Meeting the challenges of today’s weak economy

Bringing home the production bacon

Last year was my best year ever. Huge projects and lots of them. Plenty of work to pass out to the great freelancers that I knew. This year… not so much. Actually this year is my worst year. From feast to famine.

So what am I doing about it? Losing sleep? Yes. But this is an inspirational and motivational column to convince you to wear out some shoe leather and burn up the phone lines.

There’s still work out there. Someone is doing it. So how do you get a piece of the pie?

For Freelance Editors

First off, if you’re an editor and you’ve been putting it off: make sure you know Avid AND Final Cut Pro. That advice is aimed a little more squarely at those stubborn Avid editors than it is at the Final Cut Pro users who think that Avid is too hard to learn or is just for old fuddy-duddies. Avid editors need to understand that the world has turned in increasing numbers to FCP. And FCP editors need to realize that as “cool” as FCP seems to be, you can still edit Avid on a Mac and Avid is where most of the feature films and prime time network TV shows are cut. So both camps should just make peace and learn to show a little love to the other side. There are definite advantages to each editor. For Avid editors moving to FCP, I originally despised Diane Weyland’s “Final Cut for Avid Editors” book, but the revised edition is a huge improvement and I am actually now recommending it as a great resource, along with For FCP editors, there’s really no book that converts FCP to Avid, but I did a DVD tutorial for Class on Demand on editing on Avid MCSoft/Media Composer and I definitely made an effort to do some explaining about the way Avid works compared to FCP.

The main point here if you know FCP and Avid, you’ve got twice the chance of getting a gig. That is a big improvement in the odds.

The other big apps to know as a freelancer are Photoshop and After Effects. Thanks to Rich Harrington’s “Photoshop for Video” book, I’m pretty good at Photoshop. The Meyers’ After Effects books are a great place to start if you’re trying to learn that app. They just came out with a nice beginning level book called “After Effects Apprentice” which -along with the rest of my extensive Meyers’ book library – has helped me get up to speed on After Effects.

I definitely stepped up the phone calls to everyone that I could think of who might need freelance editing help. I quickly felt like I ran out of places to call, but by networking with other editors and even other video professionals, I found many more places to call that I hadn’t considered from ad agencies to in-house corporate video departments and even large churches. Luckily, I live in Chicago, where a lot of production is being done, but even smaller cities should have a wealth of places to edit.

Check in with your local users groups and production organizations. Some users groups, like those in many cities supporting Avid and Final Cut have areas to post for freelance work. Join one of these organizations, or do what I did back in 1992 and start one. Another possible avenue is to contact your local reseller. They know who has the editing systems and may know who’s hiring or who’s looking for freelance help.

Networking sites like LinkedIn recently provided an important entry to a good freelance gig for me. I like to think that I have a certain name recognition in Chicago as an editor, but that’s actually largely with my fellow editors, not with the people who hire freelance editors. I was hoping that my resume would be able to speak for itself with most of the people I was trying to get work from. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. One particular place that I was anxious to start working with because of the volume of work that they could deliver, failed to call me back after several attempts. That’s when I found out through LinkedIn that an old colleague was now a fulltime employee of the company. A simple phone call to my old friend opened the doors. Sometimes these doors can be opened by other freelancers, though many may want to keep all of the work they can from a sweet account. I’ve found that other freelancers are fairly open to help me out because I have helped them in the past.

For business owners and producers

For creative people – and probably for almost anyone – there is nothing worse than making a “cold call.” But the thought of keeping a roof over your head should be motivation enough to attempt this age old sales technique.

As much as I put off making cold calls, I have to say that my greatest recent success in my quest for new clients came with a call that I was positive would be fruitless. I searched the web for print publishing companies in Chicago and looked for video content – or the lack of it. Then I made calls to those companies offering to deliver video content for their websites. I got a positive response on my very first call.

Business owners and producers – and to some extent motion graphics people – have a little more control over their destinies than freelance editors. That may be a strong reason for an editor to attempt to branch out more into producing. An editor’s clients are basically post houses and producers. A producer’s clients are basically anyone in need of a video. And if you’re a REALLY good salesman, a producer’s client could even be people who don’t even know that they need a video.

On my “to call list” are ad agencies and PR agencies. Although I may not win their production business for the big national TV spots, these agencies often produce smaller projects for their clients. Also, many ad agencies and PR agencies are attempting to bring more and more of their production back in house in some way. This is part of the continuing pendulum of production: companies see how much they’re spending out of house, so they bring the work back in-house, then they realize how much their in-house department is costing them, so they send the work out of house. For companies bringing the work back in-house, they often need freelance producers or editors.

