Moving up the professional ladder is not a set course for freelancers. One day you might be a producer; the next day you’re back to being a production assistant. One publication might promise you $2,500 for a story; another publication offers $100. A recent experience reminded me just how fluid our freelance lives can be, and what we can do to gain at least a semblance of control.
I started my career as a production assistant and web editor with NBA Entertainment, then slowly worked my way up to producing. A few years in, I also started writing magazine and web features. That has since become my main focus, but I continue to produce and direct because, frankly, it pays so much more. It also helps that friends will often call and offer me positions on their upcoming projects.
One of the friends is an accomplished producer whom I met shortly after leaving NBA Entertainment. I was an overconfident 23-year-old P.A.; she was an accomplished network features producer. She took me under her wing, and I was her P.A., then associate producer, for the next five years or so, until I reached a point where I was producing on my own (and focusing more on writing). When she moved across the country, we stayed close, and eventually co-produced a few projects.
This spring, she decided to take on her first independent documentary. I was proud of her and wanted to help out in some way when I found out she was planning a shoot for July. I already had a client flying me to the West Coast that week, so it was easy enough to extend my trip.
As I was getting ready to fly, she texted me about a shoot she had lined up for the three days after the documentary. Did I want to stay and help out as a production assistant? It would help pay for the trip, but these days we made the same rate when working together. Yes, I had P.A.’d for her when I was starting out, but that was eight years ago. I had writing assignments due for other clients, work that would pay my full rate.
I ultimately agreed, but with one caveat: My friend assured me that we shouldn’t be shooting for more than 10 hours a day.
That turned out to be far from the truth. We shot for 18, 16, and 14 hours, respectively, each day. (Granted, she hadn’t anticipated this at all. She honestly thought the days would be quick.) Since she’s a friend, I couldn’t just stop after 10 hours, but she was the only person earning her full rate on the shoot. The rest of us were doing favors. My heart wasn’t in it at all, and it showed when I messed up a relatively simple task. It didn’t help that the mistake happened at 5 a.m., 45 minutes before we were supposed to start shooting. Had an actual P.A. been hired, she probably wouldn’t have made that mistake; she would have cared more about impressing the producer. I was past caring.
I also realized I resented whenever my friend asked for my opinion on shots—she was asking me because she trusted me as a producer, but I was being paid as a P.A. I know she was trying to do me a favor by hiring me. I was trying to do her a favor by taking the gig. We both just ended up frustrated.
However, the documentary shoot was a completely different experience. In that case, she wasn’t being paid either, and I was happy to help her out. Just as I’m happy to help friends when they ask me to edit a draft. I know they’ll do the same for me soon enough. But when the favor will not be reciprocated, or there is nothing to gain professionally, don’t just give your skills away for free, no matter who is asking.
On extremely rare occasions, I still take P.A. gigs, especially if it’s an opportunity to work with a renowned director. But if it’s an agency or documentary group, I turn down lower-tier positions. I learned a while ago that a foot in the door as a P.A. only leads to producing gigs after a few years, at the minimum. If you want to come in as a producer, you need to come in as a producer. That’s how everyone will remember you.
In terms of my writing career, I still accept lower rates than I’d like from some publications. If a publication gives a piece a thorough edit, or it’s an editor who I greatly respect, I am willing to take slightly less than normal because I know I’ll improve as a writer. If a particular byline comes with some cache, I might be willing to take a slightly lower rate as well. It all comes down to whether there is added value (beyond the paycheck).
But for the most part, I’ve accepted that if I want to continue moving up the career ladder, I have to be stedfast in where I am in my career. And I can still be helpful without compromising my own progress by recommending a P.A. or writer who would fit better in the position.
It doesn’t take much for that flexibility freelancers enjoy to morph from a blessing into a curse. I have to ask for higher rates, and refuse to work for less. If a friend says she is working on a corporate production, I need to ask her to budget appropriately for my help, or turn down the gig. It’s rare that editors will say, “You’re doing great work for us. Want more money?” Instead, you need to take stock of your work. You have to complete your own performance review and then set your standards accordingly.
As I was reminded recently, you are only as valuable as you decide to be.