Dissecting the Hold System

Not much has been left unsaid about holds. There’s articles, comment threads, and endless posts about it. The truth is, the hold system doesn’t always work well for everyone. And sometimes there’s no easy answer on how to deal with these challenges.

Should you give out first holds? Can you charge a kill fee if the client drops a booking? How do keep yourself consistently booked and avoid wasting time? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. My hope with this post is to distill a large amount of these conversations into one piece of content.

This article is composed of three parts:

1. Different methods. This covers the various ways freelancers opt to engage with the hold system. Each section includes pros and cons.

2. Common pain points. This section analyzes the most common complaints from freelancers about dealing with the hold system. We look at possible ways to handle these problems.

3. Best practices. These are methods recommended by other motion designers that have proven to be helpful in managing the hold system. 

4. Red flags. Things you should be aware of when working with a new studio. 

To gather info for this article, I interviewed freelancers (A big shout out to Christopher Bernal, Chris Biewer, and Eric Rothman for their input). I also curated a wide number of conversations across Mixed Parts, Slack groups, and comment threads on Twitter and Motionographer. All resources are linked at the bottom of the page.
I encourage everyone to read Motionographer’s Guide to the Hold System before reading this.
My goal in this post is to provide a wide variety of views on the subject, share advice from experienced freelancers, and showcase the findings from my research. This is not a step-by-step tutorial. Thinks of this as a case study that lays out info for you to use at your disposal. Everyone’s situation is different. Take what you can and apply it where it makes sense.
Why Do Holds Exist in the First Place?
Producers aren’t trying to make anyone’s life difficult on purpose. The hold system exists for a reason. Anyone who has helped run a studio knows how difficult it is to pitch and land work. If a project lands, you need to have a team ready to go. And as someone that’s had to hire talent, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s basically impossible to book someone last minute. If studios ditched the hold system, many of them would struggle to staff up, deliver work on time, and it would ultimately hurt their business. Running a studio is hard as shit.

You might be thinking, “But that benefits the studio, it doesn’t help me!”

Look at it like this: if studios are thriving and landing projects left and right, it probably means more work for you. When the motion design economy is buzzing along and staying busy, it’s good for all of us. You may still be reading this and saying, “Studios should just staff up with permanent employees and stop wasting my time.” Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Studios go through periods of feast and famine. Having the ability to scale up or down with freelancers is how most studios function.

Something else to consider: how you manage bookings is important. It says something about your reputation as a freelancer. Only when producers and freelancers abuse the system do things spiral out of hand. Being upfront, maintaining clear communication, and taking personal responsibility can help the hold system work better for everyone.

At the end of the day, you also have a choice as a freelancer on who you decide to work with. There are plenty of amazing clients out there that you can work with. Working with studios and producers that respect your time is a huge part of getting this right.  
The Options
After parsing through every conversation and interview in my research, these are the options freelancers have for booking work. I’ve included both pros and cons. 
Option 1: Don’t Use the Hold System
A handful of freelancers prefer not to engage with the hold system at all. They either get booked for a project, or they don’t. No first holds, no second holds, just a binary option to commit. This option is the most rare, but it puts all of the control in the hands of the freelancer. The upside to this is that you have a firm lock on your schedule, and don’t have to worry about getting dropped last second. This approach works best for people who already have an established body of work, and are trusted top performers. 
One comment from a discussion thread:
If you can pull this off, all the power to you. But realize that this option only works if you're REALLY good, and have built up a long-term relationship with studios. The downside to this approach is that you can risk coming off as arogant. But hey, maybe you're worth it.  
Option 2: Use First Holds 
The second approach is to give out first holds when you’re available. Giving out first holds is one of the most heated topics in freelancing. If you give out a first hold to a studio, it's a serious commitment. The studio knows that you’re ready to go if they pull the trigger. Another upside is that it develops trust and transparency between you and the studio.

