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10.04.2014

PRODUCTION TIPS: Ending a Horrible Film/TV Industry Practice: "Paying on an Unpaid Basis"

REPOSTED FROM MY OTHER BLOG: LENSATIC

I have always admired the low-budget filmmaker who can make something beautiful or daring or entertaining with the tiniest budget.  Unfortunately, the low-budget filmmaker is not the rarity but the norm.  There is no shortage of filmmakers trying to create even if it means at negative cost to themselves because there is so much potential financial and personal reward in the end.  Maybe that's why the industry has been able to get away with paying nothing for highly creative and technical services and expensive equipment.  That's done more harm than good in the grand scheme of things. 

That is why Charles Davis has done the industry a service by reporting on the internship abuse in the entertainment industry.  In a post for The Baffler, he tracks and outs the production companies that continue to perpetuate one of the worst practices of the film and TV industry: failing to pay workers a real wage by offering instead "pay on an unpaid basis."
The awkward phrasing may be new, forced on companies by the constraints of a popular entertainment-industry job board on Mandy.com, but the phenomenon of not paying people for their work in the television and film industry goes back years. The perceived glamour of Hollywood has long allowed companies to exploit the labor of desperate but fairly privileged young people by convincing them to accept “experience” and “networking opportunities” in lieu of dollars and cents.
You would think that after the Black Swan case, production companies and studios would know better. Especially since, based on the conclusions of the case, a studio or a network could be held responsible for the actions of a production company they farm out projects to. The reasoning behind it being that the studios and the networks are the ones to ultimately benefit the most from the production.  But search Mandy.com, like Charles did, and it's a different story:
If you search Mandy.com for the phrase “payment is on an unpaid basis,” you’ll find dozens upon dozens of opportunities to work as a film editor or a production assistant or even a puppet master where all that’s offered is the ability to add a credit to one’s IMDB page and maybe get a complimentary DVD of the production. The story’s the same everywhere. In late July, for instance, the United Talent Agency in Hollywood sent its members a list of more than one hundred job opportunities, a quarter of which were for positions described either as “unpaid” or as requiring employees to receive academic credit—which is typically code for unpaid. 
“Experience” is what people are increasingly being paid with—it’s a twenty-first-century currency that can be used to buy future “opportunities,” if not food and housing.
When Charles contacted networks like Showtime and Adult Swim about the ads that production companies they've made deals with have put out, they plead ignorance. 
[A] “Showtime documentary about Kobe Bryant was looking for Archive Interns to assist in the research process,” according to a job listing posted by Dirty Robber, a production company helping make the film, Kobe Bryant’s Muse, directed by Gotham Chopra (son of Deepak). “This is a full-time, three-week commitment starting as soon as possible,” the listing added. “Unfortunately it is no-pay.” Unpaid employees would, however, get the chance to add “a high-profile documentary” to their IMDB page.  
Experience and bragging rights aside, why weren’t they being paid in actual dollars? That’s what I asked a spokesperson for Showtime, who told me over the phone that the network does not condone unpaid labor, and never has.
As a result of Charles inquiry, Showtime contacted Dirty Robber and set them straight.
After I brought the ad for unpaid interns to her attention, she (Showtime representative) told me in a follow-up conversation that the network had acted swiftly, reaching out to the production company to get answers. According to Showtime, Dirty Robber said that the ad was an error, deleted the posting, and promised that all interns who were already brought on to the production would be paid.
Unfortunately, this practice is not just relegated to the "evil corporate types trying to take advantage of  the small guy.  Even filmmakers with a rep for social consciousness  and justice are playing foul.
A-Town Boyz is “a feature-length documentary about the growing up experiences of Asian American men in Atlanta, Georgia,” according to the promotional website from Delphin Films. Spike Lee is an executive producer for the film, which is looking to hire a production assistant who has “an interest in social justice [documentaries] as well as issues related to Asian Americans, immigration, masculinity, and marginalization of [people of color].” Despite the social justice angle, however, the position—which involves “proofreading grant applications, as well as creating social media content”—is not paid, though the eight-hour-per-week time commitment and option to work remotely makes it far from the worst opportunity out there.
These companies bank on getting away with it by flying below the radar even though what they do is an open secret.  However, outing the companies works:
Sometimes, in these cases, all that’s needed to fix the problem is a little exposure: rat out the production company and one just might get some change. So I tried that with Abso Lutely Productions after I saw that it was looking for “art department interns” to work on Hot Package, a television show that airs on the Adult Swim television network. According to the ad, interns are expected to work “a minimum of 12 hour days,” at least three days a week. The reimbursement: An “amazing opportunity to get hands-on experience,” plus lunch and snacks—and nothing else.
I wrote to a spokesperson at Adult Swim, which is owned by Turner Broadcasting, to ask about the ad. “It is Turner’s policy to pay our interns,” I heard back. “We cannot comment on the practices of Abso Lutely Productions.”
And so I reached out to Abso Lutely itself, to see whether Adult Swim may have come down on the smaller production company, which was founded by Adult Swim stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Almost immediately, I heard back from Abso Lutely producer Dave Kneebone, who told me that his company had not discussed staffing or internships with Turner or Adult Swim. He said the ad I had found “was posted in error by one of our associate producers and not in line with our hiring practices.” The ad had been taken down and would be corrected and reposted, Kneebone said, to reflect that “we do, in fact, pay our interns.”
The industry knows that as long as there are people with a desire and a dream to work on a film, there will be people exploiting them. The decision-makers in the industry need to put their foot down but not just their responsibility.  Everyone who works in film or television or aspires to needs to put a stop to it.  (As always there is a caveat in that there are people who "hire" their friends and family or find real professionals willing to work for free but usually the time commitment and responsibilities are modest and the filmmaker does their best to accommodate them in recognition of the favor they are providing.  It's a fine line but I think we can all agree that are exceptions for situations like that.)

