Acting 4 Free

This post is (mostly) for my Seattle actors, but I would love comments from my LA peeps. You know who you are!

1. Acting in Film is different than Acting in Theater. There are far more opportunities for work on the Stage in Seattle. It is a bit harder, at least in terms of numbers, to get a “job” in front of the camera.

2. If you are represented by an agency, you are going to have more opportunities for paid, on-camera work. However, having an agent MIGHT prevent you from working on unpaid on-camera gigs.

Okay, let’s get started. I have been working in the theater since July 2000. Between 2000 – 2010, I never worked for free. I think my smallest paycheck was $50. I averaged 3.5 shows per year. In 2010, I was invited to join the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Henry V.

David S. Hogan and Evan Whitfield, From SSC’s Henry V

Since joining AEA, I have averaged 1 show per year. Making me ineligible for insurance benefits (you need 20 weeks per year, and one show gets you about 8 weeks), and, apparently, harder to cast. I do not regret joining the union (most days). I earn a bigger paycheck when I do work, and working less in the theater affords me more time to develop my skills as a film actor.

Before I move any further, I will say this: Even if I was not a member of AEA, I would never act in staged play for no pay. Most staged plays in Seattle run for 4 weeks and rehearse for 4 weeks. At least this is my experience. If you are working in the “fringe” or doing “community theater”, you are probably rehearsing 15 – 20 hours per week. I don’t have 15 – 20 hours per week to volunteer my time as a stage actor. But, I have been working for over 10 yearsI have been plying my trade for 10 years. If I was a blacksmith who had been working his craft for 10 years, I would expect to be fairly compensated for my work. Now, if I was JUST starting out…maybe a different story…

Which brings me to another thought: Are you a careerist or a hobbyist? If you are “only in it for the art,” and are financially secure, you might not care on whit about not being paid. I get it, but I would not do it.

Then, we have the “acting intern.” Often a recent grad of an arts institute who is getting their feet wet at a “more respectable” company. This variety of employ seem to lead to the most future work, especially within the company. It is a real form of “paying one’s dues,” which seem to be most available to new graduates entering the “career path of professional acting.”

Now, here is the meat and potatoes of this post: Should actors work for free for film? And, if so, for how long? If you are shooting a commercial or industrial…or modeling, etc., you should most definitely expect to get paid something. Don’t let someone capture your image and your being if they plan on selling it to make a buck while not paying you a dime. One of the first commercial gigs I ever booked was during college. I got paid $100 for some stock photo thing. I used to see the picture on the internet – a big group of people nicely dressed and looking cheery. It was a few hours of work and it was painless.

In late 2010, I shot a short film which I have yet to see. I did not have an agent at the time, but booked the gig through a mutual friend. I did audition (in early 2010, I think), and we shot later in the year. I worked for NO PAY AT ALL. If I remember, some kind of meals were provided, and everyone on set was great (which helps when you are working for free). I signed with an agent in late 2010, and since then, have booked one student film (working for free – about 5 hours of shooting – something I would not do again, per agency guidelines), shot a TV pilot with North X Northwest (paid SAG scale), a feature (paid SAG Ultra Low Budget daily rate) and a short film (paid SAG Ultra Low Budget daily rate). Last year, I also booked a commercial and two industrial videos, all of which were paid (about $600/8 hours). Now, would I work in front of the camera for free tomorrow? No. Why? I have an agent who frowns on this practice. For me. For me, as a careerist, I am not going to tell the world via my willingness to work for free, that the cost of hiring me is nil. I am more valuable than that. My talent is worth, at least, $100 per day (8 hours). That ain’t much, now, is it? Barely over WA State Minimum Wage. If you are a producer, and you are reading this, take note: Get the funding required to pay actors what they deserve.

The “problem” with filmmaking (for the actor) is that it is a director’s medium. To put together a halfway decent product you don’t need Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And, since there are innumerable actors willing to work for free, we have plenty of opportunities for actors desperate to “work.” Now, don’t get me wrong: I want to work, too. And, if it was the “right” project, I would probably work for free again (with agency approval). My main objection to working for free is that it seems to set this precedent: in order to make indie films, all producers have to do is provide credit, copy, and the occasional PB and J.

The other reason I touched on this topic is because I know there are hard working, super cool, highly talented actors who are in my city (Seattle) who work for free and have amazing expereinces. I want to hear your stories! And I want to know when you will, if ever, decide to no longer work for free and why.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, please comment! I love the discourse!

43 thoughts on “Acting 4 Free

  1. Hi David,

    I appreciate your posts and this topic definitely touches on my own career. I joined SAG in 2003, AEA in 2005 and AFTRA in 2009. I’ve worked under all 3 Union’s contracts at one tome or another over the past 10 years (first SAG job was in 2002) and when I work, I only work under a Union contract or agreement. With that, there are provisions in each Union that provide an acceptable circumstance for working at a deferred rate or a share of the box office. While these situations are typically not “living wage” arrangements as are the lower budget Union agreements, they do enable Actors to keep their chops fresh and showcase their work.

