Some advice on working in Film and TV

In 15 years of running Big Button, I have received hundreds of CVs and letters from hopeful graduates looking for their first break in Film and TV. In that time, we’ve employed around 50 people, but only one of them came from the aforementioned enormo-pile of CVs.

I will return to this ‘lucky’ applicant later, and explain why she managed to climb out of the enormo-pile (clue: it wasn’t actually ‘luck’). The thing we can all agree on is that this is a very competitive industry with a lot of keen young hopefuls, and if you miss the boat in your first year as a graduate then you’ll be competing against thousands more the following summer. Bleak, isn’t it.

Actually, I don’t think it is. While there are no doubt thousands of disappointed parents out there complaining about money spent on courses, and the lack of opportunities, and how poor little Johnny/Sally got a first/worked so hard/makes great films and still can’t land a job, I think it’s important to remember that this industry still employs lots of people. Your task is to do everything in your power to make sure that you are one of them.

The following is a list of suggestions to help you stand out. It’s based on my own ludicrous mistakes as a young person, and also the many CVs that I receive that are a waste of time and paper …

  1. NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOU – So unkind of me to lead with this one. Your lecturer thinks you’re a high flier and your nan said that your graduation film is ‘very nice dear’. Please be mature enough to realise that these things are now worth very little. University is a hugely valuable experience and you will have acquired all sorts of useful skills, but now you really have to prove yourself. You are starting again. Clean slate. You’re on your own. You may of course be amazing, talented, creative, an asset to any company you work for – I’ve employed many people that I would put in that category, with talent and potential far in excess of my own. But they did not arrive on day one and get the keys to the executive washroom. They understood their role, they listened, learned and they understood their limitations. Opportunities then gravitated towards them. There’s every chance that you’re brilliant, and you need to keep on believing this if you’re going to succeed. But understand that the best graduate entrants tend to make their big splash, and secure their futures, by volunteering to make the tea, stay late and empty the bins. This is (usually) a much, much quicker route to directing films than talking about all the films you’ve directed and how your lecturer nearly cried at one of them.
    I entered my graduation film in a festival, and it won. Chatting to a judge afterwards, he mentioned how much of a gap exists between student film making and professional film making, and how students always think they’re ready to do the big stuff as soon as they graduate. I was affronted! “How could he be so wrong?” I thought. “Me and my mates are brilliant at this, we’ve just won a film festival!” Then I got a job. He was right.
  2. IMMERSION – Remember when you learned to speak your first language? No, probably not, but here’s what you did. You listened to nothing but that language, all day and every day. When it started to make sense you had a little go yourself, and then eventually you’d spent so long immersed in it and trying it that you became an expert. Getting your break in the TV industry is no different. Are you reading the industry’s trade press? Do you even know which sites and publications to read (no graduate I have met in 15 years has even heard of the trade magazine Broadcast, and you can buy it in WH Smith !!)? Are you going to seminars, researching companies, joining organisations, film making, networking, learning software platforms, joining online communities ? Getting a job IS your job, and you should be fully focused on it. Plus, you chose this game because you’re passionate about it, so immersing yourself in every single aspect of it should be a dream come true. (You are passionate about it, aren’t you?).
  1. RESEARCH – Are you really sure you’re approaching the right companies? You’d be amazed how many Drama and Theatre Studies students approach us even though we’re a video agency. Research companies that are operating in the areas in which you are interested, and target those. Don’t waste time and energy on the others.
    Recently, I asked a very bright media graduate who was really keen on working in TV documentaries to name the top 5 production companies who specialised in that field. The graduate’s response was “… erm … BBC … Channel 4”. Just two answers. To be blunt, I could have got the same response from a taxi driver or a plumber. Except they might have known that Channel 4 don’t make anything. Do your research.
  1. THAT SAID – Learn to spot an opportunity when you see one. If you have a chance at working in an industry related to TV and film in some way, then it’s worth a go. As long as you are getting nearer to your goals you are not wasting time, and you will be acquiring other useful skills along the way.
