I remember not so long ago that my filmmaking/web series career and financial life were usually being defined by a series of emergencies. I ran from financial fire to fire just trying to keep up. I didn’t make anything in particular, just anything that would pay the bills. My moto was “what do you need me to be, so I can get a check because the car payment is late, and I want to shoot that “pilot” sizzle”? My entire working and financial existence was situational. Everything was short term. How could I get through tomorrow?
Then I stumbled across someone who would become a sort of mentor. She didn’t offer me a job. She didn’t give me platitudes like, “just think positive thoughts”. She gave me tough love. She said to me, “the industry has no idea who you are, what kind of work you do and no one is coming to save you, so what do you need to become in order for that to change”? Notice she didn’t say, “what do you need to do”? but “what do you need to become”?.. And that’s when it hit me. That’s when I realized I had to define who I was as a creator in the simplest of terms. People who might hire me needed to know EXACTLY what I stood for and EXACTLY what kind of work I wanted to be known for. But the big question was still, “how do I accomplish that”?
Well, first, I had to start acting like what I wanted to become. I had to start acting like a company that created a particular kind of work that was easy to explain. Soon after this realization, whenever asked, I began to tell everyone the same thing. When they asked what kind of work I did, I’d simply say, “My name is Alex LeMay and I make follow-docs about exceptional people in exceptional situations”. Now just saying that wasn’t enough to get hired on the spot, but it was enough to peak their interest and have them asking me more about how I accomplished that… and that’s when I had them. Now I have permission to go into detail and communicate why I’m the person they need to hire.
I then needed to deliver on that promise. I couldn’t say that and then go ahead and take jobs that looked nothing like what I said I made. In other words, if I say I make adventure content, I had to stop taking corporate gigs that entailed CEO-types talking about potassium prices.
That led me to creating criteria for what jobs I wouldtake. Simply, it had to be based on my core promise of “exceptional people doing exceptional things”. It had to meet a pay scale that was worth me doing it, and, it had to be something I believed in. If those boxes were ticked, I would say yes. This meant, early in this process, I said no a lot. But once word got around that this was how I worked, very few people ever asked me to do something for a low rate or something outside the scope I’d defined. Finally, the industry knew how to buy my work. Why? Because I defined it for them. When you let the industry define you, they define you on price, but when you define yourself, they define you on value.
That went on for a good while. A high-priced gun-for-hire. I soon realized that I was making things that I had no stake in, no ownership of. I was making others rich with only my day rate to show for it. I was capped by how many hours I could dedicate to the work. That’s when everything shifted. That’s when I realized I had to add a couple more criteria for taking a job. First, no more commercial work unless I truly believed in the product and they paid me A LOT of money. Second, I had to have a piece of ownership. I had to financially benefit on the backend of every web series I either developed, directed or was a showrunner on. This meant, long after the production was over, I was still benefiting from being attached to the project if it was successful.
So, let’s recap:
Know your niche: In other words, know what kind of work you want to be known for. The more specific the better.
Know how to describe it in the simplest of terms
Set a minimum price you will work for and be willing to say NO
Whenever possible, make sure you have a piece of ownership. If that’s not possible, it costs them more up front.
In the end, this will get you more and better work because the industry will see you as an expert. Not because you waited for them to call you that, but because defined your role in the industry for them. Experts are easier to pay and easier to collaborate with, so start defining yourself as that instead of as someone who works as the lowest bidder simply to say they are pointing cameras at things. This is not only detrimental to you bank account but it’s a form of self-abuse.