How to get a Job in the Film Industry as a runner to help you learn, make and pay for your Indie Feature Film.
There are plenty articles on the internet about how to create a CV/Resume. But there's not too much about the strange unwritten rules of why certain CV's are accepted and others not. Well here you go....it's a long read but hopefully it's useful.
PART 1 – I am (a) Curious Fellow
As independent film-makers most people reading this will want to work within the established film industry, whatever that means in some capacity. For many that will mean being a director, writer or producer but for others it can mean entry level positions. Like being a runner on a feature film.
To some, the thought of making somebody a cup of tea as opposed to wearing a pair of plus-four trousers and shouting orders through a megaphone (while maybe having somebody make you a cup of tea) is the antithesis of why they got into film-making. Why would you want to make somebody else a cup of tea when you can be Howard Hawks?
Well, there are lots of good reasons:
Reason 1: You get paid to do it. Being paid is good as it allows you to save up and make films.
Reason 2: You learn. The film industry is structured in a way where you will always learn, no matter your position. Learning is good, learning from people with a lot of experience is even better. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel. Learn from the mistakes people have previously made - which is why things are done in a certain way -so you don't have to. It will save you money (that money you saved in Reason 1) and time, which in many cases is more important than money.
Reason 3: You get to meet other people who want to make films. In-fact there are are lots of people working within the film industry who are not currently directors, writers and producers who want to make films just like you do. Meeting the people like you who have paid attention to reason 2 is good as some of these people will make films with you. Most people you will meet in the big film industry are like you and don't just have ambitions to just make tea funnily enough.
Reason 4: Meeting people who can help you make films who may not be interested in making films with you, but can help you nonetheless. This is a bit like Reason 3 but different enough to be it's own Reason, and it's good. You can build friendships in the film industry with many people who can help you make your film. Meeting people is very good, especially people who you can learn from and do you favours. There are lots of people willing to offer advice and more: facilities houses offering discounts, producers, directors, production managers, distributers offering tips and contacts etc. Meeting them and building relationships is far better than cold calls or emails and your far more likely to receive helpful advice. Face to Face is good, being able to demonstrate your a good runner to a producer is great as it can show off your potential, which is more difficult to when meeting somebody at a film party. And that can all make a big difference to the type help you will get. You will gain access to and meet a lot of these people working on professional film sets, access that is VERY difficult to gain using other means. That sounds pretty good.
For anyone wanting to support themselves and make films becoming a runner or trainee (essentially the same thing depending on department) there are a lot of positives following this route. You essentially get paid to learn and meet people who can help you make films, which sounds far more appealing than supporting yourself with a bar job. Though you may have to make a lot of tea. But you can also make your own films in your spare time. The best of both worlds.
We Don't Talk About the Whether – Meet the Whethermen
But you've just spent 4 years studying for a film degree, why should you start at the bottom and make somebody tea? Your a creative auteur and you have far more important things to achieve.
Well, there are very many positives about film courses. You get great access to equipment and can make fantastic filmmaking friendships which will last throughout your career, as well as being placed in a creative and supporting environment. There are many great lecturers who can be incredibly supportive and pass on extensive knowledge. Many people have become very successful through this route. For the vast majority of people working within the film industry however, unless from the NFTS a film qualification does not offer a free entry to the film industry. And the theoretical training in film-making from filmschool is very different to the realities of dealing with a hard nosed film crew involving time, pressure and money. A different situation exists in the US though which can cloud your judgement when reading online articles (which are mostly US oriented).
The film industry is actually quite unique. People are (mostly) judged on their abilities rather than their formal qualifications (from school and university). Someone who can demonstrate their competence for a job to an employer - most often through providing a list of films they have worked on (a film CV) without any formal qualifications is far, far more likely to be offered an entry level job than someone with just a film degree alone. Your CV – the films you have worked on are the qualifications that will gain you work.
Nepotism is rife -as you likely know, guessed or heard. Other than the occasional useless family member or friend this is usually because the film industry works completely on team-work. People work better and quicker (time being one of the film industries main currencies) with people they have previously worked with well, or recommendations from people they know work well together. Taking in new people, while necessary is sometimes perceived as a risk. This makes getting jobs difficult if you are new, but we will soon talk about methods to get a foot in the door. A promise!
No path in the film world is easy. Becoming a successful film-maker is certainly helped by having a well off family who can support you, especially if they have good industry connections. Unfortunately most people don't have this luxury. Film people are smart though. There is still a terrible problem of sexism which everyone should be fighting against but social backgrounds are not really a limiting factor in the sense that if your are talented you won't get a job because of your accent or where you come from. There's far too much money to be lost if that were the case. But... It's a very sad fact that access to wealth does limit people from poorer backgrounds entering the film industry. The government and any film bodies should be completely ashamed of this.
