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. Aneesah Cuts says:

    As a 28 year old living in an over saturated world of artists this article almost broke my spirit – but then I remember that the middle class is disappearing and the upper class is increasing with freelancers – there’s hope.
    You brought it back to sunshine in addressing free work. Like the weakest in the herd, those willing to bend all the wrong ways for clients are messing it up for the rest of us but I also believe that the triphecta of cheap-fast-good is truth and those who deny it will be left behind.
    Another saving grace I think you look at with more pessimism than I is the online video world. There’s way more content now than ever before and I’d like to believe as people become more bombarded with cheap-fast-terrible videos those who show and prove that they know what they’re doing will be in more demand. There are way more online content makers like Vice, Karmaloop, Vevo music videos, even Netflix has their own productions. I’m holding onto the idea that the role of video editor – especially for those willing to wear multiple hats – can only go up, I’m banking on it!

    • Larry says:


      I FULLY applaud your attitude and think you are on the right track. My purpose in writing this was not to bring tears to the eyes of editors, but to reflect on the fact that the world has changed. As long as you know the problems you face going in, you’ll be prepared to deal with them.

      I wish you great success!


  2. James says:

    Editors have always had to learn constantly.

    Looking back at times when technology was changing at a much slower pace, editors were still having to learn new work arounds to beat the limitations of the editing facilities.

    Now that the facilities are great, ubiquitous and cheap our challenge is to keep up with the changes and be the super editors that the technology allows us to be. People who want to rest on a single skill set are going to be left behind.

    In all markets possibilities become necessities very quickly. No day will come when our jobs will get easy, that’s why it’s called work. If the technology is making your job easier then you are no longer doing work. And who is going to pay for that, when there is someone else out there willing to work?

  3. Ben says:

    Whether you see editing as a viable career option or not depends on how much money you want to make. I’ve worked professionally for the last 10 years and currently earn around £38K a year. For me that’s a comfortable living along with the stability (fingers crossed) of an in-house post, however I doubt I will ever earn much over £40K through editing. To younger editors this may sound like a lot but there are plenty of careers that pay better. I’ve thought of retraining many times but I enjoy what I do so right now I’ll stay where I am. But I guarantee you won’t just land a salary like that straight out of college. I’ve worked for free, for terrible wages, for ridiculous hours, for complete morons who had no idea of what they were doing (this business attracts them like flies), and been exploited in the name of ‘great experience’ more times than I care to admit. But eventually it’s paid off.

    I think the key for anyone thinking of getting in to this industry is don’t rush in to a decision. Think about what kind of salary you want to be bringing in because it will directly affect the lifestyle you get to live. Balance this against what you are interested in and what you enjoy and spend some time researching your various career options. As others have said equipment and teaching tools in this field are cheap so maybe do something else as a career and make films in your spare time. You can still get good at it only without sacrificing the enjoyment!

    Also, look at where you live and what industries are realistic for you to enter. I live in London now which has a great deal of editing jobs, however I had to move from up north as the city I lived in was extremely limited. This is something few people consider early in their career but depending on your circumstances can play a huge part in your life.

    Hope this is of some help,


  4. Brandon says:

    As someone who has been unemployed for the last 4 months and half employed(at best) the last few years… I feel this all too much…

  5. Tim Kolb says:

    I think this evolution isn’t unprecedented.

    Remember scribes? A scribe was the catalyst between someone important who said something important and the written record of the event. Sometimes they added their own perspective, but often they simply recorded it…often to-order of their patron. Eventually more of society became literate, and the printing press displaced the legions of scribes necessary to copy documents…and increasing literacy and affordable tools and paper made the function of the scribe obsolete. The advent of the internet has pushed paper-publishing largely toward obsolete.

    We still have writers and the internet has opened up the field to anyone (and I mean anyone), but that doesn’t mean that nobody can make a living at blogging, etc.

    Just like writing, using the moving image and sound to express a message will continue to create a mountain of content, but like blogging, only the sought after content will be able to be monetized, similar to blogging and web based enterprises.

    Just as with writing, the real transition happened when the means of distribution became universally available, as opposed to the means of production. Authors…and I suppose video producers, directors, editors, etc. won’t go away, but content won’t be valuable because it’s content anymore…and by extension, the act of creating content is no longer automatically valuable either.

