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Why I'm Leaving the Industry

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

It’s 3am and we’re not close to wrap. I’m standing in the middle of Cromwell Athletic field at USC, the same field where I used to play lacrosse. The night is cold, and mist hangs in the air as dew settles onto the artificial turf. I hug my arms in close to my chest and take another gulp of my coffee. The drink doesn’t do anything to wake me up, but it’s warm. The thought enters my mind that I’m the only person in my social circle awake. My girlfriend, my friends and my family are all asleep. I should be asleep too, but Olivia Rodrigo wants to shoot a video on this field in the middle of the night, and I go where the work is. I don’t have long to dwell on the thought, though, because we’re about to start another take.

I didn’t choose the film industry because of a passion for film. I like movies, but not so much that I ever wanted to dedicate my life to moviemaking. In a way, the film industry is the only industry I’ve ever truly known. My dad has worked in film for most of my life. He came from poor beginnings, and his job in the industry pulled us out of poverty. He’s eternally grateful to the industry, and to the people who gave him the opportunity to provide for his family. He was gone a lot during my childhood, but he always talked about how much he loved his job and his colleagues. They were more than friends to him, more like a second family. The industry ran deep in our family. My sisters and I grew up going to movie sets to see our dad, and we’d spend the holidays at Christmas parties attended by celebrities like Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. My dad’s job took him all over the world, and the family followed him to distant locations like South Africa and Hong Kong.

Before my senior year at USC, I decided I didn’t want to pursue a career in my major, broadcast journalism. I was directionless and didn’t know what I was going to do after college, but I knew the film industry. I already had connections, and the camera department seemed like a solid fit. I wish I had a better explanation, but that was my reasoning at the time. I filled out my final year of college with film school classes and started getting a feel for life on set.

Lately, one interaction has been sticking in my mind. I was working on a student film at USC before graduation. We were at the film school picking up gear for the shoot when a man walked by. He looked too old to be an undergraduate student but didn’t seem like a professor. He walked by and called out to us.

“This industry will steal from you!”

He never broke stride or stopped to elaborate. He walked on, leaving us with that one cryptic sentence. My friends and I looked at each other and smirked. We chuckled about how some bitter old guy didn’t have anything better to do than yell at kids trying to shoot a student film. He was bitter about something and decided to make it our problem. We laughed it off and continued loading gear into the back of a Uhaul.

I think I’m beginning to understand what that man meant in his outburst. The film industry will indeed steal from you. His mistake was in his phrasing. Stealing implies that the industry will take something tangible. You can make a decent living in this business. The problem is what you must put in to get that decent living. The film industry won’t steal your money (although people will try) but it will take a lot of important things from you. The industry forces you to make it your priority. The industry wants you to put it before all else. It wants to be more important to you than your family, your friends, your relationships, and your health. If you’re in the industry ask yourself, do you feel the least bit cheated? What have you been forced to give up or de-prioritize? Was whatever you got back worth it?

Last year, my friend Michael, a DP, made an interesting observation.

“Film is a really stupid way to make money.”

He wasn’t saying that people who work in the industry are stupid, he was commenting on the disparity between what you put in versus what you get out. We give so much of our lives to this industry, and it seems like the only thing we get back is the ability to say we work in film. For the effort we put it, we could be making more money elsewhere and still be home for dinner.

A couple years ago, somewhere in the deep days of the pandemic, I began to reevaluate what was important in my life. With the industry shut down, I asked myself, how much did I miss being on set? Did I miss making movies or did I miss making money? I realized I didn’t care about filmmaking at all, I missed the paycheck. There have been moments when I liked my job, but I don’t know if I ever loved film, at least not the way some of my coworkers do. If I wasn’t passionate about a career on set, why was I giving up so much of my life and my freedom in the pursuit of that career? What was the point of all the late nights and early mornings? Why was I driving out to the desert to run around filming some rapper nobody would remember in two years? Why was I destroying my body carrying this camera around?

My priorities shifted in that moment. I started prioritizing myself and my happiness first. I stopped organizing my life around my work schedule and started organizing my work schedule around my life. I took vacations I had been delaying. I said no to a two-week-long Apple commercial because it conflicted with a surf trip to Costa Rica. I told productions I had a hard-out because I wasn’t canceling my evening plans. I met people who worked remotely, and I was jealous of them. They didn’t need to sit on set for 12 hours to make money. Even my friends working office jobs had a stable schedule. I know a lot of people in the industry look down upon the 9-5 schedule, but we’re the ones getting taken for a ride.

Industry hours aren’t 9-5, they’re 24/7. When was the last time you took a vacation without stressing about money? In other industries, people get paid time off. Have you ever hesitated committing to attending a wedding because, “what if I get work?” Other industries get weekends off. Have you driven home at 5AM with the windows down so the cold air keeps you awake? Have you parked in your driveway and sat there for five minutes because you were too tired to move? Have you ever slept in your car? For the people with kids, how many moments have you missed? How many dance recitals, sports games, and school plays have you spent on set?

Some people are happy to make that sacrifice. I’m not. It doesn’t seem fair to me. Sometimes, on set, someone will say something like, “can you believe this really our job?”

Yes, I can. Working on set is a job. It’s a hard job. I love working, but no job is worth your health or happiness. That’s why I’m leaving. I won’t let this industry take more of my life and freedom than it already has. I won’t let this job keep me from traveling or spending time with the people I love anymore. There’s more to life than the film industry. I suppose, if there’s one bright spot to the pandemic, it’s that the time I was forced to spend away from the industry made me realize I didn’t belong here in the first place.

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