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How to Make $1 Million

“A Hare one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the Tortoise…”
Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare

“We’re all just one step ahead of the tax man.”
Photographer/Filmmaker Chase Jarvis 

Have you ever wanted to make a million dollars working in film or video production?  I might be able to help.

River Run Productions Video Shoot

I always wanted to be my own boss. Today I am my own boss.

I always wanted my own company. Today I have my own company. ( with three other partners.)

I always wanted a red Ferrari. Today I drive a seven year old, navy Dodge Durango with 124,000 miles and almost as many interior scratches from lugging production equipment around over the years.

As Mick Jagger sings, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  So I can’t help you with the red Ferrari, but if you want to make a million dollars—that’s much more practical. Seriously. The formula is actually pretty simple and will probably let you down.

All you have to do is average making $33,334. for 30 years. That’s a total of $1,000,020. Of course, that won’t be your take home pay, but you will have made over a million dollars.

The problem is most people dream of making $1 million in a fairly short time. Selling a screenplay or hitting the film distribution jackpot. Of course, that can happen—but it’s not typical. In 2011, The WGA Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) for an Original Screenplay, Excluding Treatment is $87,879. (Unless the budget is under $5 million, then the fee drops to $44,665.)

Granted it’s not uncommon in Hollywood to hear terms of a script sales to be in the $300,000. to $600,000. range, but as the saying goes, “A number without a reference is meaningless.” Often times built into those kinds of deals are stipulations that the full amount will be paid if the picture gets made and the original writer stays on the project for its duration.

Yes, there are screenwriters who make a million dollars (and more) for the sale of a single script. Those are the few people at the top of the pyramid. Fifty percent of  WGA writers have no income from writing in a given year.

Of course, if you watch the credits at the end of any film you’ll see that there are a massive amount of jobs on any film. And even though many are high paying positions, one report listed the average working salary in the film and TV business at $74,400. That’s in part due to the transient nature of the business.

A union gaffer may have a solid day rate and make great overtime on a film, but what if he only works on one or two features averaging 6-8 weeks of work in a given year?

Back to making a million dollars. Union gigs on feature films and TV work are just a small portion of ways you can make money in production. There are entrepreneurial filmmakers all over the world doing all kinds of productions. Everything from producing local commercials, to corporate and industrial videos, to non-profit documentaries, to wedding stories.

Some making more than $33,334 and some making less. But if your goal is to make a million dollars, then that’s what you have to average for 30 years. $33,334.

In my career, there have been times when I made less than half of that amount, and times when I’ve made double that. (Heck, my first media related job when I was 19-years-old and working for a small town newspaper that, if I recall correctly, paid ten cents a word and five dollars a published photo.)

And while $33,334. may not seem like much to some, there are plenty of production people making less than that today (even in New York and L.A.). There are plenty of other career choices that will get you to a making a million dollars quicker. (Of course, Jagger probably makes a million dollars per concert—that’s quick, but Legendary Rock Star is a tough gig to land.)

I believe a dental hygienist with a two-year degree starts at $50,000 with benefits. (And just a 40 hour week which is a wee-bit harder to find in the production world.) If making money is the bottom line for you, there are easier ways to make it than in film and video production. What they don’t teach in film school is, for whatever reason, only a small percentage of the estimated 40,000+ film & TV school grads every year have lasting careers in media production.

Now if you really want a red Ferrari, take a look at getting an MBA from Stanford University. (Average post-MBA salary of $125,000.) And having an MBA from anywhere sure wouldn’t hurt you if you want to be an entrepreneurial filmmaker. Plus you’re bound to have a classmate or two who go on to be rock star multi-millionaire venture capitalists.

But the Durango makes a much better production vehicle than a Ferrari, especially when you drive through snow and flood waters—and use it for as an occationial tri-pod.

Related post: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

©2011 Scott W. Smith