A few weeks ago a friend and fellow artist grilled me about why I pay cast and crew on indie film shoots. Specifically actors, who are usually more willing to do things for free than workers in highly technical fields like DPs, gaffers, etc. I was challenged on a few fronts—to paraphrase:
Why are you incurring this expense when there’s no return on investment?
If the people you hired would have done it for free then why are you paying them?
You risk people taking the job just to get paid, even if they don’t believe in the project.
You don’t need to pay people at this stage in your career, and for such small projects.
I get what my friend was saying, but I also feel that this kind of thinking is symptomatic of a huge problem in the arts. It’s perhaps the biggest problem in the arts: that of artists being resigned to free labor for the majority of their careers. Why is this? I think it boils down to the following:
- Artists tend to be modest about their own talent or worth.
- Artists love the work so much, that compared to not doing it at all, compensation can feel like a secondary concern.
- Artists tend to be friends with their colleagues, so it can feel awkward to ask for money.
- American society in general devalues the arts. See: “real jobs” vs. artistic jobs.
- There’s stigma in the artistic community about “selling out”—what once referred to dubious corporate sponsorship has been perverted to mean “accepting any money at all”.
- Employers tend to be artists themselves, so employees feel guilty asking for money when they know that that person or team may also be strapped for cash.
- Employers know that most artists will work for free and take advantage of that.
- There is a long, established history of not paying artists, so it’s the default by way of tradition.
Sometimes it’s fine to work for free: you’ve got to make a name for yourself somehow, and when you’re just starting out, that means doing the grunt work, to gain the visibility and trust of senior colleagues. But on the other hand, you can’t do that forever; it’s simply not sustainable. And I think too few of us in this industry are willing to acknowledge that. So we end up perpetuating a vicious cycle.
My primary motivation, when I pay cast and crew members, is to break that cycle. After all, it’s only right to compensate people for their talent and time—this is the expectation in ANY other industry; what makes the arts so different? It’s hard fucking work to make a movie. No, I don’t profit from the end result (at this point in time, at least: there is certainly a profit motive, but realistically, that won’t happen until 1. my career is further along, and 2. I start investing in long-form content—shorts are notoriously hard to sell). But the way I see it, the ROI doesn’t have to be immediate, or even financial. Why?
You’re investing in doing the project right.
The better somebody is at their job, the more they cost. When you only use free labor, you only ever attract people with little to no professional experience (recent college grads, hobbyists), or little to no confidence in their abilities. This is not to say you can’t find quality workers on a budget, but you really have to hunt for them. Do you have time for that? What you may gain in terms of available cash, you lose in other assets, like time spent training the workers, the time they take to complete a given task, etc. Once you’ve gotten over the initial growing pains of figuring out process, the last thing you want to do is repeat them.
You’re protecting against flakiness.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked without a budget, where actors will call/text last minute to say they can’t make the shoot because of a paid gig that came up. Or they just won’t show up at all, with no explanation. It’s incredibly frustrating, but I don’t necessarily blame them. All of us—especially in this, the “attention economy”—have a series of planned activities that compete for priority at all times. If you’re not paying someone for a job, you can rest assured it’s dead last on their List of Things to Care About™. Compensate them, and you put your project ahead of most other things, probably even dates or their kid’s piano recital.
You’re building stronger professional relationships.
People remember you when you pay them. This is what helps you get to WDBWA: Would Do Business With Again. (Provided of course you aren’t a Talentless Hack or a Slave Driver).
It gives you license to be the boss.
Demanding too much of volunteers can sour friendships if the other party feels they’re doing you a favor. When you pay someone, you establish a proper business relationship where it’s appropriate, even expected, that you’ll be pushing them to perform to a certain set of standards. The stakes are higher, too: they stand to be fired or not re-hired… And, unless they’re Entitled Pricks, they’ll want to prove to you that they deserve the pay.
It’s a safeguard.
Payment sets a precedent. You can’t just ask people you’ve paid to go back to volunteering on new projects unless those projects are a lot smaller in scope, or DiCaprio’s attached. It effectively restricts you to only executing the ideas you feel are good enough to incur a loss on. I know if I’m going to be dropping several hundred (or thousand, or million… lol) on a project, I’m gonna make damn sure the story I’m telling is worth that kind of money to me.
All that said, it is a privilege of having the funding available to do this. I’m fortunate enough to have a day job that supports this future ex-hobby, but not everybody is, and I get that. You can’t pay cast and crew if you also have to worry about feeding yourself.
Working as a freelancer since the summer of last year, I’ve certainly been in that position. Especially considering that in that time, I also moved into my own apartment in a more arts-friendly, but also more expensive neighborhood just outside of Boston (Not that that’s saying much: all of Boston is expensive—a nut local artists are trying to crack). Having to pay self-employment taxes on top of hefty rent, not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from, and it’s no wonder I haven’t produced any original material since January.
But I think that, regardless of whether you can afford to do it now, it’s definitely something to aim for.
Even if you can only pay your cast and crew a dollar each, pay them a dollar each. Even if you can’t pay them a dollar each, do something special. Treat their involvement like a Kickstarter backing and reward them with more than a Subway lunch and a DVD of the film (although you really ought to do both of those things as well). It’s a show of respect, and to the right people, the gesture will mean more to them than any dollar amount. I bet if we all did this, we could build a much more thriving indie film community. Be the change you want to see!