WORKING FOR FREE
Before you read ahead, just know that this article is only my subjective point of view. What worked for me, may not work for you. But I want to try discuss honestly and openly a very important and delicate topic, which is not an easy thing to do. So please bare with me
I worked unpaid for years
When I was at uni, I took any job I could get my hands on. For three years I worked, and worked, and worked, for nothing. But it wasn't really for nothing, was it? The people I worked for got something - something for nothing. So what did I get? I got experience. And yes, before you say, I know I can't pay my bills with it - ha ha, very funny, I haven't heard that one today. But actually, in an abstract way, I can. And I did! Without those three years of grafting away for 'exposure', I wouldn't be the filmmaker I am today. I know I've still got a long way to go, but because I was working for free, technically it didn't really matter if I fucked up. I was practising. And I was practising at their expense. If I'm being honest with myself, I fucked up loads (I mean, loads!), but I learnt a hell of a lot too. Because I volunteered every time someone was looking for a videographer, I took on a bunch of projects I probably wouldn't have come across in my own bubble. It opened me up and took me down a different path - trying out new equipment I'd never used before. Of course, the counter-argument is "yeah but, these people were taking advantage of you!" and "no other career expects people to work for free!" - which are both fair arguments. But firstly, I feel I took advantage of them - I just had to turn up and film, and secondly, art is unlike any other job. It's a craft. It's subjective. It's based on ideas. It's built on practise, experience and expertise. It's not something you go to uni or film school for and then at the end of it you're a professional filmmaker, ready for the big-wide-world (sorry folks, it's the truth). So you've got to work, and you've got to practice. Footballers before they made it professional didn't stand around in parks waiting for someone to pay them. They kicked a ball about for a bit and got good. I tried to do the same.
Professionals should get paid
Well, obviously. That's what makes them professionals! It's hard to tell how many people actually have an issue with this topic because it's only the people who do that we hear from - the rest are probably too busy doing stuff. An argument I see and hear a lot is: if you want professionals you should pay professional wages. And this is 100%... true! Of course you should. But let's face it, if a project doesn't have the money to pay its cast & crew, then it's not a professional production, it's something else. I don't know what, but it's not professional. So don't worry about it! If you're an aspiring professional, then that unpaid project on facebook isn't for you. You don't see David Beckham turning up to a recreational park and demand to be paid before kicking a ball with a bunch of youngsters who have no money, do you? (I fear there will be more football analogies, hang on to your boots!). So rest easy at night knowing that professionals get paid - they do, they always do. If you get approached to take on a project that's unpaid, you'll naturally weight up your options and make a decision for yourself - there doesn't have to be one answer fits all. The worry for a lot of people is that someone will get taken advantage of. Which unfortunately is just part of life. And whilst there is nothing wrong with pulling people up on it, we can make decisions for ourselves, thanks! Maybe I've got some new equipment I want to test out, so actually an unpaid gig is exactly what I need. Or maybe I just want to some fun making something? If I can afford to do it, I will and would. And let's face it, we're not going to pay the mortgage making short or independent films anyway.
I pay people as much as I can afford to
Ever since I started producing my own content, I quickly realised it was so much easier for me to pay people than it was for me to try and convince them to do it for free. If you can't afford to pay, but still want to make a film, this shouldn't stop you, but just know that you're going to have a tough time scheduling your project. I was recently asked to produce a project where the cast wasn't going to get paid, and it was a nightmare! Luckily the two-filmmakers ghosted me soon after that, and it didn't go into production. But people simply didn't reply because it wasn't a priority for them. Fair enough! But this is the number 1 reason why I want to pay people. Not because I'm generous, or swimming in cash I don't know what to do with, but simply because I want to be in control. And when you're paying people, you can hire them, but you can also fire them. It's up to you what you do! I've done it in the past, and I had the means to do it. An actor didn't reply for two weeks in the build up to a shoot, and I re-cast his role. I didn't have to plead for him to reply, or beg for his time, I just thought "sod you!" and I got on with my life. I don't have a lot of money when it comes to making my own content, but I always try to pay something if I can. Sometimes this isn't cash, but rather some sort of skills-swap. Recently I produced four short films and all the actors involved were previous clients who I knew would probably like some new footage - I approached them directly with an offer, and most of them accepted. Some didn't, and that's fine. Remember, people can make their own decisions!
Get some sort of guarantee
If you've just taken on an unpaid project, I highly recommend getting some sort of guarantee. Depending on your role, I would suggest that you ask to get a copy of the unedited footage just in case - this is probably only specific to actors, and maybe the sound department. Because unfortunately, most of the time with unpaid projects they never get finished. You've just given over days of your time for cold sandwiches and early call times, to then get ignored when you ask production about the edit (this is a big no-no for me, but if you're not getting paid, footage is what you want, need and deserve!). I've recently thought about what conditions I would need to have guaranteed before I took on an unpaid project (I haven't for years, not because of the money thing, but just because I haven't had time), and the main thing I would need is a copy of the unedited footage. What's the point otherwise? Yes, the IMDb credit is useful, I suppose. But you want the project to be finished, obviously! At least if the production stalls and it never gets finished, you have the footage to look through and try and salvage something for yourself. You could always get a contract written up - but any one producing a no-budget film will likely get scared off by such professionalism.
Producers are poor as well, you know?
I do think there is a slight misconception amongst cast & crew that producers are filthy rich. Some are, but I'm not. For years, every spare penny I had went into make my own short films. I accept that gladly, as I was passionate about what I was doing. I knew that it was unfair of me to ask others to share that passion, so I largely worked by myself. Not through choice, but through necessity. I wanted to work with professionals, but I couldn't afford to pay them. Occasionally I've come across some people who have done something for free, or worked for a very low rate, and I've always been very grateful - I've made a note of those people, and I will pay them back one day! But the truth is, especially in independent filmmaking, no one has any money. We are all following our passions, hoping for something to happen. It's up to you who you hitch a ride with, but if someone is trying to make something with no-budget, it's probably not because their thieves trying to take advantage, but instead, passionate filmmakers who don't have any money - just like the rest of us. I admit, it wouldn't take long to find examples of production companies who are definitely looking to take advantage of people (I've been on a couple of those projects myself), but it's the same answer I've come to in previous points - we can all make our own decisions. Why someone takes on an unpaid project is no business of yours or mine. It's up to the individual. I would hope that no body applies for the roles that are clearly taking advantage, but we know that someone will - and good luck to them! They might genuinely want and need that credit.
Lastly, know when to stop taking on unpaid work
There came a point in my life (I think I was about 26/27) and I just had enough of unpaid work. I was done. I was no longer learning anything, and I stopped making mistakes. For quite some time, the work I was producing was good enough to be paid for - and that's the key. To know your own self worth! I think the worry when you're just starting out is that you want and need to do everything. But there comes a point when you don't. I'd rather stay at home and watch films all day now than work on someone else's unpaid production - unless of course, I know them and can be convinced otherwise. I built up my portfolio and know-how to the point I didn't have to do it anymore. Funnily enough, as soon as I made that decision, people started paying me to do things. But the two go hand in hand. I was ready to be paid and people wanted to pay me. I was good enough - people don't want to hear that, but it's the truth. You have to be good enough for people to want to pay you. If you're not, they won't. Working for free is a great playground to learn and to fuck up in. It shouldn't be dismissed or look down upon, but instead taken advantage of. I saw it for what it was, and I benefited from it.
Also, I can still make my own decision, right?