Strategies for making a living as a filmmaker

Producer and writer Stephen Follows is running a workshop with us about surviving and thriving as a filmmaker – Use discount code CHRISJONES for £25 off.

I asked him to share some strategies with us…

The question that Chris and I get asked the most is “How can I make a living in the film industry?”. It occurs to most people when first become a filmmaker but it really becomes acute when they start getting a small amount of success. You know the situation – your first ‘good short’ does well in a film festival and you say to yourself “Yes! I am a filmmaker and this is what I shall do from now on”. So logically you ask around to see how you can cover all those luxuries you’ve decadently become accustomed to like food, travel and rent.

I can boiled it down to four questions;

  • What have you got access to?
  • What wants that?
  • How are others doing it?
  • What makes you special?

There are two routes to earning your way in the film industry; work your way up the crew ladder or set out on your own. Working up the crew ladder is straightforward and relies on becoming an expert in your specialism and getting known to the people who might hire you. Stepping out alone is much less clear.

So how do you start building a career as a freelance filmmaker? Start with what you already have; ask yourself…

What are my skills and resources? What am I better than most other people at?
This might be certain talents you have, certain pieces of kit you have access to or connections in particular fields or industries. Figuring out what you do well can be hard because those tasks seem obvious to you. So maybe you should ask yourself “What am I constantly amazed everyone else keeps getting wrong?”

Then you need to ask yourself…

What is the ‘result’ of my skills and who most wants that ‘result’?
As a freelance filmmaker you might consider some of the following sectors to work in;

  • Music videos
  • Corporate films / internal communications
  • Online videos
  • Adverts (TV and cinema)
  • Wedding videos

For me I deduced that I can tell stories, that is my main skill. I’m also quite social, good at organising people and thinking differently to conventional wisdom. So I looked to see where these skills would be most useful and unique.

As a storyteller I can make things people want to watch so if I do my job well then lots of people will watch my creations; views are my ‘result’. The people who want my ‘result’ are companies with a product to sell and campaigners with a message to promote. This led me to focus on online videos like the one above.

Once you have specialism then research the hell out of the sector. Look at where the money flows. Don’t be fooled by flashy websites or grandiose claims of being ‘the best’ – these people are just as likely to be operating out of their bedroom as being in a proper office. You can use tools like looking at company’s accounts (, looking at the volume of work, how big are their clients or how much they seem to be spending on paid advertising.

Then actually speak to people. Reach out to people who are doing something similar to what you would like to do. Be aware that you might be rivals to some of these people in the future so be respectful and smart but even so you’ll find that people are far more open that you might guess. Also speak to crew members they work with a lot. You’re not trying to learn everything but just get a better sense of how the sector really works.

Finally figure out how you’re going to be different. What’s unique about you company? What gap in the market are you servicing? There’s a good marketing strategy called ‘Category of One’ which states that it’s better to be number one in a very niche field than competing in a crowded, broader field. You can read more here

From there you need to find and manage clients, but that’s whole other series of blog posts….

Thanks Stephen.

Stephen is teaching a whole masterclass about making money from online video ( Use discount code CHRISJONES for £25 off.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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