How film majors reel in the contacts, get creative in job search

Dan Wittenburg has worked a unique job or two since he received his associates degree from a community college near his home in Minnesota. He's running around, struggling to makes ends meet--literally. For one job, he helped film a pheasant hunting show for the Sportsman Channel where he chased after the hunters. "I lost like five pounds in two days because I was running around all the time," said Wittenburg.

Wittenburg's story mirrors other film majors struggling to break into the competitive industry. In a tough job market, film graduates have to get creative in their job search. While some turn to school for help, others try the opposite and call it quits on college.

Wittenburg quit an editing job to seek more interesting freelance work and since then he's been with multiple companies from smaller, independent producers to larger ones such as MTV Networks. His pay averages around $300 each day when he's working with a corporate company on a project, but he gets paid less for small budget, independent projects. "I just went there and shot," he said. "For half of those shoots, they don't tell you what you're working on. It's just work. They tell you to throw a light up there, you throw a light up there."
After another year of freelance projects, Wittenburg made the decision to return to school in the pursuit of a better career. He intends to land more regular, higher-paying work after graduating from Minnesota State University, Moorhead, which he plans to attend this fall. In an industry where connections equal a ticket in, he hopes to gain some in Moorhead. "It's basically who you know," said Wittenburg. "I mean you have to be talented and hopefully the professors up there [at MSU] have a lot of experience."

Another Minnesotan, Brandon Juarez, decided to go after a degree in film after studying both business and mass communications at two different universities. He started out as a film minor, but loved the classes and decided to go for it as his major. "If I'm going to be paying off school loans for a good portion of my life, it might as well be with money I enjoyed earning," said Juarez.

His classes at the Art Institute International, Minnesota begin in August. He hopes to get his degree in digital film and video production. Like Wittenburg, Juarez also believes education plays an important role in entering the film world. "The smarter you are, the more creative you can be," said Juarez.

Unlike Juarez and Wittenburg, freelance production assistant Chris Savage left college to follow his goals in film. After spending more than a year at Winona State University studying mass communications, he attended a nearby community college where he studied graphic design and took a of couple film classes. He loved the film courses and decided to follow in his father's footsteps; he has worked in the film industry for 35 years.

"My mom and dad pushed me as far away from working in production as possible. There are so many ups and downs [in my line of work]," said Savage, who currently makes about $200 per 10-hour day. "There are periods where there's no work and money gets kind of tight and then it'll turn around and there's a lot of good work."

Like Savage, David Keefe, an aspiring actor in New York, stopped school to pursue his career. He started as an intern at American Cinema International and decided that he wanted to act. He found an agent and plans on trying to find work as an extra to begin his career. "There's no manual on how to be an actor," said Keefe, the former Boston College student. He feels that a college education can help out for people in certain positions, such as directors, but doesn't feel that a degree is necessary.

Savage said that the film industry tends to be one of the first markets to crumble, but that also makes it one of the first areas to bounce back. He said that, like most jobs, it was tough to find work when the recession hit, but the entertainment business is starting to pick up again. In order to make it through the tough times, workers need to make solid connections with others in the field.

Wittenburg agrees that connections are everything: "If you don't meet the right people and get your name out there it's hard to make it. It [the film industry] is really hard to break into and make a living off of."

As an intern at ACI, Keefe carried a notebook where he wrote down the name of each person he met and a characteristic to help him keep everyone straight. He recommends the same to anyone starting out. "Be energetic, always smile and learn people's names," said Keefe. "You really have to want to be here."

For beginners looking to get a foot in the door, both Savage and Wittenburg warn that certain jobs require a lot of free work. They both volunteered their time to producers and used the opportunities to gain valuable connections. "You've got to have a lot of patience," said Savage. "At first you'll only be paid a little bit, so you have to be patient, take jobs as they come and work hard in order to make it."
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