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. Yury says:

    The industry is at stagnation – it’s obvious for me. Of course the level of stagnation may vary between segments and markets but in general…

    All the projects have the extreme difference in budgets – 0 or zillion.
    Mid-range is becoming more uncommon thing.

    The entry level is the lowest ever. You can have computer, you can learn things from countless free online courses, YT, etc, you can even get the software for free on countless torrents, you register on freelance site – here you go another editor. Experience is 0 but nobody knows about it and you’re the cheapest man in the hood. Nobody wants to pay – they’re ready to cut few dollars even for lower quality then to pay extra ones for higher quality.

    The high budget projects are distributed between the professionals that are working in the industry for years and and there’s no chance to get in there.

    We are entering the (incompetent) clients dictatorship era or survival marketing era – whatever name you like- and you have to sell yourself as a sales manager – it’s all up to you. So you better listen to some effective sales course right after Adobe Premiere Pro one. 🙂

    But it’s a tendency in all service markets as you can see – cloud-like services, template solutions, automated source management, etc. People want things as cheap as they could be. That’s true. Now we can use almost all kind of services we can imagine not selling our both kidneys.
    Or the second side of medal. People want top notch stuff. Look at smartphones market. Buying the last iPhone or nothing.

    So are the things IMHO.

  2. says:

    When I was in art school, I was taught the pragmatic definition of an artist is someone who works for free, ie. don’t let that be you! The corollary of ‘never work for free’ is never work with people who are working for free. Imagine a film shoot like that: pure chaos. And then the client behaves the same way: we don’t really value this and we’ve decided to put it on the shelf for the moment (a month, a year, forever).

    They are calling it the post-employment economy.

    My Amazon bestseller made me nothing

    The digital media revolution means no more rock stars. No more professional: musicians, journalists, writers, photographers, filmmakers – anything that has been digitised, where the means of production and distribution have been democratised by becoming less capital-intensive. On the other hand, it’s never been a better time to be a hedge fund manager! More radically, if you are not really being paid to be creative making stuff for the political economy, it means you can be just as well paid as a creative revolutionary, overthrowing the new plutocracy that ensures you have no future. So there’s that 🙂

    I have worked as a video tech, editor, graphic designer, web designer, musician and filmmaker. I specialise in charity fundraising and I’ve got 15 years experience in that context. I’m a charity marketer with a movie camera. That’s my USP. If I were a video editor starting out, I’d be very concerned. Of course, if I were simply under 40, I’d be concerned. The plutocracy we’ve created over the last 30 years feeds on the young (and old and infirm). The post-employment economy – LOL.

    Please pardon the long passionate rant. It’s a big topic.

  3. 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.

  4. Jeff Orig says:

    Yes, change is both scary and exciting.

    Just because you own a copy of Microsoft Word does not make you a writer. And just because you have a high quality camera, editing system, etc. does not make you a filmmaker, editor, videographer, etc.

    Certainly everything has changed, but people still make a living writing and making music. Those are two creative industries that were democratized before our industry. Maybe they don’t make as much money as before, but more people are able to make money doing it.

    I don’t know the answer. But I believe there is always room for more awesome in the world. If you make great things and bring value to the world, it comes back to you ten-fold.

    Yes, we will have to step up our game to get a piece of the pie. But that is a good thing. Less crap is a good thing.

    I haven’t been around forever, but I don’t think working in this industry was EVER easy. There are always challenges. Competition was always one of those major challenges.

    Plus, I think there are more places to make money too. There are 500 cable channels of mediocrity that can be improved, last time I checked, there are still advertisers paying money to have their products shown on those channels. Youtube is one of the easiest distribution channels to get on. They pay actual money to people that make content audiences want to watch. We get a small sum every month from Youtube. We hope to build that. There are examples of people making six figures on youtube with varying levels of technical skills, I might add.

    Also, more people want videos. Corporate marketing now includes videos for the web as part of the mix. There are lots of businesses in every market that need this service.

    And on, and on, and on.

    Yes, budgets may be smaller, but honestly you can create the work much faster than ever before and the technical skill level needed is not as high as before. The market reflects that. Like Larry said, we will have to shift the value from just simply having the equipment and knowing how to use it to some other value that you bring to the table.

    We live in an abundant world. We are creative people. We can literally create something from nothing. We can make great things.

    If we create great things of value, we will be rewarded in return.

  5. GambitRocks says:

    This is an incredibly confusing time for fellow graduates and I. Thank you Larry! Great comments.

    Dr. Michio Kaku mentions some interesting ideas concerning a future based on creativity and imagination (towards the end of the video link below).

  6. Ian says:

    Larry, I wish you would have written this piece before I went to grad to school to learn camera and editing techniques. I don’t blame you; that would be absurd. However, you have successfully made me cry.


  7. Find a niche industry, based on your interests, feed it.

  8. Jen says:

    I agree with Jeff that there is a huge demand for content. Every business wants a stylish video on their homepage. I am a longtime producer and editor, and the problem I am experiencing now is that these people who want content have no idea how much even a somewhat decent production costs. It always comes down to money. People believe that you can just grab an iphone, shoot a few cool shots and interviews, and then come out with a great video. So there seems to be a growing disparity between the few high-end professional jobs and everyone else, who is trying to make gold from, ahem, horse poop.

    I’m thinking of segueing my career into User Experience, if I’m not too old.

  9. Ryan says:

    As Larry mentioned, storytelling is key. However, I think the future of making a living as a storyteller, comes down to being able to use any and all the tools available. We will need to be able to create a webpage/app, dabble in e-book production, get a firm grasp on social media, create slideshows, create 3D content, create motion graphics.

    Notice I didn’t mention any particular software. The client today doesn’t care (if they ever did) about the tools you’re using to tell their story. In some ways, we need to become almost one man/woman agencies: Convince a client, hey you want to launch product X? ok, I can create three youtube intro videos, a corresponding app, the 3D product virtualization for your webpage, and get the word out on social media.

    Sure right now it seems like that would be a daunting amount of investment in learning a wide array of tools, but as individual components (i.e. FCP X) get easier to use, (or at least come with a lot more shortcuts to make acceptable material) a four year degree program in which you learn all of the required programs for the example above, might just be plausible. Ten years ago we wouldn’t have even thought about trying to take on all those tasks.

    Now more than ever, we will need to be digital storytellers, who can deliver and promote on any platform.

  10. I have been a professional editor , by professional I mean making a living as an editor , for 17 years. A lot has changed , the cost of the tools, the tools them self ( in my case from , media 100, to avid, FCP ,and to Premiere at the present), the medium it self from film to digital. But one thing remained the same, the craft involved in being an editor, a storyteller. Besides the fact , that editing is a lot whole of fun, it is also extremely hard work. Deadlines became insanely shorter in the recent years. It you want to be an editor , if you thing you have it in you , pursue that ambition! It is a lot of work , but it is storytelling at its core , and you can make a living out of it! Don’t let the present conditions stear you away from this great profession.

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