    Back when you and I worked on the 48 Hour Film Festival Short, SAUSAGE FEST in 2007, that film was shot under the SAG Short Film Agreement. An emerging or established film-maker can have access to SAG Actors for these kind of projects for up to 8 hours a day at a deferred* rate of $100. After 8 hours, they must pay the SAG (or AEA or AFTRA. Union Actors are considered Covered Performers) Actors OT. All the provisions of a Union contract, i.e meals, breaks must be adhered to for the protection of the Covered (Union) Performer. The responsible producer, when utilizing Union Actors should then treat all the Performers, regardless of Union status as favored nations. This does not always happen, but it should.

    Under the Equity Member Project Code, that I’ve worked under several times, all Union Actors receive an equal share of the box office proceeds, which can range from $50-$350 depending on how well you do at the box office and how many Actors, and SM’s that are Union the money is divided up amongst. Essentially a Showcase situation for the Actors, enabling them to self produce in order to stay on the radar of CD’s, Artistic Directors and anyone that can hire Actors.

    AEA does not have jurisdiction over Improv and Stand-Up Comedy, which is why you’ll find Actors like myself and others working on these kind of shows. Preferably for some kind of income, not for free, but also not necessarily a living wage.

    I bring up these circumstances because I believe it’s important to be continually exercising our craft. Optimally employed as such under a Union agreement, but if not fortunate enough to book that work, it’s acceptable to work in the ways I’ve listed above, as well as taking classes, etc. You probably are well aware of this about me, but I’m very much a proponent of self-producing and promoting. Always. It’s great to have an Agent as part of your team, submitting you for paid work opportunities, but it’s up to us to keep them interested by doing our job and working on our craft, our career, networking and making sure we stay on the radar of anyone that might be able to help us book that future paid work opportunity.

    There is a misconception among some Actors out there that once you join the Unions, you work less. Not true. You work differently. My personal workload, admittedly has remained steady because I’m comfortable creating my own work opportunities through self-producing when not employed by other companies. This month alone, I’m performing Stand-Up Comedy weekly, participating in 2 Screenplay readings and in Sandbox Radio 3 as well as auditioning, and scanning the trades for potential Acting work to submit for.

    Another thing: your agency should not have a problem with you working on student films and short films because they should know that part of “the business” is developing relationships with filmmakers that might be able to hire you because they know your work. I’m very confident that our friend Dom Zook would hire us on a big budget project once he is given that opportunity because we were fun to work with on a set. 🙂

    Rik Deskin
    Actor
    SAG, AEA, AFTRA
    Artistic Director
    Eclectic Theater Company

    *Deferred until first monies are generated via distribution, award money, etc.

  2. Oh hi, it’s me again.
    Thanks for saving me the rant, David. Actors doing free stage work is one thing. It is possible to do good theater for next to no money, you just need actors, an audience and the real estate. It can be done on a sidewalk, ostensibly. But the real issue here is film.

    Favorite line from this post: “If you are a producer, and you are reading this, take note: Get the funding required to pay actors what they deserve.”

    Amen.

    I would argue that to do a film, you need to have money. More specifically, you need to spend money. You have expenses. Pay your editor? Pay the actors. Rent equipment? Pay the actors. Buy a domain name for your project? Pay the actors. I don’t care if it’s union rate or even minimum wage, frankly (and only for the purposes of this argument). If you as a producer consider your talent an integral part of what makes your project awesome – no more or less than story, lighting, location, crew, editor, etc.- you must offer to pay them something for their time and talent. Otherwise, I seriously question your ethics as a filmmaker. I have yet to see evidence supporting the long-term benefit to anyone BUT the producers of getting talent to work for free.

    I will add one thing: actors have a very real (and not easy) responsibility in this as well. The only reason, I would argue, that actors work for free is that actors will work for free. The more you do it – the more desperate you appear for “experience” or “exposure” – the more that will be all that is expected of you.

  3. Not a whole lot to add as this post and comments were dead on. Just- know your value as an actor. And by value I mean monetary. If you don’t, then no one else will either.

    And if you are doing a project for free then you are not only contributing time and talent, but money as well.

    For me it comes down to the rule of ‘2 outta 3’. I have to love the script. I gotta love the people. And I gotta get paid. Have to have at least 2. So of I’m not getting paid it better be a phenomenal script with filmmakers I love.