  1. PRESENTATION – Do your CV and letter look and sound professional? There is absolutely no excuse for poor spelling or grammar – if these are not your strong points then get them checked by somebody else. Is all of the information relevant? Have you really marketed yourself well and identified the key skills and attitude that you can bring? Make a lot of effort with your CV and letter, because if they look like you can’t be bothered then the assumption is that that’s the type of employee you’ll be.
  1. EMAIL ADDRESS – Get one that sounds serious and professional, not or It might have been a laugh when you were 15, but it’s time to get serious.
  1. BE CREATIVE – OK, careful here. You don’t want to be ‘wacky’, but think of ways that your approach can stand out. Remember, the people you target get lots of CVs, they just might appreciate something different. We have a cupboard full of CVs on white A4 paper. How memorable do you think you’ll be 30 seconds after the envelope is opened? And PLEASE think of a better opening gambit than ‘I have recently graduated from a blah blah blah course …’ I get several of those every week.
    One day a box arrived. It contained a nicely designed magazine, a colourful CV, and a DVD that simply said ‘play me’. It contained a video documentary about the applicant, listing all of their skills, and culminated with them singing a song that they’d written about how hard it was proving to find a job. How could we not offer them an interview? 6 years later, Natalie had progressed to become our Client Services Director. There is no way that would have happened from a white piece of A4.
  1. BE REALISTIC – As I said before, most student work is not professional standard. Don’t apply for a position as a producer, director, editor etc., the chances are you need a lot more experience. But if these roles are where you’re aiming, then mention it – ambition is a good thing, if tempered with humility ;-)
  1. BE PATIENT – We try so hard to reply quickly to people, but the reality is we’re always extremely busy and unfortunately you’re not the top priority. It can be a month or more before a reply is sent, and far worse for bigger and busier companies. Some, of course, will be too rude to answer at all. We always try and answer, unless the applicant appears to have made no effort at all, in which case we do the same.
  1. BE COURTEOUS – I have often written lengthy letters to applicants offering advice on how best to improve their CVs and where to go looking for work. Only one has ever responded to thank me! One day, you will have success, power and creative freedom, but right now you need as many friends as you can get so DON’T ANNOY PEOPLE !
  1. BE HONEST – “I have an advanced knowledge of Avid and Premiere...” Most editors don’t have an advanced knowledge of Avid and Premiere! You need to market yourself and use positive language, but you also need insight as to where your skills are in the grand scheme of things.
  1. BE PERSISTENT – God’s delays are not God’s denials, goes the saying. Eventually, your letter or CV may land on the right desk on the right day. This happens more often than you might imagine.
  1. SHOW REEL ON REQUEST – This is without doubt THE MOST IRRITATING thing I ever see in an application letter or CV – “a show reel can be provided on request”. If a company barely has time to read the hundreds of CVs, what chance is there that they will ‘request’ your show reel?! And I’m also now wondering if you’ve even been bothered to make a show reel, or whether you’ll just knock one up if I show some interest? Send a link with your application and it may get viewed – if you don’t send it then, trust me, nobody will ever request it. Nobody. Ever.
  1. GET A MEETING – And in case that’s not clear, let me clarify it by saying GET A MEETING, GET A MEETING, GET A MEETING. If you can get to see somebody and make an impression, you stand about a billion times more chance of getting work than if you send a CV alone. People remember faces and personalities – once your CV goes in the drawer you’re a piece of white A4 the same as everybody else, so differentiate yourself by GETTING A MEETING.
  1. AND IF YOU GET A MEETING – Turn up on time. Don’t be one second late, and don’t be more than five minutes early because that can be a real inconvenience as well. Walk around the block, go for a coffee – but don’t clog up a busy company’s reception area for 45 minutes! Be polite, friendly, clear about what you want (but also quick enough to adapt if you smell a different opportunity), and well researched.

There are jobs out there for people who are keen, enthusiastic, energetic, honest, hardworking and creative, so DO NOT be deterred if you are finding it tough. Somebody gets the jobs, so why not you? And don’t be too disheartened by the stats that say there are 50 billion media graduates and only 5 jobs available. Trust me, the vast majority of those graduates will be making all of the mistakes I’ve highlighted above, so you’re already ahead of them ;-)

I wish you success in your search – and if you can tick boxes 1-15 above, maybe one day we will meet.

Mark Burgess