Working For Free

It boggles my mind that there is so much animosity over whether people should work for free. After all, you are human (I suspect) and have free will (I hope), so therefore you should be able to choose what you do or don’t do. It is clear to me that this topic is a minefield and I’m risking a backlash by even contemplating the notion that this topic needs a discussion. Just to be clear, the working for free I’m talking about is when you give over your time to deliver a product or performance that you’ve been trained professionally to do, in return for something other than financial gain – try explaining to a plumber or electrician that after they finish college they’ll have to spend several years doing projects for ‘love’ to help build up their portfolio. Yes, we’d all loved to be paid for what we do, but we build a solid foundation for ourselves when we work on projects (which have their own merit beside money), which will hopefully allow us to climb the ladder in the future, and eventually start getting paid. Unfortunately, I think the reason that this is such a hot topic is that people feel like they are being exploited.

For those of you reading this who are not in any type of creative industry, let me give you a bit of background. When you’re starting out, but not restricted to, it is imperative that you get some experience under your belt, because people will need to see what you’re capable of before entrusting you to do a job. This tends to come in the form of projects that you are willing to do without pay. When I was at university I made a habit of applying for anything and everything that involved the need of a videographer. I did everything from music videos, corporate work, filming events, and working at a local photography biennial. I’m happy to report that I learnt a hell of a lot during that time by doing all those projects, but I never got paid.

I think most, if not all, people pursuing a creative art as a career have experienced this dilemma to some extent starting out – some are more lucky (perhaps talented?) than others. But as you progress, naturally you assume, so will the fee you charge. However, it has become common practice for projects and filmmakers to tout on job sites and forums claiming a return ‘for the experience’ or ‘to work with a great team,’ as they hope to find someone willing to do the job for free. I am not targeting those people, because who am I to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do? I’m sure the person who takes the job will benefit greatly (but yet, perhaps not) and we should hold no grudge against them for taking the role – admittedly it’s difficult to know if an unpaid job is worth doing until you’ve done it. So I’ve witnessed an increasing amount of tension placed on job sites to promote paid roles, which is fantastic, and it’s great people actually spend the time advocating it. Pick a random Facebook group that posts film jobs and scroll down just a few comments and I’m sure you’ll find people arguing over the rate of pay, demanding to know if it’s paid or not. I am torn when it comes to this, because yes, looking for a trained professional to do a job for free is somewhat insulting (and illegal?), but perhaps that’s all the person is able to afford, and I don’t think our industry should be kept to those who can ‘afford’ to do it. My attitude now is, if you can’t pay professional rates, you can’t expect a professional job, and it’s completely up to the individual to decide whether they are will to do it for a reduced fee, or even for nothing. I think the main problem and the clash comes when amateur filmmakers post on professional websites, but I still hate seeing people get lampooned for trying to start a project with no money.

I once posted on a Facebook group for actors asking how much people expected to be paid for a short film. Several thousand comments later, an older gentlemen become very abusive and demanding, suggesting that I shouldn’t bother making films unless I have £20K in the bank – he told me the film he had just finished, the filmmaker had remortgaged her house to make it. I ignored him for a while, but he kept targeting me and tempting me into conversation. My reaction was to simply direct him to a short film I had just made, and waited for him to come back to the conversation. His tone immediately changed, and he become very defensive. He asked how much I had made the project for, and I told him £300. He then stopped commenting on the feed and messaged me directly and declared his love of the film and how he wanted to get involved in my next film, offering to help me raise funds and cast people from Emmerdale. Now, I guess this is the type of hypocrisy I take issue with when someone starts defending their stance on never working for free. If I had listened to this guy earlier on, I would never have made my film. What is more, the film he had just finished and had cost the filmmaker £20K was terrible. So yes, the actors on my film got paid NMW, and the actors on his film got over equity, but who came out happier?

This subject has interested me for a number of years now, and I am keen to see how it develops (or implodes) in the next few years, especially considering how reliant the film industry has become on people ‘working for free’. It would be interesting to see how quickly the independent side would change if no one ever worked for free. Would it better or worse? A restaurant manager once asked me to work for ‘love’ as she needed things cleaned for an upcoming inspection – I politely declined her offer. What did I get out of it? I helped her get closer to a bonus, and I wasted an afternoon. So the answer was easy. So what is different when we use the term ‘working for free’ in any creative industry? My personal viewpoint nowadays is that I no longer work for free on any videographer or photography project – I’ve done my time in the trenchers, I’ve got the experience, and I’m thankful for it. Plus I’ve got a healthy filmography of work that shows what I can do. But more importantly, as a producer, I never expect a professional to work for free either. It’s true that on some of my projects people have not been paid, but they are not jobbing professionals, and I always offer them a trade swap – my time for theres.

The stark truth is, no one is likely to ever hire you unless you have some previous or up-to-date work to show, but how do you get that first project under your belt? Some actor pay for scenes and showreels – but then they’re not gaining any real project experience, as it’s a ‘staged’ production. So who is benefitting?

