Archive for July, 2011


Collaboration or exploitation?

July 26, 2011

The film community is always beating around the same issues. Regardless of the topic (film vs video, quality of broadcast content, the worth of festivals etc), the debates seem to go in circles and then die out only to be bought back whenever some new project hits the headlines and people get up in arms again. The current one is about pay- who should get it, how much it should be and what this means for those at the bottom of the totem pole.

For those who don’t follow these things, the film and video production industry is a little different from other professions. If you’re working as a teacher, there’s a standard of study you have to achieve, certification you have to earn (PGCEs etc), internships, probations and unions to keep things standardised. You can’t just rock up at a school, claim you’re a teacher and get a job teaching English. Yet in the media industry, that sort of thing happens all the time. You hear tales of the kid who gets a job as a runner or PA on set and impresses people so much that he gets hired to direct the next project or the ex-student who makes a film with his buddies and bankrupts himself but gets it picked up at a festival (hello Kevin Smith). We at the bottom of the filmmaking ladder love these stories because they make achieving our goals seem possible (if apocryphal) and they motivate us. These sort of improbable but possible things can happen because there’s not a single standardised route into the industry (qualifications mean jack shit, there’s no recognised training schemes etc) and because the industry itself has such a broad range of work types, standards and levels of production (everything from wedding videos to feature films). As such, the playing field is open not only for a range of abilities and opportunities, but also for a huge variety of pay and non-pay levels- which can lead to serious problems.

Under UK law, if you work for someone you deserve to be paid. And the rate you get paid is the National Minimum Wage (NMW). If you’re a freelancer, you can set your own rate of pay and work for free if you like, but you’d be doing a disservice to yourself and everyone else in the industry.

At the moment, there are so many people trying to get into the industry, that employers know they can offer work as “expenses-only/ deferred payment/ showreel and experience” and people will bite their hands off for the opportunity. Currently, many people see this as exploitative (and rightly so) since the company is making money, or otherwise gaining, off the work of those who are not being reimbursed for it. There’s a lot of talk about bringing in legislation to stop this from happening- which is a good thing.

But what of the collaboration projects? The short films or no-budget features destined for small festivals or the internet? Should they be painted with the same brush as the production companies selling their shows to broadcasters? Legally, where collaboration ends and work begins is down to whether or not you’re being paid. Since whether or not you should be paid is the issue, this makes things a bit tricky. It’s because of this inherent difficulty of definition that the law is as blurry as a Monet after it’s been through a washing machine.

So, in the hope of helping to define what a collaboration project is, I have a few suggestions…

1) In order to be a collaboration, no-one gets paid and no-one earns any money from the project. Whoever’s putting money in and holding the purse strings is doing so for the hell of it and will never see a return- not even to break even. If a single penny is earnt off the film, then it’s not a collaboration.

2) Although someone may be in charge of the project- the director, the producer etc- everyone has an equal investment in the show because they are all contributing their time and effort for a) fun, b) credit and c) reel material. (As a side note, if reel material is promised, it needs to be delivered quickly- I’ve been involved with shoots where edits took over a year and this wasn’t fair on anyone who devoted their time to the project. If you know your editor’s slow and or shit, either get a new editor or don’t promise showreel material.) This means the film is “owned” collectively by everyone and nothing can really be done with it unless everyone agrees.

3) Technically, no one should be paid expenses either since by collaborating you are doing the project for the project’s sake alone. This means when you look for cast and crew, you really have to look locally- it’s the only way to be fair. Paying one actor a tenner’s worth of petrol money and paying another actor £200 to get him down from Birmingham and back on the train isn’t a fair scenario.

4) If we’re being honest, food shouldn’t be provided either under this ruling, but here’s where I’d say the rules need to be bent. Not feeding people is fucking retarded. A well-fed cast and crew are a happy and productive cast and crew. You scrimp on this and you won’t have anyone come back for day two. Besides, people think of expenses as pay because it’s redeemed as cash- food is food and won’t count as payment in anyone’s mind- although I always find a tub of Haribo can always be used as a bribe on set!

What all this means is that in order to have a truly collaborative project and thus hopefully not fall into the whole ravine of pay and legal issues (I say hopefully because there’s no definitive legal ruling on all this), you have to be honest about your project and what you want to do wih it. If you want to sell it, you have to pay people. If you’re going to enter it into festivals with cash prizes, that counts as profiting from it and you have to pay people. If you want to own it yourself alone, then you have to pay people. If you don’t have the resources to pay people up front, I’d suggest looking at dividing any profits- but with this everyone would need to be treated equally in terms of percentages regardless of their role or contribution to the project and you’d need to get the right paperwork drafted.

If, after reading all these caveats, you decide your project isn’t a collaboration, then you’re into the area of having to pay and how much. There are legal issues here as well as the NMW to consider and you will now have to think of funding as investing- which means you have to be sure your project will earn off it’s investment. If you want to earn, then you need to know your audience, have a distribution plan, spend money and resources wisely and think about cost vs reward. If you want to make a self-indulgent, pretentious, tribute-heavy film that only appeals to you and a few black-polo-neck-wearing individuals, then I’d resign yourself to the fact that any money in is gone forever.

After all, artists are poor, right?