Tips from the Chooser: What I Learned When I had to Choose from over 200 Reels and Résumés

Do you know what happens when you respond to an online job ad and submit your reel, portfolio or résumé?

Your e-mail ends up in someone’s inbox, together with 200 others.

You probably already knew this, but do you know what it feels like to receive e-mail submissions from 200 hopefuls in the space of 48 hours?

Over the past 10 years I found myself in that position — the position of the chooser — on several occasions. These days it is quite standard for an independent filmmaker to post ads in search of Cinematographers, Composers, 1st ADs, Designers and anyone else we may need for a project.

Sifting through literally hundreds of emails, reels, résumés and portfolios taught me an awful lot about what it’s like to be in the selector’s position.

Advice for online film production job applicationsIn this post I will share some pragmatic, real-world tips for all those who find themselves submitting their reel, portfolio or résumé in response to an online film production job ad.

Regardless of whether you are a Director, Cinematographer, Editor, Composer or any other film production role, by the end of this post you will have picked up a tip or two on improving your chances in a desperately overcrowded market.

No long e-mails!

A large majority of applicants write very long e-mails in support of their reel or résumé. Some of these e-mails are quite professional and give detailed descriptions of the candidate’s experience, while others are truly smarmy and desperate, but all of them, without exception, are a waste of time.

The last time I submitted a call for a paid 1st AD position, I received over 200 responses, most of them accompanied by lengthy e-mails. I read some of them out of curiosity, but in no case did the e-mail make a difference to my decision: I went straight to the résumé and made a decision based on that.

For a 1st AD, it’s all about the experience on the résumé — and by that I mean experience as a 1st AD, not experience as a PA, which is nowhere near enough for a paid 1st AD position.

When I posted a job ad for Cinematographers in the same week, I also got some 200 responses, and with these, in addition to ignoring the e-mail, I also ignored the résumé, because for Cinematographers, just as with Directors, it’s all about the reel.

I clicked on the link to the Cinematographer’s reel and, once I got to the website, it became clear within about 10 seconds whether the cinematographer was of a high caliber. It really is that quick.

Obviously the reels of short-listed candidates are then reviewed very carefully multiple times, but the initial short-listing only takes a few seconds for every reel. Welcome to reality!

Tips for an effective e-mail response to online job ads

As you can see, I learned an awful lot by being in the position of the chooser: it’s the view from the other side!

In the light of what I learned, here is my suggested e-mail template for Cinematographers, Composers, Editors, Production Designers and Makeup Artists:

Dear [insert name],I am writing in response to your ad on [insert website]. Please consider watching my reel: [insert link to your reel].

Thank you for your consideration,

[Your name]

[Your e- mail, telephone number and website URL]

As you can see, it is ultra-brief — and that is precisely as it should be.

When I’m in the chooser’s position, that is what I like to see, because for Cinematographers and other creative Heads of Department, all I care about is your reel or portfolio.

I then click on your link and visit your website, after which you have approximately 10 seconds to convince me that you are a rock-solid artist (advice on websites coming up below).

Important note: if the job posting specifically requests information, obviously you must include that in the e-mail — you must do as you’re told. For example, if they ask you to describe your experience in the main body of the e-mail, obey their instructions. In the absence of any such specific requests, bone-dry brevity remains the imperative.

It is not a coincidence that in the sample I observed the most experienced artists with the strongest reels adopted exactly this approach. They know that you cannot talk your way out of a mediocre reel.

Advice for non-visual roles: Assistant Directors, Production Managers and PAs

If you are a 1st or 2nd AD, Production Manager or Production Assistant, obviously you do not have a reel or portfolio. What you have instead is a résumé. In this case it is appropriate to write some text in support of your application, but it must be very brief.

Once again, when I received hundreds of email responses for my call for 1st ADs, the most experienced 1st ADs attached a résumé and a very brief covering e-mail.

Conversely, the rookies — including many who had no business applying for a paid 1st AD position — wrote interminable e-mails to make their case. None of those entreaties made a difference.

Suggested e-mail template for non-visual film production jobs:

Dear [insert name],I am writing in response to your ad on [insert website]. My résumé is attached.

[No more than 2-3 lines describing your experience and why you are a strong candidate]

Thank you for your consideration,

[Your name]

[Your e- mail and telephone number]

 

By all means re-word my suggested e-mail template to suit your tastes, but that is my suggested structure, based on my own experience in the position of having to choose from hundreds of applicants.

I won’t say anything about optimizing your e-mail’s subject line because, frankly, it does not make a difference: when the recipient receives 200 e-mails, they all get opened and every reel is watched. From that point on you will stand or fall on the strength of your reel or résumé .

Website advice for Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and Composers

Surely you already know by now that although we still call it a “reel”, we no longer send out actual film reels, cassettes or DVDs: it must all be online, on your personal website.

In my opinion, this is the best approach to take for the websites of Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Colorists and Composers:

– White background (makes your reel stand out and does not compete with it)

– Minimalist design

– The reel is super easy to find and is either on the landing page or one click away (when sending emails, provide a link that goes straight to the reel)

Absolutely no Flash intros! They are intolerably annoying and the biggest enemy of your visitors. I have never seen a more egregious form of self-sabotage on the Internet.

