The most frustrating part of being a Type A in a decidedly Type B career is all of it. But as I continue down this creative path, I’ve found that navigating things is far easier if you add a bit of structure to things. I’m known as someone who says yes to opportunities pretty frequently, and though I’ve been open in the past about how that’s occasionally a mistake, I like to think I have a good system for determining what’s worth it when I pick up a new project. This article, my 100th post for Stareable, is a recounting of that system. It’s imperfect, but it’s something, and in many ways that’s all anyone can ask for.
1. Will this add to my resume?
This is a pretty basic question to ask yourself at the beginning of any project, but you’d be amazed how often people skip it before saying, enthusiastically, “yes.” But it’s important to note that there’s a difference between a project literally adding to your resume and a project adding to your resume.
Example: working on a student film will undeniably be another thing you can put on a resume, from a word-count standpoint. But if I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable sharing the finished product with a potential employer, then having it on my resume is pretty counterintuitive, regardless of it making my list of past work look longer and therefore impressive.
When you’re just starting out, this can be even harder to parse, because one crappy project is better than no projects at all, right? Fear not- that’s where the rest of this system comes in.
2. Will this add to my resume in my desired career path?
Something that took me far too far to recognize is that just because signing on to a project meant I’d get a new IMDb credit didn’t mean I’d necessarily further my career from it.
Example: the position I have the most credits in on IMDb (and therefore the position that appears first on my page that I can’t change) is producer. I don’t want to be a producer. In fact, with very few exceptions, I hate producing. I don’t like being solely responsible for the small boring details. I don’t like being the constant email thorn in everyone’s side or the one in charge of paperwork or the one who has to talk to strangers about giving us things and locations for free. As such, I’m unlikely to say “yes” to producing jobs in the future because that’s not the career I want.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things I could learn as a producer for the career I’m going for (screenwriting and directing), or that I can’t meet people by producing that will open doors down the road. Again, see: the rest of this article. But taking a position primarily to develop a skill set I’m not interested in developing seems like a waste of time.
3. Will I find the experience valuable?
Particularly when I was starting out, saying yes to as much as possible was absolutely invaluable. I had no idea what I was doing, having not gone to film school or been a part of any kind of production, indie or otherwise, and watching the sausage get made paved the way for the sausages I’m making to this day.
These days, though, just being on a set is no longer a learning experience for me, so there’d need to be something extra to be truly worth working on solely for the experience. A set with an involved VFX or action sequence, for example, or a set where I’d be working amongst people much further along in their careers that I could network with.
4. Is the request reasonable?
Sometimes, people will ask me to be the sole producer on a completely unpaid production that requires over 14 total shooting dates with a huge ensemble cast to coordinate with. Given that I am not independently wealthy and at least every 18 hours I like to catch a few minutes of sleep, that is not a reasonable request.
“Reasonable” is obviously different for everyone, but I’ve found it’s important for me to constantly evaluate my own boundaries and weigh what I’m already doing and needing against new opportunities. Is it a particularly busy period at work? Am I already working on other projects? Have I made a pact with myself to take a dang break for a month? Just because I physically can take on another project doesn’t mean it’s reasonable for me to do.
It also gets complicated when you owe someone a favor. Your negotiation there is up to you, but try to make sure the exchange is equitable. If they acted in your project for free and then turn around and ask you to produce a feature film for them for free, that isn’t returning a favor. That’s whatever-the-modern-day-equivalent of highway robbery is. Bitcoin robbery? Apple Pay fraud? You get the idea.
5. Are the people I’ll be working with worthwhile connections?
This might seem like an awkward way to phrase that, because of course everyone is worthwhile and valid and I don’t want anyone reading this to think that if I’ve turned them down on a collaboration it’s because I think I’m better than them. However, when agreeing to work with or for someone, that someone is an important consideration.
I can define “worthwhile” in a few ways:
Am I returning a favor/debt I owe to the person? If I owe someone for working for me for free or cheap, or for some other debt I’ve incurred through their friendship, if I want to continue that relationship I of course have to say yes (if the favor is reasonable. See above)
Will this person owe ME a favor? Shout out to Herman Wang of The Spell Tutor for this one. There’s definitely something to be said for doing work you wouldn’t normally want to do just so you’ll be able to call in a favor later on. Maybe keep this one to yourself, lest you become an egomaniac, but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind.
Is the person a friend of mine? Sometimes it’s not that I owe someone a favor, but just that I like and respect them and want to support them in a new endeavor. This is often how I end up working with people for the first time- we like each other and just want to stay involved in each other’s creative output.
Does the person have connections/introductions to people further up the chain? This hasn’t really happened yet, but theoretically I can see myself accepting a position I’m less than fond of if the person I’m working for or with has the ability to introduce me to people further along in their careers. Essentially, I’m taking a job for the networking, not for the job itself.
Would the person hire me in the future for better jobs? If Mindy Kaling asked me to be her unpaid intern I would immediately say yes, because Mindy Kaling is my showrunning icon and getting on her good side would not only allow me to learn from her but also to put myself in a better position to be promoted within. More realistically, take my little brother for example. He’s a PA out in LA, and often takes jobs he’s less than thrilled with because he knows the people hiring or at the top will recognize his work ethic and hire him when they move on to better opportunities.
Do I want to continue working with this person? It’s super awkward when you’re a year into a collaboration and you realize you never want to work with this person again. Even if you still hold them in incredibly high esteem and you’re proud of the work you’ve done together, it’s ok to part ways professionally. You can be friends and be fans of each others’ work without having to be business partners. Recognizing this early and acting on it (by not agreeing to another project) is the surest way to transition back to friendship with as few hurt feelings as possible.
6. Will I get paid?
Even if I’ve been asked to work on something with people I respect, on a project that will bulk up my resume in all the right ways, at the end of the month, I have to send a check to my landlord to continue having a home. More accurately, I have to Venmo my partner my half of the rent which he then combines with his own portion to then send via an electronic payment system to our landlord. The point remains- living costs money, and after a while, working for free just isn’t an option. At the very least, it’s not an option for every opportunity. Every so often I think it’s valuable to work for free, to do something because you care and you’re excited, but I know I’ve certainly passed the point in my life and career where working for free on every creative endeavor is no longer a viable option, or a reasonable request. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do all these things, it just means I have many many other things I have to consider on my path to fame and financial security, and if I’m not being compensated for my work, I’m probably going to have to decline.