Dear Zack: “Is pursuing feature film editing worth it given the sacrifices?”

(Author’s Note: If you’d like to submit a question for an upcoming article, don’t hesitate to reach out and send me a message. I read every single email I receive.)

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.

The question below from Matt is a common concern many people have who are passionate about breaking into feature film editing but not sure if they’re willing to pay the price necessary to achieve success. If you’re not interested in feature film editing specifically, the advice below applies to just about any other creative field in the entertainment industry.

Dear Zack,

I’m Matt, 27, a video editor from England. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an editor for Manchester United and for brands like Adidas, but the dream inside me is big feature film editing. I’ve edited a couple of lower budget projects and love the creative challenge. I’ve been a film nerd since however long I can remember and when I see a great film I always think how awesome it would be to have had a creative part in that.

I know you address this in the podcast but…I’m wondering if pursuing this goal is worth it in terms of the sacrifice knowing the long hours involved and what it can do to your social and family life…and health. I enjoy editing and feel I have a talent in crafting edits and storytelling but I also like my social life and traveling and having adventures with friends.

Is it realistic to be able to work 6 months on 6 months off given the financial gain of working at that level and the intensity of a project like…the Avengers? It’s probably only a question I can answer but any thoughts you could offer would truly be most appreciated.


Hi Matt,

The hard truth is that there’s no right answer to this question. You already hit the nail on the head when you said, “It’s probably only a question I can answer.” But that having been said, I have provided three questions below that you can ask yourself that will hopefully help you clarify your true purpose and whether the cost of you pursuing your goal is worth the sacrifice.

1. Do you have a deep understand of WHY editing feature films is the right creative profession for you?

Before determining what the true sacrifices are if you want to become an A-list feature film editor of huge films like The Avengers, the first step you must take is identifying and understanding your deeper “Why’s.” The answer to this question might come simply to you at first, but the deeper you get, the more complex your answer becomes very quickly.

Think of this process like peeling the layers of an onion.

Start simply by asking yourself:

“Why do I love editing?”

And your answer can be as simple as:

“It’s fun cutting shots together with music.”

Now ask yourself, why is it fun cutting shots together with music?

“Because I get an adrenaline rush when the perfect shot comes together at the right moment with a moment in the music.”

Okay…so why is that so important?

“Well I guess when I think about it, I know if I feel a rush at that moment, the audience will too. So I guess that means I love making other people feel something.”

Okay…so why is that so important?

“Making people feel something is important to me because I want the work I do every day to have a positive impact on others and thus on the world.”

NOW we’re getting somewhere. You no longer want to edit big budget feature films because “It’s fun cutting shots together with music,” your deeper WHY is that you really want to make people feel something so you have a positive impact on the world.

Only after you’ve spent the time to define your deeper WHY will you then be able to more closely align your career path and your job choices with what truly matters to you (more on aligning your needs with your employer’s needs below).

Action Step: Set aside a minimum of 1 hour to clearly define your most important ‘Why’s.’

Before spiraling down the rabbit hole and questioning whether or not you should pursue your true passion (or ditch it altogether) despite the tremendous personal sacrifices, spend some time thinking deeper about why working on big films like The Avengers is your ultimate goal.

Here are some additional resources to help you define your ‘Why’s’:

Ep48: Feeling Lost? It’s Time to ‘Find Your Why’ | with David Mead

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about ‘The Golden Circle’

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Enroll in my ‘Design Yourself’ program (which contains an entire module dedicated to the process of ‘Defining Your Why’)

2. Are you excited about the process, not just the outcome?

In your message above Matt you mention, “When I see a great film I always think how awesome it would be to have had a creative part in that.”

Having a “creative part in that” comes at a price.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in the entertainment industry is focusing so much of their effort on the outcome while completely losing sight of the process.

Hopefully after taking the necessary time as I suggested above to ‘Define Your Why’ this question becomes moot, but it’s important to ask yourself if you’re intimately familiar with the process of editing huge tentpole films like The Avengers?

Or are you chasing the outcome of success?

Sure it would be amazing to go out with friends, tell them you edit huge Marvel films, and see amazed and impressed looks on their faces. How cool are you!

Of course it would be awesome to give speeches, win awards, and be at the top of your profession (and command a HUGE weekly rate).

And how fantastic would it be going to bed every night knowing that literally tens of millions of people across the globe watched and loved your work?

