Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Reprint: My First Freelance Gig...(or How To Get Hired And Not Be Sure Why)

Another early post...and it ties into the previous two entries (yes, agents are worth it)

More from the recesses of the mind. When you work in the film/TV business but live far away from the centers of the universe, freelance work is much harder to come by. If you are a writer, you have the best shot at it…presuming you’re really good and have a great agent – but even still, series like for you to come in and meet them, pitch them, walk through the episode on the whiteboard, make sure you don’t have three heads. So if you are living outside of the major production centers, that’s next to impossible to do.

“We’d like to consider you to write an episode of ‘Major Network Series’. Can you come in this afternoon and talk it through? You need to check airline schedules? If you’re lucky you might be able to get here by end of day tomorrow? Uh, never mind.”

However, if you are a really talented scribe and recognized as such, you can work from home and with telephones/computers/email/etc., pull it off.

But if you are a director, it’s next to impossible.

Every major production center has dozens of really good directors just standing by to work. Why fly in and pay to put up an up and coming competent from the regions when you just need to look down the street? Why indeed…

So years ago, shortly after I got my first agent, I finished directing a TV movie that I co-wrote, and then packed me and my family’s bags and moved to Toronto. Nothing was waiting for me/us. But if I wanted to ‘do drama more often’, it was the next logical step.

Cut to six months later and I’d had a bunch of meet and greets around town, but no serious ‘work’ leads developing anywhere. And I remember being very confused as to why some producers and companies that used to meet with me every time I flew to Toronto now wouldn’t take a meeting. I cornered one of the execs at an industry party, and asked him why. His response: “Well, now that you live here – there’s no real reason to meet unless it’s for something specific. We know where to find you if we need to talk.”


The other thing that was going on was my lovely agent was pushing me on the handful of big drama series. Some meetings, but no ‘this is going to turn into something’ vibe.

Then my eldest daughter turned old enough to graduate from watching Treehouse channel all the time to watching YTV sometimes. And even though 3 of the 4 shows I’d directed and/or wrote were kids/family mystery/fantasy drama’s, I swear this was the first time in my life I’d seen YTV. And I see a show called ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ Cool show, anthology series, scary tales for kids…much like three of my four credits.

I hastily got the agent on the phone – ask if she knows the show and has contacted them about me.


I'm sure she'd heard of the series because they filmed up in Montreal, Canada - but she appeared to have very little information about it. And she seemed a little confused as to why I would be interested in a ‘kids’ show. I said I needed some work, and it looked like an okay series (it was also on Nickelodeon in U.S.), so why not? She said she would look into it.

SIDEROAD #1: when starting out, help your cause and target shows that somewhat match your existing credits. It made no sense for me to be pushing to get on a legal or medical series when most of my credits were family/kids/comedy – blame it on ego, arrogance, ignorance, etc. Producers, execs, etc. are inundated with talent to work on their shows. And they are always looking for a reason to say ‘No’. Make it difficult for them to say no…don’t send a kids fantasy/mystery show as a sample of your work to an adult legal drama series --- or you can submit it to try to get your name in front of the decision-makers, but don’t expect to get hired.

SIDEROAD #2: although I muttered a bit about why it was me that found this series that seemed appropriate for me and my talents, and not my agent – it was my agent who tracked down the Showrunner in L.A., sent my samples in a professional package thus lending credibility to my name, and then followed up and badgered for a meeting. She earned every penny of her 10%.

Anyways, a month or so later there’s a call – agent has heard back that the executive producers will be in Toronto that week for some casting sessions and would like to meet me for breakfast at the Sutton Place Hotel. It’s to discuss directing an episode. Yeehaw.

I rewatch the episodes I’d taped in the previous month – learning my ABP’s…(always be prepping… to know the show you are trying to work on). I toss and turn until meeting day, wake up before dawn and race down to the hotel to beat rush hour traffic…and end up having to have a coffee up the street to kill 45 minutes I’m so early. Make my way in to the restaurant and am ushered to the table to meet: Showrunner (from L.A.) and Co-Executive Producer (also from L.A. but is bilingual and will be running the day to day of the show up in Montreal).

Nervous. Sweating. Not sure what they’ll ask…what to say or do…they don’t prep you for these meetings in film school. Can’t remember details other than trying real hard to not to embarrass myself. There was the obligatory chit chat and feeling out part --- then they begin to talk about the show and how it works and what they want…there were a few testing questions about how I worked with kids, how fast I was, could I roll with changes or unexpected disruptions. I answer to the best of my knowledge – nothing too opinionated – don’t embarrass myself I think.

Now I’m starting to get excited…they seem to be leaning toward hiring me…they are talking dates, and whether I’m available --- and all I’m interested in knowing is…why me? Which one of my shows did they watch and like? Or did they watch them all and like them all? Man I must be good – listen to them, they really sound like they are going to hire me!

