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March 18, 2005

Finding a Job in the Arts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's such a strange time, isn't it? Electronic media-making devices have become affordable ... Self-expression has become prized above all other activities and values ... And finding employment doing something that you love -- and that results in satisfaction, fame, and money too, of course -- is felt by many young people to be a birthright ...

Yet, realistically speaking, how many well-paying openings are there in the arts?

Here's a glimpse of the practical state of such things from ICG, the magazine of the International Cinematographers Guild. The speaker is Sandi Sissel, a cinematographer who teaches lighting at New York University:

There was a period of time where getting to be a filmmaker was something that you did by meeting other filmmakers, getting to know people, having a knack for it and finding a niche. When I was starting out, it wasn't a matter of me thinking, Wow, how do I get into the business? It was just a smaller industry back then ... These days there are about 1300 kids in film school at NYU. I don't mean to sound callous, but do I honestly think that more than 20 of them are going to make it? Probably not.

Repeat: maybe 20 out of 1300 are going to find gainful employment in the movie business. (Apologies: couldn't resist the boldface.) Now imagine what the odds of making it in the moviebiz are for people who don't go to film school.

I can't help thinking about a question that Sissel doesn't raise: How satisfying will the 20 lucky kids find their moviebiz jobs? If they wind up like many of the moviebiz people I've met, they'll spend their careers fighting high blood pressure, wrestling with horrifying mood swings, and boasting about how glamorous their work is while fantasizing about the calm and peaceful normal lives they might have led instead.



posted by Michael at March 18, 2005


As I see it, people have two choices in terms of making a living in the movie biz. They can either (1) try to make it in fields in which there is a ludicrous numerical mismatch between the number of qualified people and the number of paying jobs or (2) be prepared to give themselves jobs as artists or technicians by also playing entrepreneur. In the movie-biz, that means becoming a producer "hyphenate."

Believe it or not, I've known several businessmen who, after making some dough in other fields, have gone into low-budget, straight-to-video filmmaking as a business venture. That is, their motives were not fame or art, but money. I haven't audited their taxes, but by and large, they seem to have succeeded--they still live in large, very expensive homes, etc. So it's not that there's a lack of business opportunity in the movie business. What there does seem to be a massive oversupply of is technicians, writers, actors, etc. In short, signing up for a stint in as a prole in the movie-world's 'reserve army of the unemployed' isn't such a good career move. Living in L.A., I've known several fairly well-known actors who still found it, after considerable career success, a big struggle to afford middle-class family life. Frankly, I didn't envy them. And when I see young hopefuls who describe themselves as assistant editors at parties, I don't know what to say to them. I don't want to crush their youthful dreams, but part of me wants to tell them to get a real job--and with it, hopes for a real life.

Oh, yes...and New York University should be ashamed of itself for taking these kids--and their parent's--money.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 19, 2005 1:21 PM

I wonder if the competition in showbiz is as red hot as the numbers make it seem.

When we hear about 1300 film grads a year, we feel they couldn't possibly all find jobs - they're all competing against one another after all. But are they really? To compete against each other assumes they all have roughly the same level of talent, ability, and commitment, but how likely is that?

One time I talked to a guy who had chaired a playwriting competition. They had advertised the thing heavily in the trade mags and were consequently deluged with scripts. He told me the quality of those scripts broke down something like this: Out of every 1000 submissions, only 100 were worth reading past the fifth page; of those hundred, 10 were worth reading all the way to the end; and of those ten, about 3 were worth considering for production.

I've since run those figures past other people in the scribbling biz and they all agree that's pretty much the way it is.

So to me it seems likely that competition thins out considerably when we get down to the skillful few.

I went to NYU myself and had a bunch of film school roommates and friends, but few of them took it seriously, and most of the ones I'm still in touch with have moved into other fields. (Nothing wrong with that of course. You have to major in something, so why not something fun?)

Posted by: Brian on March 19, 2005 8:06 PM

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