Why Pay Cast and Crew?

(Updated )

Filed under: Art, Business, Film

© Mamuka / Dollar Photo Club

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. [On second thought, don’t do this. A colleague who read this post suggested it to a collaborator of hers and they were insulted, saying they’d rather work for free than be valued so low.] 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!

36 Responses to “Why Pay Cast and Crew?”

  1. The Monster King

    You sound cool. Your friend sounds like an asshole. Get rid of your friend.

  2. Judith Gruber-Stitzer

    Hi Hugh, You sound like someone I’d enjoy working with! Is there any way that I can see some of your work?
    Judith Gruber-Stitzer

    • Hugh Guiney

      Hi Judith,

      Thank you! My latest short—the first I paid people on—is here: https://vimeo.com/86042237. I do have older student work but I wouldn’t use those as examples at this point. ;) I have two other projects in pre-production.


  3. Claire Brooksbank

    Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart. The Portland, OR indie industry is rife with exposure gigs, and they hit all levels of experience and areas of expertise. It’s insanely frustrating, not to mention not financially viable for someone like me whose materials are impermanent and expendible. Even if I was a hobbyist, I couldn’t afford to do FX makeup for free on gigs simply because of the cost of replenishment. It’s so refreshing to see someone who cares.

  4. bruce nahin

    you are so right, having been an exec in production for 40 yrs..I endorse all you said.love the prospective

  5. Adam Stephenson

    This is a great article and summarizes a lot of my thoughts as an actor & occasional writer/producer. I don’t like to create content if I can’t pay people for their time and talents. As an actor, I’ve often asked for money even when working for “FREE” because it is not uncommon for a Meal&Reel production to ask things of my time/schedule that no longer make it a Free job but an “Investment Job”. If I have to take time off my survival job and pay travel expenses then I am operating at a deficit. If it’s something I’m passionate about, that doesn’t phase me. But I don’t hesitate to say “I’ll work for Free BUT that means we may have to do some creative scheduling and if I have to take a day off work, I’ll need those wages covered.” (which is still stupid cheap to hire me). I have yet to have someone say “That’s outrageous”. I think all creatives WANT to pay their collaborators but some just don’t have the means or don’t have the talent for Fund Raising.

  6. Starina Johnson

    Your friend may be “nice” in real life, but he’s obviously clueless when it comes to actors and basic business practices.

    First the “return on your investment” is people showing up to do a job they’ve been trained to do. Hiring professional actors saves time on set, and time (as we all know) is money.

    This is a business. Acting is a business, just like directing is a business, just like writing or painting or any other ART is a BUSINESS (unless you only want to do it as a HOBBY). To dismiss someone’s time, talent, and expertise by having the audacity to say you shouldn’t pay them because other (non professionals) would do it for free is ridiculous. You get what you pay for, and if you’ve found talented people to work for you for free you’ve either gotten really lucky or had some amazing favors to call in.

    To disrespect a fellow artist by saying everyone else on set deserves to get paid EXCEPT for them is so insulting I cannot even put it into words. Your “friend” needs to get a fucking clue.

  7. david

    Unfortunately it happens with a lot of new producers who are also actors. One they see the process and think its easy to be a producer, having no comprehension of all of the variables involved. Mainly because everything is taken care of by competent and trained producers who have prepared contingencies in pre-pro before the actors make their observations on set while working. Secondly, they have this mindset that it will all pay off in the end. The same mindset as going to multiple auditions, casting workshops or networking events to land that one well paying job that takes care of the bills for six months. That does not happen with crew members, we are not getting a big payoff, we aren’t going to get a job that pays six months of our bills for working multiple films for free and I challenge anyone to tell me that they have ever received “deferred pay”. That is a curse word to crew members and a sign of a rookie producer. Also, if they promise work in the future, why would they take someone at the level of someone who works for free when now they have a budget and can afford to pay a accomplished professional?

  8. Jonathan

    Here, here!

  9. Robyn Coburn

    It’s refreshing to read this point of view from an employer. Thank you. I help people new to show business format their industry résumé and write about the job search. One of the things I warn about is working for free for too long, and getting trapped in the low budget world. Perhaps I can interview you for my blog some time. Very best wishes for you project,
    Robyn C.

