Freelance Filmmaking is for Crazy People

Freelance filmmaking in a small market is for crazy people. And, when I say that, I’m talking about myself.

I’ve been freelancing as a Director/DP for three years in a greater metropolitan area with a population of 300,000 people, so that gives you some idea of what I’m dealing with.

Just to give you a bit of context, I’ll tell you about my experiences from 2017. It was a great year, to be honest. I made decent money, and I won several awards. The greatest awards were winning three Ohio Valley Regional Emmy Awards. Of course, they are not primetime Emmys, but they are a big deal around these parts. I also won several regional Addy awards and a couple of Telly Awards (I honestly don’t know what to think of Telly’s, but agencies seem to like them).

After such a great year, I was riding on Cloud 9. I had a couple of medium sized budget gigs and I figured 2018 would be even better. Up and to the right is what everyone wants.

freelance filmmaking from Chris Weatherly and Zacuto

Fast forward to this year. Last week a buddy of mine approached me about a documentary idea. I’d love to direct a documentary. I asked him, “will we make any money?” His response, “No, but it will win us awards.” I kindly replied, “I have plenty of awards, I just need money.” I was sort of joking, but sort of not. I’m doing this freelance thing as a living, and I need to support my family with an income.

Look at Me!

Everyone loves recognition. That’s why we enter award contests, right? I want the approval of my peers and I want to know for myself that I’m doing good work. Plus, when I win awards I get to use that as an opportunity to self-promote. The one thing I hate more than anything is bragging about my accomplishments. But, it’s a necessary evil – at least that’s the way I see it. I have to tell everybody that my work is award-winning and that I’m amazing so maybe they’ll want to hire me. Ugh, it makes me want to vomit.

I honestly haven’t had any jobs with medium or larger budgets. It’s been a year of small budget gigs. I’m not complaining, but it’s not really what I was expecting. I did get to do two narrative short films, and that’s a win in my book because I love doing that sort of thing. But I honestly thought business for me would grow and I would be directing more jobs with larger budgets.

freelance filmmaking from Chris Weatherly and Zacuto

I mean, that’s what’s supposed to happen in life, right? That’s how we define success in America. If your business is growing then you are bringing in more money. Well, that’s not what has happened to me.

What is Success?

So I’ve had to redefine success. Maybe that’s cheating, or maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better about a down year. Success for me is being able to do the thing I love doing the most and make a living at it. I know, that’s not an original thought. However, it has become more of a reality for me.

My ego wants more money, more awards, bigger jobs, more bragging rights, better Instagram pictures, but that’s not reality for me at this point. I’ll continue to strive for all of those things, but if I can support my family doing a job I love to do…I’ll live with that.


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12 Responses to “Freelance Filmmaking is for Crazy People”

  1. Vinny Murphy on November 28th, 2018 6:02 am

    Nice post. This is what happens in private conversations but doesn’t appear in print much because it doesn’t sound as exciting as the pure fantasy of having a great time making films all the time. I’ll be checking out your work – I bet it’s good!

  2. chrisweatherly (@chrisweatherly) on November 30th, 2018 12:31 pm

    Hey Vinny, thanks for taking time to read this post and I appreciate you commenting on it. You’re absolutely correct in saying this is something that happens more in private conversations. Freelancing is tough especially in a small market. I think the trade offs are worth it though. Being your own boss, controlling your schedule and doing the things you love to do. There are highlights, but most of it is doing work to pay the bills.

  3. Mike Wicklein on December 13th, 2018 11:34 am

    I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything, but the “staying alive” part is constant work. Do what you love…and own who you are. Be bold and use your lens for good as much as you possibly can.

  4. Scott Armstrong on December 13th, 2018 12:31 pm

    How do you get the work? I’m in the same situation and struggle finding people that want and need my services. Who do you contact and how do you get the jobs you get?
    I have been in the business for 30 years and have all the equipment. I also live in a city of about 300,000 people. But, I struggle finding the jobs.
    Your article is great at telling it like it is. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Steve Weiss on December 13th, 2018 1:56 pm