So, unless you have a wealthy family or other means to support yourself, a very good option of making a living and learning along the way to make your own films better is to become a film runner (and progress beyond) on a drama/feature film. And if you want to give it a go we've made an idiosyncratic guide for you.
Become Normal....for a time anyway.
Firstly, for all it's grandiosity and posturing about the arts and doing things differently the film industry is actually very narrow minded. They don't like weirdos, unless you are a director being promoted as one in a cynical PR campaign- but that does not work for runners. Unfortunately most people – certainly us and likely you are just not normal. Why would anyone who wants to make films for a living be classed as normal?
So the very first thing we have to do is become normal (or more accurately give the appearance of being normal). At this point it should be made clear that if you are a budding Peter Sutcliffe please do not read any further. This is not the 'not normal' we are trying to disguise.
Here is wisdom: Nearly everyone in the film industry does it – it's pretending. From actors to producers we all do it. The easiest way for us to get a start in the film industry is just to pretend to be normal. You don't have to actually become normal, that would not be good. Just pretend. So for the present time - enough to get your foot in the industry door and a few jobs under your belt you will have to hide your secret. Then when you come to make your geature film, using the money you have saved and the skills you have learned you can revert to being a weirdo and make a fantastic piece of work like every other great director. And a Hollywood studio can cynically use that in their marketing campaign.
Entry level positions? Pah, I've got lots of experience. I don't need an entry level job. For the time being, stick with the idea of you looking for an entry level position. It will become clear later on why you need to.
The absolute number one reason for your CV being thrown in the bin is for you to come across as appearing 'not normal'. There are limited entry level positions available, most are already earmarked– which clearly means there are lots of people going after the same job as you. You need someone to, at the very least put your CV in the 'they seem alright pile'.
So....to help with that firstly your CV needs to be targeted. If you are looking for a job as a camera trainee you need to sell yourself as a camera trainee -not as anything else! If you don't have much experience obviously it's a lot harder to sell yourself. So we will go on the assumption for demonstration purposes that you don't have much experience but would like to work as a camera trainee (which can be adapted for all departments.).
Camera Trainee is a poor job description. Like every position there are elements to be learned but you are primarily employed to act as a 3rd Camera Assistant. This is a job that on a medium sized drama would likely include you being responsible for charging and supplying camera batteries, bringing and returning equipment to the 2nd Camera Assistant and things like that. And making tea. You are primarily responsible for helping the 2nd AC, and at times the 1st AC. It's not a job where you shadow the DP and hang out with them. Likewise, all other trainee/runner positions are actually reasonably defined jobs where you are expected to do certain tasks.
So, if you put on your CV that you are a DoP, a list of DoP credits for short films , that your only interested in lighting etc your CV is likely to be put in the 'not normal' pile very quickly. The 'not normal' pile is a bad place for a budding crew member to be in. Also, a random selection of various film related job credits does not appear too great – the jack of all trades syndrome. Don't put 'I can do this job', 'I can do that job' and a random mix of credits. Basically people want to know you can do your job and not tell them how to do their job.
The above is the No.1 reason why some Camera Trainees are not picked. And it's the same for every other entry level position. Your CV has to be targeted. And your expectations need to change if you actually want a job (more on that later).
For a budding Camera Trainee your target is the 2nd AC (though your CV will be read by production and the other members of the camera department) so you need to target to their needs – you being their assistant. You need to know what the job entails, and they need to know that you know otherwise you are no use to them - and you being useful is the sole reason for you being employed. So research roles. Research who you need to target for the department you would like to join. And research the UK system (which is different to the US in most departments – another way for you to be put in the 'not normal' pile). All of this information can be found on the internet.
Once you know what a job actually entails, rather than would you guess it entails you can adapt your CV to suit. DoP credits on a CV, while nominally better than nothing can be adapted if that's all you have. For camera trainees, list the camera formats used, the battery type used – basically show as much understanding of the job as you can with the experience you can demonstrate. This is not an introduction to write an essay on what a Camera Trainee does. Just keep things simple and short. Use what you can take from your current experience. Any actual Camera Trainee credits are excellent to use obviously, and should take priority over any other credits. Don't lie. Keep personal statements short. Remember they will primarily be read by the Camera Assistants not the DoP. The DoP is not going to want to discuss your favourite lighting techniques with you (and neither is anyone else). School qualifications mean nothing, nobody will care if you have an A in geography. Nobody cares if you write poetry at this stage. Other than camera format any camera personnel you have worked with is good to mention (DoP;s, Focus Pullers with credits etc.). Potential candidates are vetoed closely. If someone has not heard of a particular production then they may know a fellow camera assistant they can call to ask their opinion of you. That's why you should mention on a credit some key personnel. That can be scary.
