This post is sure to ruffle some feathers, especially in many of the online filmmaking communities I'm part of.
It’s all about why I think it’s more than ok to both work for free occasionally and ask friends and strangers alike to help you out on your no-budget “passion project” films.
The reason I know it’s bound to piss some people off is that I spend a good deal of time in online filmmaking communities, and one of the comments I come across most often is some variation on the theme of, “never work for free.”
Sometimes this comes in the form of tongue-in-cheek comments like, “exposure doesn’t pay the bills,” or more aggressive stances like, “if you work for free, you’re an idiot.” And sometimes, it’s a misguided generalization like, “when you work for free, you devalue everything that filmmakers work so hard for.”
If you’re one of the folks who write those comments, I just want to say that I totally get it. Filmmaking is your livelihood, and it’s insulting when people ask for valuable work for free.
However, I just ask that you stick with me here, because I’m going to make a case for why all of us who genuinely love filmmaking should occasionally work for free and pursue projects which will require us to ask for unpaid help.
Again, not everyone will agree with the stance I take, but it’s important to me that the people who are interested in making films they actually care about aren’t scared away from asking for help just because the the internet seems to have an antagonistic attitude towards free work.
So let’s get started.
The case for making no-budget films
In the last two articles on this site, I’ve painted a pretty definitive word-picture about my stance on no-budget filmmaking. In the first one, I made my case for why filmmaking doesn’t have to be treated as a business if you don’t want to treat it that way. And in the second, I talked about what it means to make films that matter, and why we should always strive for that.
If you haven’t read those two articles, I highly recommend that you do so before continuing on with this one. They’re cornerstone pieces for this site, and they laid the foundation for everything I’m going to write going forward.
Now, the natural conclusion of those pieces is that while everyone needs to make a living in some way or another (because that’s how the world works), people who are passionate about making films just need to go do it. We live in a world where you don’t have to wait for permission. Take the bull by the horns and find a way to make your film with the resources you have.
Just know that if you decide to adopt this mindset and take this approach, you’re likely going to be restricted to the world of micro-budget and no-budget filmmaking. That’s just how it goes.
For some people, that no-budget approach is a major turn-off. They want to play in the big leagues and won’t settle for anything less.
But for people who care deeply about the craft of filmmaking, and more importantly, have something that they want to communicate through the medium of film, then taking the no-budget approach is a no-brainer.
So to conclude this section, I simply ask you, “are you passionate enough about film that you’re willing to give no-budget filmmaking a shot on occasion, or are you just in it for a paycheck?”
You don’t have to answer that now, but I want you to keep that question in mind as we move forward.
The real reason people don’t want to work for free
So I’m going to take a little detour here and speculate about the real reasons that many people are so vehemently opposed to working for free.
I think the assumption is that it’s simply a result of money being an absolute necessity in this world. We all need money to survive, so passing up an opportunity to get more of it seems silly. While there’s some truth to that, it goes quite a bit deeper.
I think the real reason people bash “working for free” is that they’re scared of getting screwed over. The sad truth is that some of the people who solicit free help for their films are selfish assholes. They take advantage of their cast and crew, and give very little of value, if anything, in return.
Personally, I’ve lived this scenario a few times, working on films because I wanted more experience, only to be worked for 15 hour days with one meal provided and no other form of compensation. I’ve heard similar stories (and more horrific stories) from lots of the people I know who work in film.
Whenever someone chooses to work for free, there’s always a chance that they’re going to end up wasting their time. There’s always a chance they’ll be taken advantage of. There’s always a chance that the project itself will be completely stupid. There’s always a chance they’ll hate the people they’re working with.
So in reality, the “never work for free” mentality is a defense mechanism. It’s something people stand behind so that even when they get saddled on projects that are horrible, they still get something valuable in return.
Why you should occasionally embrace working for free (on the right projects with the right people)
Here’s another question for the people who preach that you should never work for free:
I suspect that unless you’re completely broke and need money desperately, then of course you wouldn’t pass up that opportunity.
