Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Working for Free - Part 2

By Joe Pontillo
BLB Guest Blogger

When I got to L.A., I had no immediate prospects in the entertainment business, and had no idea how I was supposed to get that started. I began working a couple of part time jobs - at a grocery store (Ralphs, as featured in The Big Lebowski) and a video store (remember when you used to have to go to a store to rent a movie?). I'd had no L.A. or New York internships during my time at film school, so I didn't know anyone and didn't have any professional experience. And when that's the situation, there's really only one way to get your start. You work for free.

My aunt, who lived in Ohio, informed me that a neighborhood friend of hers had a son who was producing music videos out in L.A. She offered to put me in touch with him and see if he could offer me any advice or opportunities. It just so happened the company he worked for was bringing in interns at the exact moment I contacted him, and he offered to pass my resume along.

So that's how it happens. You you become an intern or, simply, an unpaid production assistant. "Un-work," as I refer to it. This accomplishes two of the most important things you need to start your career in entertainment - it gets you experience, which is far more valuable than any college degree; and it helps you make friends and acquaintances, which is how you're going to find your way into future jobs. Since entertainment jobs are essentially all freelance, you live by your connections. These are the people who will inform you about job openings on their shows and will get your resumes to the right people (along with the ever-important implied recommendation).

How do you keep a roof over your head and food on your cheap Ikea table while you're working for free? It's surprisingly manageable, even in the high-cost-of-living city of L.A. Obviously, you're not living extravagantly. But as long as the bosses at your part time jobs are somewhat cooperative, you can usually work out a schedule where you can earn enough to get by, have plenty of face time at your unpaid entertainment job, and even have enough left over to go out to the occasional movie.

How do these multi-million or billion-dollar companies justify using free labor when they seem to have so much money to kick around? Well, I can't honestly say it's justified. There are a lot of people with padded pockets walking amongst the zero-dollar interns in any given office, and it seems like there should be a way for them to remain rich while still tossing a few bucks to the underlings.

But ask any line producer on any show at any time and they'll tell you the budget is beyond stretched. And they're not lying; they can only work with what they're given.

It may suck to have to work for free but, in a way, it's the greatest gift a newcomer could ask for. It makes the game so easy to play. People who are stressed out about money love to get things for free, and you're in a position to underbid anyone. It's an investment in yourself; you'll gain experience and contacts that will pay dividends later

I worked around the office of the music video company for a couple months, and was invited to be to an on-set production assistant on a couple of their music videos and commercials. With that experience on my resume, I was able to convince "The Amazing Race" to hire me for a low-end position. From there, I worked my way up to higher positions on a variety of shows. It's amounted to some six years of employment. And that, my friends, is what we call a career.

Recently, however, I've been looking for a change. I'd worked those six years mostly in post production on unscripted TV shows. When I finally took a moment to give my life some cold, hard analysis, I remembered that I'd never really meant to pursue post production, and had never been all that passionate about unscripted shows. It was time for a change. And, as luck would have it, a friend who works in animation informed me that they were accepting interns at her company.

It's hard to press the reset button at age 29. But I'm not getting any younger; I can do it now, or wait until I'm even older and more ingrained in what I've been doing. So I took the chance. For almost a year now, I've been putting in several days a week at the animation company. It's been great to try something new. I have plenty of anxiety about whether or not they'll be able to hire me, especially in this economy. But at least this time around, I have one thing that I didn't have before - the knowledge that working for free is a great strategy that pays off.

So what can I say? It's like the lady said: a great way to get your start is to offer to work for free.

Accept it. Embrace it. Don't resist it. It will serve you well.

Joe Pontillo previously worked in post production on unscripted television shows. He currently interns at Shadow Animation and writes scripts. He resides in Los Angeles and blogs at www.yourdailyjoe.com


  1. I immediately regretted my decision

  2. Just think - if you hadn't hired me on, I may have packed my bags and moved back to Pennsylvania by now!

    (Readers, Chad is the good man who initially hired me at The Amazing Race.)

  3. Joe, thanks for writing for the BLB. I really enjoyed your tale. You're welcome back any time.

  4. I enjoy your story, but think it's against the law to not pay people to show up for work. Volunteering for a nonprofit is probably more rewarding all the way around.

  5. "It's hard to press the reset button at age 29."

    Obviously, spoken from the lips of a 29 year old, so that perspective is understandable. Not to sound hard and rash, but you will probably need to press the reset button many times before you reach an age when thinking about retiring, say 65 or 70.

    What is the number of career changes at this point? I think it is at least four, and perhaps even higher by some measures. In other words, the reset button will have to be close at hand, ready for a poke many times over the next few decades. As very year passes, the changes that are available when you hit that button get more and more difficult. At age 29, the reset button is undoubtedly the easiest you will ever find to push.

    I'm sorry that that sounds cold, but it is reality. College is the best place to learn how to learn, more than learning something specifically about a career path. Being nimble and flexible when you need to reach for the reset button will require new learning, hence the need to learn to learn.

    As for working for free, the returns will vary greatly. However, it could be the greatest return on investment. One gives of themselves to a task, for the sake of doing the task, doing it well, and the pride of having done it right, and completed it. We see the other end of the spectrum of those getting paid very well (such as professional athletes). When having a cushion of compensation, the work ethic isn't the same. Yes, there are exceptions, but how many cases can we each point to where somebody changes their work habits after an assurance of getting paid well.

    Personally, my best work experiences were working three Summer jobs when in college, and thereafter, for nearly nothing in pay. It wasn't enough to pay to drive to and from work. But, did I learn much about working, learning about an industry, learning to work with others, and getting some good resume material for finding work later.

    I can only shake my head in disbelief when new college graduates, with Bachelor degree, expect to draw down $50,000, $60,000, or even more, when leaving school. "It is my terms, or none." They are more content to sit around their parent's house watching TV than working for little or nothing. No wonder we have more trouble finding a good workforce. Just read and study the problems management has in dealing with Millennials.

    To loop around to the beginning, talk to the 60 year old man who is pushing the reset button. Have him tell you about his experience in the pushing of that button.

  6. Thanks for the insight, Roger. My difficulty in pressing the reset button at 29 has to do with the fact that most of the people I came up with in the industry are either happy or at least content on their career paths and will continue to rise as they stick with it. It's not about bratty college kids expecting starting salaries of $60,000. It's the fact that my fellow 29-year-olds are heads of their departments, producers, or have achieved some other appropriately advanced level in their careers having stuck with it for six or seven years.

    The last paying position I, myself, held was post production supervisor. That's, say, fourth rung on maybe a ten-rung ladder. Now, instead of retaining that position and continuing up the ladder, I've put myself back at square one.

    Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that it would be far more difficult at 60 than at 30. But it's still a lot to lose at an age when most of my friends are starting their families and getting on with their lives.