In this post I will try to answer the question, “Should I work for free?” It is true that the moment you come out to L.A. to write, or even better, to sell your script, no agency or production company will be interested. It’s simply the way things work. Reducing it to a silly metaphor, do parents hire clowns for their kids’ birthday parties if they’ve never practiced tying a balloon animal? I love clowns (not really) and I want to be one, but I just can’t pick up a shiny red helium tube and twist. I need experience. I also need to meet other clowns who could possibly network and find me opportunities.
Often screenwriters learn how to tie their balloons on the job. They work as PAs, whether personal or production assistants. They are interns at agencies, production companies, or studios, reading screenplays, watching writers and directors at work, and generally seeing how movies are made. Often, the production company will not have enough money to pay its interns or assistants. This is called “working for free” and happens all the time in entertainment. These companies or creative people are not making a great deal of money, or the money is deferred until after the project wraps and the sitcom airs. In the meantime, it is the assistant who suffers.
This assistant stuff is fun in college. If there is some time off for summer break and the budding writer has someplace to stay, an internship like this is invaluable. But that same assistant returning to LA after college is going to disappointingly find that the money is still a long way away, like me. While I am writing in my free time, I cannot find a part time job that pays in the entertainment industry. Instead, I find agencies, production companies, and other places (always independent of the big studios) still happy to take me on—but for peanuts; they may offer a couple bucks here and there for food runs but nothing that could pay rent.
So, should you work for free? My answer is actually dependant on certain factors. Are other people on the shoot making money? Is this production company actually in the black? Are the agents making a decent wage; are they driving BMWs? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then please do not work for free. Not only is it essentially illegal in law terms, but it cheapens the value of your work as a writer. Don’t waste time on the people who don’t value you enough to offer even minimum wage while you are training. This is a high and difficult road to go, but remember the tools to be a filmmaker and writer are available to anyone with about a two-thousand dollar budget. You can do what the independents are doing, except it will ultimately be your work on screen. And guess what else? With the power of the internet, anyone and everyone can see it.
Here’s the problem with starting out on your own, though: movies are very much collaborative projects—they require several other people. Someday, you will have to hire someone else. Back to the beginning. Do you need to pay overqualified people on your production or stiff them? I say pay—if entertainment is a business, then the people not making money are not in the business; you are shunning them. McDonalds, Starbucks, and every other business pays people for training, and your production company should do the same. Just because people are desperate for any work these days does not mean they should take advantage of them. If you can go solo—do solo. If your friends will volunteer their time a few days to act or direct, let them. But make sure they have an understanding that if this project ever makes money, they will see some of it. If there is no money ever, then that’s volunteer work. Fine, I understand.
This post deals with many complicated issues, so let me summarize—if someone on your project or in your agency is being paid, you should be too. Experience is important, but after college, so is a roof. College credit is a convenient form of compensation, and that makes sense. But don’t think for a moment that just because you are a newbie, you should be treated with disrespect. Get the experience, be a production assistant, script supervisor on a student film, anything, fine. Also find time to write each day. But don’t waste your time on the companies that won’t pay you. If they don’t respect their employees, then they will never respect the quality of work your script eventually demands. Screenwriters can learn a great deal on set—they make needful connections and learn how the business works, but here’s the deal, it’s not an entertainment job if you aren’t getting paid—it may be entertaining, but it’s not work.
P.S. If you need to be on a movie set and training to be a grip or an assistant director, then you will need to do these free gigs. But please don’t let that get in the way of a part-time job that does pay the rent. No need to starve to work for free.