Can You Still Have a Career in Editing?

Posted on by Larry

Three emails got me thinking today. The first was from Jack Reilly, of Future Media Concepts who is organizing Post-Production World at NAB. He’s asked me to host a Hot Panels session Wednesday at NAB on The Future of Editing.

The second was a YouTube comment from Ray Roman who wrote: “I recently had a dream where there was a software that analyzes all of the content and edits ‘the best’ outcome possible. It was a nightmare!”

The third was also a YouTube question from GambitRocks, a student who asked: “I was considering going to graduate school for Post Production Editing, but I’m really concerned about future employment prospects. It seems like video/film production is having the same problem right now. Do you have any tips or advice in regards to pursuing a career in Editing?”

And, you know, I have a hard time finding a reassuring answer to GambitRocks question.

Story-telling has been around since we first learned to talk, so I have no doubt that stories will continue long after all of us are gone. But, the ability to make a living telling stories – THAT is a much more difficult question to answer.

The opening sentence in Charles Dickens’ “The Tale of Two Cities” describes editing today perfectly: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Never have we had such incredible tools, so affordably priced, and available to as many people. That’s the good news.

The reality, though, is that all these tools have opened the floodgates to so many new people that it is difficult to make a consistent living.

No one works on staff anymore; editors are primarily free-lance. I tell my students to expect to be out of work half of the time, then to work furiously to make up for it the other half. We spend as much time marketing ourselves as we do creating compelling stories. (Which is great if you love marketing; but if we loved marketing, why did we become editors?)

Budgets are a fraction of what they were even five years ago. And not just the event videographer is affected by competition from college kids working for free to establish their career. Look at the high-end financial drama with Digital Domain and Rhythm and Hues. After looking at the empty store-fronts littering Burbank, it seems like running a post-production facility is a sure way to lose money.

It isn’t just a case of the strong survive. Even editors with solid, network-level skills are struggling to find work.

Directors, afraid of missing a key shot, are recording 100:1, 500:1, even 1000:1 shooting ratios – generating MASSIVE amounts of material that can only be processed with platoons of low-paid production assistants, or metadata-based editing to automate the editorial process; the process that Ray Roman was lamenting.

At the mid- to low-end of the food-chain (however you decide to define it) editors are forced to compete on price, because clients, who grew up watching YouTube videos, can’t tell the difference between changing shots and telling a story. And when you compete solely on price, pretty soon everyone is either working for free or leaving the business.

It used to be that editing was the springboard to a creative career that would allow you to pay your bills, feed your family and enjoy your life. Now, that idyllic vision is the province of only a few.

Collapsing budgets, exploding competition, ubiquitous tools — its enough to make someone considering a career in editing consider something safer, like chain saw juggling.

All this turmoil in our industry, and it seems worse now than ever before, got me wondering — is editing as a craft and an industry likely to survive for the long-term?

For me, the answer is: “I think so, but it will never be what it was.”

I had a lunch meeting today with a software company that was extolling the virtues of their latest product. As the conversation wound down, I asked them why someone should buy their product, versus the competition.

They looked at me in surprise, paused a moment, and said: “Um, yeah, we need to be able to answer that.”

As editors, we need to answer EXACTLY this same question: Why should someone hire you? If all we can answer is “I’m the cheapest,” keep your bags packed, because you won’t last very long. There is ALWAYS someone cheaper than you.

When there are no other criteria upon which to make a decision, clients will always pick the cheapest. Our job is to educate potential clients on the benefit of working with us.

What benefits do you provide that are hard to find anywhere else? What does the client get by working with you — in addition to a completed video? What skills do you have that make you unique?

Every single one of us is different – we need to emphasize how our uniqueness benefits our clients.

“But, wait!,” you say. “If I do that, I’ll lose jobs.”

My answer to that is: “If they aren’t paying you enough to live on, you don’t need that job in the first place.” Over the years, I’ve discovered that if a producer convinces you to work for them for free, they will never give you a paying gig. Why? Because they have already proven you will work for them for free.

Yes, there are times when donating your time – though not your equipment – can make strategic sense. But you can’t build a career on it.

What makes you unique? What do you do different/better than anyone else? WHY SHOULD THE CLIENT HIRE YOU?

Create a clear, coherent, concise answer to that question and you have a career. Compete on price and you might as well start selling off your gear on eBay to pay the rent.

As always, I’m interested in your comments.


29 Responses to Can You Still Have a Career in Editing?

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  1. Ivor Dunaiski says:

    I hail all the way from Cape Town in South Africa. I’m permanently employed at a small production company. The more I read your posts the more I feel I need to be doing this thing on my own. Your posts are both informative, edifying and inspiring. Thanks!