    Thanks David- you touched on a subject that’s recently been on my radar. And as a producer, I consider the actor as important as the director, DP or editor. Probably helps because I am one:)

  4. First, a caveat. I have a full-time job. This lends me immense freedom in the projects I choose.

    I can’t imagine how dull my acting career would look in 2011 if I hadn’t worked for free. Oh sure I have an agent. I booked two paying gigs through my agent last year, both industrials. They were both awful, soul sucking projects, one of which was under some of the worst conditions I’ve ever worked in, and not worth the cash I eventually made from it.

    A second caveat: I didn’t book any big SAG projects last year that lend any sort of rosy glow to paid work.

    Last year I created the short film the Summer Home, created the role of Shield Maiden in the web series The Collectibles, and had a lead role in the feature film This Is Ours. None were paid except for the feature film, but I declined the cash knowing it was coming from my friends’ overdrawn bank accounts.

    Here are clips from my unpaid work so that we know I’m not talking about student work:
    http://bellawonder.com/do-work/

    I have also worked extensively for free in theater in amazing roles ranging from Thyona in Big Love, to Catherine in Proof.

    I would not work in an industrial or a commercial without being paid. However by the same token I wouldn’t think twice about working for free on an artistic project that sparked my imagination.

    I don’t feel that as an actor, I have anything necessarily to prove; however I know I am constantly learning, and constantly challenging myself. This leads me to search out roles that I wouldn’t necessarily create for myself.

    Certainly you have to pay everyone involved if you are going to run a business, but I don’t believe that the same holds true for creating art. And creating art is exactly what I set out to do when I become involved in the theater or film project.

    I have created and produced several short films now, and have been able to pay almost no one out of my own salary once unavoidable fees were taken care of. As the producer, writer, and actor, I didn’t pay myself a cent. Out of the two Kickstarter projects I ran, I did pay crew, but not myself as cast. I did pay everyone in hugs, beer, and undying gratitude!

    If I were in this game for the money, as my sole source of income, I would only do commercials. But I find that commercial work is the most distasteful part (for me,) of being an actor.

    [I would also move to L.A. 🙂 ]

    I want expression, Artistry, mastery, exploration, adventure, and fun! And I think those can come at any price – even “free.”

    Do I consider myself a hobbyist? Not given the amount of hours that I pour into this “hobby.” Hell no. 🙂

    I know that my own set of experiences are unique, but I would hate for any actors to miss out on amazing collaborations just because their friend couldn’t afford to pay them 50 bucks a day. (Though as a producer, I do hope to always be able to people at least 50 bucks a day!) 🙂

    I have met the most incredibly talented and hard-working people in this business, who pour their savings into their projects, who dig themselves into debt in order to pay other people to live out their dream, who are tenacious, hard-working, and have an extraordinary sense of play. I would work with these people anytime, anywhere, for free. Because to me, camaraderie, joy, and mutual creation are also acceptable currencies.

    On the other hand, I have not been able to dedicate more than seven or so days at a time to a project. If I had to take significant time off of work to pursue a role, then some compensation would be required. Refer to caveat one!

    So maybe my point is, be smart, be flexible, take the good gigs when you can, and don’t make any hard and fast rules of equating the craft to an hourly wage.

    • I love this entire post but this: ‘I would work with these people anytime, anywhere, for free. Because to me, camaraderie, joy, and mutual creation are also acceptable currencies.’

      is especially beautiful.

    • I completely disagree with you; please see my reply to “Kevin” below.

      I believe you are a serious artist, but I am a crew member who works on films and videos for a living, and the work is too physically punishing to go without compensation.

      To be clear, I will work one or two free projects (for perhaps one or two days) after an extended period of paid work, but that’s where I draw the line.

    • yes, as far as acting goes, I consider you a hobbyist, because your main income comes from your other full-time job. acting requires skills and training. I think the point everyone is making, that I completely agree with, is that acting is a job, just like any other job. you wouldn’t be a barista for free. so why should you be an actor for free?

      the problem is: there are hardly any acting jobs in Seattle. Theater and film. the sad reality is, if you want to be a full-time professional actor (without supplementing your income in any other way), you CANNOT accomplish that in Seattle.

    • professional by definition means you’re getting paid for what you’re doing. when athletes, designers, writers, musicians, in short anyone involved in a creative field turn pro, it means they start making money from playing their sport, selling their clothes, or books or music, etc. what David is doing is as close as you can come to being a professional actor in Seattle.

      • There is a small handful of local actors who make their entire living in the arts as actors. Those examples are few and far between, and one of Seattle’s most accomplished actors moved away because of the lack of pay in the world of Seattle acting. His name is Laurence Ballard and here is his story.

  5. In general I agree; people should get paid for their work–absolutely if someone else intends to try to make a profit from the result or if money is being raised for production. Recently, I’ve seen a few cavalier comments made about crew needing to be paid but not actors because actors just ‘want the exposure’ and that drives me crazy. It’s work, it’s not trivial, and actors have rent to pay, too. Plus, we don’t all just ‘want the exposure’…regardless of whether or not that’s a commodity (interesting point on that one), I think most actors I know want to be engaged in meaningful, respected work. And part of that is everything Basil said.

