Dear Zack: “I’m having trouble finding work and want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to better my chances…”

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On a weekly basis I receive emails, Facebook messages, and tweets from people all over the world who work in creative fields. Some people send me pages worth of their life stories, others are looking for quick tips to optimize something very specific in their lives, but most often the messages I receive are from people frustrated with where they are in their career who don’t know where to go next.

It occurred to me recently that the advice I’m providing to an individual privately might be beneficial to many others struggling with similar obstacles in their own lives. So here goes my first attempt at a new series called ‘Dear Zack.’ If you find this beneficial, please let me know in the comments below or send me a quick message letting me know you’d like to read more of these in the future!

Dear Zack,

I’ve been editing pretty consistently for the past year and more, but recently I’ve been having trouble finding work and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to better my chances. I’ve reached out to people that I have a good relationship with in the past (directors, producers, line producers, editors, etc.) to let them know that I’m available. I’ve also reached out to agencies with not much luck except for being hip-pocketed at [two big-name agencies].Of course, I’m staying positive since I believe that I’ve been turning out good cuts and people have enjoyed working with me. But I just wanted to take the extra steps and see if I can learn from a person of your experience.

Is there anything more that you did during a time like this other than have patience?




Hi Martina,

There is no doubt that patience is a required virtue when working to build a fulfilling career. One of the fundamental mindsets I teach in all of my online programs is that life is game of chess, not a game of checkers. You have to be willing to play the long game and stop looking for the next easy move – just because a quick jump is available doesn’t mean it’s the best strategy to win the game.

Don’t confuse patience with complacency, however. Often times people reach a certain point in their careers where they believe they have earned the right to their next job, and all they have to do is wait to be discovered. No matter the level you’re at in your career, every single strategic move should have one singular objective: Putting yourself in the right place at the right time so the right people discover you, and thus you “get lucky.”

“Luck” is simply the intersection of hard work and opportunity.

I’m not implying in any way whatsoever that you are sitting around waiting to be discovered, clearly you are reaching out to past contacts and you’ve built a relationship with not one but two big-name agencies. This is a great start! But you definitely haven’t reached the point yet where there’s nothing else that can be done except sit and be patient.

If you follow my podcast and blog then you may already know I spent years jumping from one random indie project to the next (often unpaid), and I was also unemployed for long stretches before finally landing my dream job editing Burn Notice (something I dive into in great detail in my ‘Ultimate Guide to Making It In Hollywood’).

While it’s been a few years since being at this stage of my career, I still remember it like it was yesterday. Furthermore, I have yet to speak to a fellow editor (or most other professions in Hollywood for that matter), where people didn’t struggle jumping to the next level in their careers. For example, it took Kelley Dixon (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead) twenty years of working as an assistant to become an “overnight success story.”

Take a breath and know this is all part of the journey. The only way to ensure failure is if you give up.

Knowing you are at a similar crossroads in your career today that everyone goes through at some point, here are three questions to ask to ensure you are doing everything possible to put yourself in the right place at the right time to be “discovered.”

I have also provided concrete action steps so you can start making sh*t happen!

1. Do your résumé and portfolio clearly demonstrate why you are the best fit for the jobs you’re pursuing?

Based on your statement, “I’ve been editing pretty consistently for the past year and more,” I’ll assume you are not brand new to the game and have some experience under your belt (most likely you’ve assisted as well?).

If you did come up as an assistant editor like most people do, there is a place called “the gray zone” where it can be really tough to transition from assisting to only taking editing work. This is a tough transition, but building a fulfilling career requires pursuing projects that align with your creative passions and your skillset. Sometimes this means making tough financial decisions and (gasp!) turning down what appears to be perfectly good work short term (like assisting) because it no longer aligns with your long term goals.

If you simply need a paycheck job to cover your rent and groceries, then survival is priority number one and you don’t have the room to be picky. There’s no shame in making a living. But approaching jobs with this mindset for an extended period of time can unfortunately lead to a less-than-perfect résumé that some might consider a bit “scattershot” (Don’t worry, my résumé was like this for almost a decade).

If you’re concerned one of the reasons you aren’t being considered for job opportunities is because your past work experience is less than ideal, let’s get creative with how you present yourself (while staying honest, of course).

Action Step: Create multiple versions of your résumé.

Because I don’t have a clear sense of your level of experience from your email Martina, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend you have at least five years of industry experience and some of that includes assistant work. Perhaps you have a scattershot portfolio of past projects that includes some comedy work but also commercials, trailers, documentary shorts, indie features, and several years as a tv assistant in multiple genres. If your goal with your résumé is to show how much experience you have as a whole, having one generic list of all your past projects can actually hurt you more than it helps you.

At best you have 30-60 seconds to convince someone that you are the right creative fit for the job, so make that decision as easy as possible by organizing your résumé strategically for each potential opportunity.

