Hold me, I’m scared: Your guide to navigating the hold system

Editor’s note: The following article is by Josh Van Praag. Josh is an extremely talented individual working in our community with a wealth of knowledge. In his decade-plus long career, he has put in work in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where he now resides. He has worked with many of the top studios, filled just about every role under the sun. It’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about navigating this industry of ours. Given this, I can’t think of a better person to start the conversation on our industry’s relationship with the nebulous hold system.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Illustration by Matt Darnall

We all love the hold system… right?

Most people can easily answer no to the above question. The system leaves a lot of room for improvement. It’s hard to even gauge whether the end product is a net positive or net negative. That said, jobs in this industry move fast, from pitching, the speculative state, to full-blown production, it happens almost overnight. In order for studios to make that quick transition, they need to have talent on hold. People seem to be on board with that base logic, and understand the need for some kind of a system. However, from there, many issues arise, and they seem to stem into two main areas. The first area is in disagreement on how the system should actually work, and what is fair for everyone. The second area is in general confusion on what everyone is expecting from the existing system, what standard practice is. I would say the first issue, on what is fair and how the system should actually work, is an enormous undertaking, something that can’t really be covered in a single posting. This article attempts to tackle a handful of ideas on how to improve the system, but its main intent is to start a dialogue about the current system, and to create a better understanding of what everyone is expecting.

The ground rules

A hold is a voluntary courtesy offered by a freelancer to a studio to help in the early stages of staffing a potential job. A first hold, or first pencil, says the freelancer will not take other work or make other plans that could interfere with a potential booking for an agreed on set of days. In the event the freelancer would like to exit that hold, for any duration of time, a challenge must first be set with the studio holding the days. The studio can then either choose to release the time or book the time. There is a surprising amount of grey area in all of that, which we will cover, but that is the basic premise.

Starting simple

I reached out to about 30 total people in three US cities. Those cities were Chicago, NYC, and LA, about 10 people per city. It’s not a huge sample, but the benefit was I knew them all, had worked with them all, and when their responses came in, I had some perspective on who was giving them. I also tried to speak to people with a range of skill sets and positions. I spoke to more junior talent, senior talent, staff producers, freelance producers, staff artists, and freelance artists. I tried to speak to anyone that dealt with this system on a daily basis. I asked each person a handful of questions, to see how on the same page everyone is, and then viewed the results as a whole. It’s probably not a total surprise, but we’re not exactly on the same page.

This is where we then have to ask the question, well, should we be? This is a decentralized system, it’s unregulated, it’s open source, if I really wanted to annoy people, I’d say something stupid about blockchain. The benefit to it being open is it’s extremely flexible and can work for a lot of people in a lot of different situations. The disadvantage is it creates a lot of friction and takes far more work to maintain. I personally think there are some situations where there is no real benefit to having multiple options, and we should all be on the same page. Then there are other situations that are a bit more grey area, and maybe there should be options. Let’s start with an easy same page issue.

Timeframe for a challenged first hold

The time is more or less 24 hours. Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on that. If you’re not giving your client, be it a studio, an agency, whatever, 24 hours to respond with a booking or a release, you are probably not making friends fast. I will add that most places I’ve worked with respond far before that deadline, but that’s a good start.

If you as the freelancer are coming up on the 20th hour of a challenge, it’s even great to be proactive. Tell the studio that in 4 hours the challenge expires. If you’re busy, if it seems like to much work, if you just don’t want to, then don’t do it. It’s a small step we can all take to look out for each other, to keep in contact, which makes the whole system run better. Producers of the world, if a freelancer gives you a heads up like this, return the favor. If no one mentions a 24-hour time frame when a challenge goes in, put a reminder out there. Tell your freelancer when you are hoping to hear back.

Challenges at 5 pm on Friday

This is where we get a little more grey area. The technical way to ask the question is, does the 24 hour time limit apply to non-working hours? If I get a challenge in at 5 pm on Friday, does the time expire at 5 pm on Saturday, or at 5 pm on Monday? Most people I spoke to said a challenge coming in at 5 pm on Friday expires at 5 pm on Monday, non-working days do not apply. However, about a quarter of the people I spoke to said a challenge in at 5 pm on Friday expires at 5 pm on Saturday, non-working days do apply. Of that first majority, who said non-working days do not apply, about a quarter were smart to further caveat their statement. If the challenge comes in at 5 pm Friday, and the booking is for the following Monday, this obviously doesn’t work. Think through your situation and clarify what expectations are on both sides.

Keeping your first hold for yourself

To start with, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this practice. More than half the people I spoke to said they keep their first hold at least sometimes, a quarter of the people said they always keep their first hold, and only 10% said they never keep their first hold. I want to emphasize, this isn’t just artists answering this way, this is producers too. The hold system is ultimately a courtesy to the studio, but it’s your call how active you want to be in it. That said, this system exists to help leverage the odds of getting the right talent in for the right job at the right time. Without a first hold, the chances of that happening can definitely go down.

I would try to think of this practice as a barometer for the health of the system. If everyone is keeping their first hold all the time, something could definitely be off. Rather than waste time arguing the ethics of the practice, I think it’s more important to look at why people want to do this in the first place.