  10. Kersti

    As an actress and a producer – I have worked on all sorts of projects on every budget level. Once you reach a certain level, these “free” projects are no longer really a valid option unless the person is a true friend and I am doing them a favor. Even a small amount of money signifies to me that the producer is a professional who understands my value and respects my time and years of commitment to a craft. And in return, I tend to believe that they “know what they are doing”. The talent makes or breaks your project – and a good producer/director knows that. Thanks for a lovely article.

  11. Mark Urquhart

    People dont pay for what they don’t have to pay for – and I think there’s another unspoken myth out there too, that ‘talent’ are just using you (the crew) to get ahead, and while you’ll be earning a little more if you get known in the business, the talent will be earning exponentially more when they ‘get famous’, so fuck those guys.

  12. Michael Hof

    I really appreciate this. I’m just starting my journey into the indie film industry, and its not easy to volunteer on projects without getting at least some financial compensation. I need to be able to pay basic bills while still getting experience for the career I really want

  13. Staci Benoit

    I worked in the entertainment business for over a decade. I miss it a lot, but here in Houston there is not much paid film work. Now I just do it for fun when I feel like it. I was once an Assistant Director for a very arrogant man who had no clue or respect for his actors/actresses. He had the nerve to tell me that he was going to just grab people off the street to be actors because they were too stupid to understand the business. He also said that the real actors in the production only deserved a Big Mac. Even after trying in-vain to explain that actors spend a lot of money on classes, pictures, etc. and that they should be treated as professional he still did not give a crap. He ended up getting rid of all the people who actually had experience, myself included, because he didn’t want to hear what we had to say. I respect the fact that you have to gain experience before you get paid. It is almost like an internship, but once you have plenty of experience you deserve to be paid just like in any other profession. You can’t really expect to have a professional production that is taken seriously if you don’t want to pay your cast and crew.

  14. Indigo

    I’m in theatre, which tends to run a bit looser than film in that an exchange of favours is often considered fair payment – sure, I’ll dramaturge your script, in exchange for you handing out this stack of handbills at a local festival. The trick is that a whole bunch of people out there misunderstand what constitutes a “favour” – a reference or a mention in the programme, for example, does not count, nor does introducing me to your brother (yes, someone put that forward once, and when I asked if the brother was an artistic director or a producer or something, was told, “No, but he’s single”. facepalm) The absolute least you can offer someone is a comp, but I’ve had people try to snake out of that one too.

  15. Marrianne Nungo

    Huge, i respect you just for stating the above and standing up to your cast and crew. Many are times i think that these are challenges faced by actors in Kenya only. Especially considering most crew guys are usually paid despite the budget. But actors hmm! nothing. Not to say there haven’t been any who are of the same views as yours, they’re very few. Much respect. Salute.

  16. Joanne Harris

    I wholly support the reality that filmmaking is a business, and thus, people should be treated as such. I see far too many “projects” that have terrible scripts with no motivation, character development, or (egads) PLOT LINE (can this BE?) mooching off starving artists so that some person who perceives themselves as a “producer” can gain a credit and feel good about themselves.

    I put a short project on hold, because my day job at the time didn’t support the finances required to even partially pay the crew (the cast had to be covered for SAG). But I’d rather wait until I can do something, even gas money, to show that I value talent.

    Yes, most people do shorts for free. It’s a given. But the one producer who cast me in his SAG New Media project gave all the cast a small payment for their investment in his film (I think the crew was paid full wages), because he wanted to show that he valued us as cast. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t full scale. It mattered that he “got” it.

    I’ve said it for years. A big part of a producer’s job is to raise money for the project, as well as put the project together. If you cannot produce the money needed, you either need to find someone who can, or you need to reassess your story. IS it worth telling? MUST it be told? Or are you just serving your own ego to obtain a credit? Rest assured, many actors will work for free, but if you want to progress as a producer, you need to put out quality work…with a quality story that the audience (not just your cast, crew and your parents) will want to see.

    Shorts rarely make a single penny, which is why it’s hard to pay people for a project that will 99% be sure never to see a dollar return. BUT! They are your advertising budget. You pay for business cards and websites, right? You wouldn’t scribble your number on a napkin and hand it to an investor saying, “I can’t afford business cards, but I’m capable of making a movie!”


    I totally agree with this..This is something that people have to look into. I have learnt to appreciate myself as an artist/..great article

  18. Wildfire

    Huge, Excellent write up. I agree. As a set medic I get asked to work for free or “cheap” all the time. Even Medic school was expensive. I have been doing this going on 20 years. Between supplies and insurance, trust me, you want to pay you medic. You don’t want a medic working for free without liability insurance or the right medical supplies. Let me know how I can be of service to you in the future. You seem like someone I would like to build a professional relationship with. Tell your friend that i appreciate him asking these questions. Questions and answers are how the world improves itself. Be safe out there!