    Damn Chris, I love every word you said. Awards are great but sooner or later you need to make a living at production. I’ve was in production before Zacuto for 20 years and had a very successful run at it but like you said we treated it like a business. The average lifespan of a production company is 5 years and then life sets in. Houses, children, cars, etc. You need to make a living… and why do people think it’s right to focus on money in all other business but this one. It’s called the film business with the operate word on business. Do you think Hollywood would do anything without some asshole like me saying. Where the money? If you are just starting out, sure, do some projects for awards and to show your metal but realize you can only do that for a few years and then you’ll need to transition to a money making business. My advice, which I’ve said like 100 times is find a business partner, not a creative partner. It’s hard to find this person but you need him. The two of you need to be 50/50 partners so he has his life hinged on you and vice verse. I’m going to take it even farther than you Chris. “Anyone can make videos that are adequate for clients. Finding the clients who have the money to pay for your videos… well that’s the creative part.” What I’m saying is the businessman role is the more important role so don’t think because you have talent that makes you more important than him. It doesn’t get to shine without money. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship.

    P.S. If you get a 10K budget, 3K goes in your pocket immediately. 3K goes towards paying salaries inlcuding yours, so you make money there as well. The balance goes towards expenses and equipment/editing expenses. If you rent equipment… fine. If you own it, YOU RENT IT TO THE JOB. That’s how you pay for it. Same for editing machine time and editorial time. Just because you have stuff or are doing stuff doesn’t mean you don’t get paid for the use of it and or for your time. That’s the formula I used.

    Excellent article Chris.

  6. chrisweatherly (@chrisweatherly) on December 14th, 2018 9:11 am

    Thanks Steve for your encouragement and wisdom. I watched the Zacuto Live episode when you talked about production companies and shared some of the same info. My plan is to implement some of these principals this next year. Finding a non creative business partner is the toughest part, but essential.

  7. chrisweatherly (@chrisweatherly) on December 14th, 2018 9:16 am

    Hey Mike, thanks for the encouragement. I love what you said, “Be bold and use your lens for good as much as you possibly can.” I do get the opportunity to work with some amazing non-profits that are impacting society for good. We just have to keep on pushing!

  8. chrisweatherly (@chrisweatherly) on December 14th, 2018 9:26 am

    Scott, I wish I had the silver bullet to your question about finding work. I wrote a blog post about this a while back for Zacuto. To put it in a nutshell: Do good work and meet people.

    Most of my work I get through referrals. I had to build up my reel first though. I’m sure you’ve done this. In fact I do passion projects from time to time that make no money just to improve my reel better. That’s right…no money. However, when I produce work that people like it helps me sell my services. Often paying work doesn’t end up on my reel because it’s not as good as what I do when I’m given complete creative control.

    So do good work and meet people.

    It also helps to have a business partner selling your work as Steve mentioned in his comment.

  9. steveweiss on December 14th, 2018 11:54 am

    I’d amazing results hiring a business/salesman for my new live show company using this service. It was cheap and a bit wacky but you get tons of responses. It’s nationwide commission only sales people but if I were you I would entertain more of a partnership. Remember don’t dint the best deal… business is about incentive and without skin in the game, you won’t have them fighting for your life and business as you are.

  10. Scott Armstrong on December 14th, 2018 12:15 pm

    Chris, thanks so much for your response. I really appreciate your comments. I understand what you mean about the demo reel work and the paid work. Some of the things I do aren’t that exciting. I do take the work that comes in. But, it is hard to find someone to market my work.

  11. Gabe Strong on December 16th, 2018 7:17 pm

    I love your opening line “freelance filmmaking in a small market is for crazy people.”
    That’s me too. Only about 10 times smaller than your market (mine is population, 30,000.) Then add in the fact that you can only get to my town by jet or boat, no roads in or out. Yup, I’m pretty much certifiably insane. But I’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue to do it. Like you, success many years means that I was able to pay the bills and stay in business. Sometimes, it’s nice to remember that we should be thankful for what we have, and not look at others and wish we had what they did. Comparison being the thief of joy and all…..

  12. chrisweatherly (@chrisweatherly) on December 21st, 2018 2:10 pm

    Gabe, you are so right. We should be thankful that we get to do what we love to do. And making comparisons only makes us discontent. I’m glad to hear you are making it work in such a small market. You are braver them me my friend.

About the Author

Chris Weatherly has over 20 years of shooting experience in both still photography and video. After earning his Master of Visual Communications degree from Ohio University, he worked as a photojournalist. After working for newspapers for several years, he left to become an Arts Director for a non profit organization. It was there he started using video to tell stories of life change. Now Chris works as a full-time freelance director for Wavelength Films where his unique style blurs the lines between narrative and documentary storytelling. He’s also passionate about striking visuals and emotionally driven stories.


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