Employment Guide: Pittsburgh filmmakers need more than connections for success


By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer

For young, up-and-coming filmmakers, a passion for the movies is now just the bare minimum.

“Don’t be afraid to bust your ass,” Tom Fisher, a 2012 Pitt film graduate currently working as multimedia producer at the Carnegie Museum of Art, said.

Fisher emphasized the importance of a strong work ethic and being perceptive when working with an art form as detail-oriented as film, in addition to putting in significant effort.

Pittsburgh students interested in film have the advantage of living in a city filled with many opportunities for the dedicated, if inexperienced, artist. But a lack of experience can be a handicap for those trying to begin their careers.

“If you’re looking for a job in film studies or media production, they often require three to five years of experience, and that’s for entry level stuff, so it’s kind of a loophole — how can you get your foot in the door if you have no experience?” Fisher said.

This frustrating catch-22 — one that might be familiar to anyone who has job-hunted — may seem like an impossibly high hurdle to jump with no running start, but it is more than feasible to sustain yourself with the right strategies. 

“A lot of it is networking — it’s who you know, and it’s making connections, because there isn’t your standard chain of command, like in retail, where you start at the bottom and work your way up,” Fisher said. “Knowing somebody is the X-factor. Filling out applications on SnagAJob.com or Monster.com doesn’t cut [it].”

Personal connections are an asset for success in the film industry, but, as students, the best place to make these connections is in the classroom.

“Basically everything I’ve done in freelance has come from a connection at school,” Fisher said. 

After working a part-time gig in a photo lab as his first somewhat-film-related job, he pursued freelance work, which included a large amount of editing for short films — the next project being one of Steeltown’s Film Factory finalists from last year, “The Beat Goes On.” He encourages young film students to always take opportunities, even if the job is without pay.

Though classes in film are also important for expanding the knowledge base, Fisher insisted that studying film is important in terms of success in the production of films — the film-intensive programs at Pittsburgh Filmmakers were particularly helpful for him. 

Professor Deborah Hosking of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, one of Fisher’s former teachers, thought his commitment level helped separate him from the rest of the students. 

“His seriousness and precision in his work helped [set him] apart,” Hosking said. “That’s probably the biggest reason why he got his job at the Carnegie Museum of Art.”

Fisher’s latest project was shooting a TEDx (independent TED Talk) at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The speakers were locals who have had success in the media and the arts, one of whom was indie-documentary filmmaker Julie Sokolow. The 26-year-old Pitt alumna said that keeping motivation in mind is one of the most important qualities for a young filmmaker.

“You want to remember why you’re doing it in the first place, and you want to be constantly making work and not making excuses,” Sokolow said. 

According to Sokolow, the only way to grow artistically and professionally is by simply creating new content as frequently as possible, and she also partially dismissed the significance of “who you know.”

“As you build your body of work, you build your reputation,” Sokolow said. “It is who you know, but it takes a lot of work to know those people. You can’t sit around and wait to be discovered.”

Sokolow has found an advantage in the documentary format, where the films have been “not just art but advocacy.” Since her films promote social activism, she has been supported along the way via grants of local groups such as Steeltown Entertainment and the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Her latest and most elaborate project is the full-length documentary “Aspie Seeks Love,” which she is directing, producing and editing, in addition to composing half of the score. It follows David Matthews, an artist diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 41, who posts humorous personal ads on telephone poles seeking love. After 3 1/2 years of work, the film is set to release next year.

“There is no separation between my work and my life. There are no hours. It’s just constant,” Sokolow said.

Both Fisher and Sokolow agreed that part-time jobs are an inevitable part of the independent filmmaker’s career path. 

“It’s hard to work a job that’s unrelated and to have the time and energy to when you get done with that [job] to do your film work,” Sokolow said. “[But] if it’s what you love, don’t give up — it’s trite, but it’s true.”

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