Be persistent. I often worry about pestering people too much, but as long as you are just giving a simple reminder and aren’t taking up too much time or being too insistent, then make sure to keep up the contact once you’ve made the original call. You don’t want to lose a gig just because someone forgot you are available.

Think big and think small.

Sometimes big corporations are tough nuts to crack, but if you can get in, the projects are often more numerous and have larger budgets. Look around you for the big corporate names and try to gain some entry into the company. They probably need videos for human resources (recruiting and explaining benefits), sales and marketing (trade show videos, web videos, point-of-purchase videos, training videos), or electronic press kits.

Small companies are easier to get in to, but the budgets won’t be as large and the client will tend to be a lot more involved. The problem with these clients is that you have to spend a lot more time beating the bushes to come up with enough volume. With small companies, you don’t pitch services as much as you pitch products or ideas. You could suggest that you could make a local TV spot, a point-of-purchase video, or even a longer form “infomercial” that could air on your local cable channel. For companies with a lot of turnover of employees, training videos can often pay for themselves by increasing productivity and performance. You might even suggest that a safety training video could help a company cut their insurance costs. Ask them to check with their insurance company about this.

Follow the money

Who has cash to spend? Healthcare is getting squeezed, but not as hard as the rest of us. See if there’s a local company in the healthcare business that could use a video. Maybe an office of doctors could use a video to play in their waiting room that would serve to either increase profits or cut costs or just provide good will by demonstrating their expertise. When pushing projects like this to people who don’t think of the idea themselves, you want to explain how the project will affect their bottom-line. Can you make a video that helps patients move through the process more efficiently? Can you make a video that acts like a point-of-purchase video in a store to increase the services that they request of the doctors? Maybe you could make a video that answers certain frequently asked questions, so that patients don’t spend time asking the same questions over and over again of the office personnel and medical staff. If you can affect the bottom-line in some way, then the video becomes an investment instead of an expense.

Spread the Wealth

Don’t be afraid of opportunities that go beyond your area of expertise. Instead of turning down these projects, find other people that you can partner with that DO have the expertise. Then you benefit in two ways: you get at least a small piece of the pie AND you have provided work to other people who hopefully appreciate that and bring you in on other projects.

Be prepared for the web

So many video opportunities are tied to the web. Make sure you understand what you need to do to get your video productions successfully to the web. Quicktimes are OK, but you should probably check with the company’s webmaster or web company to find out how they’ll want the finished product delivered. Chances are good that they’ll want Flash. You need to either find a company or individual that can help you deliver this, or spend some time right now learning to do it yourself. I’ve seen several video tutorials on the web on creating Flash video. There’s also a great book by John Skidgel called “Producing Flash CS3 Video” (Focal Press).

I agree with Mark Spencer’s article (“Business Slow,” on PVC) that making sure your reel is up to date and available on the web is critical to success. The web is a very important delivery vehicle for video and if people see that you can’t even deliver video for YOURSELF, then you’re in trouble. You don’t have to start big. Just get something up on the web that shows what you can do, even if it’s just 60 seconds. It makes those cold calls a lot easier if you can say, “Just check out my website and you can see the quality of my work.” If you’re not a web genius, try something simple like iWeb on a Mac. You should be able to have a nice demo up on a clean website in about 10 minutes.

Develop a project

Keep your hand in the game and your skills sharp. Consider doing your own project. Obviously spending a lot of money is probably out of the question, but working on a documentary or a TV show idea is a way to stay inspired and positive. Another great thing to do is to volunteer your services to your local church or a non-profit organization. This serves three purposes: 1) it keeps you working and provides you with a nice project for your reel, 2) it is a venue for your work to be seen by someone who may want to hire you, and 3) it creates goodwill for your company that may make all the difference when a decision-maker is trying to decide between you and another candidate, especially if the non-profit work you did was for a favorite charity.


I know we’d all rather be working on something creative, but the brutal truth is that it also has to pay the bills. So promise yourself to spend your un-productive time being productive. Make the calls. Hit the streets. Shake the hands. That’s what will get you back to being creative again. And if you talk to any good sales person, they’ll tell you just how creative sales can be, so maybe you should just think of sales as an extension of the creative process. It’s the first and most important part in many ways.


Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured at NAB, DVExpo and the Master Editor seminars. He has edited on Avid since 1992 and was named to Avid’s first group of Master Editors. His client list includes: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, NBC, PBS, Turner Networks, The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Investigative Reports” and “Cold Cases” with Bill Kurtis for A&E, Jim Henson Home Entertainment, Major League Soccer, The Chicago Cubs, Wilson Sporting Goods and Exxon/Mobil.

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