This principle works for any department. Any film credit is better than no credit but organise your CV in a way that makes you look as though you have as much experience in the position you want to do as you can. Transferable skills, understanding of the role etc.
A very important point to make is that not every credit for the same job title is equal. This is very important for your CV and your chances of getting a job. Work is work and any film job is good but without getting into any discussions on elitism some credits are worth more than others – a bit like Top Trumps. And they are to be used carefully when targeting.
There's not really any hard and fast rule to this. Which makes things difficult for new entrants. But likely a Camera Trainee with 3 Studio funded Feature film credits will be recognised as being more experienced than a 1st AC with 20 1 day corporate video credits when applying for a 2nd AC position on an independent feature film.
This card playing is very tough to master and unfortunately really only comes with experience.
Most people don't really give 'under the line' crew the acknowledgment they deserve. On an internet comment recently, a soon to be graduated sound recordist with a few corporate credits suggested they would be happy to work as a boom operator on a Studio Funded production that was soon to be filmed.. That is perceived as 'not normal behaviour'. And writing that an an application will definitely land you in the wrong CV pile.
Most people looking to gain entry to the film industry would assume a Boom Operator to be an entry level position. It's in reality regarded as a highly skilled post that is reflected by the BECTU suggested studio rate of £2000 per week. That is a LOT of money which is not given out lightly by productions (no money is). Credits ARE scrutinised very closely. Many of us have held a boom on shorts etc, the difference between doing that and being paid £2K per week is that the person being paid has a CV that demonstrates they can do this repeatedly and under pressure. Likewise many other positions not seen to be creative. This small difference is actually a very big difference and is very important for you to learn for getting a job, and being realistic about what jobs to apply for. Working under pressure and performing a task well is a key part of understanding the film industry. Again, this is part of the expectation of appearing normal! But knowing and more importantly understanding this is crucial.
To clarify: You need to be realistic with what experience you currently have to know what kind of job you can get. And you need to be clear about what kind of job you want. Don't write weird things on your CV either. Expecting to be a Production Co-Ordinator on the next Marvel film with a couple of short film production credits is just not going to happen. This is important stuff.
If you have ever made tea or coffee professionally that is a VERY good thing to mention. Transferable skills are great. Stuff about your favourite pastimes like collecting anthracite samples are generally not.
This is probably a good point to mention the likelihood of getting a job. It's currently low if you have little experience but with tenacity you will eventually get one. You will. Tenacity, above everything else – including not revealing your carbon collecting hobby and having to pretend to not be strange is what will get you a job. Unfortunately it is VERY, VERY difficult to get a foot in the door. But it will happen, it will just take a long time unless you are lucky. So how do we proceed?
Getting a foot in the door quite often comes from getting 'dailies' or providing an extra hand when help is needed. Not working for free. Usually everyone is earmarked for jobs – as previously discussed people like teams they currently work well with and usually try and maintain them. So getting an 8 week job on your first application is unlikely (no matter how much you pretend not to be strange) as somebody probably already has the job you are going for. And that's where dailies come in - for giving you experience for your CV, and meeting people. A Daily is a person who comes onto a production for a day (and can lead to much longer). Meeting someone is a much better way to prove your normal. And when you know people and do a good job they will ask you back. People in the film industry have short memories, usually due to working very long hours.
Oh, and don't appear overly enthusiastic. It's really off-putting.
So....Who do you send your CV to, and how do you know what jobs are happening?
Well, first you have to know what you would like to do. This is very, very, very, very important for a number of reasons.
Next to having unrealistic expectations of what job you can do and having a poorly targeted CV not knowing what you want to do is very unattractive to employers. Sending somebody a covering email with a CV that says things like 'I'm happy to do anything', 'I'll give that a go', 'that's not really what I want to do but I'll try it' and especially ' I'm not a runner but I'll do it' guarantees you not to get much further. There is a big difference between being willing to get your hands dirty and doing whatever it takes to do a specific job and offering to do any old job in any department to get a foot in the door.
The reason being that it shows you are likely not that dedicated. And not to be trusted. Crew put a lot of time into training. What they don't want is to spend time training somebody for them to appear uninterested and/or using the opportunity to suddenly move to another department. It may surprise you but people generally like helping others progress with their career. There's nothing really more unappealing than knowing somebody has little interest in what your asking them to do or letting them know. Except being burned, bitten by an angry dog or The Eagles.
But....you can pretend that's what you really want to do and nobody will ever know.
Except you, and that's really a problem. It's very difficult to know what you want to do but to get a job in Film and TV you really have to have a pretty good idea. And you are going to have to stick to it. More than half the battle of getting a job is having tenacity. If you are at college you will maybe graduate with 20 or so colleagues. After 1 year maybe there will be 8 left who are still trying to find a foot in the door, and a year after only one or two. Tenacity and knowing what you want to do is what will get you a job eventually. Jobs do not come easy but people give up easy. Last Man Standing.