However, the downside is that you have less control over your schedule. If a more exciting project gets thrown your way by a different studio, you can’t jump ship. You’ve made a choice and have to stick by it. See if you can talk with a producer and find out more info about the project before giving out first hold.
Option 3: Always Give Yourself First Hold 
A solid portion freelancers prefer to go this route. Always giving yourself first hold puts the ball back into your court. Some very successful freelancers swear by this system, and vouch for its effectiveness. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself first hold. It’s a very common practice.  The downside is that some producers won’t take a second hold as seriously. You might miss out on opportunities if you only give out second holds. 
Another comment:
Option 4: A Mix of 2 and 3 
If you have a client that gives you consistent work and has proven themselves as reliable, then consider giving them first hold. That works for both of you and helps build mutual trust. If an amazing opportunity opens up to work with your dream studio, consider giving them first hold as well.     
On the other hand, if another studio consistently keeps putting you on hold and then dropping you, try putting them on second hold. You can employ this as a way to protect yourself. For some people, this approach gives them the best of both worlds. They have a higher chance of working on interesting projects, but can mitigate the downside if something falls through.      
Common Complaints 
These are some of the most pressing complaints about the hold system. These are pain points that came up multiple times in my research and conversations with other freelancers.     
 “I keep getting put on hold, then dropped last minute.”  
This is one of the most common complaints. What if your dream client reaches out to put you on hold, but flakes out last second? And they do it multiple times? The truth is, there’s no way to force any studio to book you. If one specific client keeps booking and dropping you, there’s really only two choices: keep trying to work with them, or move on. If this is a dream client, it may take a couple of attempts to land a booking. If you're not dying to work with the studio, consider putting them on second hold or moving on. This is one of those scenarios where you have to gauge whether its worth your time or not. When studios make non-sensical hiring decisions, there's usually a good reason, or at least A reason.   
“I haven’t heard anything from the producer.”  
This is where proactive communication is key. It’s easy for producers to get caught up in the middle of a project and lose touch. Make it a habit to reach out to the producer before the project start date with a gentle reminder to get an answer. The last thing you want is to be on the hook when you could have been looking for other work.
“I feel like the hold system only benefits studios”  
As a freelancer, you want to know what to plan for. Getting dropped from a project or rearranging your calendar is a headache. The best way to put the ball in your court is to rack up enough demand with studios that you have a plethora of options to choose from. In any given month, I get hit up for a number of projects I have to turn down because I’m maxed out (and because I have a hyper-active one year old). This allows me to pick and choose the projects I want to take on, and refer the ones I don’t. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the fastest way to take back some control.
What About Kill Fees?  
In an ideal world, you could charge a kill fee if a client puts you on first hold and then drops you.  I’ve seen this idea talked about on a few podcasts and videos, and the concept makes sense on paper. It would allow freelancers to have insurance from a project getting dropped, and would incentivize studios to take holds more seriously. And it does give freelancers a reason to give out first holds. But across all of my research and interviews, I haven’t found anyone who’s done this yet. Maybe one day. 
Best Practices  
Be proactive. 
Look for new gigs while you’re in the middle of your current one.
Don’t get lost in the day to day. Try to think in advance and stay on your feet.

Don’t be afraid to over communicate.
Be upfront about your current and future commitments. Try reaching out through calls or text when necessary, and don’t overly rely on email alone. Always be honest about requirements for equipment and resources needed. 

If you’re not a good fit, refer someone who is.
I always try to help both my network and clients who are looking to hire talent. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to check in with your connections first before referring them - you don’t want to swamp someone’s inbox if they’re already busy.

Don't commit over the phone until you understand the scope, discuss rates, overtime/weekend charges and have it in writing.

Try asking studios how they interact with the hold system. Each studio might be different. Find out how much time they need before releasing, how soon they expect to book, and if they have other projects in the works that you could jump to if the current one falls through. 
Red Flags   
A handful of things to look out for if you get a request for a hold from a new studio you haven't worked with: 

- The studio can't share style frames, storyboards or examples of the work
- The timeline is unclear or the producer doesn’t have specific dates in mind
- Lazy or terse emails. This could be a result of someone who's overworked and under pressure to reach out to as many freelancers as possible.   

Thank you again to everyone who contributed to this post!
Christopher Bernal  Chris Biewer  Eric Rothman  
Understanding Holds How Does the Hold System Work? Your Guide to Navigating the Hold System Challenging the Hold System Mixed.Parts  Freelance Booking and Holds 
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