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Starting career in San Francisco/ Bay area as a foreign national


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Hi everyone,


My name is Vatsala and I am graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India (F.T.I.I.) early in 2014 where I'm currently studying Cinematography (a three year post graduate program).


I'll be moving to the SF Bay area immediately after I finish school. Once here, i shall be looking for jobs as a cinematographer and have several questions in this regard. I'm uncertain about where to start, so listing immediate questions here and seek your guidance:


1) a) How do I surface on the difficulty & opportunity scale in terms of opportunities to cinematography jobs as a foreign national?

b ) Where do fresh cinematography graduates like myself typically start in the US - assisting/ camera operating/ 2nd units? Or does it depend from person to person?


2) What are the typical visa categories that would apply to me if I were looking for a job in this sector? Currently I'm visiting SFO on a dependent visa, which continues until i start working - how does that place me in the visa context while looking for a job?


3) a) What's the norm for foreigners people starting out here - do people freelance or get on to payrolls?

b ) Does freelancing make it difficult to get sponsored by the employer especially since I'm not a citizen & competing with US citizens + fresh grads from the USA?


4) Are there any forums & people (online and on ground) that I can immediately connect with while I am visiting the Bay Area?


5) While I am here I would like to go and observe a camera crew at work. What's the best way to proceed on that front?


I would really appreciate any help and information. Thanks so much for reading.


Warm Regards,


Edited by Vatsala Goel
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As far as I know you cannot work on a visa in the US w/o sponsorship from an employer. As most DoPs are free-lance, you probably won't be sponsored from a visa. You should consult with an immigration lawyer ASAP to get the actual rules and regulations but it is very difficult to work in the US if you are not a US national.

As for starting, it all depends really on your network, and can take years and years to build that. Or it can happen overnight. It depends on many variables. From what i've seen the SF area is a very small community. This will help with networking in many ways, but also will hurt because there is far less work there than say in LA, from what I've seen. LA is also a 6 hour drive away so you really can't live in SF and work in LA (as you could, for example, live in Philadelphia and work in Phila, NY, DC, Baltimore as they're all just a quick 4 hour max drive away). Chances are you'll start out working as a PA for money and DoPing nopay/lowpay projects/student projects. In reality, the network you'd've made in school is what should've gotten you shooting with them, and it's hard to walk away from that. I still get a good deal of jobs from folks I went to college with, or folks I met in college. Though since my own move to the west-coast, those are fewer and fewer aside from the few whom I know who live out in New Mexico.

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In all honestly you'll probably have more offers for work in Mumbai. The SF Bay Area is all about freelancing unless you're working for a TV station. Having said that, I met more people from abroad working in the local film/video industry here in the Bay Area than any other place or industry in the US, so there's some leniency, but not a great deal.

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As far as I know you cannot work on a visa in the US w/o sponsorship from an employer.


You can, but it isn't easy. The relevant visa category used to be O-1, and I believe it still is, but they're not easy to get. Generally you'll have to show a body of work, the idea being that you're someone of "extraordinary ability". In practice this seems to be a fairly flexible term and I've seen both extremes: sometimes very skilled people fail to get them, and sometimes rather average people seem to walk through the process. Either way, the likelihood of obtaining one as a recently graduated student is, I fear, near zero.


There are effectively two choices: the first is to get a fulltime job with a US company. The process is still complicated and will cost the company time, effort and money, so you will not be an ideal hire. I have been through the start of this process twice now and on each occasion the company involved (which were usually small industry-related outfits without a huge personnel department to deal with the paperwork) has quickly backed out once they discovered what was really involved. A lot of Americans seem to assume this process is easy. It isn't.


The other, perhaps main, problem with this approach is that the visa is tied to the job. If you leave the job, you lose your right to be in the US. Thus, unemployment means not only losing a job, but also probably your home and way of life, with attendant international resettlement expenses and inconvenience. It also gives an unscrupulous employer a lot of leverage over the employee, since they will know about this situation, and they will know what you face if they fire you. And unlike in many countries, as far as I know an American employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason or no reason, on no notice and with no obligation to do anything helpful whatsoever.


The second way to go, which is very cheap, comparatively easy from a paperwork perspective, and 100% reliable is to marry - with sincerity - an American, then you can do what you like. Seems a bit arbitrary, but there it is.



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Ahh that's right. I forgot about the "exceptional" visas.

Anecdotal: I once knew a woman who was paid $5,000/mo to "marry" a foreign national for a few years in order for them to establish residency. Best part was she always bought the drinks at the bar.

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