One of my favorite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank, has as its opening scene a telephone conversation between John Cusack and his secretary. During the innocent conversation about attending his high school reunion, the audience becomes aware that he is assembling a rifle. To the soothing strains of Johnny Nashs "I Can See Clearly Now", he dispassionately shoots a machine-gun-bearing bicycle rider, preventing the cyclist from assassinating a dignitary standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel across the street. When he turns from the window, a hotel doorman (played by Dan Ackroyd) shoots the dignitary and makes his getaway.
For all three of the shooters, it is obvious that this is just a job. Theyre detached. Theyre profes-sionals. Theres a special word for what they are.
Our industry has long relied on the use of freelance labor. The use of independent personnel has had both positive and negative effects on our industry, and on most of our companies.
On the positive side:
The availability of independent technicians enables us to take on shows for which we dont carry the required number of technicians on permanent staff, and prevents us from having to stretch our own staff beyond the breaking point.
Freelance technicians come in really handy when you need a specialist skill for a particular job, but dont want the expense of keeping that skill on permanent staff for infrequent use.
Freelance technicians enable us to do out of town shows more economically, by shipping gear and supervisors to show site and using freelance labor to fill out the required crew.
In other words, to quote one of my old bosses, it keeps us from having to build a larger church just for Easter Sunday.
Now, before I state the other side of the coin, allow me to say that Ive spent most of my career working with freelancers, and have been one myself. Also, let me state that in these instances I refer specifically to the use of independent personnel, and not venue-required union labor (which should be the subject of another, longer, column).
And so to the down sides that weve all occasionally experienced:
Freelancers, especially out of town freelancers, are often the variable in the successful show equation. Although we all have freelancers we know and trust, hiring of many of them comes by word of mouth, from one of our employees or another freelancer. Sometimes this works, but it has burned many of us in the past. Most of us have stories about the show where we hired an audio engineer who turned out to be somebody who knew a lot about home stereo, or was the video freelancers brother in law.
Freelancers, like most independent business people, are often on tight schedules. More than once, Ive had a show run overtime and a freelance technician tell me he had to leave because he or she had booked an evening gig at the last minute. Ive even had one, on an out of town event, ditch my three-day show at the last minute because he got an offer of a two-week run with someone else.
The final (and, for me, the most important) difficulty with freelance talent is that they arent part of my company. I know my staff, and that they know how to handle our clients. While most of the freelancers Ive ever worked with have been great about this, I have had instances where they did things like offer their services directly to my client next time out, passed out business cards at my show, or criticized the show plans in front of both the producer that wrote them AND her client. Over twenty years, these incidents have been few, but they are enough to keep me up nights if theres even the possibility that they could happen.
So, just like full time employees, freelancers are a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks. And, just like full-time staff, they are difficult to assess in an age where the technology changes daily. I seem to spend my life convincing clients to use the latest technology, and then finding both freelance talent and full time employees who can support it. With my own staff, I hold training classes. With freelancers, while I offer to let some of them attend the same classes, most dont bother unless theres paid time involved. And, while Ive even done that some of the time, Im tired of paying a freelancer to attend training that he or she later uses on my competitors behalf.
But theres even a reverse side to THAT coin. Ive had knowledgeable freelancers provide some excellent training to my staff, especially on technologies we dont often use. And, truth to tell, Ive used freelancers in order to assess their talents - and then recruited them.
So, some suggestions for dealing with freelance talent:
1. Know them, or know somebody who knows them, and has recent experience with their skill set. Along these lines, a number of companies have sprung up nationally to help you book these people. Weve had excellent luck with Immediate Connections, for instance, although theyre far from the only player.
2. Pay real attention, not only to their technical skills, but to their client skills as well. I try to use freelancers in non-critical positions until I or my crew get to know them.
3. Interview freelancers for critical show positions the same way youd interview a potential em-ployee, paying attention to their attitudes and appearance as well as to their experience.
And, while youre at it, make sure none of them are dressed as hotel doormen. They may be moonlighting...