I need a three-month hold for a job that doesn’t exist, thanks!

This can’t keep happening. This is a big reason why people want out of the system, or why someone might keep their first hold. People that are staffing jobs miss the weight and the importance the first hold carries. When a freelancer gives you their first hold, they are actively lowering their ability to compete with the rest of the freelance pool that still has a hold open. A studio could be sitting on a first hold for weeks, with no job in sight, meanwhile, another studio asks for an artist’s first hold, and if it’s not there, it could be just enough that the artist is passed on. If a freelancer is nice enough to offer you a first hold, it needs to be for a real job. Don’t hold talent because you want an easy win, in the event something maybe comes in sometime soon, and now you have someone ready.

Multiple people also mentioned the idea of attaching a fee to their first hold. On a base level, it makes some real sense. An artist only has a single first hold to give per calendar day, which makes it a scarce resource, and therefore of high value. We currently have zero counterweights in play to stop the unnecessary taking of this high-value item. We’re more or less practicing the honor system. Also, that fee could be counted toward the artists’ day rate, in the event the job books, which means we’d be further incentivizing studios to book their held talent. All that said, something to keep in mind, the money has to come from somewhere. It’s money that could be going toward additional time, additional artists, stock elements, shoot time, hardware, etc.

If we want freelancers to play a fair hand, if we want them to be responsible, communicative, thoughtful humans, then the people staffing jobs needs to do the same. Producers, tell your freelancer what job you are booking them for. If you can share anything about the creative on the job, or the role you expect them to play, tell them. Freelancers of the world, be proactive if nothing about the job is offered when the hold is proposed, ask about it.

The confusing world beyond first holds

There are two main ways of thinking when it comes to holds after the first hold. One way is to give all the following requests the same second hold position. The other way is to issue third, fourth, and depending on how ambitious you are, fifth and sixth holds. About 40% of the people I spoke with only gave second holds, and about 60% gave third holds and beyond. I would say there is nothing wrong with either practice, but there is good logic why you might not want to give anything past a second hold.

Most importantly, the studio isn’t gaining anything and you’re losing time. The studio takes this kind of hold because they would love a heads up in the case you are no longer on the market. This isn’t a deli counter number pull system. You’re welcome to hand out seventh position holds all day long, but unless you plan on challenging all holds below that number, giving the 24-hour time limit to each, one at a time, then the reality is everyone is standing in the same position. I can also guarantee you, no one is taking your seventh place hold and thinking, wow, this guy sure is in demand, let’s get him in. They’re more likely thinking this seventh position hold is terrible odds for getting someone in and why pursue this.

Second holds mean something

Whether we’re only giving out second holds, or we’re giving out seventh and eighth holds, the real question is, what responsibilities do these type of holds carry? About 20% of the people I spoke to said these holds carry no real responsibilities. About 35% said they entail sometimes telling their second hold if their first hold books. Lastly, about 45% said they always tell their second hold, if their first hold books.

In an ideal situation, the freelancer should always tell their second hold if they’re no longer on the market. If you don’t like the idea of needing to notify 2, 3, 4 shops every time you’re booked, then don’t give a second hold, or limit the number of second holds you take. What’s most important in all of this, is deciding what the hold means to you, clearly conveying it, and then consistently following through with whatever that idea is. If you take a hold and then you sometimes do one thing and sometimes do another thing, it creates a lot of confusion and frustration. It’s easier to just pick one thing and stick with it.

Producers of the world, if you lucked out, and your freelancer does consistently tell you when their first hold books, return the favor. There is far too much ghosting of freelance talent and not enough updating on job status. If a job goes away, tell whoever is on hold, and this is going to sound crazy, but even release held talent if nothing else is on the horizon.

Make it a priority

This system isn’t going to get better unless we continue thinking of ways to make it better. Improving the hold system should be a priority for everyone, not a footnote.

Production studios need to start seeing Artist Management as a real role. The current system favors putting junior talent in the scheduling position, as an entry-level position, as a stepping stone to a better position. While it’s not in the budget for most studios to have a full-time senior producer assigned to the role, there are a lot of smaller steps that can be taken to achieve similar results. Teams need to more actively promote a philosophy of respect for the artists’ time and worth. Pull your people aside and actively talk about what good practices are for your studio. Tools need to be put in place to help both staff and freelance producers know what their roster is, who is booked, who is on hold, and who is in. Many people I spoke to had the same experience I had of holding time for a studio under one producer only to be asked by another producer to hold the same time at the same studio.

Freelancers need to be more consistent with the way they choose to operate. I’m as guilty as anyone on this. Decide what system works for you and stick with it. If you want to charge for overtime, if you have a special rate for weekend work, tell studios before you’re even booked, be upfront about how you operate. If you don’t like going over it every time a booking comes in, create some kind of outward facing document that explains your practices and link out to it in your booking emails. It can be something as simple as a Dropbox PDF, or it can be an unlisted URL on your domain. If you prefer to have more dialogue, and you’re comfortable addressing these things each time, do that instead.

Let’s not see ourselves as passive victims to some system we see as unchangeable. Let’s instead be active participants in creating better working conditions for ourselves and for the next generation to come.

A sincere thank you to everyone that generously gave their time filling out the survey and providing further insight!