One of the biggest struggles in low budget indie filmmaking is money. There’s never enough of it to pay for everything you need: sound, camera, locations, food.
So, very often people are asked to work for no money on projects that have the guts to be made but not the funds to pay everyone a living wage.
And let me just say, I get it — no one WANTS to work for no money anymore than they want to ASK people to work for no money. But sometimes that’s the way it is.
What I hear from a lot of my friends are concerns like, “Will people hate me if I ask them to work for free?” “If I give them $50 is that insulting?” “Who even WILL work for free?”
Ideally, myself, and you, and the filmmaker down the street, would pay everyone. We’d all be making enough money as filmmakers we can pay everyone exactly what their talent and skill is worth.
But first we have to get to that level.
And the best way to get there is practice. Through low to no budget projects. Where people work for NO MONEY.
Notice how I didn’t say free?
That’s right, no one should be working for FREE. For something that has no benefit to them. But plenty of people might work for NO MONEY if you are paying them in a different form of currency.
1. Experience. Paying people by experience means you are offering them a chance to gain experience they would not normally have. This can take a few forms, like letting someone direct their first project, or hiring a gaffer who has been looking for more director of photography work.
Paying in experince can also be the type or genre of the project. Maybe the costumer has never done a Sci-Fi piece or the actor wants a dramatic scene for their reel.
Experience is one of the best forms of payment, just make sure you are truly offering a new experience of value for those who work on your project.
2. Producer Credit. This one is fairly common. Credit on your film is one of the most valuable forms of currency you have, so spend it wisely. Offering it to everyone means it goes down in value. But did your production designer also help scout locations? Did you sound mixer donate their gear?
Associate Producer credits in those cases are great ways to show your appreciation and “pay” for those services.
3. Networking. If you’re offering networking as a form of payment you need to FOLLOW THROUGH on that promise. Offering a chance to meet other filmmakers is usually not enough (unless someone just moved to town and needs to meet other filmmakers!)
Make sure you are offering a truly special opportunity. I once produced a short with a director of photography whose work had been nominated for an Oscar. That was a great opportunity to offer the crew who worked on our piece. They don’t need to be Oscar nominees, but it needs to be worth an equivalent monetary value that you would be paying that position if you could.
4. Gratitude. This form of payment should be used ALWAYS, even when real money is being exchanged. But it can be used by itself if it is sincere. Truly thanking people for helping make your dream come true with a few words, a hug, or pizza after wrap goes a long way.
Even just asking their favorite snack and trying to have that on set is a nice gesture. Treat them with kindness, they are doing you a favor.
No matter if you are paying people in money, credit, experience, or gummy worms, be upfront about the form of payment and be respectful. Saying right away that you can’t pay but are offering XYZ in exchange is the best way to ask someone to work with you.
Not everyone can afford to work for no money, or do it all the time. If people say no or get upset, thank them politely and move on. That is their choice and you must respect it. It is not the time to tell them how much work you’ve done for free or why they will regret saying no. Be a professional.
Do NOT ask people to work for no money several times, especially if they’ve done it for you before. Remember, the goal is to use these smaller projects to start making bigger ones with bigger budgets.
And you CAN get there! Start small and grow.