This has been an ongoing debate within our industry for, well probably before you and I were born! Let’s tackle this together and also open the portal to discussion in a safe space; feel free to comment under this blog your thoughts and opinions too.
WHY DOES FREE WORK EXIST?
A lot of new creatives need a way into the industry without needing to be privileged and to gain experience in working at a professional capacity; just like internships in other industries. Also in order to build a portfolio of work / experience to show prospective employers and thus having to take on free or low paid work as a result. It can vary from student projects to start-up theatre shows or independent films.
Does this mean only those that are lucky enough to have investors and financially comfortable parents/guardians are able to make it in our industry? Does that mean we should lose out on fresh new talent because of financial difficulty? It’s like that vicious cycle of “how can I get experience, if no-one will hire me?” It also depends on the individual’s circumstances. When I graduated, I had no idea how to take the first step into the industry or how to apply for acting jobs (something they need to start teaching). I worked a full-time job and saved whilst living at home; saving was only possible on a minimum salary job because my parents were only charging a little for rent and food/bills. Then I used these savings to start my own theatre company. The first ever performance I only had enough to pay for a theatre venue so held rehearsals in my home and at local church halls that let me borrow it for a few hours and paid for the performers travel and food; performers were recent graduates and friends that I knew needed this exposure as much as I did so it was a mutually benefiting experience. When we broke even; so the amount made from show was enough to pay for the theatre venue, I saved again for a further year and put the same show on again and called back the same actors and paid everyone for their performance/rehearsal time too. However, if they hadn’t been okay with doing the first show for travel costs then I wouldn’t have been able to get us the second gig fully funded and paid! It was mutually benefiting because those actors got to perform in the West End, had a new credit on their CV, a DVD of the performance and experience of working on a professional show; we also made sure everyone had an equally big part and chose plays that reflected that. We also received 5 and 4 star reviews and were brought back every year for 4 years. From our latest show, I even managed to get representation which lead to more paid work and I recommended many actors to said agent.
WHEN SHOULD I ACCEPT FREE WORK?
This answer is individualistic. However, for me personally it has worked quite well having a full time job and a part time acting career just to gain relevant experience and contacts. I would use my time off from work and book holiday time off to be able to:
- Invest in my own acting career – as we are the product we are selling by going to workshops/ headshots etc.
- Get involved in projects with people that know what they are doing but have a small budget – thus gaining set experience and playing a lead role and learn camera techniques rather than paying for a course.
- Use the material for my show reel
- Help out friends in the industry that have amazing ideas but small budget and in return gain a further credit on my C.V.
You could also do the above by working with friends and contacts that have also recently graduated or just started out and may need the same criteria as you – you could do shows together and make short films.
SHOULD I TAKE ON FREE WORK EVEN IF IT INVOLVES NUDITY OR SCENES OF A SEXUAL NATURE?
I would personally, not suggest you do any nude scenes for free or low paid work. That is a personal not professional opinion however and should be at your discretion; we all have a different relationship with our bodies and also different boundaries. Always speak to your agent or union and make sure the job breakdown is a trusted source. The reason why I have this boundary is because I don’t feel comfortable with nude scenes anyway and so if I were to do them I would feel safer and happier knowing they are with bigger companies/film productions that would have an intimacy coach on set or at least an intimacy contract outlining the needs of the nudity needed and what the terms and conditions are regarding my personal needs of said scenes as well as to what I agreed to show. There was an interesting webinar on this held by Nancy Bishop with Ita O’brien and Marci Liroff (casting directors and intimacy coaches) that talked about their work on set and suggested that if independent filmmakers needed an intimacy coach or wanted to show nudity/scenes of sexual nature, they can contact them and ask for one of their trainee’s to work for free – to gain experience and put it on their C.V. It also means that Ita and Marci can implement this as an industry must and not something that only big studios can afford which in turn means everyone is protected during scenes of this nature and the industry is moving forward in a positive way and protecting all those working in our industry.
IF FREE WORK IS ENCOURAGED, HOW DO WE PROTECT THOSE SEEKING PAID WORK?
Everyone knows that our industry is over-saturated to an extent that there are 60,000 actors on spotlight alone and every year there are new university or drama school graduates as well as those that may not have trained but have a talent and passion for the industry. So, if there are always people willing to work for free how do we protect those that are wanting to make a living? Painters and lawyers don’t need to work for free so why should we right? Well, it’s not true actually and I personally find those examples redundant. Lawyers that are experienced and working on great rates also often volunteer their time for family court cases and other such cases for legal aid. There are also new carpenters and painters that will offer to do a mate’s home for free to advertise (win-win) and then gain paid clients from there.
Unpaid work should be made illegal…
Some people believe that in order to maintain fairness in our industry, we must ban free work adverts and not allow free work at all to be posted. Statistics have shown that if that were to happen it would drive away at least 80% of our creative filmmakers and performers. Would that be a good thing for the industry? In one perspective I can see why that would help those that are experienced and working actors seeking paid work; It would mean less exploitation and more respect of our skills and rate transparency. However, it would mean the death of new art that someone less privileged may have to offer the world as it would never see the light of day due to a lack of spare finances or financial backing.
Let’s talk about student films. One solution could be that they hire actors from the drama department within their university and if an actor is needed from a different age bracket then they offer the students a budget or train them in crowdfunding/fundraising events for travel costs, lunch and minimum wage for hours worked. This would mean, the students learn good practice and the actors from the drama department would have show reel material before graduating which in turn means getting paid work when officially out in the big world. The actor’s that are from a different age bracket would be paid low pay and would at least not be working for free but gaining extra material. I also have seen many actors not receiving the material for a very long time and so I think that is where contracts can be introduced and taught within these spaces and actors must receive material within a set period just like an invoice for financial transactions. This is just food for thought.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I AM BEING EXPLOITED?
If a an independent project has a budget in place for crew then there should be one for actors. You are no less worthy of that budget so make sure you find out what the terms and conditions are and if they have a budget/financial backing and why they can’t pay you a wage; can they at least cover travel costs and food and are you happy to take it on if so? If there is a BBC production or Channel 4 being made, they have a lot more access to regular funding than those of independent films and thus should not be hiring actors for free. This will mean industry rates are transparent and everyone is being treated fairly. Again, always check with your agent and professional bodies that the job has been posted on i.e. Spotlight or Mandy here in the UK and unions such as Equity for help and advice.
WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
In conclusion, once you have relevant experience and a portfolio, I think it’s important for you to accept that you are now a professional working actor not a beginner thus should be taking the steps to seek and apply for paid work. Learn to negotiate your pay with your agents advice or from a union (SAG/Equity) and also look at similar jobs and their going rates. Accepting free work is a choice and knowing your value is important. There is nothing wrong in working for free when it is mutually benefiting. I’ve been involved in some of the most creative and inspirationl film concepts and gained invaluable on set experience. Instead of going on screen acting courses, the low pay and free work opportunities I have been part of have propelled my career forward with excellent new credits. Make the decision best for you regarding where you’re at in your career. Remember, the only way to truly protect yourself and the industry is knowing your boundaries and your worth!
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