My phone is my life and the moment it rings, especially with an unknown number, I’m immediately fumbling for a pen and paper to scribble down details for a potential project. I’ll eagerly listen to the spiel – how they got my details, what their company has done in the past, what they’re working on now, who’s on board. They pause for breath and I add some words of encouragement, before they continue. ‘He’s a very talented director. And we’re hoping to get so and so on to play the lead.’ Then there’s the bullet. ‘We’ll feed you and pay your expenses of course.’ At this point I’ll politely thank them for thinking of me, but tell them my daily rate and wrap up the conversation.
Everyone’s seen the adverts, replied to them in the past, worked on them. Moved on.
‘Aimed at top end film festivals. Already received interest from major sales agent.’
‘With top director/DOP.’
‘Excellent showreel piece.’
‘Every penny we’re spending is literally on screen.’
It really is worth taking a long cold look at a lot of these ads and think of them in terms of a conman trying to sell you something you don’t really want. No one wants to work for free and very few people can even afford to. The adverts are all the same – they’re selling new starters the promise of moving into more mainstream, more professional filmmaking in exchange for their time. They usually highlight how experienced the director is, that they have an award winning DP or a shit hot producer. If a producer is that hot, why are they taking a script into production when they can’t finance it? Similarly why are all these exceptional filmmakers working for free?
By far and away the most enticing promise is having named cast involved and people tend to jump a little at this, knowing that distributors will be more likely to take a look at the film. I’ve come to realise it doesn’t really make a difference if the film itself is of poor quality. They may be more likely to watch it, but if the films bad it’ll be bad with or without XYZ as the star. A lot of known actors are keen to make their own projects or help a friend and it’s really no reflection of the project’s professionalism.
So why are they asking people to work for free anyway? The reality is they don’t have enough money to cover the production. There’s a lovely fake ideal going round at the moment that filmmaking is getting cheaper, which frankly is nonsense. Digital filmmaking, as such, is getting cheaper; cameras are more affordable, you don’t have to pay for film stock and you can use a DSLR (if that’s your thing). People’s time doesn’t get cheaper. Food doesn’t get cheaper. Locations aren’t cheaper. Petrol isn’t cheaper. Vehicle hire isn’t cheaper. Insurance isn’t cheaper. Makeup, costume and art department requirements don’t get cheaper. If anything, these working costs should be rising in line with inflation. Essentially, kit may be getting cheaper, but nothing else does and weirdly a lot of smaller projects seem to have a production budget consisting of kit hire, food and a little contingency money. In short, they are neglecting to factor in the production itself.
In some of these cases – not all, I hasten to add – the reason there’s no money for crew is a lack of confidence on behalf of the producer. Often they have worked out the bare minimum in terms of kit hire, plus a little extra, and have fundraised to that brief. Believing, rightly or wrongly that they’ll be lucky to raise that much. Labour costs have often never even been totted up, never mind included when financing the project. While it would be easy to feel back stabbed, young producers regularly work for less money than anyone at this level in terms of the actual hours worked and the payment offered.
There are a lot of reasons people will work for free or for such little money. Needing additional experience or to test the water in the industry are good reasons, although in reality people can learn extremely bad habits very fast if working in low budget film. Anyone who’s been out of work for a long while may find it useful to take an unpaid gig, just to stay motivated and to keep the spirits up. But by far the biggest reason cited for taking unpaid jobs is to make new contacts. It’s a small industry and every day you work it becomes a little bit smaller. Personally I think this is counter-productive. In this industry so much of your work comes from word of mouth recommendations and if you work for free once, most of the jobs you’ll be offered off the back of that will also be unpaid because they’re within the same circle of professionalism. I have got paid work from unpaid projects, but I’ve found it to be comparatively rare.
One of my favourite lo/no pay job adverts goes something like ‘This is a collaborative project. If money motivates you, this is not the job for you.’ I would dearly love to meet the person who decided that artistic integrity and the necessity for financial compensation are mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure that everyone needs to eat. I also enjoy ‘It’s a labour of love project’ – it’s your labour of love, it’s not mine. And ‘It’ll be a great show reel piece’ – this is only really relevant to the director, DP, cast and the production company. There was a time when I allowed myself to be guilt tripped into working for free or belittled into thinking I was greedy for asking for a higher payment. I’m over it now. I know my landlord doesn’t feel guilty asking for rent, nor does the lady behind the till in Tesco when I do my monthly food shop. Why should they?