– No annoying Flash animations every time a menu link is clicked; nothing that will increase the time it takes to start playing your reel; no distractions or sounds.

– It must be lean, simple and ultra-fast.

Advice for online film production job applicationsThe ultimate guideline is this: are your visitors able to start watching your reel within five seconds of landing on your website? If the answer is no, you are losing so many opportunities it’s not even funny: you need to fix this as a matter of priority.

Tips for the chooser: avoiding insanity when receiving hundreds of e-mails

If you post an ad inviting applications, you will be deluged with e-mails.

If you have never done this before but think that you might at some point, my advice to you is as follows:

– Create a dedicated e-mail address for each position you are advertising. For example, cinematographers@****.com and editors@****.com.

– Create the following new folders:

(a) rejected candidates

(b) Short-listed candidates

– As you go through the e-mails, after you have watched a candidate’s reel, move the e-mail to either the rejects folder or the short-listed folder.

– By the end of this process you should have 5-10 candidates in the shortlist folder, and you can take it from there.

It’s crowded at the bottom: you wouldn’t believe who e-mailed me

One thing I have never forgotten from my most recent experience with receiving online applications is the sheer number of applicants.

I’m not talking about the predictable deluge of unemployed and utterly unskilled film school graduates — I’m talking about highly accomplished, talented and experienced professionals with 15-20 years of solid experience, applying for low-rent gigs on Craigslist that they would not have considered five years ago, when their day rate was in the thousands of dollars.

It gives you a pretty good idea of the state of the film industry and of the economy in general. It’s tough these days — incredibly tough.

“I’m ready to rock! Where can I find these opportunities?”

Opportunities for Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and all manner of other film creatives and support personnel are regularly posted on Craigslist Creative and Crew Gigs (mainly Los Angeles and NYC), as well as on Mandy.com.

Be warned, however, that not all of these ads are honest and above board, but the occasional gem does come up – after all, that is precisely how I met my current favorite Cinematographer (the one whose reel and personality outclassed those of the other applicants). This Cinematographer and I will work together again in future. It will be awesome.

Summary of Key Points

1. When you respond to an online job ad, your e-mail will be one of literally hundreds. This fact must inform every creative, tactical and strategic decision you make in your applications.

2. Your e-mail must be ultra-brief and must have a link to your work in the very first line. Only make your e-mail longer if additional information is specifically requested by the poster.

3. For creative roles, your portfolio website must be lean, fast, minimalist and, above all, it must allow visitors to begin watching your reel within five seconds of landing on your website, upon pain of losing a substantial proportion of your visitors (employers don’t need to waste time on self-indulgent Flash-based websites when there are 199 other reels to watch).

4. Understand and accept once and for all that a decision about you will be made after a few seconds of watching your reel. It’s all about the quality of your work and there is no way around that.

5. It is desperately crowded at the bottom, and in this day and age, you will be competing directly with highly experienced and accomplished professionals, even in the lowest-rent gigs. That is the reality of the current market.

6. If you knew who you are competing against, you probably wouldn’t bother, but I don’t want you to become defeatist: instead, work hard to improve your reel!

***

I will conclude with one of my favorite self-development quotes, which comes from Jim Rohn:

“Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.”

I hope you found this post useful. Good luck! 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Tips from the Chooser: What I Learned When I had to Choose from over 200 Reels and Résumés

  1. Thanks for the informative tips, i have a question, I have a very strong background in Post Production in the music industry & some TV. I would love to work on a feature as a PA, How should my resume/cover letter be to land a PA job on a feature film, if my background is totally post production in music industry & some TV only? Any tips in landing that first Paid PA job??

    Your response is greatly appreciated

    • With the caveat that I am never involved in hiring PAs — the Producer or Production Manager does that — my tips are as follows:

      1. If you have no experience as a Production Assistant, your chances of landing a paid PA gig are infinitesimally small, even if your career in post-production was stellar. You are going to start at the bottom, which means that your first PA gig will probably be unpaid, and I am told by reliable sources that even unpaid gigs are phenomenally difficult to get these days. If you manage to land one, make sure you make a dazzlingly brilliant impression!

      2. Read the Anonymous PA’s résumé tips. This guy specializes in PA-related topics, and his blog will give you an excellent idea of just how tough things have become. He is also an excellent writer, judging by his blog.

      May I ask why you are leaving your career in post-production to start from scratch as a PA?

      If you’re willing to share the info, I might be able to offer further advice.

      Either way, I hope this helps 🙂

  2. Thank you for your prompt response, well a couple of reasons, i have been editing for about 4 years now. Editing in my opinion is very tedious and lets just face it, the work load got bigger but the budgets got smaller, although i do have a love for it, i find that the long hours of sitting in edit suites in a dark room behind bright screens isnt for me anymore lol. To match my energy and personality i need to be out on field, ripping and running. As well as i believe my creative talent surpasses just post production coming from that world gave me alot of insigt to become an creative director, I started to direct, AD and produce more (music videos, docu-series etc,). Last but not least, the fact that Ive always wanted that experience in working on a feature on set, always had a desire for that particular experience.

  3. my apologies for the few typos i made…. typing fast….

  4. I’m an experienced PA with some AC & 3rd AD experience applying for AC roles. Is a reel important for me, or will a resume suffice?

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