Q: Paying your dues, i.e. Working for free (Copy/Meal/Credit if you’re lucky) is a well established part of getting into the film industry. I’m curious about your thoughts on that practice, specifically in regards to the recent class action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight by Alex Footman and Eric Glatt for their unpaid internships on the film, Black Swan. Do you believe everyone has to “make their bones” and work for free? Do people who are paid work better than those who are there for the experience only? Do Footman and Glatt have any ground to stand on?
Mike J. – Lincoln, NE
Wow, we are getting good questions lately. I love it! I love this one in particular because it allows me to warn people ahead of time that when you come to LA (even if you’ve been here before and come back) you are going to have to work for free for a while in order to establish yourself. It’s just a fact of this business.
This business is so intense with the 12+ hour work days, working in close proximity, and the large amounts of money spent in such a short burst of time (even if it seems small on paper, it’s still a large amount of blood, sweat and tears). It makes this business different from a typical company. Because it is so intense, you don’t have the luxury of hiring someone and trying them out only to let them go if it doesn’t work out. Sure, the interning thing is about paying your dues, but it’s really more about filmmakers being able to vet people before getting caught up in a lot of paperwork. There are a lot of people in this business and yet it is a really small community. It’s important to look at it this way, if you were a producer crewing up a project, would you choose to hire and pay for someone that you just met with a bunch of projects on their resume that you don’t know from Adam? Or, would you choose to hire someone who is new, but has worked for you in the past, shown up, been enthusiastic while doing his/her job and is trust worthy and reliable? I’m going to say that you will choose the latter. Since there are so many variables when making a film, you want to be strategic about choosing the most responsible production crew to position yourself for the best possible film shoot. So, expect to work for free and frankly work just as hard if not harder when you’re working for free because your reputation will proceed itself and you will get paid jobs faster than those who are not willing to work for free.
Now on to this lawsuit, to which I say, are you kidding me? This lawsuit makes me so angry. The plaintiffs in this case have done themselves (and other potential interns) such a disservice by being greedy and taking NO responsibility for their own choices. Now, I don’t know all the details of the lawsuit so if they had it in their contracts that they would get paid if the movie sold, that’s another story. BUT, if it is a straight up internship then they need to take responsibility for the fact that they said YES and CHOSE to do the internship for FREE. Just because the movie did well doesn’t mean that should change. Besides that, how many people starting out in this business would have died to have a film like BLACK SWAN on their resume? I know I would have. They were a part of a film that people actually know the name of. They could have taken personal responsibility for the fact that they agreed to be non-paid interns on this film and parlayed that into paid work. Instead they are wasting everyone’s time by suing AND making producers nervous about bringing on interns in the future.
To sum it up, you should expect to work for free (think of it as free film school) and do it happily. It will NOT be forever so know when you are at the point of taking the next step to saying no to unpaid work. Learn to network with those you are working with so that you will get brought on to future project. And, most importantly, take responsibility for your choices. If you don’t want to work for free on a particular project, say no. Don’t say yes and then sue them later. That’s just irresponsible.
I want to do something different for my next two posts. In the past two weeks, I’ve sat down with several “transplants” new to LA. I noticed they all had similar questions so I want to point out some things you should know if you are thinking of making the move to Los Angeles to pursue the film business.
Have business cards
Please take this business seriously. If you owned your own accounting business, it wouldn’t even be a question that you would have business cards. Show biz is the same way (maybe even more so). We are networking crazies. I, personally, love it! I love meeting new people but I tell you what, if they don’t have a business card, part of me thinks a little less of them just because I don’t think they are taking it seriously. If you are an actor, please have your picture on your card. It’s the easiest tool for you to use to get jobs out here.
Expect to work for free
The people that work in this business and have been doing it awhile more likely than not, have a group of people they trust, they’ve worked with before and they know can get the job done. If you expect to get into that inner circle, you’re going to have to prove yourself and not many people are willing to take a chance on someone they don’t know unless that person is willing to bust their ass for free to prove they are reliable and worthy of the person’s time. It’s just a reality of the business out here. I’m not saying it will be forever, but there is truth to the saying “it’s all who you know”. You have to be able to do the job when you get it, but getting it is in who you know. So, if you don’t know anyone then you need to mentally and economically prepare to work for free so that they can get to know you.
Don’t put a time limit on it
Honestly, the statistic I’ve heard is that it takes 7 to 10 years to make it as an “over-night” success in Hollywood (so imagine what it takes to just be a “success”. So, if you’re one of those people who thinks they’re going to come out here for a year and try to make it big and if you don’t then you’ll go home, then I say, please don’t bother. The highways are crowded enough and it’s an insult to those of us who have busted our asses for years out here.
Don’t give up!
It’s a tough business and you have to be able to find joy in the little parts of it like auditioning, networking, taking classes, reading, studying, all of that. If you don’t, this town can surely eat you alive. Most importantly, find a group of people with similar aspirations and support each other. I often hear people say that LA is “fake” and “dog eat dog”, and it certainly can be. But, for me, I have never been in a more supportive, understanding and loving environment. Make sure you surround yourself with good, positive people and enjoy the ride because it can be quite a ride.