Pigeonholing is the reality in creative industries. While I don’t believe that we should ever be limited to only doing one type of genre work, producers and directors are looking for a slam dunk, so give them the clearest picture possible of why your past experience makes you the right fit for this current opportunity…even if this means dropping a bunch of stuff from your résumé that isn’t the right fit.

If you don’t feel you have enough experience to drop anything, then at least have your résumé flow in such a way that the most relevant work is listed first and the least relevant is on the bottom (or the next page). People commonly make the mistake of listing their work history chronologically as if they’re applying for a middle management job at Microsoft. This isn’t necessary in creative industries.

IN SHORT: Your résumé has one job – demonstrating you are the right creative fit. Make it as simple as possible and craft a unique version for each individual opportunity.

BONUS Action Step: Make it braindead easy to navigate your online portfolio.

If you also have an online portfolio of sample work, organize it in such a way that people can find the right genre quickly. A home page with every single piece of work you’ve ever done only confuses the person who’s considering you, especially if you’re listing projects you may or may not have edited at all (e.g. you list projects that you assisted on only).

Think in terms of building funnels: If someone comes to your site and wants to only watch comedy (or action, or drama, etc), does your site flow in such a way that doing so is obvious and simple?

If you haven’t already, I suggest organizing your portfolio site with categories, tabs, tags, or anything else that allows a potential producer or director to curate your content instantly. And if you’re old school and still have a DVD reel, make multiple versions or even custom versions for each job application (I know it sounds crazy, but my custom reel is the main reason I landed Burn Notice).

When you reach out for potential jobs, in your email provide direct links to specific examples of your past work – do the hard work for them. While it might not be possible to have five different versions of a website the way you can have five unique versions of your résumé, by providing the right breadcrumbs you make it super simple for them, and you’ll also feel confident they are watching the right work at the right time.

Lastly, if you worked on a specific show, don’t just link to the homepage for that show on your website and expect others to dig through and find the right clips. Provide sample scenes directly on your site that demonstrate your best work on that series (and list your specific contribution). If someone sends me a link to watch their work and I end up on a YouTube landing page instead, I’m not going to watch anything because I don’t know where to start or how they were involved.

IN SHORT: If your prospective employer can’t find the absolute best clip that represents why you are the best fit for their project within 30 seconds, your site needs to be reorganized.

2. Are you properly leveraging your past relationships?

If you are good at what you do, once your foot is in the door and you have a few years under your belt, you will not build your career using your résumé or portfolio: You will build your career with referrals.

One of the most frustrating parts about building a creative career in Hollywood is that most jobs are filled before you ever hear about them. You will most likely never know about 95% of the opportunities that might be perfect for you. If a job opening has become public knowledge, that simply means the people looking have already exhausted their contact list. So it’s imperative that you stay relevant on that contact list so you’re part of the “insider” conversations before employers are forced to recruit people on the “outside.”

The great thing about building your career with referrals is that rather than always looking for work yourself or having just one agent potentially hunting down work for you, instead you have an entire network of producers, directors, editors, and other colleagues constantly referring you when jobs become available, and you will hear about a lot more than 5% of the opportunities that are a perfect fit for you…without any effort at all!

Sounds like a dream, right?

The key to building a perpetual sales machine of friends and colleagues looking for work for you is maintaining those relationships even when you aren’t working with them. Sure it helps if you are the best editor they’ve ever worked with and you are #1 on their call list, but short of that, the next best strategy is to be the most recent person on their list.

Most job opportunities are filled quickly. If someone comes to me asking if I “know a good assistant,” for example, I don’t have a giant spreadsheet of every single great assistant I’ve ever worked with in my career and their current availability. I don’t take the time to weigh the pros and cons of each to determine who is the most deserving or the most able. The ones I do think of right away and refer to others are often the ones I’ve been in contact with most recently.

Action step: Reconnect with people in your existing network…but without asking them to consider you for any upcoming opportunities.

You mention in your email, Martina, that you’re already reaching out to past colleagues to “let them know you’re available.” Instead of reconnecting simply to land your next job, instead think of a way you can strengthen your relationship with them by providing value to their lives first.

I recommend checking out The Socially Awkward Introvert’s Guide to Networking if you’re looking for creative ways to provide value to colleagues you’ve worked with in the past.

For example, rather than sending a mass email to everyone you’ve worked with in the past updating them on your work history and your availability (Side note: Rarely will I consider someone who has Bcc’d me on a chain message), instead email each colleague individually and begin a conversation that shows genuine interest in what they’re working on. End the email with an open-ended but simple question such as,

“I read that you are currently directing [XYZ] film. It looks like a challenging project, are you having fun? I hope it’s as much fun as when you and I worked on [ABC] together.”

Start up a casual conversation, try to slip in some “in jokes” from past projects, remind them you’re a fun guy or gal. After a couple of exchanges there’s no harm in mentioning you’d love the opportunity to work together again if they’re looking. But providing value to them always comes first – your needs come second.

IN SHORT: Do your best to stay in contact with people who can refer work to you, but do so in such a way you never actually have to ask them to consider you.