Meeting starts to wrap up…they say thanks and then drop bombshell that they’ve already informed my agent that they’d like to hire me and will get back to her with details. What?! It’s already a done deal?! Man, I am awesome!

So I blurt out: “You must have watched my samples, the shows I did – what did you like about them?”

The Showrunner glances at the other exec, thinks a bit, and then says: “Actually, I haven’t watched them. But my assistant did and said they were okay. The truth of matter is that I directed that lead kid (the kid that starred in my one hour family mystery/drama) before on another show of mine, and he was nuts…a real handful (which the kid was). I figured if you could work with him, then you could work on anything with anyone.”


To say I was a little deflated was an understatement. But I smiled and we shook hands and parted ways. And three weeks later I was on a plane to direct an episode of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ --- my first freelance gig (which led to more directing and writing for show as well - once in the door kind of stuff - but more on that another time).

So what’s my point…what you do and how you do it and how effective or successful it happens to be is ALL very important. But showrunner’s are busy busy people and most would rather ‘hear’ someone is good or worth working with than have to sit down and watch samples and make that difficult decision themselves.

SIDEROAD #3: I was once hired onto the staff of a big big show that shot in Vancouver based on a short, relatively rushed meeting in LA at the end of a frantic day while I literally followed the exec through the MGM building talking to him as he prepared to leave for the airport. I found out at a later date that just prior to my meeting, the same exec had happened to sit down on a plane beside a semi-famous actor that was starring in the series I was presently working on. What I heard was exec had told actor that he was considering me for their series, and asked the actor what he thought of me. Actor apparently replied: “Oh, he’s cool.”…and then went on to try to pitch something. I’m not saying that there weren’t a lot of other factors that came into play (there was apparently a first and second choice that both passed on the gig – I was number three), but I’m sure if semi-famous actor says: “Oh, he’s an idiot and an asshole.” – I don’t get hired.

Back to the ‘Dark’ freelance hiring – the people/relationships element is so important. The Showrunner might have seen all kinds of wonderful work in my samples, and perhaps been impressed – but there are also so many intangibles at play if you don’t have any first-hand experience/knowledge about the person you are thinking of hiring. Was the script brilliant and anybody could shoot it and it would work? Did the awesome assistant director in fact direct it for me? Was the cast brilliant and therefore made me, the director, look good?

But because there was a personal, first hand connection (the hyperactive child actor)…he felt comfortable enough to make the hire. And that’s something I could have no way of knowing. It isn’t something you plan for or can orchestrate…it just happens.

So do the best that you can, and treat people with courtesy and respect…the rest of it is really out of your hands.

SONG & ARTIST? - "You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark"


Bill Cunningham said...

The Boss.

(The lyrics and your post)

EditThis said...

You should try to make the lyrics a little harder. (ie. by not having the title of the song in them!)

Interesting post. I thought I'd add my 2 cents. Along the same lines as what you've talked about, I find it's generally word of mouth that gets you work. I work as an editor, and have been in the industry about 12 years now. It seems when I started, everything I did was "for my reel" so I would get future work. Ironically, I have never once gotten work BECAUSE someone saw my reel. I've always gotten work because I knew someone who knew someone who felt confident I could do that show or that film. And in most cases, just because I DID know someone. You can be merely competent and nice and know the right people and get work. Why hire the guy who is "greatest (whatever) in the world" but an asshole, when you can hire person who is more than competent and much nicer and easier to work with?

It's funny when you're working freelance, and you're out of work, and you're frantically looking for work, and then it always just somehow drops in your lap, and you wonder if you really needed to do the legwork at all. Of course, doing the legwork is what keeps you from going insane because you're NOT working.

Thanks for the post.

Caroline said...

I am enjoying these posts, Will. Very cool to get a look at the path you've been one. Keep 'em coming. You are absolutely right about treating people right though ... today's assistant is tomorrow's network executive and they remember. I started as someone's assistant and I still remember the people who treated me like a human being (and the one's who didn't ... one guy insisted on calling me "John's girl", like my boss owned me, it was just kinda degrading and totally intentional on this dope's part).

potdoll said...

what a great story. Happy happy.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Great post. Keep 'em coming!

Riddley Walker said...

I agree, Will. Most of the work I've ever had (especially the good stuff) has come about through introductions and personal connections.

It seems that even someone as abrasive and sociopathic as myself sometimes unexpectedly makes a good impression... ;-)

Caroline said...

Riddley Walker, I am exposing you for the sham you are. You talk a good game about being abraisive, but when we spoke you were nothing but charming and delightful. There goes your street cred ;-)

Riddley Walker said...

Curses, foiled again... ;-)