I often joke about having been a pirate in a past life where I sailed the Seven Seas in the eternal quest for bounty, and while my camera has replaced my ship, that is the business approach that has prepared me today for a career in the media. At one point we all have to made a decision about how we want to work in the production industry and what types of lifestyles fit us the best.
Early on any opportunity that presents itself is the best course of action. But as one gains experience and become more of a captain of their own destiny it makes sense to constantly evaluate which direction to pursue. I think we all have made a decision about how we want to work in the production industry and what type of lifestyle fits us the best.
I often come across an in-house professional working at a glamorous company or agency and I think, “it must be nice to get a stable paycheck, salary, benefits, and paid vacations.” They say to me, “it must be nice to get a high day-rate.” It can often seem better on the other side of the fence, but that's universal feeling. I wanted to write an article for someone just starting out that talks about freelancing vs working in-house. Because I can only draw on my personal experience, which in this industry which has been almost exclusively freelance, it seemed to me that reaching out to some peers in the industry who have seemed to have made deliberate decisions with their paths was a great idea.
Two people I interviewed were Matt Ruby an in-house senior editor and producer with Atomic Productions in Emeryville, CA; and Noam Kroll who is a Los Angeles, CA based Cinematographer who runs his own production company called Creative Rebellion. He also blogs about Cinematography and is definitely worth following. As the author of this article, my name is Doug Birnbaum. I am a freelance Director of Photography based in San Francisco, CA. I specialize in creative content for the web and I have a production company of my own called Branded Content Media.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in the industry?
- (Matt Ruby) I worked as a freelancer for about 5 years during the late 90s around the Bay Area. My clients included KGO-TV and the early ancestor of what is now NBC Sports Bay Area. I also held a part time staff position with Atomic Productions (my current employer) with a flexible enough schedule to allow me to hold both jobs. Atomic was pretty small, just three or four people at the time. I jumped into full-time staff work with Atomic around 2002-03 when they made the move to a larger facility and took on projects that required me to devote full time attention to them. Those projects were mostly a weekly program for the San Francisco 49ers which I edited and produced for 15 years.
- (Noam Kroll) I started my career freelancing and eventually opened up my own production company. Very early on - before I launched my business - I did a couple of quick in-house stints at two different companies and quickly realized it wasn't for me. I can certainly see the benefits of working in-house for someone else, but I have never really been wired that way. I can work 20 hour days on my own projects or for client's projects that are being run through my business, but the dynamic is much less exciting to me when I'm being paid to build someone else's business as opposed to my own.
Q: Do you see one side or the other, freelancing vs. in-house, being better for somebody starting out who’s trying to break into the industry?
- (Matt Ruby) I would think that starting out with a staff position, even a very low one, would be advantageous. When you’re freelancing the spotlight is shining brightly. As an editor you have to be able to service both the person who hired you (the post house, station, whoever) and your client. If you are slow, or make mistakes, or seem to lack the mastery of your craft, it reflects poorly on the post house in the eyes of the client and also reflects poorly in the eyes of your employer. Basically, if you suck you’re not going get hired again. It can be a great deal of pressure. In a staff position you have more opportunities to learn from your mistakes and failures without the stakes being quite so high.
- (Noam Kroll) I would advise someone just starting out to experiment with both and see what sticks... You'll know pretty quickly whether or not you are more cut out for in-house work vs. freelance work, and a large part of that depends on your comfort level with stability. No matter where you end up though, having experience on both sides will be invaluable. As an employee, understanding the mentality of a freelancer or business owner will help you do your job more effectively. And conversely, learning the ropes from a larger company and applying those lessons to your work as a freelancer will help you add a degree of professionalism to your work.
What are a couple pros and cons to either freelancing or being in-house?
- (Noam Kroll) The pros of freelancing: Making your own schedule. Being your own boss. Having full control over how much money you earn. Being able to adapt the type of work you take on as you evolve as an artist.
- The cons of freelancing: Work is never guaranteed. You may make less money starting out. You have to be really good at holding yourself accountable, as no one else is there to push you in the right direction.
- (Matt Ruby) In my experience, the single biggest pro freelancing was that I earned more money in a day than I did in the staff position. I got to work on a wide range of types of projects.
- Cons were the uncertainty of getting jobs, unpredictable commutes and salary instability. And there was always kind of a feeling of desperation. I never felt comfortable turning down any job. Travel out of state? Okay. Nights? Yep. Weekends? Sure!!
- (Noam Kroll) Pros of being in-house: Stability in your employment. Benefits and other perks that typically come with being a full time employee. Access to mentors and other educated professionals that you can learn from.
- Cons of being in-house: Missing the opportunity to build your own business. Having less control over where your creative efforts are focused. Having less control over your ability to scale your efforts and increase revenue over time.
- (Matt Ruby) On the in-house side, the biggest pro is predictability. You know what you’re earning every month, generally have set hours, have a set commute, etc. As I’ve gotten married and had a kid those factors are important.
- There aren’t too many cons in my book as Atomic works on a broad range of projects so I don’t get too bored editing the same kind of stuff over and over. And the experience I earned freelancing with clients in the edit suite is invaluable.
Freelancing vs In-House, where do you have experience in one more than the other or both?
- (Noam Kroll) I don't think I could ever see myself working for a production company in-house. That's not to say that it isn't the right choice for many people, but it just doesn't suit my personality. I am an entrepreneur at heart, and I get off on the thrill of running a business, taking risks, and being accountable to myself. It's extremely stressful at times, and there can be a lot of bumps along the way, but I wouldn't have it any other way... I would be happier making less money and working for myself than making 10 times as much but not being able to steer the ship.
As romantic as Noam’s answer and entrepreneurial spirit is, let me add the disclaimer that he has great reel. You can have very big dreams with a career in the media but your reel is your resume and you live and die by the strength of your past projects. My advice to anybody starting out is to develop a strong commercial reel and speak to the kind of work that you would like to do in the future. Take on clients even if they are local businesses in your neighborhood or collaborate with other aspiring artists. Start small.
On the other side of the fence, Matt Ruby has proven himself with years of experience and a solid reel/resume of his own before he could land a steady job with a production company like Atomic. So if you are looking to knock on doors and land something closer to a regular job I would still strongly suggest that you show work and let people know what you are capable of producing. I hear from students all the time who want to get started in the media but they haven't really made anything.
Some of the paradigms of freelance are shifting a bit with the growing demand for content. If an artist has developed a real niche with their work they might find themselves negotiating a regular position with a company where they have a couple days a week contracted that allows them to sell the rest of their week to freelance assignments. So while Matt and Noam did a great job describing the contrasting career paths, now there seems to be a trend surfacing of a hybrid of the two.