  19. SJ

    This is a great posting, but I’m a bit miffed at “Specifically actors, who are usually more willing to do things for free than workers in highly technical fields like DPs, gaffers, etc.” This sounds like actors don’t invest much in their craft. The majority of actors I know spend somewhere in the realm of $10,000 each year on training, head shots, and other necessities for their careers. They invest a lot into their careers both financially and personally, I’m not arguing that crew (I am crew btw) don’t but actors invest a heck of a lot more than most people know :)

    • Hugh Guiney

      Hi SJ,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m not suggesting they don’t invest in their craft! I’m an actor as well as a producer, so I get it. That line was more of an observation. In my experience anyway, cast members have a higher tolerance for unpaid work. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they’re just trying to get their faces out there, so the onscreen exposure seems worth the personal expense. Which is a valid reason! But again, not sustainable.

      – H

  20. Rehema

    Well put….. not all talented people do what they do because they want money but at the end of the day you need to live…..not being paid for a pilot is not too bad but most people after it goes through they either pay you peanuts or replace you with a talent starting out who now will take anything to build there name or perfect there skills…….

  21. Nic

    This is exactly why I decided that the way to go was to found a company and search for clients – learn craft, pay people, pay myself.

    I know it’ll make it tougher to produce the content I would like to produce – in the short term – but in the long term, it will be better for all involved.

    And if ever I do need to ask a favour, people will know it’s not going to happen every day, and they’ll be more likely to help out.

  22. knoprob

    Among other things it is against state and federal law to not pay minimum wage.. ..a jail-able offense. This law has ALWAYS been a law but has been getting enforced throughput USA since 2007- In addition you cannot 1099/invoice either- THAT is illegal if you are told a time to be somewhere ( among other criterion )

  23. Richard Ragon

    Amazingly very similar to my web article that I wrote 3 years ago.. Did you lift it?
    “http://good4sound.com/12reasons.php” :)

    • Hugh Guiney

      Yes, I couldn’t possibly have come up with any of this based on my own experience. You are the only person in the world who’s allowed to write on this topic. My apologies.

  24. Kristen Mentasti

    FINALLY! Someone else gets it!!!

  25. Reaghan Reilly

    Hi, Hugh. I’m an actor from Glasgow, Scotland and I completely agree with you. This argument continues over here. Not just American, but many societies devalue the arts, especially in times of recession, when we need the arts even more than usual, to make life richer.

    • Hugh Guiney

      Hi Reaghan,

      Funny you say that. The original draft just said, “Society in general”, but then I thought that was overly broad, so I changed it to reflect my actual experience. Unfortunate that that’s the case over there. I hear about incentive programs in countries like France and Canada and get totally jealous. Sometimes I think I’ll just move, but it feels like a cop out. There’s certainly talent here in Boston, so why ignore that? Of course, a lot of the best end up moving to New York or Los Angeles just out of necessity, because there isn’t enough paying work here to sustain them. But that’s the very problem I want to address.

      Speaking of Glasgow: I recently started watching “Lip Service” on demand, which takes place there. Great show! I have to put on captions to decipher the accents though…


  26. Molly Kerr

    Thanks for this article. Thank you x 1000.

    To the crew member that said when the talent get famous they make a fortune- you’re insane. How many actors are there? Now subtract how many famous actors there are. See that number? Those are all the actors that are never going to be famous and are probably never going to make minimum wage out of their chosen “career”. Both cast and crew get exploited, it’s not just a problem for actors, but the reason the average wage for actors is so high is that there are the 1% getting 99% of the profits. Your logic of “fuck actors because when they make the big time they’ll get more than me” lacks compassion or even understanding. That’s like saying, “fuck the homeless because they’ll make more than me when they’re CEOs” it doesnt make sense! You almost had a point about actors getting paid well when they are eventually paid- i mean, that’s usually not true- but when it is, it’s compensation for all the time they’ve spent unemployed, training and working free, becoming the expert and skilled employees that are eventually hired. The only time they make millions is when the production company or studio has made millions first- and then they’re getting a cut of the royalties because their image is being used to sell the product. I mean that’s my limited understanding from the perspective of an actor.

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