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Will Working For Free Get You Anywhere in the Film Industry?

Updated on August 16, 2016

Work Experience

We all have to start somewhere, right?

Everyone in the industry knows this. You have graduated from film school and are now looking for work. Without taking away anything from the fact that formal qualifications are essential for a career in film, it is also true that a list of credits is essential. This is why you never see the name of a university or the degree they obtained from it next to a film person's name, but rather the name of the production they were in and the date it was released. The more widely acclaimed the production, the better.

Such a scenario is not unique to film, but there are few other industries or professions where experience is valued more than formal qualifications. An exalted track record in film is an asset. For instance, a famous actor coming on board a project by an unknown director will give the project a more bankable pre-production and pre-release interest. I met a filmmaker who said that most of the $2.2 million budget on his last film went to the Hollywood actor attached to it.

So, for most people starting out in film, there is only one first step towards a successful career: go out there and get some experience. Mercifully, there are plenty of opportunities for acquiring that experience. If you went through formal training, chances are your institution can get you work experience opportunities with production houses or television studios. For the rest of us, there is the proverbial low-budget movie. Since the advent of digital cinema, where even a mobile phone can be credible and practical film-making equipment, there are plenty of low-budget movies going where one can cut their teeth.

There are hundreds of websites where you can get such work. Mandy.com and the now defunct TalentCircle were my favourite. I first heard of them when I was in film school back in Zimbabwe. When I relocated to the UK, I got a few jobs with them. At that time, I was not sure I would remain in the UK for much longer and the fact is that having a UK film credit, no matter how small, would have been of great value to my career back in Zimbabwe. However, this was not my first time to work for experience. Despite having started a career as a paid actor, I accepted a minor part in Tawanda Gunda 's short film, Vengeance is Mine, alongside the very talented Obrien Mudyiwenyama and Happiness Pemiwah.

What I have learnt from these attempts at work experience, I am willing to share with those who wish to learn.

The joys of working for free

The benefits or the incentive to go out there and do a professional job are more obvious than the pitfalls. Still, let's go over some of them again, shall we?

  • You get your film credits. Vengeance is Mine was made at a time when the Zimbabwean Government was reforming the media. One of its new rules was that local broadcasters had to source 75% of their content from local sources. Vengeance is Mine was shown at least three times (once on prime time) on ZBC before I left for the UK in 2002. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was and opportunities opened up for me.
  • You give it your all and then some. You might be working for no pay, but you recognise that the whole point in having the best possible finished product is so that it showcases your talent or skill. So, you slave away as if it were a major production, where you get a salary, per diem and a percentage of the box office returns on a sliding scale. The result, all things being equal, is you have a product you can proudly show off.
  • You are gaining valuable hands-on experience. That is always a good thing.

These are the major benefits of starting your film career by working for free. They may not be a long list, but each item is crucial to the next stage of your career. However, they are based on all things being equal. When all things are not being equal, then the downside rears its ugly head and, if you let it, takes over your life.

The line between "work experience" and wasting your time

  • As in doing paid work for a major production, the anticipated benefits from using your skills or talent for free cannot be realised if the film is never completed. I learnt this very valuable lesson in 2011, the year I made the decision to step out of my comfort zone and become a full time writer. I was engaged by an aspiring filmmaker, a lady of Zimbabwean origin, to come up with a screenplay for a feature film. Because I was keen to get the film made, I offered a lot of advice on how the aspiring filmmaker could go about it. A few months later, after several rewrites, she decided that she did not want to make the film after all as she had studies to pursue. But, in those few months, I had worked hard to create a 118-page draft. I have no use for it, except to display on my website to demonstrate how clever I am. It is really a big risk getting involved in projects that never get completed.
  • Many of the "low-budget" projects are simply not worth one's time. Yes, there are some stories of movies that have gone places, but the stats suggest that the overwhelming majority of projects are a complete waste of time. That time could be better spent pursuing more promising opportunities. I spent three months shut out from the rest of the world working on a script, only to be told that she did not want to make the film after all. Many actors find themselves edited out of the final cut.
  • Even if the film is made, there is no guarantee that it will be made well. In my case, as a writer, I get the privilege of seeing what I think is a very good script crapped on by mediocre acting. It is very hard to use a film that has been panned to sell yourself.

The question then remains; how does one circumnavigate the pitfalls to gain credible movie credits by working for free?

Time (not Newsweek!)

If unpaid work is to be considered as the first rung on the career ladder in the film industry, then one has to have a plan for the next step. The next step should be about paid work, otherwise you are just hovering there with one foot raised and the other still on that rung of trying to gain some experience/being taken for a mug.

In 2011, I wasted 3 months of my life writing a feature-length screenplay on spec. Today, I insist on at least £3000 and a percentage of the returns on a sliding scale. True, they are not beating down my door to give me work. But, at the same time, they are not trying to sell me a piece of the sky either. I may not be eligible for WGA membership just yet, but at the same time, I am no longer being taken for a ride by fly-by-night wannabes. A serious producer will have their act together, and a budget for a writer. Moreover, a serious producer knows what £3000 and a percentage of the returns on a sliding scale will get- a damn good writer.

In other words, if, after a year, you are still working for free, then Houston, we got a problem. You are standing on the bridge instead of crossing it. In a year, you can learn not only hands-on filmmaking from being exploited or led up the garden path, but also how to discern the sort of people that would exploit you or lead you up the garden path. We will explore how to tell the time-wasters from projects that have some potential in a future instalment. Suffice to say, taking that leap from unpaid work towards demanding remuneration for your labour is a leap from your comfort zone to the real world of filmmaking. Life has taught me that so many say that this is what they want- yet they are loathe to taking that first step.

I have given a year here, but for some it could be a little bit less and for some a little bit more. You know it is time to make that move when you are being rewarded more with the minus side than with the positive side of working for free.


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