    That said, there ARE times where I’ve had excellent experiences working for free. As someone who works often in web series, I make exceptions for truly collaborative projects where the actors and crew and producers are all putting in their all to produce something that everyone is creatively invested in. It’s not hierarchical. No one person stands to make a profit. We’re just all part of telling a story that we really believe in. Many people (*raises hand*) often work as actor AND producer in these situations. I suppose it’s more like a group of friends putting on ‘community film’ and the distinction between actor and producer and editor and writer and anything else might be completely nonexistent. And many of these projects I’ve been involved with are actor-initiated.

    Ultimately, we would love to be able to pay ourselves and our friends for everything we are doing (and as often as possible, we definitely do this). But many smaller web series don’t have access to distribution or funding models that traditional film does; it’s a pretty new space and no one has the magic monetization formula for it, so while we try our best to raise funds, sometimes a group of actors and crew friends will just have a great idea and create something together in their spare time.

    It’s a very specific subset of project.

  6. Aha! Great point Wonder! Actor investment/ownership is a very new and exciting idea especially for projects (web series, etc.) with little to no revenue prospects. Matthew Lillard talked about this at one of the last Pulling Focus events held by Washington Filmworks. If you can’t pay up front, there’s always points on the back end, associate producer-ship, self-producing and other creative ways to compensate.

    [A little off-topic: My fear with independent media projects in general is that they are, in the end, units that can be bought, acquired, appropriated by someone else down the line who had nothing to do with the original collaborative team’s vision. And they’re not yet adequately covered under a strongly-negotiated union contract (Yes, I’m looking at you, SAG & AFTRA). Imagine if The Collectables were someday bought by Comedy Central. Awesome, to be sure, but do you all at least have a contract? Can you prevent yourselves from becoming the cast of Gilligan’s Island, being a part of a legendary TV show and still not seeing a dime of residuals? Could they cut it up into bits for a Nike commercial? What’s protecting you the actor? But also, what’s protecting your project? I don’t know, but hopefully you do. :-)]

    I agree that we all need to find ways to value what we love to do, monetarily or otherwise. I guess I’m talking more a contract that confirms that value – an agreement that benefits all parties involved equitably. In many cases, money (and the official paperwork that goes with it) is that contract, but so is passionate collaboration and personal ownership. What we cannot do is “give it away” – as if we were unworthy or unskilled or uneducated as to how the world works. However you value your time and talent, make sure to stand the hell up for it and demand it EVERY TIME, whether it’s a SAG Basic Agreement or a 2-out-of-3 situation.

  7. Hi David,

    I don’t come from a theatre background, but I do agree that considering all the rehearsal time, prep time outside of rehearsal and performances should NEVER go unpaid. If it’s a high school play, obviously that’s different.

    Having been professional film/TV crew/talent since ’08, I do believe work is work, and it should always be paid a livable wage…. however, there have been some exceptions for me.

    The Sacramento scene that I come from has a lot of talent, a lot of potential, but not many working professionals. While there are about 7 consistent reality shows (not including shows that travel to Sac), SMOSH (bi-weekly webseries I am still working with) and a few commercials, Sacramento has no network episodic TV shows and few decent budgeted films that shoot.

    There is a scene of indie filmmakers though that aspire to change that and often have to get talent/crew for free (due to lack of any real funding). It sucks. It really does, but I have worked for free in the past, and it’s led to paid projects. For example, I PA’ed on a shoe string budget feature, and did such a good job I got promoted to production coordinator, and after that, never worked for free as crew again. Myself and all the people on that set made sure I didn’t. So, I suppose a lot of this is a matter of HOW you work for free.

    I have worked for free (as talent) in the past and majority of my experiences are positive (there’s always going to be a bad seed). If you want to be involved even though a production can’t pay, I recommend asking the producer the following questions:

    1) How much of my time will this take? Will there be meals, if so, when?

    I always made sure it wasn’t going to be an all day shoot, to be on set for about 5 hours won’t kill me, but if it’s a full day… that’s another story. I have always been upfront with indies that I don’t want to be on-set all day. Some haven’t cast me because of it, and that’s fine. But the ones that did stuck to their word, were on their game and I didn’t leave with that “what a waste of time” feeling.
    When “helping” on a project, I always made damn sure I was going to at very least get a sandwich. This way, I am not paying to eat out.

    2) Is there a carpool situation?

    Obviously, I like a free project to cost NOTHING for me, so I always make sure someone will be driving so I don’t spend my own gas money.

    3) What will I be gaining from doing this film?

    Really. Ask it. There’s nothing wrong with asking why you should do it. Any producer should have an answer, after all it’s THEIR film.

