Most artist types work for free. Screenwriters send out spec scripts, painters create non-commissioned masterpieces, poets keep journals filled with brilliance no one may ever see, and actors devote hundreds of hours to character development only to step out onto a dark stage in front of a welcoming audience of a dozen patrons, maybe.
Certainly, by choosing to pursue this line of work (and aspiring to do so in a major market as opposed to sticking with the “Let’s Put on a Show!” big fish vibe of your hometown), you know you’ve signed up to work for free more often than folks in any other profession. But that doesn’t mean you should always give it away. Definitely (and thankfully) there are times when you should choose not to work for free. And there are those times when the benefits to working for free far outweigh any stipend you’d likely receive, were you to hold out for such a thing (and believe me, most often, there’s nothing to hold out for. Someone else will do the job for free if you won’t).
So, let’s break it down. What are the circumstances under which you should, absolutely, choose to trade your work for no financial gain?
If you’ve never been on a set, certainly, you’ll want to work for free when you are being given an opportunity to learn from professionals who’ve invited you to play “for real.” If you don’t know the difference between a grip and a gaffer, I recommend you consider volunteering to work as a production assistant (a PA) on a friend’s film someday, just so you can begin to learn who the players are on any given set. This is the same reason extra work can be such a beneficial choice, at the beginning of your acting career. You will spend hours on a professional set without being asked to do much more than wait (a lot) and then stand or sit where you’re told when you’re told to do so. If you’re wise, you’ll take the opportunity to learn from as many “old pros” on the set as possible (and I don’t mean the careerists who sit around and complain or gossip).
If your resume is light on text and heavy on white space, you need to build your credits (along with your training, of course). Doing a project for free in exchange for “copy, credit, meals” (which means you’ll get a copy of the finished product, credit in the finished product, and meals while on the set) is a great tradeoff for the beginning actor. In a short student film, for example, a new actor is much more likely to get a leading role than he would be in a studio feature film. When you’re building your resume (and proving that filmmakers can begin to take a risk on you), credit is one of the most valuable items you can get in-trade for your work.
“Material” covers two things: you need material (like you need the credit, above) and you love the material you’re being asked to work on. Assuming we’re talking about the former, remember that just as you build your resume with credits, you build your demo reel with copies of your work. At the beginning, that could mean quite a bit of work you did for free. Make sure, at the very beginning of the commitment, to verify the contact information for the person in charge of getting your copy to you. I know you aren’t thinking, in the honeymoon stages of being cast, that anyone would ever forget to fulfill a commitment to provide material in exchange for all of that hard work you did for free. Well, believe me, it can (and will) happen. So, get that producer’s contact info up front and stay in touch throughout the post-production phase.
Now, regarding the second definition of “material” I suggested, above, this remains a reason to work for free long after the beginning of your career. Name actors will occasionally become so endeared by material that they waive their quote (the rate at which they are normally paid to work) in favor of receiving SAG scale (and often, they’ll contribute that money back to the production) to be a part of a project they feel extraordinarily passionate about. There are still two SAG contracts under which SAG actors can work for free (the Student Film Agreement and the Short Film Agreement). When reviewing material, ask yourself what it would take to get you involved. If you’re a working actor at a certain quote level, ask yourself whether the material is so strong you’ll consider working for below-quote. Know how low you’re willing to let your rate go, in order to be involved with material you feel strongly about.
Someone is involved in a project with whom you’ve always wanted to work (or, perhaps it’s a person with whom you’ve worked before and you’ve always said you’d work with him or her again in a heartbeat, because the experience was so wonderful). That’s a great reason to work for free. You know, based on the person’s track record, for example, that this will be a great project, simply because that person is involved. Or, you’ve heard other actors talk about spikes in their own careers due to having been involved with a particular producer or director or writer or other actor. These are great reasons to choose to do free work. And, hey, if everyone on the set is as cool as the person you’ve been dying to work with, look at all of the potential new relationships you get, just by showing up on set! No one knows where anyone in this business will be next year. The benefits that come from investing in industry relationships cannot be measured on a financial ledger.
Just as you hope there are folks who will extend offers to you so that you can learn and grow as a performer, there will be times when you, as a performer, can extend offers to others so that they can learn and grow in their chosen fields. I frequently see “favor gigs” in short films. Name actors with no clear reason for doing a project will end up signing up for the work as a way of helping out a young filmmaker or writer in whose work they believe. Sit through a bunch of short films at any decent festival and you’ll see quite a few award-nominated actors in cameo roles. Their willingness to donate their time (and their reputation, as the producers may end up using the name actors’ names to pitch the project) is usually a form of mentoring. They know indie filmmakers have an uphill battle. Their contributed performance can make all the difference. Go ahead and make a point of committing to this now. Before you’re a name. Those who come up the ladder after you will appreciate it!
Not Otherwise Engaged
If you’re not busy doing something else, why not?!? Of course, this isn’t the best reason to work for free, but remember that a workout is always good for you. Whenever you’re twiddling your thumbs, wondering when the phone is going to ring, remember that you probably could’ve been spending time working on your craft. A workout — especially one in which you benefit otherwise (see above-listed reasons for doing free work) — is something an actor should welcome. Heck, it’s something an actor should crave! If you’re not working out regularly in a play, in a class, in a staged reading series, in workshops, in an ongoing paid gig… well, you should definitely look into offering up your talent in exchange for the benefits to your acting muscles!
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000292.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.