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Working for Free: 8 Things for Creatives to Consider

As a creative filmmaker or artist, when (if ever) should I work for free?

That’s a question all creatives face at some point. The challenge is, if you decide on a blanketed statement of “I don’t do free” as a creative, you likely end up wishing you would have a time or two.

Now, I fully get why working for free can be a kiss of death. In fact, in my area, the DC area market (aka the DMV), we have created a bit of a problem when it comes to indie filmmaking. We never meant to, but when free is all you can find and people are actually taking the “jobs,” you realize something is off here. Some think, “If I can fill the positions, why pay?”

However, if no one works for free, some stories will simply never be told and that, too, is a tragedy. So, what is the answer?

Well, allow me to offer a few considerations, as I do both—ask for free help, and pay people.

Some determining factors should be:

What is the ask?

Is it a short film being created over a brief period of time, like a weekend? Or is it a feature being made over 6 months?

Many people, when they hear the words film or movie, only see dollar signs, particularly if they don’t often work in film. They know in a vaguely general way that movies cost a lot of money to make, so therefore they want to “get their share.” For us indies (those of us working outside of the studio—meaning, not backed by any studio financing), this is certainly not the case. And though films cost a lot, money spends fast. For example, a weekend shoot for insurance and food alone will cost me around $2,500–$3,000. Most people outside the film world would have no idea a “simple short” would cost that much.

Is the person doing the ask (the film’s producer) going to get paid as a result of this?

In other words, if it’s a feature film and they plan to sell and make money as a result, are they paying people any form of compensation? Sometimes, just enough of a paycheck to cover gas money to and from the shoot goes a long way. I’d also throw in meals here: Are they providing meals and so forth? If so, that’s a nice consideration.

FYI, this is another topic, but if you’re using 1099 workers (aka contractors) in the film world, they likely should be deemed “employees.”

The problem with short films is, they are just hard to monetize to recoup anything.

Is the team someone you’d like to work with? Are they professional?

If the team is a group of fellow creatives you want to connect with, doing something as a volunteer is a great way to get in the door with them. Next time they have a paying gig, you might end up on the short list.

Time is our most precious commodity, so if people are gifting you their time, you should feel the pressure not to waste it. Treat any project as professionally as you can. When someone is there for free and they go unused, it is simply a waste of time, and nothing will frustrate people faster. We all get that film is a hurry up and wait situation, but if it’s hurry up and never get on screen, people will equate that with waste and frustration, and they won’t be interested in doing it again for you.

Are they finishers? Will you get the credit you are looking for?

The problem with most shorts is that they simply never get finished (features too, for that matter). When someone is deciding whether to work for free, they must ask themselves, will this project bear fruit for their labor? A resume shows you have the history and experience to do what you say you’re going to do. Or perhaps, since you are doing this for free, you may want to try something new; like being a script super to gain the experience.

If the goal is to get a film credit, you definitely want to work on projects that get completed. One of my shorts took me 2½ years to finish and admittedly, it’s not my best work, but I finished it and got it out there! Because it’s not just about you…a film becomes a “we” rather than a “me.” Completing your work and putting it out there matters to everyone who works on it with you.

IMDb credit is the LinkedIn for filmmakers. Get your works up there—you’re your crew, and your film deserve this!

Does the project offer you a fun new role? Might it offer you some epic things for your reel?

A filmmaker’s resume is their reel. No one really cares about or is impressed with scholastic accolades, but an epic reel goes a long way.

Be the type of producer who gives the footage to the cast/crew for their reel. For some, it’s why they are there. This is a win/win for everyone involved. When they are putting their stuff out there, they are putting yours out there as well.

This might be another reason to get involved in a project. If it’s going to get you exposure, particularly for actors, that’s a good thing. As a screenwriter, to have something (including shorts) actually put onto the screen is an essential building block and is the difference between a screenwriting enthusiast and a produced screenwriter with proven work under his belt.

Do they pay when they can?

This is big. If you pay when you can, this goes a long way toward being someone others in the industry want to connect with. When you have a paying gig, people know that they’ve invested their time wisely with you and your team and could get paid back.

Are they overly demanding?

When working for free, the last thing someone wants is a demanding director with unrealistic expectations. Film is a collaboration. See it as such.

Do they commit to the philosophy of giving back? In other words, “You help me, and I’ll help you”?

This quid pro quo attitude is a great way to build up stock on getting others to chip in when it’s your turn at bat. (Yes, there are way too many analogies in this sentence, but you can’t have it all.)

One thing I know for certain is that we need each other. If working on someone else’s “epic intentional short” film project gets me a win/win, I’m in!

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