Everyone living the life I just described has had to pay their dues for decades to reach that outcome:

  • They have spent tens of thousands of hours behind a computer in a dark room (probably with no windows)
  • They have sacrificed countless nights & weekends away from their families
  • They have missed dance recitals, holiday shows, and birthday parties
  • They have put their health on the back burner many times to meet deadlines
  • They have endured a creative career with no certainty from job to job, often spending months (or even years) earlier in their careers where it was extremely tough to find steady work at all

If you’re chasing film editing because you’re interested in the glamour, consider 99% of your life will be spent behind a computer, and 1% will be schmoozing at fancy parties.

Is it worth it?

If the 99% excites you more than the 1%, you’re on the right path.

If the 99% sounds absolutely miserable, you’ll never get the opportunity to experience the 1%.

Action Step: Prioritize time to weigh the true cost of becoming an A-list feature film editor against what you would receive in return.

If the cost of spending the next 2-3 decades climbing the ladder to the top of the feature world is worth it and then some, pursue your dream! But if giving up your social life and sacrificing time and adventures with your friends is non-negotiable, this career path might not be the best fit for you. Proceed below to go even deeper down the rabbit hole of defining your own needs versus the job requirements.

Here are some additional resources to help you understand what it really takes to edit feature films at the highest level (and calculate the true costs):

Ep105: Jeffrey Ford’s Secret Weapon to Editing (and Surviving) Marvel Films

Ep50: EditFest 2018 Panel ‘The Extended Cut: How to Survive and Thrive In Editorial’

Ep18: Surviving the Insanity of the Edit Suite | with Billy Goldenberg, ACE

Ep60: Legendary Film Editor Walter Murch on Surviving 50+ Years In Post

Ep40: Editing Hollywood Blockbusters | with Alan Bell, ACE

Dear Hollywood: We Create Entertainment For a Living…We’re Not Curing Cancer

3. Taking into account the career ladder you want to climb, have you considered whether or not your future employers’ needs align with your own personal needs?

One of the most common mistakes many people make in the entertainment industry is taking any work that comes their way because, “You never know when the next job will come around.” But if the work you’re taking builds a resume and a contact list that doesn’t align with your own personal needs over the long term, in a decade you’ll end up hating your profession and want to transition to something else (e.g. everyone who is desperately trying to get out of reality and transition to scripted television right now).

I have very clearly defined my own personal needs. By doing so, I have created a “filter” so to speak that allows me to either consider or politely decline offers and opportunities that either align or do not align with my needs.

Here is a small list of my own personal needs:

  • Commuting drives me bonkers, so I will no longer accept work with a commute longer than 60 minutes
  • With two kids (8 and 6) I prioritize weekends just for them. So I won’t accept jobs that expect me to routinely work 6 or 7 day weeks
  • I’m focused on building my website, my private coaching program, and training for American Ninja Warrior, so I won’t accept jobs that expect me to work more than 10+ hours a day (with an allowance for crunch time here and there)
  • Having clearly defined my own ‘Why,’ I won’t accept projects or work with toxic people that don’t align with my deeper motivation for editing
  • I’ve very efficient with my time, so I won’t work with a team that micromanages my process or forces me to work without internet (not having access to Trello would be a deal breaker!)

Because all of the needs listed above are paramount to my own well-being and long-term health, I’m very firm when approached with jobs that don’t align with these needs.

Action Step: Listen to my podcast interview with Norman Hollyn where we discuss the process of aligning your needs with your employers’ needs using the Venn Diagram below.

Make a minimum of two columns.

In column #1 list your employer’s needs and expectations (refer to the resources in question #2 if you aren’t familiar with those expectations).

In column #2 list your own personal needs over the long term.

Where do they intersect?

To Summarize…

Unfortunately there is no clear cut answer to your question Matt. Only you can determine if the sacrifices will be worth attaining your ultimate goal of editing huge feature films. But to make the process a little easier on you:

  1. Define your deeper ‘Why’s’ so you understand what drives you and motivates you every single day
  2. Determine whether you are more excited waking up every single morning to embrace the process or simply enjoy the outcome
  3. Clarify whether your own personal needs align with your employers’ needs

And to answer your final question, “Is it realistic to be able to work 6 months on 6 months off given the financial gain of working at that level?” there’s no question editing huge Marvel movies like The Avengers will pay a generous weekly rate…but is that rate enough to compensate you for the sacrifices necessary to reach that level in your career?

If the answer is yes…then go for it!

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).”

Comments 1

  1. Great article! I needed to hear this today, thanks for all you do Zack. 🙂

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