    4) What if it goes to a festival outside of where I live?

    I did a supporting role for a film called “Nightbeats”, it took maybe 6 hours of my life, and I got to act opposite Russ Meyer vixen Kitten (who is still smokin’ BTW!). That was a breeze, for sure not a waste of my time and talent.
    The film ended up screening at the Method Fest in Calabasas. I happened to be in LA that week, so I was able to support the screening. It was neat being one of the 2 actors in the film to promote and talk about it with film fest people. The director was there, he was able to buy dinner and give me money for my hotel stay. It wasn’t set up in pre-pro, but the fact that he considered the promotion myself and the other actor did means a lot.
    My point to all this is: Make sure if it screens, you try to get lodging/transportation or meals paid for.

    I know I have more questions talent should ask producers before proceeding to do a film/web/TV project for free. I may come back and post more later.

  8. Agreed, agreed everybody! Love the 2 out of 3. There are a number of times I’ll work for free-in an activist job for a fund- or awareness- raiser, for friends who need help, if I haven’t been in front of the camera for a while and need to brush up, or as a partner in developing a project. I’ve been writing and acting for over a year for a project developed sort of parallel with a local TV station. (It’s hard to explain it all succinctly.) We started with web clips that got 10 second promos on the air. (Monday Meetings, maybe you’ve seen it?) The station loved them and requested a 22 minute pilot episode, which we delivered, and they loved. The discussion is now with the money people-do they try to find an exclusive sponsor, or sell ad space? It’s been really hard to keep the momentum up over this long period of time, but once somebody finally pulls the trigger on this thing, it will be awesome. The key for me is the tie-in with the station. These are established folks with equipment, expertise, and drive. Should we have been paid already? For the quality of work we’ve done, I think so. But on the other hand, developing a brand new project is risky, and a little local station doesn’t have venture capitalists funding brand new projects. We could have been awful, and in fact some of our early efforts kind of were. But this way we got to try something vs. nothing at all.

  9. This was an interesting blog to read. I have no experience with film so I can’t vouch for that realm of acting. With stage though, I’m on the fence. I do roughly 6 shows a year, and usually only half are paid. For me, I’m willing to work for free if the show is exciting, interesting and worth my time. I’m also willing to work for free if the required commitment is low (for example, a short play festival which only requires a handful of rehearsals.) I’ve only been acting in Seattle for 3 years, so I feel like I should ‘pay my dues’ so to speak before I start only auditioning for theaters that will pay me. I’ve done a lot of shows that I was really excited to be a part of, despite not getting paid. I’ve also done some unpaid shows that I was not excited about, and took them just so I’d ‘have a show.’ That was not smart, fruitful, fulfilling or educating so I’m making sure to check in with myself to make sure I’m taking a show for the right reasons.

    I really enjoy this blog, David. Thanks for the twitter follow and for updating your blog so diligently!

  10. Hi, I came across this post on twitter (@justintagg). I am currently crowdfunding for my project and specifically wrote into the budget a good wage for the cast. I did this because I completely agree with your sentiments. Sure, there are times when collaboration potential means several parties, cast and crew work for free. Indeed on my next project we have had crew who have asked if they can be a part of the project and ‘donated’ their services.

    But I was adamant that we have a budget to pay cast for two reasons

    1) It sets a precedent (as you said) I want people I work with to know that despite this being low budget, they are of great value to the project.

    2) I want to be a filmmaker who finds a way to get things done professionally, rather than only on favours.

    I have asked cast to work for free in the past (in my student days) and treated them with great respect, giving them copies of the film etc. and making sure that everybody, cast and crew, were fed well and looked after and I agree with the ‘2 out of 3’ comment, there are projects that spark the imagination and seem like they need to be made despite financial sacrifices. And there are a great many relationships I have known to be formed between good directors and cast which started at that bohemian level of everybody fighting to get something done for no money but because the story was worth telling. I met some good friend of mine this way, actually.

    However the biggest reason I want to pay is because it feels right. I know that from time to time filmmakers try to get away with the fact that, as you say, you CAN crew and cast your film for nothing as people want to get new pieces for their showreel or be active. But I think it is a mistake to stay in that frame of mind forever and will likely keep your career as a director quite amateur. It’s like the old saying ‘dress for the job you want, not for the one you’ve got. I don’t have money, but I’m making it happen because I want to be a filmmaker who pays excellent cast.

    I am enjoying the knowledge that whilst we still have the artistic spark that flies around when everybody is pulling in the same direction for something they believe in, nobody is starving as a result of it and everybody feels valued.