Filmmaking is damn fun way to spend your time when the project is cool and you’re doing it with great people. If film truly is your passion, you’d be crazy to pass on opportunities like that so long as your financial needs are met.
To expand on those points a little bit, I think we’re all drawn towards working on meaningful projects that align with our values. It’s these projects, the ones we care deeply about with every fiber of our being, that ultimately lead to satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose through filmmaking. It’s not necessarily the projects that pay well that fulfill us, but the ones that are infused with meaning.
And to take it one step further, the element of working with people you trust is so important. That sense of trust takes most, if not all of the risk out of working for free. You know that your time won’t be wasted and that you won’t be taken advantage of.
To sum up, if you’re in a place where your basic financial needs are met (either with a job in the world of film or in some other sector), then consider working for free occasionally on cool projects with cool people.
The upsides are endless, and the worst thing that could possibly happen is that you will have spent time doing something you love with people you like.
The legitimate benefits of working on passion projects
So up to this point, I’ve largely focused on the idea of why working for free isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now I want to take it one step further, and throw out a few reasons why passion projects, both yours and those you work on for other people, can be legitimately beneficial.
First up, passion projects allow you to be more creative and expressive. They allow you to try new things in an environment that’s safe. When you’re working for clients, you’re beholden to what they want, and trying new things is often frowned upon.
The natural followup to that point is that when you try new things, you grow as an artist. You literally become more versatile at what you do, which can lead to better work and more diverse work. Plus, it allows you to add to your reel and show potential clients that you’re not like all of the other people who do the same type of work.
In an excellent post over on Musicbed’s blog about the lessons learned from working on passion projects, the following point is added:
Passion projects help you not only define your point of view, but also broadcast it, which can lead to paying work that’s more in line with who you are and what you want to make.
Nothing bad comes from doing interesting, compelling creative work and then putting it out into the world. The potential upside is huge, especially if you’re using that work as a means to grow your business.
Lastly, I’d also add that working on passion projects allows you to not only network with other filmmakers, but it allows you the opportunity to find or grow your tribe.
This is a huge idea, and one that’s central to the Cast & Crew Book. Your filmmaking tribe consists of the people who will work passionately for you on your small, unpaid projects. And you will the same for them. Once you find this tribe, you have a built in network of support for your creative endeavors going forward, and that’s incredibly empowering.
You still have to be reasonable and strike a balance
So all of this comes with a few major caveats, ones that I’ll be exploring more deeply in the upcoming posts in this series.
First off, I’m in no way advocating that filmmakers should always work for free. Filmmaking — or at least the ability to produce video and tell stories — will always be a valuable skill that people can use to make a living.
And of course, unless you’re independently wealthy or something along those lines, you need to make money to survive in this world. So do that before you start seeking out cool projects.
Second, though I wholeheartedly believe it’s ok to ask for unpaid help, this isn’t an invitation to not compensate people in any way. Even if you’re not paying people, there are still plenty of ways to compensate them and make the whole experience a worthwhile and fulfilling use of their time. I’ll be talking more about that in a later post.
Lastly, I can foresee quite a few situations where people demand too much from their unpaid cast and crew. Needless to say, if you’re asking a professional gaffer to take a month off to work on your feature, you’d damn well better be paying them.
When you’re working on no-budget films, you have to realize that it’s impossible for it to be the first priority in the lives of most of the people working with you, especially as you ask for more and more of their time. So make sure to be reasonable and
balanced with your expectations of what people can do for you when you’re not paying them. They can still do a lot, but not as much as someone who’s getting paid.
All in all, I wholeheartedly believe that those of us who genuinely love filmmaking should be spending time on projects we care about, even if they’re no-budget films made in our spare time.
You still need to find a way to make a living in this world, whether that’s through filmmaking or something else. But once that need is met, film can be one of the best places to channel your creative energy and your passion.
Now go forth and make something great.
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