Welcome to part one of two (or maybe three) about the life of freebies. It’s a fun and unique aspect to the creative freelance market which has its ups and downs. In the real world of W-2 employment, you have a lot of cool benefits many who have never worked as a 1099 individual may not always appreciate. Examples? W-2s have paid time off, paid sick time, FMLA, health insurance (the biggest fraud since the IRS), retirement plans, your taxes paid out of each check so you don’t owe at the end of the year, and other fun perks. As a self-employed 1099 kook, you have none of those things and are also penetrated in the rear by the IRS.
However, there are some perks to this (not the forced sexual encounter with the IRS): freedom to create your own schedule, no asshole boss to report to every day, the ability to write off a bunch of your expenses at the end of the year and, well, you’re also probably doing something you genuinely love. And, a part of the creative lifestyle of a 1099er who gets used and abused by the IRS and health insurance companies is the occasional jobs you knowingly accept to do for the unreal price of: FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Why in the world would you ever work for free? In the freelance world, like it or not, it is very common. Especially when you are starting out as a photographer, filmmaker, designer, etc; the chances are your skills are terrible and you have no clients. So, you’re green and just want the experience and to build your portfolio, network, and grow so you can start finding and landing paying clients. That is how it works.
When I was starting out, I spent 2004 to 2007 working for free. It was part of the process to learn, gain experience, build the portfolio, and figure out how to make a name for yourself. And, over time, things move in a direction where working for free becomes a thing of the past and paid gigs become the standard. However, if there is one piece of advice I could give to anyone in this world, it is that you are also never too good to work for free. Granted, I would never go shoot a dirt bike video for free. As I’ve managed to establish myself as one of the main dorks in the dirt bike video world and am in year 13 of this industry, chances are I am not working for free to make your dirt bike video (there is always exceptions to this rule for me within moto). However, here is the catch: the narrative world…
In the scripted narrative world I am a literally nobody in a massively saturated market of talented cinematographers. I am at the bottom of the barrel, trying to make a name for myself in a world that has no idea I exist. What does that mean? It’s 2004 all over again. The scripted narrative stuff I do is for massively reduced day rates or all together for free because the budgets on these micro-budget films are literally just that: micro-budget/no budget. Example? The short film I am currently DP’ing called, Benny Bill.
Benny Bill is a no budget three day short film directed by a young college film student from Riverside, CA. Not only am I donating all of my time for free, but also my entire camera package, lighting package, and G&E package. As if that wasn’t already a steal, it’s usually up to me to then go out and hire my camera department and G&E crew and convince them (hopefully) to also donate all of their time for free to what is, essentially, a passion project so we can further improve on our craft.
These waters can be murky, especially if it is a crew that is new to you. Do these individuals walk onto set with the same passion and desire to make something the best they can with the tools in front of them? Or, are they here to bitch and complain about working for free? If you agreed to jump on board knowing that it was all for free yet still bitch and complain, I am forever perplexed why you agreed to come on board. And, on day one of Benny Bill, we experienced just that. A certain crew member, who had full transparency in knowing that it was an unpaid project, arrived to set and instantly started complaining. As if the complaining wasn’t bad enough, the immense lack for urgency to get anything done was almost comical. The crew member also spent time hiding from the rest of the crew in what I can only assume was an attempt to avoid doing anything asked of him. In the end, before we wrapped the first day, there was a conversation had and this individual was asked to call it a day and head home without the need to return for the following days.
I understand that working for free is not rad. We all wan’t to earn a check so the IRS can take 90% of it and then we die and none of it mattered in the first place (Sorry. I’ve been on a George Carlin binge lately). But, in this creative realm of freelancing, working for free is literally part of the process and you should never turn down work just because there is not money attached to it. If the project peaks your interest and you believe it can provide a positive opportunity for growth, without question, jump on board. You stand a chance to meet some amazing individuals and learn a shit ton. And, if you also add in a positive attitude, guess what? That director, that DP, that gaffer, etc will remember this and reach out to hire you for the next job that has a paycheck attached to it. This current project (Benny Bill) has already introduced me to some wonderful and talented humans. My 1st AC, Cammie, is an absolute badass. Our steadicam operate Kevin won the MVP Award on day one for wearing multiple hats after we had to remove the bad egg and, because of their rad attitude and willingness to work on this for free, they will be added to my crew list of go-to people I will hire on my next paying narrative gig.
My point? If and when you need to, work for free. It’s fine. You’re never above working for free. Whether you’re trying to break into the moto industry or in the narrative world like I am right now, the connections and knowledge you can gain is invaluable and part of the process. I spent almost four years working for free in the moto industry before I ever garnered my first pay check and it was worth its weight in gold because those years got me to where I am at today. And, now I start the process all over again in the narrative space. Working for free and/or very low rates to gain that experience, gain that knowledge and, eventually, find myself DP’ing a show like Black Bird.
In part two of this Work4Free series, we will spend a bit more time breaking down what has gone into the process of bringing Benny Bill to life, what the struggles are on such small productions, and how you have to quickly problem solve issues to bring the directors vision to life with very little at your disposal. And, seriously, never have shame in working free. I can’t stress that shit enough. It is part of the process. Let nobody shame you for that. If you love what you are doing, it’s going to pay off. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point, it will pay off. Be stubborn, be patient, and be a good human. It will work.