So it becomes a balancing act between choosing what projects to give your time over to for free, in the hope you might get something else out of it in the long run. I never got a repeat job from anything I did whilst at university, which means I either did a bad job the first time round or they got the next student to do it for free. I beauty of working for free was that there was an unwritten agreement that I learning from the experience, so there was no real fallback if it did turn out bad. I had the freedom to get things wrong. Now I can produce all my own projects, which I fund myself, and I have almost all the necessary equipment to do so. So as a student, it works. You’re learning by doing, which is more valuable than some dollars in your bank account, but what happens when you graduate and you can’t get a paid job?

To this day I work weekends in a restaurant to pay my way. It’s not ideal, and it can leave me feeling very tired – both for the job and my film work. I work on average seven days a week – even when I am at the restaurant, I tend to manage the social media pages. The way I see it is that my time off is spent at the restaurant, and I work monday to friday to free doing my filmmaking work. From the wage I get working weekends, I am able to pay all my own living costs and fund my films (I got a loan from my Dad for the last project, but I am repaying him monthly). I keep on producing short films hoping they will help me on the road to becoming a filmmaker who can live on what he enjoys doing, but what are the actual chances that will happen? I don’t particularly enjoy working at a restaurant, but I do enjoy talking and joking with the costumers, so I’m content to stay there for the time being, but obviously I don’t want to do it forever. On average I must work about forty hours a week unpaid – granted, the biggest reason for that is that I’ve chosen to produce all my own projects, and some would argue that I could start applying for production work (my mum has tried), but I want to make my own films.

What has developed is a pattern of me working mostly by myself in almost all parts of the project – the only thing I don’t really do is make-up. The reason I work by myself is that I would like to pay if I could, but I just can’t afford to. Admittedly, I used a cameraman on a recent shoot, but that’s because he offered to work for free and he actually convinced me that he wanted to do it because he needed the footage – in other words, he got something out of it other than money. I am however hitting a road block working by myself because I enjoy filming and I have plenty of ideas, but I just can’t afford to produce films using bigger crews and I try to keep the costs of my project to an absolute minimum. My latest short film, The Missing Hand, cost about £400 to make, but that’s because the only people I paid were the actors (the hand prosthetic cost £100). Along with two friends, who volunteered their time, I was the only ‘professional’ crew member on set. Let’s say I did hire a basic core of crew members for the project, it would have doubled my budget, easily. And I’d probably need to shoot over two days rather than one, which would have doubled it again.

My previous project, Killer Bird, cost me almost £2000 – which is a lot of money when you only work NMW part time. Most of this budget came from the personal loan, but about half come from my savings (I haven’t been on holiday in years, form an orderly queue ladies). Killer Bird continues to cost me money as I’ve started entering it into film festivals, which are neither cheap nor guaranteed. What is interesting about this project, and I know it comes down to one factor, is that I have not been paid a single penny for any work I’ve done on it, and I’ve averaged at least twenty hours a week on it for the last six months. The actors got paid, and I accept that. They do a professional job, and that’s why I pay jobbing actors. But in reality we both get the same thing out of it at the end – the film. The only difference is that their hours clocked up to a lot less than mine, but I am the producer, and there is no commercial benefit for making short films. I do it because I hope one day someone more financially gifted than me, will decide to give me some cash to make a film for them, but until that day arrives, I just have to keep funding myself and keeping my fingers crossed. So when I see certain groups of people complaining about people offering ‘expenses only’ pay, some consideration needs to be given those bankrolling the project and what they too get out of it. It comes down to making an informed decision. Not all producers will be looking to exploit, but some will. It’s inevitable. I think a lot of people’s frustration is that they’re just not getting the jobs they want, and I’m sure there are many other circumstantial reasons as to why.

It’s not as simple as saying never work for free, each project needs to be judged on its own merit. People who cannot afford to pay their cast or crew should not be lambasted on social media for attempting to make a project on the cheap – I admire those people for at least trying. However, exploitation does exist within the industry, and I’m not sure how it can be stopped. But industries change over time, and I think the more aware we are of how ‘professional’ filmmaking can start at the bottom, the entire industry will benefit. People who are not paying their cast and crew are amateurs, and must be treating accordingly, but I reassure myself that they will only ever get an amateur outcome. Would you rather take part in an amateur production than no production at all? The choice is yours. The problem is that anyone can pick up a camera and start a film project, but I make the necessary sacrifices because I want to be a professional, and I want to work with professionals. If I wasn’t willing to make those sacrifices, I’d have to be satisfied with what was offered to me in the way of freebies and friends, because I’d never stop making films.

This year I turn 28, and I’ve still never been paid to make a film. Will I ever? I really don’t know. And what is more, not only have I never made any money from making a film, I’ve also incurred a significant amount of debt by pursuing my dream. Perhaps weirdly, I see this as a somewhat life-affirming gesture, as money is not my end game, and hopefully it never will be. If it was, I would have jumped ship along time ago. All I want is an opportunity to do what I love doing full time. My life circumstances will likely change over the next few years, they always do, so maybe I’ll have to stop making films the way I am now and it’ll be interesting to see how I adapt. But right now, I am going to continue working for free as long as it’s for myself, and hope at some point someone sees enough in me and my work to pay me to make a film. If not, well, I’ll accept my lot in life and accept that I’ve managed to continue doing what I love doing without the benefit of financial gain. It’s hard when you have no money, and it’d be a whole lot easier if someone would start paying me.

I can dream.