If you are a college student or in a film school, discuss an internship with your guidance counselor or film department advisors.  Know what the expectations and time limits of your internship are. REMEMBER, an internship is supposed to benefit you with knowledge, not benefit the employer with free labor.


If you are a freelancer (cast or crew), don't take a job that pays you nothing.  Your skills, creativity, equipment and presence are worth something and you should be compensated for it.  I am a firm believer that if starting today, everyone would stop taking unpaid jobs from filmmakers who can actually pay something, the practice would be eradicated and it would be a good thing.  But I understand that it's hard to command a price when you are starting out or when there are still so many people willing to take that unpaid job.  So until the practice is eradicated, if you are tempted to take a free job just for the credit, have clear and defined limits. YOU are doing the filmmaker a favor and they should be appreciative of that fact.  They shouldn't be trying to force you to do nudity or work 14 hour days for 2 weeks straight.  They shouldn't bitch about your unavailability because your paying job is not as flexible as they'd like. 


If you are a low-budget filmmaker and producer, stop looking for free labor.  If it means raising more money or paying yourself less or renting out cheaper equipment, do it.  People are worth more than a fancy prop.  Besides, you might end up getting sued by someone who you "hired on an unpaid basis" and has hit rockbottom and wants nothing more to do with the industry. What's that person got to lose?  Don't just offer deferred compensation, credit and pizza; offer profit participation.  Share in the sacrifice and be willing to give. Without the talents and work of your cast and crew, your directorial debut wouldn't exist.


If you are producer or production company with a mid to high budget or studio and network money, the only people working for free on your set should be the 1 or 2 college interns who you hired for THEIR benefit. Not to replace the production coordinator you chose not to hire to save money or something like that.  Everyone else should be paid their worth for their time and labor.


If you are a studio or network, demand that your producers and production companies get their act together.  You're the one with the big cheese that the abused mice are coming after. FOX may be appealing their loss in the Black Swan case but there is now a precedent that studios and networks can be held responsible for intern and unpaid labor abuse. 


If you come across an ad on Mandy.com or Indeed.com or wherever looking to "pay on an unpaid basis," out them, online or offline.  If they are attached to a major studio or network, contact the studio and network and tell them what that particular producer is doing in their name. 


The less people work for free, the more people will have to start paying for it. It's that simple.

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