A lot of angles of the industry either begin as freelance jobs or are permanently freelance, so it’s important to keep in mind that you are your own agent and PR team until you amass enough work that starts doing the advertising for you. Freelance work is by nature inconsistent, so instead of a dry-and-cut list, here’s a few of my general impressions from my own experiences working freelance, and a few of the “phases” you’re likely to go through.
The two things you need to develop up-front are some basic skills and working relationships. By basic skills, I mean some fundamental knowledge and applicable abilities (knowing how to operate equipment or software) towards whatever part of the industry you’re interested in - you don’t need to know “everything,” but you should have enough general knowledge that you know what specific questions to ask when you encounter something you don’t know. In regard to working relationships, film is always best thought of as a collaborative, team-based process - growing a circle of contacts will not only introduce you to people who will teach you about your trade and filmmaking in general, but these are the people who will also help find you work.
I won’t put one of these things before the other since you really do need both to start getting places, and they often develop in tandem with each other. If you have some school training or have a hobbyist interest and experience making films, you might already have a decent handle on the fundamentals. For most parts of the industry (say, cinematography) the best way to learn how sets work and to grow your network will probably be to look for local productions you can participate in, potentially in an assistant position. This will allow you to acclimate to a professional environment without immediately having all the responsibility and weight of a leadership position on your shoulders. The options will vary depending on where you live, but online job boards and local broadcast/production companies are usually good places to start.
The process of developing your fundamental skills and network are what I would call the “beginning phase,” and it can sometimes be a rough stretch. Gigs may not be paid (or if they are, probably pretty poorly-compensated), but beyond growing yourself as a filmmaker, you’ll want to find and stay in touch with people who are as passionate as you are - find people who “really” want to make it, and have enough good sense and practical vision to achieve it. A lot of passionate people will talk big, but beware promises that sound too good to be true - they always are. This is basically a bit of your own intuition, but success attracts more success, and you want to be around others who will help elevate you and grow with you.
Since this process can take time (expect to be thinking in years, not months), I would highly recommend having some other sort of income, ideally from a more stable part-time job with flexible hours (so you can take film jobs as they become available), or similar equivalent. If you have family you can live with for free who are down to support you while you try to get your career going, absolutely take advantage of that option!
There’s a certain amount of self-evaluation involved when it comes to “leveling up” your career from this beginning phase once you start finding some work. At the core of it, you’ll develop a sense of your own objective “value” as a filmmaker, and it’s important to know when to turn down the last free gig because it’s no longer an appropriate career choice, but without getting over-confident and thinking you’re the next [insert legendary filmmaker name here]. In my experience the stepping stones from “I’ll take any gig” to “I’ll take it if it pays” to “I’ll take it if it pays, and is also decent” to “this is my career and I’m in charge” can come rapidly, or there can be long stretches in between. It’s not really clean-cut, but as you start turning to filmmaking as your source (at least one of your sources) of income, I would recommend having an asking rate in mind before looking for jobs, so you can negotiate if necessary, or can turn something down if it’s not the best place for your efforts.
These are a few general thoughts, and I know they might be a bit vague and nebulous, but let’s use that as a starting place to continue and focus the discussion!
@zacboring, the one thing I’ll say about YouTube is that if you intend to do it for a living (as in, primary source of income), it’s best to be aware that that’s significantly more difficult than making a living wage working elsewhere in the broader sphere of the film industry. If you run your own channel, you’re either self-sustaining on ad income (which is peanuts at best), or you’re operating off of sponsorships, merchandise, etc. but that requires a pretty solid level of Internet celebrity to become viable options. YouTube as a primary income source for stand-alone creators has unfortunately become extremely difficult, partially due to the incredibly low barrier-of-entry - the market is really, really over-saturated. That being said, I happily have my own YouTube channel that I’m passionate about, but I do it on the side while working elsewhere in the film industry.