you awake at night with excitement—then you've got a strong chance at making it in the industry. It's going to be frustrating at times, and there's a lot of politics and power at play, but you'll make it through all of that with a smile on your face if you truly and deeply love the craft and can't imagine doing anything else with your life.

If, on the other hand, your reasons for getting into the industry involve vanity—perhaps you can't wait for the award shows and for telling your friends that you work in Hollywood—then you don't stand much of a chance. Because the truth is 99% of your time will be spent grinding away on your craft with little to no recognition for your work.

Three steps to succeed in the film industry

In the episode, Zack outlines a simple (but not easy) strategy that will propel you to industry success if you're persistent and you actually put in the crazy amount of work it takes to pull this off.

Here's what needs to happen in order for you to succeed:

  1. You need to be extremely good at your craft. This means that you need to identify a specific aspect of the craft and practice it relentlessly. As Zack mentions in the show, in a world where everyone has access to cameras and editing software and a never-ending supply of books and courses, there's no excuse not to practice and pursue excellence.
  2. People (preferably people with the ability to hire or refer you) need to know that you're extremely good at your craft. This is where networking comes in. Form relationships with people who are working jobs you aspire to. Ask them what steps you should be taking to get there. Work to build a large extended network of filmmakers (and make sure that your reputation is impeccable) so that referrals and job openings come your way.
  3. You need to be persistent in both getting better at your craft and building your network. If you continue improving, and you continue getting yourself in front of people who matter and building relationships with them, you will eventually succeed. But just know that it probably won't happen overnight. You've got to be consistent and show up every day for these actions to pay off over the long haul..

That really is all that needs to happen for someone to break into the industry and start getting jobs in the field they'd like to pursue. Again, it's not something that'll happen quickly, but as Zack said in the interview:

If you follow those three steps and throw in a good amount of patience and discipline, there’s no question you’re going to make it. I can’t say how long it’s going to take, but you’ll make it.
— Zack Arnold

Some additional tips to get you started

  • The single best asset you have in the film industry is your reputation. Always be conscientious of that, and spend time actively thinking about how to improve your reputation with not just the people above you, but everybody. The PA's of today are the producers of tomorrow.
  • When you're just starting out, you'll find some work through job postings and things like that, but once you're a bit more established, a lot of your gigs will come through referrals. So it pays off to have a large network, and to have a great reputation amongst the other filmmakers in your network.
  • Your best shot at moving up the ladder comes not from outshining everybody else, but making the people above you look good to their bosses. This is how you will be remembered and rehired.
  • Once you've made yourself invaluable to your superiors, be strategic and ask for more responsibility. But only do this once it's 100% clear that you rock at your current job. Otherwise it's bound to backfire on you.
  • Pursue mastery—I mean true mastery—in one specific aspect of the filmmaking process. Become great at lighting, pulling focus, slow/controlled dolly moves, assistant directing, etc.

Bonus Segment: The Right Way to Network and Move Up the Industry Ladder

This is another quick snippet from my interview with Zack, where we dive into the maligned world of networking. If you despise networking because it feels cheesy and inauthentic and gross, you'll love Zack's answers here.

It turns out that most people network in a way that actually hurts their chances. But if you take a more authentic approach and focus on building long-term relationships, your career will end up flourishing as a result.

Further Reading to Help You Crack the Code of Making It in the Industry

Book: Setlife - Matthew Webb

There aren't many good books on how to get a job in the film industry, but that's ok because none of them could possibly be better than Setlife. Not only is this book a blast to read, but Webb goes into detail on all sorts of things that no one ever talks about, like negotiating rates with producers and understanding your contracts.

Book: The 48 Laws of Power - Robert Greene

This book isn't about filmmaking, but its strategies and ideas will be invaluable as you work your way up the ladder in the film industry.

Book: Give and Take - Adam Grant

If you find the ideas in the 48 Laws of Power to be a bit cynical and manipulative, then this book presents an alternative (and probably more effective) way to build lasting success for yourself. It's all about how to build a thriving career through building relationships

Article: How I Went from Assistant to On-Set Writer-Producer in a Year and Rocked It

Of the many articles I've read about "making it" in the film industry, this one is the best. It pulls no punches about the harsh realities you're dealing with, and then gives you legit strategies for working your way up the ladder.

Article: The Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2017

Each yeah, MovieMaker Magazine puts together this list of best North American cities to live and work as a filmmaker, and it's always got a great lineup of not just the major film hubs like LA and NYC, but smaller (more affordable) cities as well.

Article: Use Craigslist, IMDbPro and Other Job Boards to Jumpstart Your Film Career

If you're brand new to a city and you're looking to land your first couple of film gigs, the advice in this article is a great place to start.

Article: The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do to Build a Successful Career in the Film Industry

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago for No Film School, and I still stand behind all of these tips for building a good reputation.

Article: 11 Expert Ways to Build an Impeccable Reputation

This article is a bit more generalized, but it still has a lot of great advice for how to nurture your reputation and make it shine.

Join the Podcast Squad

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Just record your answers into your computer or phone mic, and then you might just hear yourself on the show!