    Just like writing, we have a communication medium here. Value won’t be based on creating a message, but on the results from communicating one. (as it always should have been I suppose)

    • Larry says:


      Hmmm… A very interesting analogy – I like this. Everyone has access to a word processor, but not everyone can write something that others want to read.



  6. Matt Davis says:

    Editing is a wonderful combination of surgery, sculpture and husbandry. It’s also getting extremely technical with outlandish workflows, the need to wrangle ever-increasing amounts of data, to both backup and archive.

    Then there’s the ‘truffle-hunt’ – finding the gems, the lovely moments and grace notes in all the dirt of the rushes.

    On one hand, all the promises of metadata, shot logging and outsourcing of rushes notation does see a new form of editing. However, it’s not there yet, and if anything, it’s the ASSISTANT Editor’s job that’s fast disappearing.

    At this year’s BVE show in the UK, there was an odd dichotomy (certainly in my Corporate neck of the woods): people weren’t going to pay for fancy kit, but they wanted nicely graded stuff. Facilities houses were going to the wall, but small ‘Edit Shops’ were doing great things. The people who don’t want a ‘Fancy Dining’ experience are doing rough butchery or ‘pizza assembly’ edits.

    Although there are a lot of examples of ‘that will do’ editing, I think – like the ‘Desktop Publishing’ thing – people will get a bit sick of badly produced video and will develop the ‘TL:DR’ attitude to viewing video.

    ‘If it’s this hard to watch, I can’t be bothered’ will ensure that editing will still be valued as is surgery and cookery.

  7. Marcus says:

    We must take full advantage of what is available right now. Overhead for a freelancer is extremely low. Software no dongle Symphony?! Davinci for 1080p for free! WHAT!! C’mon! To rise above the huge influx of video enthusiasts you must have a unique flavor / style / approach that makes you a commodity. The tools are cheap, everyone has them, the thing now is to be the best one on the block to use them.

    Part of the problem is everyone is “technology, technology, socialized social this and that” Take advantage of these frenzied tail chasing technophiles and create substance using human life, not media marketing tools… Its other people that people connect to…not technology!

    Research!!! Study!! Rip off all of your favorites!! Don’t pretend you are great!! Get put in your place by the amazing stuff that is being churned out. Embrace envy and realize what inspires you. There’s never been so much great and horrible stuff available to research and get inspired by. I’m inspired by this discussion as we speak!.

    I feel now more than ever it is soooo important to focus on having a tasteful eye because your work is your work. And that is the only leg you have to stand on. Create something fresh and eyeopening for people and make every fiber in your being dedicated to outdoing expectations. How could you lose if you stay in it long enough? It is still the same old people, just a different global mindset when they get to you. Be unique, consistent, and unrelenting. Take advantage of the huuuge amount of complacency out there. People will pay more if they are getting something special. That will never change. Yes we take corporate jobs, yes we take crappy stand-ups. But if you build it…the like minded will come.

    It is the best time to be an editor. It will never be what it used to be but you can always be better.

  8. Peter Samet says:

    I don’t think it is as bad as you say. Decent prosumer NLEs have been around for over a decade, and the profession hasn’t crumbled yet. I’ve been able to make a good living editing reality tv and indie features since graduating USC in ’04.

    Sure, it’s easy to learn FCP and Premiere (thanks in large part to your tutorials). But simply knowing how to use the software isn’t enough. The one thing that distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs is SPEED. The keyboard must become an extension of your hands. You must develop the muscle memory necessary to produce high quality work in a very short time frame. Your brain must become highly-tuned for storytelling so you don’t flounder in the avalanche of footage. Those skills only come with years of practice and will always remain a barrier between the fickle amateurs and those who have a serious passion for editing.

  9. Ryan says:

    There are an exponential amount of TV stations around the globe compared to 20 years ago, plus thousands of new companies who want a video presence on the web. Find your niche and exploit it. And if you can’t make a living doing it, educate others. Or both!

  10. Addison says:

    I went to graduate school to learn all sorts of filmmaking techniques. Now the market has tanked. My only strategy these days is to work a day job at something totally unrelated to media – then “give-it-away” by taking on editing projects at on my off-hours hoping someday it will pay off. I try to network so that quality professionals will eventually be exposed to what I can do and then – hopefully – a paying gig will happen. In the meantime, editing will have to remain a passionate (expensive) hobby.

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