There's good reason why this load of scribbles did not jump straight in to telling you to send your CV off to some distant person that you do not know from a list we've provided. The above scribbles, in our un-modest opinion contain good advice, and if followed should hopefully really help you get a job. And it purposely re-iterates many points. It's (mostly) not just bad editing.
You now know how to not appear (mostly) too strange, that you need to know what you want to do (and let others know that you know what you want to do) and that it's not going to be easy.
That's the hard part.
Well, if your happy with that elaborate pre-amble – and it's hardly Gurdjieff – your ready to send your CV to some random film person.
Okay, who do you send your CV to?
This depends on if you are 'cold calling' or know of a particular job somebody may be involved in.
And usually the budget of the job.
As a general rule advertised jobs for feature films or television drama usually rarely appear on Facebook. And the main reason is that there are so many people with unrealistic expectations of their experience and what they can do. We've discussed these already and no we know not to be them. Employers do not have the time to go through all these CV's and quickly discard a good majority. Social Media advertising has been tried and it generally does not work. But, you with your new knowledge of what to put in a CV do have realistic expectations and will get a job.
Every film is slightly different in how they employ people, so no two are a like. But there are a few ways to find work.
This is how crewing up generally works:
Producer/Director will likely hire HODs (Heads of Department)- DoP, Production Designer, Editor, Costume Supervisor, MakeUp Supervisor and importantly Line Producer/Production Manager.
A director or producer will likely not hire anyone else directly.
The HoDs will likely ask for their key personnel, who will be hired through the Line Producer/Production Manager. For our example we will work on the basis of the camera department. This will be very similar to all departments.
The DoP would ask for their recommended Gaffer, Grip, Camera Operator and Focus Puller and pass over to production.
Each of these would negotiate their rate/availability with the Line Producer/Production Manager.
If the HoD is from another country with little knowledge of local crew then the Producer, but likely Line Producer/Production Manager would likely contact key personnel to suggest to them.
Depending on relationships, experience and financial reasons the personnel could be local or come with the DoP.
It is the key personnel, not the DoP who would hire the next 'level' down the ladder. In the strict camera department that may be a 2nd AC or trainee/runner and B camera crew. Though quite often this next level of crew would be responsible for hiring the entry level positions. Of course there are exceptions.
This is no an exact and hard rule. Quite often whole teams come with the HoD. Usually the HoD and Line Producer will veto/ask to see the entry level position CV to confirm. There are a few reasons for this – many complicated and insurance based but usually it's just a good second eye.
So, there are really two sets of people in the main to send your CV's to – Line Producer/Production Manager who can pass your CV onto the camera crew, or your potential direct 'boss' (1st or 2nd AC or equivalent in your department) who will pass your CV onto the Line Producer/Production Manager – the real boss.
This is usually how crew would get employed for the full length of a feature film.
Dailies, as mentioned earlier is how you are likely to initially get experience working on films. Dailies usually occur when an extra camera crew is required, large amounts of extras for particular scenes (a very good way for runners, make-up trainees etc to gain experience) or small pick-up units. This can happen at very short notice, quite often the night before a shoot. And there is also the '2nd unit'. You can read about that yourself.
For this reason it's great that Production Managers and Production Co-Ordinators have your CV as they will likely be the ones giving you a frantic last minute call.
So, send your CV to who is likely to be able to give you a job (your direct onset boss) and Production Managers/Production Co-Ordinators.
Filmbang, Edinburgh Film Focus, The Knowledge are all great places to find people to contact.
If you know they are working on a shoot then great, otherwise you are letting people know you exist – which is also great. You will soon get to know who is working on what and things will become much easier.
Part 5 – Various Last Things To Mention
When sending your CV save the file as your name and job position, and ideally date. It's great for people to have your CV on record but they need to be able to access it amongst hundreds of others.
A simple covering letter (text in your email) is fine. No weird business here buddy. Who you are and what you want to do/what job your applying for.
If you don't get a reply don't be sad, feel slighted or even expect one. You are cold calling very busy people. Most people will aim to give you one but they can very easily receive your email at a busy time and forget.
It's fine to re-send a speculative CV and 'I'm still here' email every six months or so.
Don't stalk people.
There will be another rambling follow up to this. Mainly what to do onset, and what not to do along with expectations and advice from industry professionals who have done the same.
We will have some Line Producers and HoDs giving their expectations from people who send them CV's– all good things.
And also a guide on how to keep your job. It's one thing to get the job but to keep it and get more is a whole other world.
Take what you can by learning from others. Use this knowledge to help you make better films. Let your ego take a back seat for a while and absorb all the sights, sounds, contacts and experience from a film shoot. It's a good thing, it really is
Take it all in, do a few jobs, take a week off and make a feature film.