If you have ever worked for free, this might be of your interest. I’ve lived and breathed film long enough to learn how to tell bullshit from honesty, and we all know there’s bullshit everywhere. The reason we all know is because we come up with our own crap, all the time. If you don’t think so, better stop now – either stop with the bullshit or stop reading this post.
We have all had more than one account of someone coming up to you and saying “this is gonna be a great opportunity in your career”, or “this will look great in your portfolio”, or “there’s gonna be others after this one”. These are all versions of something I’m gonna call “the deal of a lifetime”. By promising you the future, your employer convinces you the present is no big deal. We’re all poor right now, aren’t we? It feels good to dream of a plentiful future while we toil away. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. We pride ourselves in the stories of the money we’re owed (and unlikely to be ever paid). That’s our elusive future, the one we’re constantly promised yet never delivered.
We do things we hate in the hopes of being handsomely rewarded for it. We keep thinking these sacrifices are gonna pay out one day. Our desire for this future to be true, combined with the stories of success that populate our surroundings, is what perpetuates the cycle. EVERY film school tells stories of underdogs who rose to fame and fortune, of nobodies that turned millionaires overnight. “Film is an inclusive industry” you’ll hear over and over. The film industry is the American Dream that failed to die. Actually, that’s not true. The film industry is the failed American Dream that has enough money to disguise its shortcomings and repeated failures. It’s cheaper for the business as a whole to spend money advertising that all is well and continue to siphon dreamers like us, underpaid and overworked, than to admit its flaws and reward people properly. Later on, this environment will allow you to exploit someone else, the same way you were exploited throughout your career.
As I went through film school once more, less dreamy this time, I struggled trying to understand why our environment is so based on the concept of “you trying to sell how YOUR project is important to ME while I know full well that you don’t really mean what you say”; I know you’re the one getting the better deal; I know that, in your head, my role can be replaced while yours can’t; I know in the end, when reward comes, you’re the one reaping it while I watch from the distance. I don’t understand if I pretend to believe you as a way of justifying my poor choice – this bad investment of my time – or, if after being hammered over and over that this “is good for my career”, I actually believe it might be my big break.
It has taken me ten years of no big breaks to figure out some things for myself when it comes to work: Deals of a lifetime don’t come dressed as deals of a lifetime. It drives me crazy whenever someone tries to sell me their project as such deal for my career. I’ll know it when the time comes – IF it ever comes. I’m not too eager for the deal of a lifetime and this is why I prefer the honest take on work. If you want my services for little money, be upfront about it and let me decide if I want to join the team or not. Don’t try to convince me with some bullshit reason because we all know it’s a lie. Make sacrifices too. The last two sets I worked on, my superiors were getting less money than me because they cared more about the project, and that made me respect them tenfold.
I see a film set as a tiny functioning society and I don’t feel like putting my chips on a society that is the same or worse than the one we have on our daily lives. By that I mean a society in which there’s the top dog who eats steak for lunch and gets paid by the minute while some kid stays up for fifteen hours in the rain so they can get minimum wage. I believe the hierarchy is necessary on a film set and I know some jobs are more stressful or require more prep than others, but I don’t believe in the current wage gap. The system as it is only favors the type of competition in which people sabotage each other and don’t own up to their mistakes because they’re afraid of being fired or, even worse, blacklisted.
There’s a culture of putting your head down and trusting the system that your time will come. This only perpetuates the issues we have now. The unraveling we witness today is a consequence of empowering people who were silenced in the past. These aren’t new problems. They’re entrenched in our industry, remnants of a period based on inequality. Keeping your head down doesn’t encourage discussion or change. Discussion and change are the future, and much needed in the film industry.
I love film and I don’t want to change the magic that shrouds it. I am changing my approach to making films though, and so should you if want a better working environment for the years to come. When we’re the ones making the rules, let’s not repeat what we were told and what we went through. Let’s question it; Question how things can be improved and made better for everyone involved. Let’s bring to set the same magic we experience when watching a good film because, let’s face it, we spend way more time making films than watching them.