The most amazing part of the digital cinema revolution isn’t the streamlined workflows, 5K resolutions, or the high dynamic range. It isn’t even the versatile cameras available for a couple grand. What is truly remarkable about digital cinema is its impact in the democratization of film. In theory, right now, you could take your film school money, grab a kitted out Canon 7D and go shoot a movie that visually holds up against the films playing at your local theater. The opportunity is there and while you might not need a crew for a self-made film such as a wintry montage or short landscape piece, to really dive deep into a project like a narrative feature or short film, you still need a crew. And while the technology is cheap, the people aren’t.
As a below the line crew member, I started my career on a freebie and still actively work for free every now and then. I have spent hours scouring sites like Mandy for gigs and I always find tons of filmmakers asking for professional grade work pro bono. Most of these listings I click-away from, but I am more than willing to pass on the paycheck for the right project.
Your project could be the right project.
There are so many talented people out there looking for work if you know how to reach them. No one’s saying a crew isn’t worth paying, but if you absolutely can’t put together an adequate budget, here are five tips to help you find a quality crew to work for copy, credit and meals:
1. Understand their job
If you are producing or directing a project, you should understand the dynamic of a film crew. Especially if you seek to hire professionals, don’t think they won’t see through your lack of experience.
I have seen so many job listings for “sound guys” or for “a lighting person.” These jobs have specific titles and the fact that you aren’t using them makes it seem like you might not understand what a “lighting person” even does. I’ve speculated before whether certain directors even know what a camera assistant is, but there are red flags. When you offer up clips for a demo reel to a grip, electrician or production assistant they will scoff at you. Nobody working underneath the key department heads is going to have a demo reel for those jobs. I don’t send out a video of my best focus pulls as a 1st assistant camera (AC) or most beautiful slates for 2nd AC gigs.
You need to genuinely understand what below the line crew do and why they work.
In the end, almost every crew member loves movies and being a part of the collaborative medium, but many also work because they make good money doing it. If you are going to ask them to do it for free, you need to at least respect the professionalism they are used to being a part of everyday.
2. Pitch them the project, not the results
So what makes you different? Claims like that only increase skepticism and, worse, these listings rarely describe what the film is about.
If you really want a crew to work for free, pitch them the project and not the results. If you really do have the next big thing, it should be an easy sell.
Even though below the line crew aren’t directly involved in major creative decisions, they do like to work for projects that reward them creatively. Commercials, company internals and other dry material will often drag down a person’s psyche. Offer them a chance to work on a sci-fi character driven short film and you might have no problem staffing a crew.
3. Be transparent
Another deal breaker for me when I see listings for low/no paying jobs is a lack of transparency. The listing will provide minimal details and a cryptic description of the film like, “a short romance about love.” Again, this breeds skepticism.
Why aren’t you telling me about the film? Who are you? Why is your project something I should be interested in working on? It’s simply not fair to ask people to send you their personal information and resumes without providing some information of your own.
Further, be honest about payment and what expenses will and won’t be covered. It’s better to have people know up front what they’re going to be involved in rather than trying to spring it on them and negotiate down the line.
4. Don’t ask for help, provide them with opportunity
People are notoriously selfish and crew are no different. When you’re used to banking over $350 a day doing your job, why should you do the same thing for free? When job listings ask for help because “it’s a great film and I’m a student” or something else, nobody cares. It’s harsh, but it’s true. If I don’t know you, why are you asking for a favor from me? To counter this, you shouldn’t be asking for help from crew, but instead offering them an opportunity.
This approach works phenomenally well if you target crew members looking to move up the ladder or enter the game entirely. I took my very first job as 2nd assistant camera for free to get my foot in the door and again worked for free for an opportunity to be 1st assistant camera on a low budget feature film.
Those looking to further their careers in some form are willing to take a severe pay cut to prove they have the chops to do the job. In this scenario, you aren’t paying them with money, but experience instead.
5. Keep the terms — and your wallet — reasonable
I once read a job listing for a feature film that was well-suited to my abilities. It was in an area close to me and was for a position I was trying to get more work for. I thought I would apply and even though it was a freebie, at least I’d get the experience. Then the bomb dropped: the film was to be shot on weekends for almost 3 months straight. I immediately thought, “no deal.” The terms of the shoot just weren’t practical or appealing at all. If you want a decent crew, you need to keep your terms reasonable. Terms include:
- Working conditions
- Working hours/days
- Crew size
- Kit and equipment rentals
- And more…
I couldn’t have been the only one to pass on that listing. For one, I doubt anybody with a day job wants to do a weekend project for 3 months straight. Secondly, most professional crew aren’t going to be willing to drop that amount of time for a freebie. What happens if a feature film that pays comes on the radar?
But it’s not just time that is a major issue, it’s also money.
A location sound mixer once told me when he is asked to work for free with no compensation for travel, food and tools, he would reply, “I don’t have the money to invest in your film.” Food, gas (travel), and tools all cost money. When people work on your film, those expenses increase for them, especially if you have them working on location.
Don’t put your crew in a position where they will lose money by working on your film. You should strive to help crew pay for these expenses so what you’re getting for free is their labor — the most valuable part.
People Work for People
It’s possible to get a quality, professional crew to work for free and if you do any one of the five tips above, I promise you’ll get a better response than you did last time you tried. And yet all of the tips above could mean nothing if you don’t understand this:you are the main selling point of your project. People work for many reasons including money, opportunity, swag, and favors, but ultimately, people want to work for people they like.
Especially in the film world, everyone wants to be a part of something special. The best script,the coolest camera, and a killer actor are all great factors that contribute to your success, but people will only buy into your project as much as they believe in you.
Coming from somebody sitting comfortably below the line, working for free has provided some great relationships, rewarding creative goals, and opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I pick my freebie projects carefully and the ones I have worked on are mostly because I believe in the people attached and trust they won’t use and abuse me.
If you can get someone to trust you and believe in your creativity, they won’t be able to resist your project.
And in the future, if your film is the “next big thing,” they’ll follow you to the ends of the Earth.