Don’t think you’re an artist? If you want an O-1B visa, think again

Column: Executives and below-the-line crew members may not consider their talents artistic, but immigration lawyer Lorraine P. D'Alessio urges them to take a closer look.

Lorraine D'Alessio headshotBy Lorraine P. D’Alessio

Picking a visa category can be tricky for film and television professionals with uncommon job titles. A special effects supervisor can be hard to explain at parties, let alone to a government examiner. Despite this difficulty, there are categories out there that do apply to seemingly unconventional positions.

The O-1B visa for extraordinary artists is one such category. Many crew members may give a sidelong look at “artist” and figure their work doesn’t count. In reality, if their creative decisions impact the finished product, they might be artists. That means sound recordists, creative directors, sound mixers, cinematographers and more. There exists a through line in the O-1B visa that they can follow straight to Hollywood.

First, we should clear up what the O-1B is: a visa for extraordinary artists who have a job offer in the United States. The applicant’s goal is to prove they are extraordinary, in achievement and ability, through press, awards, commercial success, recommendation letters and more. The difficulty with these uncommon job titles is making the argument without all of the tools: a set designer is unlikely to get much press and there aren’t a plethora of sound recordist award shows.

This is where letters of recommendation become even more important. Letters from industry professionals and credible experts can vouch for the crucial nature of the role, as well as commercial and other successes. It helps if the writer has star power and name recognition. Such letters can also break down your role and explain in layman terms what you do and why it matters. You were hired above others for a reason. What sets you apart from the masses? Your evidence in the application should answer this.

Even those in executive or managerial roles can be called artists. A creative director, or even the owner, of a prolific commercial production company can reasonably argue the achievements of their company are also their own. The key is to spell it out: illustrate how the executive input is creative, how they rise to exception and how their input was critical to the final product’s success.

Not all jobs are convincingly critical. Smaller roles, like second unit directors or assistant camera, are better off attaching themselves to a strong O-1 candidate as O-2 beneficiaries. O-1 visa applicants must demonstrate they possess an “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, arts, education, athletics or business, or have a “demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement” in the film or TV business.” O-2 applicants are essential support persons that must accompany an O-1.

These petitions are strongest when framed as part of a foreign production continuing on American soil. A record of previous work is essential here, and the evidence should clearly communicate that these are crucial supporters with experience that can’t be duplicated. If training a local replacement would be too arduous and costly and the product would suffer from the absence of these O-2 candidates, such an application has legs to stand on.

It’s not always apparent, but there are ways through the immigration system to inch you closer toward your Hollywood goals. It may take creativity, and it may be a bit more of a fight, but it works for thousands of artists every year – even for those that don’t consider themselves an “artist” first and foremost.

Lorraine D’Alessio is a U.S. Immigration Attorney originally from Toronto. Currently practicing law in Los Angeles, her firm, D’Alessio Law Group, specializes in employment-based visas for investors, artists, entertainers and other creative industry professionals. She is also a frequent guest speaker and lecturer on immigration visas, notably invited to present to organizations such as IATSE, DGC, and ACTRA.