    Great post, thanks so much,

    Justin

  11. First off, excellent post! Coming from someone who’s just switched to “no work if there’s no pay” mode, I’ve got to say that one of the biggest mistakes I ever made was working WITHOUT pay to begin with. I understand that actors often have to do so in order to establish themselves — or even cut together a reel so that they can be taken seriously at bigger projects. Well, it happens. But for the majority of 2011, I worked in unpaid projects — one of which ended up being a less than pleasant experience that left me unable to walk for a week. For free.

    It isn’t just about the money; it’s also about respect. We as actors have to realize that what we are doing isn’t just some hobby (unless, of course, it is, just like you said); what we are doing is working in a career. Yes, acting is a craft. No, it is not something to be taken advantage of. If you’re an interior designer, aside from certain specific jobs (i.e. personal ones), are you going to work for free? No. Let’s stray away from the arts, for a minute: say you’re an ad sales guy. Are you going to sell ads for other companies for free? No way. Likewise, sure — it might be hard to break into this industry, but actors should know that it’s wrong to devalue their work. If they present themselves well and make the right contacts, they can go far!

    (Also loved Machelle’s point — any combination 2 out of those 3 are great points to consider when deciding on whether or not to take part in a project.)

  12. THIS IS AWESOME AS A TOPIC! I was just having this discussion on The Oregon Film and Television Dollars blog (hosted by Portland’s Harold Phillips). Here is what I wrote as an assessment of Oregon’s film and television:

    Industry refers to the production of an economic good or service within an economy.

    This is one of my favorite topics – that of our “Industry” in Portland filming. Supposedly we’re about to bust out and blossom. Which I don’t discredit at all. Lately we have had an amazing run of TV being produced in Oregon. Portlandia is a fun show and a great set to work on. Grimm is off and running like a mad machine. Leverage continues to be fun and exciting in it’s episodic “The blank Job” way. Plus we have had a couple of films come through town, and we have one of our own local films actually making a national splash (Rid Of Me). None as of yet have been exploding us on the map, but it has to be a bud before it becomes a flower.

    Even with the bud starting to form we need to keep some things in mind as an industry of film makers in our area, no matter what side of the line we are on. By this I mean…are we still begging for people to work for free? Really? REALLY? I have come to the conclusion that FaceBook is pretty much a way of dressing up Craig’s List to ask people to come out and work on your productions. “It’s not free, it’s an investment in the awesomeness that you will get for working with me on more stuff that may or may not be happening and probably won’t pay or get seen by someone because it is too high concept for anyone to get and I am a creative and no one gets me so come on out and work for free which isn’t free because I give beer, pizza, copy, and credit.” REALLY? Are we still doing this.

    Hey, if you are reading this, I have a pop quiz for you. Without using IMDb, can you tell me who ran the boom mic for Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan? Ten seconds…time’s up. You know who it was? It doesn’t matter. Why? Because whoever it was, he or she was working a job. One they probably did really well. One they probably love. However, there is no award at the academies for boom mic holder. There is no trophy for best grip.

    No one ever got famous by being a PA. So don’t ever assume that your set is a privilege to work on. People need to be paid. Landlords don’t accept awards for rent, so you sure as hell better be paying people. Good intentions may get you into heaven (I’m too far gone for that) but it doesn’t feed someone. Pay them! If you have people in L.A. that are interested and want something from you, they will pay for it. If they don’t pay for it they are either not interested or unable to pay. Grimm was not shot for free. Someone pitched the idea and a budget was given. Then someone wrote a script, which they were paid for it, and then investors handed over money for someone to film the concept and prove that it was a worthy concept.

    Now, I admit that I know there is a fine line for doing things to get experience and getting an “in” in an industry. That is why there are intern positions in so many businesses around the world. However, if you sign on to an internship it comes with a statement of what you will learn, how you will be trained, and what you are due to get out of it. Some internships give you consideration toward work if an open position is available in the field you are investing in. If you just showed up at a business and worked for free, and had nothing that was going to prove that you were working toward a goal then really what you are doing is working for free. Businesses love that. They will do it as long as you let them. Let me repeat that – THEY WILL DO THAT AS LONG AS YOU LET THEM.

    Have I still done free work? I have, when I have decided to. When someone blasts a post for people to work for them (but there is no pay) I don’t respond. If someone in talking to me and says they need help but just can’t get it because they don’t have money, I may offer. I will say that if it comes to it, asking me straight up to work for you even though there may be no pay is a hell’uva lot better than “blind-blast” posts out to the world asking for the masses to run to work for free on your awesome idea. If it’s awesome, and people are going to put blood, sweat, and tears into it then pay them. Your set isn’t that awesome. Neither is mine. Cameron’s set…ok, yes I would work for free, but that guy sneezes money so I think he would pay me to hold his coffee just because he can.

