It's something we're all asked all the time: how do I get the first real job in the industry? It's almost always a question coming out of a young, wide-eyed, innocent looking baby deer of a human being who is graduating from university very soon and for the first time realizes that they're going to have crushing student debt AND no actual plan to get from here to Oscar-worthy filmmaker.
I recognize that look of panicked curiosity because I saw it in the mirror an awful lot, not that long ago. I graduated from Indiana University in 2009, so I feel like the modern approach to getting a job in video production – an approach that includes things like websites and social media that older people didn't have to deal with when video was in its infancy – is still very fresh in my head. I think I still look young and hip and millennial enough to be considered one of the young folk that "made it" and has experience to share.
Me trying to explain my thesis project to my dad. Probably not useful for you, but look how frustrated I am. LOL.
When you ask experienced industry pros how to break in, I think a lot of people might tell you to keep knocking on doors and cold calling until you wear someone down. That was the best and only way to get in the door when video production was specialized big business that was rapidly growing. There weren't THAT many skilled editors because getting in front of an NLE wasn't easy.
But the reality right now is that there are a lot of people like you out there – like maybe more than ever – coming out of media programs super qualified and ready to go. Video production has matured into something more than .0005% of the population can understand. Software is accessible and hardware is affordable, so competition is high. Companies can have their choice of candidates by posting a job online and getting a thousand applications if they want, and narrow the few people that match their narrow expectations by cross referencing an internet presence. So cold calls and random emails aren't nearly as effective as they used to be for soliciting entry level jobs – as a random person, you aren't fulfilling a very specific need that can be met with some googling.
What does work? Relationships. And that's always been true, and will continue to be true until you retire from video production (so, until the sun explodes). I actually graduated in the middle of a recession (remember 2008? Remember how much that sucked? Imagine being 23 with a freshly printed college degree and a career advisor that laughed and suggested grad school!) I was looking for a job when the difficulty level for such a thing was on Expert. I emailed dozens and dozens and dozens of companies and individuals over a year period (or longer) and got ZERO responses other than a few "lol no" emails. Some of the businesses went under during that time. Today's new grads may have a little more luck eventually now that things are stable, but if they don't count on it then they'll just be pleasantly surprised. (Like, following up from cold emails MAY land something on the off chance the follow up comes right when the company has a quick opening for the kind of job an entry level grad can fill easily, but that's difficult timing and mostly up to luck. But it happens.)
To get my first job I started early, long before I actually needed work. I think that was preferred in the past, and now has become essential – finding connections takes time. I did an internship while I was still in school. But I got that internship from asking the company (which was within a network of companies with a relationship to my university) if I could do an "informational interview". That is, can I come in for an hour or half day or whatever and shadow the person whose job I really want and talk to them about it? No expectations for offering labor in return for knowledge, which seems like a big commitment for a company to take on. Just an afternoon to talk and observe. People in this industry are really giving and will lend their time to a nice, young, curious person if they have the time to lend, so this is a great way to pry open the first door. I happened to do this at the right time in their production schedule, followed up with a thank you email that included my resume and desire to keep learning as an intern, they liked me as a person, and then I spent a semester in their office.
From mentioned first internship in 2007. Playing pretend. It's a sports Emmy tho, so REALLY playing pretend.
From there, I became friends with the senior editor. On the last day, I took HIM out for coffee. I kept in touch a couple times a year even after the company closed and he moved on, asked to meet up with him at his new spot after I graduated, and he sent me my first freelance work which helped solidify me as an real editor locally. He advocated for me when my resume was thin.
In fact, I went to visit him after I graduated and got my first soul-sucking corporate video job, which I got through an instructor who knew someone that needed a video producer. I told my friend I wanted to see how real editors worked. He just looked at me a little confused and said "but...YOU are a real editor." I was so focused on the long term, I hadn't realized that my relationships had landed me on the right path. That was like 6 years ago, so anyone can see the impact of knowing established people in the industry, even if it's not directly job-related. It goes way beyond making relationships for connections. It starts to turn into relationships for...relationships.
And while I'm talking about soul-sucking first corporate video jobs, it's worth mentioning another part of the "how do I get the first job" question: how do I know what I want to be and find THAT job? I KNEW I wanted to be an editor, but I got a shooting-and-editing-and-producing job through an instructor at school who knew someone who knew someone who recommended me. It's the kind of job a lot of entry level people find themselves in, and it usually fits well for someone trying to grow. It's also something a lot of young people tend to frown at because there's no glamor in corporate video. Four years of being a free-flying creative person and I have to shoot videos of tractor trailors? Yes, and be glad someone is paying you to do it.
It was fine for a while ("soul-sucking" is sort of a term of endearment), I learned a lot, and I spent that time developing more relationships. I was there longer than I would have wanted (thanks, economy!) so I spent that time building up my skills to back up my personality, spending a majority of my off time networking locally and on social media (which has allowed my network to expand beyond anything the previous generations could have imagined), and going to conferences to get in front of people and start to know them face to face (see previous: relationships!)
After the initial job of doing-it-all where I was able to specifically hone my skills as an editor on the side, I got my first full on editing job – a job where that's all I did and my job title reflected it. I've never had a job that was anything BUT editing since – that job led directly to one editing gig and then another and another. Some people need that kind of all-around experience to figure out where within video they're comfortable. Some people may find a "jack of all trades" position to be the one that is MOST comfortable. And some people need it in order to prove themselves, usually TO themselves. In any case, taking a job that isn't "perfect" or "glamorous" but sounds like it can cover a lot of the skills you want and trying your best to make it your own is a great way to get the first gig.
Another internship at the end of college. Something something Darth Vader in your Rolodex.
In all this mess of a career path, there was never a random email or phone call. Always an email or phone call to a friend or friend's friend.
Because people like to work with people they like and know and trust, or vouched for by someone they like, know or trust. That's daunting when you're starting out, but we all start out that way, so we all want to help each other. So that's how you get your first job: get in the door by asking for the things you want from the people have can give them to you with minimal strings attached – a tour, an informational interview, a job shadow – and start to develop your network. Have a compelling web presence that will make you stand out when the friend-of-a-friend checks up on you, and don't forget that social media can expand your connections beyond locals. Be willing to do the soul-sucking stuff for a while, but continue moving forward as much as you can.
With so many qualified people trying to break into the industry, companies aren't looking for strangers to walk in their door. If they don't know you, they don't need you. They're looking for people they know already, and the best way to do that is to begin to build a network as early as you can. Already graduated without any connections? Start building them right this second. Go to the nearest user group or film industry mixer and talk to people about your desire to learn from the best and someone will invite you to hang out. And always remember to treat people like people instead of job-givers and potential opportunities. and your professional life will be more rewarding to be surrounded by so many smart people.
Title graphic: School of Informatics: Kylee Wall, Class of 2009