Before choosing a particular job or specialty field, you'll have to decide whether to pursue a staff job with one company or freelance work. Freelancing entails working from project to project in a wide variety of positions, such as actor, writer, composer, musician, storyboard artist, graphic artist, dialogue coach, script reader, script doctor or a member of a film or television crew. It's a job that has a finite term, and that term could last anywhere from one day to a year or more.
How freelancers are paid will vary, as some are compensated by the hour, the day, the week or the project. Much depends on the exact nature of the work and who's doing the paying. It's often assumed that because you freelance, you're automatically an independent contractor; but that isn't necessarily the case. Most freelancers are put on payroll for the term of their employment, and their paychecks reflect all obligatory income tax deductions and any union or guild fringes that may apply. At the end of the year, instead of the one W-2 form that someone in a staff position would receive, freelancers could conceivably receive several.
As far as the studios, networks and major production companies are concerned, to be paid as an independent contractor, you must be incorporated and carry your own worker's compensation coverage. Smaller companies, however, may let you invoice as an independent contractor even if you aren't incorporated, as long as you supply them with your social security number. In this case, you would receive a 1099 at the end of the year (instead of a W-2) if you've made in excess of $600, and you would be responsible for your own income taxes.
Freelancers are often referred to as those out "in the trenches." Instead of working in one location (usually an office), they're known to move around quite a bit, often from location to location. They frequently work longer and harder hours while situated close to the "front" (or the set) where the real action is taking place and a project is being shot.
As a freelancer, you'll undoubtedly be spending more time and effort looking for work and could conceivably be away from home for long stretches of time. The insecurity factor is quite a bit higher than with staff work. On the other hand, people who freelance are more likely to get to travel to locations they might never otherwise see; they get time off between projects (which is wonderful, if it's not for an inordinate amount of time) and are apt to be exposed to more new people, new circumstances, new challenges and new experiences. Another thing I love about freelancing is that if I'm on a show and end up working with someone I don't particularly care for, I know that once the show is over, I can choose never to work with that person again. It's kind of the best and the worst all rolled into one and, one way or another, you end up paying for that higher degree of freedom and adventure by having to endure higher levels of stress and uncertainty.
Good staff positions are not easy to come by, so some freelance because the work (while not steady) is often more attainable. Sometimes, however, the decision to freelance or to try to land a staff job is based on a person's circumstances at any given time in his or her life. I've known many who freelance while they're single and have few responsibilities but then move into staff situations once they're married and have children, because all of a sudden, that steady paycheck becomes more essential. On the other hand, there are many freelancers who work often and earn fabulous livings. They may not be able to spend as much time with their spouses and kids as they'd like, but their incomes can easily sustain the financial demands of a growing family. It's all a matter of circumstances and trade-offs.
Staff jobs will generally give you a good foundation, a greater sense of security, a regular paycheck, employment benefits (like health insurance), a scheduled paid vacation, more normal work hours and a more normal lifestyle. And as many companies promote from within, you could conceivably stay with one company for years. But also keep in mind that production companies do have a tendency to come and go as do executives at major studios and television networks, so there is no guarantee that once in a job, you'll be able to stay with that company indefinitely.
Those who spend years in staff jobs often long to freelance, and freelancers often crave the stability of a staff position. Sometimes the decision is made for you based on which type of job you can find first. Whether it's deliberate or happenstance, honestly look at where you are in your life and the lifestyle you think you can best adapt to before deciding which direction to follow. Like mine, your career may become a combination of staff and freelance work.
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