Thursday, June 25, 2009

Friends will let you starve. Strangers will give you work.

I was told this quote by Mary Knox, the executive producer at Curious Pictures, who attributed it to John Kamen, who runs @radical media. It probably applies to some degree in a lot of businesses, but it's particularly poignant in directing, where your professional fate is determined a single job at a time.

From a client's point of view, directing is a weird combination of fashion and vacation. By hiring the right guy (and it usually is a guy –– a topic I'll cover in another blog), people get to brush up against glamorous people like me, in glamorous locations like New York or LA.

The unintended consequence of this is that strangers are a lot more exciting to consider working with than friends, regardless how capable, talented, or easy to work with those friends are.

I learned this lesson the hard way, working for free and even putting my own money into producing jobs for friends and friends of friends who needed commercials but didn't have the money. The jobs always went well, the spots always came out beautifully, and when all was said and done, everybody couldn't wait to work together again.

Some of those spots even went on to win prestigious awards.

And yet, as soon as a project with a budget came along, those same friends hired big-name directors to shoot them.

It's been more than ten years since the last time I worked with these guys. And in the intervening years they haven't asked me to bid on a single project. Not because they don't like me or my work, but because they know me too well. It never even crosses their mind.

To be fair, this works in both directions. Most directors want to hire big-name DP when they have a big budget, in spite of the favors they've collected from the people trying to break in.

But if you know it –– and now you do –– here are two rules to live by: 1) Only do a favor if you're going to get something out of it. A spot for your reel, a trip to Buenos Aires, or an opportunity to try a new technique. And 2) don't resent it when your buddy calls up to brag that he got to shoot with some famous person.

Eventually, you might get to be that famous person.