  2. Steve says:

    I am 22 and in my 3rd trimester of a Film Making Degree at SAE. With no skills in the work force, a few edits from assignments to put in what will make my show reel and after reading all this I have become very depressed, I feel I should start getting somewhat fit enough to get into the military or start looking for a position at McDonald’s. -.-

  3. […] Can You Still Have a Career in Editing? Posted by Larry on March 19, 2013 […]

  4. Nikki Cole says:

    Hi, I’m from the future and just found this article and site. I echo what Jeff said, “Just because you own a copy of Microsoft Word does not make you a writer.” And just because you painted your kitchen, doesn’t make you a contractor.

    Luckily, not everyone wants to be a writer, chef, hair dresser, musician, etc. The more I think about taking my carpet up to replace it with laminate, the more I think about how I am not passionate about that process and that I shouldn’t take other people’s jobs.

    As I sit here, in my corporate job, I desire to run my own production house and see many ways to earn an income. However, I have not gone forward for the fear that my passion will not support me. In reality, I’m taking someone else’s job who would love to be doing this corporate stuff.

    At any rate, I WILL be calling a professional to lay down my laminate. I also am going forward with my company. Why? because I love to tell stories through video. I always have and regardless of the state of the industry, I probably always will. I have to trust that my passion will support me, or at least…try.

    Housing Contractors and my future replacement…you’re welcome.

  5. Keith Brooks says:

    Great article. Larry sent me this link to walk me down a path of how to get better prepared to offer services as an editor. I have a personal studio with all the latest gear. But all the work for six years has been non-profit and largely a great hobby. I think I’m reconsidering the idea of a professional run for one reason: I have grown very tired of the mentality that has gripped the middle class and even the upper class that rode in on Sam Walton’s big blue truck. You can get what you want at rock bottom prices, just don’t mind the fact that it’s garbage and will MOST certainly end up there in less than two years. I’m a career woodworker and can’t stand the industry for the same reason. Every one is cutting quality to improve the margins because clients don’t see longevity as a value (you don’t get longevity without quality and that without MONEY). What’s funny is everyone loves antiques but no one wants to set their great grand children up with some by actually saving up money to have an artist build something that will last that long. Everyone likes Sam Walton.
    So, I fully agree with and support the idea that when you are money focused you will be out of work because someone IS cheaper. What the younger generation needs to see if this is to improve is that quality is art, cheap is not. If your an artist, your craft is art first. If your business man, the margins are art. I believe it’s the person that will not compromise their quality and convinces a client that they need that quality that truly will find success. Mediocrity is sludge and repels people. YT trash is still trash. It doesn’t get views.
    Don’t be an editor who suffers “good enough” idiocy. I learned this just last week when I got fired for going the opposite direction from the owner. Why? Because I go slower because quality matters to me and the owner goes faster because margins matter to him. I couldn’t stand it anymore and now Im happily unemployed. I would rather starve than ever work for someone again who tells me to do a crappier job to save money because he didn’t value his customer or his product enough to say so with his pricing. And yes I did say “value his customer enough”. I firmly believe i care deeply about my customer enough to charge him more because I want to give him the very best I have to offer not the grey goo of mediocrity that walmart sells.

    Nikki, don’t do laminate…please! Quality is better, choose a SOLID hardwood. You want clients to choose the top end stuff from you? Choose the top end stuff for yourself as well. If you can’t afford it save for it. Cut costs, sacrifice.

    Great topic and long editorial.

  6. Ralph Smith says:

    Hi Larry,

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this superbly written article.

    I grew up in an era where as a top editor clients were paying me to fly first class across the country just to cut a commercial.

    35 years later the business model of editing has totally changed. The cost of technology has fallen dramatically making it affordable for even school students to setup a production suite on a laptop, the charge out rate for editing has remained in limbo since those early days and the market is oversaturated with much younger creative and sometimes not so creative people.

    I believe the era of the “top-gun” editor like the dinosaurs is now extinct. Do I feel threatened? No! You are only as good as your last job and clients who appreciate the best will always go with experience as you provide surety in delivering a finished product.

    I fully support your two points about what unique product or service you have to offer and making money for your services.

    The start of this year my wife and I went back into television production after spending nearly a decade volunteering for a number of non-for-profit organisations. Unfortunately, when you heavily discount your rates or even do things for nothing to help people it has the effect of devaluing yourself in their eyes. This is the financial struggle we now face.

    I agree the market is challenging but editors are a resilient breed and a good editor will always find a way through a problem.

    Good luck to all those considering a career in editing and never loose faith in yourself.

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