Paid vs Unpaid Work

By December 10, 2015Film and TV

In the Australian film industry, passion drives us. Passion, however, isn’t always great for our bank account. In a country where capitalism or at least the need for money is embedded in our society, how do you balance creativity with food?

This problem got to me recently, after I saw lots of examples where passion seemed to be exploited, or too great an expectation was placed on people who weren’t getting remunerated for their efforts. Reading and hearing thoughts, what I gathered as the dominant belief or culture in the Melbourne film scene is that when you have a creative opportunity that is unpaid, and you agree to take part in it, you should be committed to the (bitter) end. You should not leave if a paid job comes up. There seems to be a great deal of bemoaning the “softness” of students these days, glorification of how difficult film sets are, a martyrdom in the form of 15 hour night shoots and grueling weeks of cashless commitment. This, it seems, is something students and neophytes should not only be party to, but appreciate.

Why? That sounds bloody awful.

As an emerging producer, I’ve come to understand my role as a facilitator of creativity. Part of that role is in creating a culture or environment where each person feels respected, valued and an important part of the production. Everyone, from the director, heads of department through to the producion assistants and runners, should be adding to the film in some way. Heads of department, honestly, are easy. They can get the most creative satisfaction, because they get to use the fullest range of their skills to contribute. This visibility of personal passion connecting to the overall project dilutes consideration of payment. Think, though, of the assistant. The grip. The runner. The intern. Why are they there?

I, like most of my peers, take commitment seriously. However, I always ask myself, “Why should this person commit?” As a producer, I need commitment to be genuine, and authenticity can only come from incentives that matter, have value. Creative pursuit, money, experience, elevation are all equally as valid, but every person has a different mix of emphasis, changing day to day, year to year.

So when I’m looking at a volunteer position on a production, I’d be setting us up to fail if I didn’t take each person and explore what they value, and why they are volunteering. If the value and the why don’t match with what we’re doing, or I can’t provide it for them, then this isn’t the project for them.

The harsh truth is, money can pave over shitty experience, stunted artistic contribution or lateral movement. As a producer, I get to cultivate a culture through the choices I make. Those tie back to my values, forged, funnily enough, through my time volunteering on other productions. I know how hard it is to utlise passion when I’m under financial stress, so when someone gets offered a paid job, I tell them to take it. Safeguards are put in place, like the expectation that you find your replacement, or that certain dates or times aren’t negotiable – but these are eatablished early, and if someone can’t commit to them, then great! We all avoided future pain.

If producers and heads of departments are creating production cultures where underappreciaton and underpaymemt are rife, and where opportunities for development, elevation and new experiences aren’t valued or encouraged, what can they expect in return? Overwhelming expectation without payment or fair recoupment is exploitation. Instead of bemoaning the negative reactions to productions, I suggest those in charge should ask more of themselves, starting with, “Why?” It’s our responsibility to build a sustainable industry that finds ways to get the best out of people. All it takes is commitment from those in charge.


  • Mitch says:

    Hi Simon I like the way you’re thinking about this. If the person is working unpaid they are either your mate and helping you out or they want something for their work, usually some training, experience that will help get them paid work seems to be top of the pile. Bottom line is you have to engage the person, find out the answer to the What’s in it for me’ question and try to provide that or a feasible substitute for them. Good luck.

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