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Independent Film and Leadership Series #1: Working for peanuts

I’ve decided now is good a day as any to start a new series of blog posts called Independent Film & Leadership. I have no idea how many posts I’ll get out of this topic, but I wanted to address a few things I see often in low (or no) budget productions. And also hopefully, we can learn a few things about what it means to be an independent filmmaker.

Disclaimer: I am one, so this whole series kind of makes me a hypocrite, or is me sharing things I’ve learned along the way through trial and error.

Today, we’re gonna talk about working for peanuts.

The Boss

In most independent productions, the filmmaker or director is also the producer. They are typically in charge of much more than directing; such as producing, managing the budget, directing the cinematography, operating a (or the) camera, editing the movie, and even more. But the most important role the director plays is that of The Boss.

A director has to be able to hold everyone together, and lead the production with a vision. As a director, I think it’s just as worthwhile to study directing/filmmaking as it is to study good management/leadership skills. Why? Because a director will be managing people. Directors will need to know how to bring out the best in people, and how to manage them at their worst.

That being said… a director is boss, which means they have staff, and staff should not feel undervalued.

No compensation, food will be provided

In a lot of casting calls, there will be some form of this phrase, “No compensation, but food will be provided.” This is basically the equivalent of saying, upfront mind you, that the production will pay the talent and crew in peanuts for their hard work.

I recognize I might have just offended a lot of sensibilities with that comparison, but before you get angry, let me add some disclaimers before continuing with that thought.

Disclaimers.

  • One could argue this is the reason to be in an acting union or guild. True, but not all actors will ever qualify for that, and not all independent productions will ever be positioned well enough to satisfy a union or guild’s requirements for compensation.
  • Sometimes there just isn’t a budget or a budget big enough to pay all those involved. Truer words never spoken. There will always be non-budget productions, or super low budget ones, and I assure you this is not what I’m talking about. Allow me to carry on and explain.

So all that being said… what in the world am I talking about?

I’m talking about productions that raise a budget, but do not take into account budgetary concerns for their staff (cast and crew). If you need some examples, go to IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, and look up films and web shows being crowd-funded. A lot of these productions are raising budgets for their hopeful productions, and will detail what the budget will be used for and many do not include the payment of their staff.

Let me give you an example. Money is raised for budget to be spent on equipment rentals and purchases, prop and costume purchases, and so on. And yet, there is no money allocated in the budget for the staff: cast and crew. Remember, there is a Boss here and that Boss has staff.

If a job listing read that a local business was hiring positions, who would not be paid but meals would be provided, and there was a budget allocated for expensive office equipment–how long do you think the staff would stay?

Conclusion

So, what’s the takeaway? As a leader, manager, boss, director, producer, filmmaker… what sort of message do you want to convey to your staff? Are you cheap, except when it comes to things? Are you willing to throw money around like it’s no object when it comes to the technical side of filmmaking, but shudder at the notion of paying your staff (the human side of filmmaking)? Consider that one could own the most expensive, topnotch equipment in the business, but without the expert staff to use it it’s useless. Just expensive things. Consider also that if you show yourself to be a caring and interested director, you will get the best out of your cast and crew, who are trying to bring your vision to life.

Should you provide meals? Yes, that’s a given. Should it be the cheapest meal money can buy? What kind of message do you think that would send?

If you are raising a budget for a film, try to include enough in the budget to pay your staff well enough that they will be pleasantly surprised and want to work with you again. Also, in the least, try to salvage enough to pay for their expenses (like gas plus a little extra).

Have I made films where no one was paid? Yes. Though, during those productions we always tried to make sure those “free meals” were excellent and that folks were well taken care of during shooting. But if I set out to raise a budget, and get a budget, I better try hard to make sure I’m putting people above things.

ALL THAT BEING SAID. I think it’s awesome that independent filmmakers can now raise budgets through crowd-funding. This was not an option several years ago, when we first started producing films independently. But I think it’s important that filmmakers not forget that they have staff they need to pay. Raising a budget isn’t just about production expenses, but it should also include staffing expenses as well. And that also includes the producers and director. Absolutely. Everyone should make money off their hard work, period, and should never feel undervalued or that their time is being wasted. And, here’s a plus for the bosses, people are more committed when they’re being paid. If it’s a job, people take it more seriously, because they don’t wanna get fired.

Trivia. The term work for peanuts is likely derived from animals who would perform in circuses and zoos only to be rewarded (paid) in peanuts. The general definition refers to a job that is easy enough a monkey could do it, and therefore is only worth peanuts, or that someone is doing the work for free. It is not used in a positive connotation.

And remember, she works hard for the money so you better treat her right…

What do you think? What has been your experience? Do you agree filmmakers should try to make paying the cast and crew a point of crowd-funding, and budgeting? Sound off in the comments.

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