Monday Prescriptions – When to go from unpaid to paid film projects

Hello Film Doctor friends.

We’re near the end of January already and things have been busy – new interviews, new friends, new clients, new ideas. We hope all of you have been moving forward, as planned. How are you getting along with your projects?

Today we’d like to talk to you about the principles of evaluating your own worth and putting a price tag on it – in other words, standing up for your right to be paid. Yes, paid to do your job. 


Film Doctor - Money for your movie

Getting industry gigs when starting out is not easy and yes, to get a foot in the door, most of us do rounds of unpaid projects. Apart from being an almost unavoidable part of the deal, unpaid/”expenses only” stuff does have its plus points. The main one – getting your name out there and building a network of industry contacts. 


Unpaid work is good for…

…meeting people and getting them acquainted with your talent/skills/potential

…gathering CV credits when you are straight out of film school

…gathering film experience when you are moving from another industry


…practicing your craft

…a hobby

…when you’re still “finding yourself”

…helping out an acquaintance or team whose work you believe in

…charity projects




Where do you draw the line?

Simply, at the point where your experience stretches far beyond the needs of the freebie productions and there is nothing for you to gain from them.

When you have honed in on one particular job/area that you wish to pursue and are dead certain that, for the next 10/20/30 years or for the rest of your life, that every week you’d like to spend writing/directing/camera operating/focus pulling/costume designing, etc., etc. and you have the enough material experience (based on industry feedback) to no longer accept anything other than bread, butter and bacon to bring home for your time. When one builds a career, one is expected to be making a living out of it.

What often happens with emerging talent is that they get caught up in the unpaid/low-paid system.

The industry isn’t without flaws, but to blame it solely for your empty bank account is wrong. Here is what often takes place:




Talent undersell themselves

When you are early on in your career, you are grabbing every project opportunity that comes your way. After all, that is how one acquires a portfolio and a network of contacts.

HOWEVER Common pitfalls and misjudgments occur:

Pitfall 1: As a freelance crew member/head of department/writer, you don’t know the going industry rates. Outcome: you don’t price your skills and talent adequately, and end up slightly cheated out of your wages.

Pitfall 2: As a freelance crew member/head of department/writer, you do know what the going industry rates are but decide to quote lower to attract more “customers” and to undercut the competition. Outcome: Quantity over quality. For you and for the client. For you, because you end up with an array of lower-scale projects that don’t really add much to your industry weight. For the client because by spreading yourself too thin over a bunch of projects, you cannot perform well in all of them; You also become known for low rates and, respectively, continue to attract only projects of a certain level (not necessarily your desired one).

– Pitfall 3: “Oh, I should be so lucky to get ANY work in so I will just take whatever comes my way”. I.e. you don’t think/believe/know/realise you’re good enough to get paid projects or you think you don’t have enough experience and are afraid competition will squeeze you out. Outcome: you don’t make any progress with your career, as you’re not consistently separating the wheat from the chaff.


Then, eventually, you start wondering why are there no well-paid projects coming your way.

Because you DEVALUED yourself!! 


So what tends to happen when you accept unpaid work on a regular basis?

You devalue yourself in the eyes of the industry – simply, you become the go-to-person for cheap/expenses-only labour on low-budget projects (yes, because it is the low budget projects that struggle to raise good production finance and tend to run the underpayment practice); sure, you’ll have your regular contacts that will search you out every time they start something, but you are safely playing in division three instead of moving to the big leagues.  

You waste your time – yes, at some point unpaid projects do become a waste of your time. When you have gained enough experience, yet still continue working on student shorts, doing favours and just filming this one-shot idea with a mate in a warehouse-garage-loft-thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly if you can afford to pay rent and eat more than beans or are part of a collective that are all growing and learning together. But if you constantly feel “been there, done that” and you’re not progressing, that’s when to realise you’ve reached new levels of experience/expertise and can apply for bigger projects and goals. 


Why it’s OK to get paid?

Well, because you’re worth it. Because you’ve put time and effort, and skills and experience into it. Because to make a living out of it, you should be earning money. Because you’re damn good at what you do and should be rewarded for it.


Have an ongoing dialogue with the industry

Keep in regular dialogue with the industry. The killer whales, the big fish, the small fish and the plankton. Know where you stand in it and where you want to push to. Dreaming and chatting with friends is all good but if you’re not constantly connecting with industry folk from all walks of life, you’re not going to know where your place is.

Even at the very start of your career you should have a clear mindset of your worth. It’ll start out minimal, in terms of how many people know you, your work, how many of those are key industry players, etc. – but it’ll grow.


Diversify your experience

If your end goal is film, you better get into film pretty quick and get those connections UP. However, in the early days you might need to sustain yourself with the wealth of other video production work available out there; commercials, corporates, TV. Just be aware that only certain tasks and shows can carry over into film. If you’ve worked on a HUGE show like Breaking Bad or House of Cards, film might not be such a difficult transition, but if you’ve shot a few cheap music videos for an unsigned band with a small following or some very basic corporate training videos, the leap might not be quite as simple.

The skill set has to be (or at least look) transferable (i.e. if you’re working in the camera department then static shots of talking heads will not show your potential flair for tracking shots in horror pictures. Or if you’ve done wardrobe for news this does not show your ability in Elizabethan era period costume design).

Always weigh up experience vs. cash, as and when you need to!



‘Monday Prescription’  No.117 – Value yourself and what you can bring to the table. Unpaid projects are good for gathering experience, but when will it be your livelihood? Get paid!


Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
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