    The point is that an industry is built on standards that allow people to professionally contribute for a compensation. Compensation is not good feelings. Compensation is pay and health benefits. That is why I opened with the definition of Industry. If you want to do work, or want someone to work, for free then I get it – when it is little pieces that are about working on your chops, having fun, producing lit bits of experimental fodder that help you grow. If you are making something that is a festival piece, something that is going to be proving that you are worth the investment, then you need to prove to the others people around you that you believe in that investment by paying them. If you “blind-blast” for free work, it means you don’t care about the quality, you just need warm to luke-warm bodies schlubbing about your space. Even a PA is worth their weight in pay. A good PA makes things happen.

    I actually saw a pair of Portland film makers state in their Kickstarter video that they were choosing Portland to film in because it allowed them to get a free cast and crew, and they won nearly $7000 for their short film. What does that say when two locals can state that they are filming locally because people are willing to work for free, and they still score $7K to pocket? Their video pitch went on to state that this short film was jump-starting their career. What about all the people working on their set? Who or what is jump-starting their career? If every jerk asked them to work for free to jump-start their own personal career, we would have an industry of actors and crews that were never paid. Please read the definition of Industry above.

    There are a lot of people beyond our borders slugging it out in the trenches that are a better financial risk than we are, making it difficult to get people to invest in our work. Don’t kid yourself; we are an investment. No one puts out a ton of money without the desire of a return on it. Even with our own dollars and our own short films, we invest. Making a short film is paying the IMDb gods so that we can earn a notch of faith. “Believe in me, and invest in me, and I will create films that are worthy. I prove that because I made the following list of successful things.”

    As Portlanders I think we are the recipients of an industry from another city. I believe the industry extends itself here because we allow for some great things to happen. For ourselves, we are still caught up in the Portland-style of doing things. That makes us quirky and ironic, but it doesn’t make us an industry (see definition above). Making us an industry means making choices. Choices in how we act professionally, how we are treated professionally, and what we professionally create. We have to make those choices as industry leaders, as individuals, and as creators of content. There are choices that need to be made for us to succeed if an industry is to be established (not created). Filming is not a new industry, and it is not new in coming to Oregon, but the fact that we don’t have our own film industry in Oregon speaks volumes as to how we have treated such industry requirements. No one will take us seriously before we take ourselves seriously. So we need to start taking ourselves seriously before we can build something remarkable here. Otherwise, we will be farming out the best of us to other places.

  13. If its OK, I’d like to take the other side. You should work for free. I’ve produced or directed a few shorts, including one in late 2010 that we’re also finishing up now. I’ll do another one and hopefully two this year. Just to be clear, I’m only talking about indie narrative film here, not commercials, music videos or television.

    Take the short we did in Oct 2010, Manchego. There were 6 (great) actors and 20 (amazing) crew. That’s not including the colorist, composer and a couple others who dropped off stunt pads, ran errands, etc. We shot for 2 and a half days and only paid expenses. Since film shoves most expenses into an incredibly tight timeline, the days you are shooting, let’s look at that.

    Assuming a (low) $100 average day rate for everyone, multiplying it by 2.5 days and then by 26 people, that’s $6,500 for cast and crew. Then add $5,300 for expenses (which is where we are now) and you have a production that will come in somewhere under $12,000 not including the score. Let’s call it $13,000 total. This seems reasonable to me.

    The problem is, I wouldn’t have done a short that was going to cost me $13,000.

    I would have looked for another script, with fewer actors, with fewer moving parts, with no choreography, fog, prosthetics and simpler set design. That kind of script is usually something about two couples working on their issues after discovering they had all been sleeping with each other. It would be shot in one or two apartments under available light, handheld with the actors doing their own makeup and maybe some fake bullet hits comped in. While I loved Puffy Chair and have nothing against mumblecore, I also love lighting, make-up, violence, sharp lenses, explosions, wardrobe, crazy people and all the other shiz that adds up to a full crew and higher production values so I’m back to the drawing board.

    This brings up the other side of the money problem – if you aren’t paying some people, how do you decide who to pay? If the actor gets paid, shouldn’t wardrobe? Make-up, set design, gaff, the set runner, the PAs? We really struggled with this. Thankfully, most crew were willing to work for free if we paid expenses, i.e., materials, food, etc. My goal for them was the same as with the actors – give them a place to do their craft. Create costumes, write music, test some new lens, you name it. It is amazingly rewarding to see them do it too. Part of the reason they were willing to do it was because six actors were putting in many days of their time for free as well.

    Like Justin above, I think everyone should get paid but its not a reflection on your talent or aspirations if you aren’t. On the other hand, if you are passing up scripts that speak to you, characters you immediately understand and narrative that holds you because you aren’t going to get union wages or national exposure, are you really doing yourself any favors?

