Editing: where to pull down the REAL money (and it ain’t features)

100-bill-toilet-paperTo those considering the idea of Hollywood editing paychecks: they ain’t what they used to be. And paychecks are FAR from the only reason to edit… but to those of us who do it for a living, they’re a big deal. And they could end up being a big deal to you too.

I always thought feature film editors made a bunch of money. Like $300k, half a million per picture, etc. Well, that was much more common in the 1980’s and 90’s. And per a discussion that happened this week in The Power Edit on FB (a group that you should join), a handful of editors still command those prices. But that’s for big studio stuff.

The vast majority of feature films that get made today are not big or studio. According to first-hand knowledge posted on the string:

Average weekly pay for editors on indie features of $1M-2M: $1500-$2000/week.

cold-pizzaWeekly editor pay for indie features $500K-$1M: as low as $1000/week.

Editor pay for indies under $500K: IOUs and cold pizza.

And for the scripted TV world…

Average editor pay for first season network scripted show: $3100/week. Also comes with 60-hour weeks and usually significant political drama with decreased creative autonomy.

Compare to the average weekly pay for unscripted television – doc series, semi-scripted, reality, studio competition, etc.:

$3200-$3800/week. Usually 50-hour weeks or less. Equal potential for political drama depending on the show and producers, but significantly more potential for creative contribution and autonomy.

In my discussions with international editors, these numbers tend to hold true around the world in Europe, Australia, and Canada.

I realize these numbers speak to a very specific niche of editors – and to earn these numbers at all in the US, you usually have to live in Los Angeles or New York. And life here in LA is expensive. What might seem like big fat paychecks disappear quickly if you’re not careful. Plus these jobs are almost exclusively freelance, so you have no guarantees of regular work compared to being on staff somewhere.

But what about everyone else who edits for individual clients outside major media centers? That, my friend, is a no-man’s land of feast or famine, more likely famine. Why? Because the barriers to entry are lower and lower as technology marches forward. The client’s kid can “shoot something on his cell phone that looks just as good as what you charged me $5000, and it’s only going up on the web anyway.” A whole other frustrating discussion for sure.

But in the meantime, beware of that Greener Grass syndrome. If you aspire to edit feature films because you think they’ll make you rich, you may need to come up with a Plan B.

tv-screen-channelsIn all seriousness, consider reality/unscripted television. Hundreds of channels of TV need a never-ending supply of content, and those shows need editors who can tell stories well, often with less-than-stellar source material. But that’s the ongoing challenge, and those do edit well get paid very well.

Fair warning: cutting unscripted content requires a whole other set of skills that you will hardly ever learn in film school or anywhere else other than on the job. Or by picking the brains of successful editors, either in person or by checking out books like this one.

To reiterate an idea: don’t get into editing just for the money. So many more things factor into it than that.  But you can absolutely end up making a really good living in the process – if you want it badly enough.

Leave a Reply