Survival isn’t something I’ve addressed often in this blog before, but with many of reality television’s best (in my opinion, anyway) behind-the-scenes players going through slumps more often than usual these days, I think it’s a good time to bring it up.
In 2010, there were just over 760 reality shows in production, according to the results of a Kansas City Star study on the industry. Anecdotally, different sources claim that that number’s dropped slightly, but is still well above 700 shows. Tastes change, and the amount of available work in dramas, sitcoms and reality shows naturally ebbs and flows based on what viewers are in the mood for.
I find myself working less often than maybe five or ten years ago when I’d wrap a project on Friday and start a new one Monday. I’d been able to work as much as I wanted to whenever I wanted to, and with a decade or so of credits on a string of well-received shows, there was no reason for me to think there’d be an end to that kind of possibility.
In 2013, just after a management change at the company I’d been working for for three years, I exited a show I’d worked on for five seasons in the midst of what an exec at network called a “freshening up” of the franchise. He left the network less than 30 days later for a new opportunity somewhere else, but the damage was done and I was out. I chose to frame the end of my time on the show positively, as I’d had a fun run with it and had a normal, not-so-crazy time finding other positions.
The Truth: You simply cannot rely on a project-based career for any kind of stable, predictable income, no matter how good you are or how in-demand you may be for an extended period of time.
So, how do you plan?
Don’t build your life around “good times” money
If you scale your life to a place where you treat every paycheck like half or two-thirds of a paycheck, you can’t go wrong. Save money. Cultivate a profitable (even mildly profitable) hobby. For me, it’s books, lectures and consulting. For you, it could be an ebay store, house flipping, or any one of a thousand other things.
Pay cash if you want to treat yourself to anything rather then adding to your monthly overhead. Probably the dumbest thing I ever did was move into a luxurious new pad and buy a Mercedes at the height of my time on one series. Car payments and exorbitant rents live on, even when you’re suddenly out of work for five months. Ouch.
Make good use of your downtime
I’m one of those guys who sort of doesn’t know who he is if he’s not working. I don’t have a wife or kids, and live on the outside edge of LA now (in the name of peace and quiet as I can get it) and there’s not much occupying my time outside of work except finding new ways to get work. If you’re married and have any kids, use the downtime to reconnect with them and make sure you have something to live for outside of production or post.
Don’t rely on your agent or manager, if you have them, to find work for you. It’s a slippery slope, having a little time for yourself. I’ve accidentally wasted a lot of time by not making one step every day, no matter how small, to finding my next gig.
Know how to make money when you’re in a slump
I know plenty of guys and gals with Emmys and Peabodys who strike out during a staffing season or two and either fall out of the game completely or use the downtime to build an inventory of specs that they can go out with next season. Some have some great side businesses they can fall back on when they’re not on a show. An editor I recently worked with flips houses between shows and on weekends.
Sticking around is important
Half the battle in any creative profession is simply sticking around. If you’re new to the business, taking a “day job” to pay the bills between gigs might be necessary just to keep you accessible to employers. As I tell film students, the important thing is to be in town when the calls finally come. In reality television, most jobs I’ve had start within a week of getting an interview (as many as half starting within days of the call), so I’d be in deep trouble if I was in Florida when the phone rang.