    This is why I disagree with the post about Oregon above. Maybe I’m misreading it but show me the money and watch out for people ripping you off all the time is a hard message. I don’t get that. Anybody who produces or directs a production with any integrity whatsoever puts in countless hours way before, during and after shooting. The idea that they want to rip you off for a few days pay is hard to imagine after all that work. Producers and directors are responsible for respecting your time, your talent and the work. If you like the script, go ask them hard questions about how they will produce the piece. If they can’t answer them, walk. If they don’t jive with you, walk. If they can’t give you a solid idea that your experience and reel will grow from being part of the production, walk. And if you love the story, love your character and love the production but must get paid, walk. They’re just people in love with the work, trying very hard to do something that can be very stressful and still have fun while creating something amazing. They don’t need your career, rent or lunch money on top of that.

    Finally, if you wait for each director to round up the money to make a film, that adds up to a lot of time on the bench. I know a guy who’s been working on funding for a great short he’s written for over a year. Why? Because he wants to pay everyone. Actually I know three people in this position. That’s noble but it means a director must be good at raising money before becoming good at playable direction. And waiting trickles down. It means there are fewer hours of cast and crew experience, fewer reels of exceptional work with high production values, fewer opportunities to make connections, fewer chances for a Peter Jackson to pop up and start a studio here, fewer chances for everyone to practice their craft, fewer chances for everyone to get better at it. Everybody loses because a well-meaning but self-serving agent gave the “what you’re worth speech.” For anyone that cares to do it right, we know what you are worth and that is a hell of a lot. Unfortunately that may be a lot more than we can (for now) pay you in cold, hard cash.

    Cheers, Kevin

    • Kevin, I couldn’t disagree with you more wholeheartedly.

      Frankly, it seems like you just want to save yourself a few bucks just to make your cinematic dreams come true.

      I work in G&E, and if I have to haul your lights around for 15 hours – often times into geographically dodgy circumstances with even worse weather – I should get paid. You clearly do not know what it’s like to lift literally hundreds of pounds of gear to and from a grip truck several times a day.

      What you are advocating is worker abuse, plain and simple.

      I have worked free of charge, and for expenses; sometimes it’s worth it, but more often than not it isn’t. You seem not to understand that everything on a film set costs money: the food, the equipment, the transportation, the costumes – everything. Someone had to buy the camera and get the training to operate it; someone had to purchase the colour-correction programme and the computer on which it runs. And on and on.

      Your argument that without free projects, the next Peter Jackson (or, better yet, Kathryn Bigelow) would be creatively stymied; I can only presume that you are referring to yourself. Thus, your remark about agents and the like being self-serving is completely ironic. See, the difference is the agent is being HONEST.

      Also, I cannot believe you are so naive as to think producers would never wish to rip off either their talent or their crew. Don’t you think the sleaziest among them anticipate the “hard questions”? I once had to wait 5 months just to get a few hundred bucks; another time, over a week just to get $50 after doing a rush job on an edit. Recently, a producer deliberately underpaid me for another last-minute job. And don’t get me started on the whole “Net 30/60/90/WTF?!?” payment schedule devised by so-called industry professionals.

      Kevin, you may not want the added stress of paying someone else’s “rent or lunch money” (seriously? How insulting!), but the right thing to do is accept responsibility for your endeavour and PAY YOUR CREW AND TALENT.

      Oh, and BTW, #sincewebeinghonest, camaraderie, joy, and mutual creation are NOT acceptable currencies. It’s called M-O-N-E-Y.

  14. Pingback: Acting 4 Free, Part II « davidshogan

  15. Pingback: Actors-Should We Work For Free? | Dilettante Douchebag

  16. Thanks for stealing my next week’s blog post, David!

    I think the fact of the matter is: you cannot make a living as an actor in Seattle. In the last five years, I have been able to be without a day job for about six-eight months. And I have averaged two AEA shows, and a few VO/Commercial projects a year. I have worked for free as well, under SAG contracts, and they have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
    Unfortunately, our unions are not on top of contracts that would benefit our community the most. There is no code for mid-level houses (though they are working on it) like there is in Chicago and San Francisco. As a young woman, I know I’m not going to be cast at Seattle Shakes and Book-It unless it is a leading role (hard to come by). There are not sufficient New Media codes for working on web apps, and other hot jobs. And to make these changes takes years because the unions move at a glacial pace.
    So until we get serious sources of funding here and better union attention (Rik Deskin is a rockstar but can’t do it alone), you aren’t going to work a lot. This, however, does not mean you cannot be a professional actor. It was clear at the Seatown shorts at Siff, who was a professional actor, and who was not. And we probably won’t get serious funding up here and union attention if we aren’t doing our best to deserve it, rather than continuing this learned helplessness that keeps people from joining the unions and demanding compensation (in whatever manner they negotiate to be appropriate).

  17. PS. Staged readings are all the rage, are for free, and are a great way to work your chops and get your face out there. But they are covered by the AEA Staged Reading Guidelines.

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