3. Are you prioritizing the time to build new relationships?

You mention in your email Martina that you are reaching out to people you already have a good relationship with, and you are also reaching out to agencies…but are you also working hard to expand your network and meet new people?

Whenever I’m actively looking for my next project, I consider unemployment my full-time job, and my number one job duty is expanding my network of contacts.

Similar to dating, the catch-22 of meeting new people is that it’s nearly impossible to find the time to network while you’re working, but when you’re unemployed you often reek of desperation because you need work NOW.  Barring having a Delorean parked in your garage so you can start building new relationships two years ago, the next best time to start networking and building them is today. But like connecting with past colleagues, when building new relationships you cannot expect to get anything in return. Your only goal is to provide value to others.

Here’s why creating new relationships is so important, especially the higher you climb the ladder: People don’t hire based on experience nearly as much as they hire based on trust and comfort.

I am inundated multiple times per week with emails that say the following:

“I’m just letting you know that I’m available and I would love to be considered if any opportunities arise.”

Here’s the honest truth that few are willing to admit: People will not consider you or refer you for other open projects if they haven’t worked in the trenches with you before. If someone is putting their name on the line, they need to know you can hack it when the bullets are flying, deadlines are tight, and tensions are high. And even more importantly, they need to trust that you have a good attitude under pressure.

If I’ve worked with someone in the past and not heard from them in a year, there’s a VERY short list of people I trust enough that I would refer jobs to if they simply sent me the “I’m available for work again” email. But if I have never worked with that person before, the “I’m available” email will have a 0% success rate (even if I like them personally).

If a prospective employer is weighing your résumé against someone else who has the same level of experience, they will always choose the person they are more comfortable with. And if they don’t know either candidate, often times the tiebreaker goes to whomever has a stronger referral from within that employer’s network.

Therefore, your objective is to meet new people and make them comfortable with you so they trust hiring or referring you for a job in the future.

Action step: Strategically build your dream list of contacts…then start reaching out.

During several of the long stretches of unemployment earlier in my career, I developed what I now call “The IMDB Game.” After having made the mistake for several years of taking the shotgun approach to networking and job hunting (i.e. sending out hundreds of résumés and demo reels to every single job opening in the industry), I decided it was time to start using a sniper rifle instead (‘Shooter’ pun intended).

Here’s how “The IMDB Game” works:

  • Make a list of all of the ‘Dream Projects’ you’d love to work on. At a minimum choose 5-10 of your favorite tv shows, or feature directors & producers, or trailer houses…whatever makes the most sense for the type of work you do.
  • Research all of the relevant people that work on those projects and make a spreadsheet organizing them with the following columns:
    • Name
    • Current project
    • Past (relevant) projects
    • Potential connections?
    • Contact info (email, social media, etc)
  • Find any potential connections you have in common. IMDB Pro has a great feature for this, but if you don’t want to pay the membership fee, with a little elbow grease you can dig through credits of their past projects to see if you have worked with any of the same people.
  • Once you’ve compiled your list, begin reaching out to either your dream connections directly or reaching out to people you’ve both worked with in the past and see if you can get a brief intro. The likelihood of someone responding to you goes up exponentially if you’re referred by someone they trust.

Above all else, remember your main objective when reaching out to new contacts is not to land a job: Your sole purpose is to provide value to their lives.

IN SHORT: When you’re unemployed, expanding your network should become your full-time job. Rather than taking the shotgun approach, strategically approach the right people who are the best fit for the dream projects you’d like to work on.

To Summarize…

Unfortunately there is no defined path to success in any creative career, especially filmmaking. But despite the lack of any road to follow, after interviewing many successful people including editing legends such as Walter Murch, Carol Littleton, Kelley Dixon, Jeffrey Ford, and Billy Goldenberg, I’ve distilled what seems like a thousand different ways to “make it” into three very distinct steps anyone can follow, all of which I discuss in detail in my Ultimate Guide to ‘Making It’ In Hollywood:

  1. You need a clear picture of the ladder you want to climb
  2. You have to do awesome work
  3. People have to know you do awesome work

It sounds to me Martina like the area you need to focus most of your attention is making sure the right people know that you do awesome work. Rather than “being patient,” here’s a quick summary of the steps you can take to ensure you are making sh*t happen:

  • Customize your résumé to fit each specific job opportunity
  • Organize your portfolio so prospective employers can find the right work quickly
  • Reconnect with past colleagues and connections…but without asking to be considered for a job
  • Strategically expand your professional network with people working on your dream projects

I hope this helps you design your own unique roadmap to success, Martina!

Be well.

Zack Arnold

If you would like to submit your own question for a future article, feel free to contact me here.

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, and the creator of the Optimize Yourself program. Zack helps ambitious creative professionals and entrepreneurs overcome procrastination, depression, and creative burnout so they can get sh*t done and achieve the most meaningful goals in their lives...without sacrificing their sanity in the process. If you’re interested in learning how to better manage your time, your energy, and develop ninja-like focus, download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”