If I’ve learned one vital lesson in my lifetime, it’s that not all humans are ethically driven. This is particularly true in the fast-paced, highly-profitable world of filmmaking. Far too often, film professionals leverage their positions of power to exploit the hard work of those under their leadership.
In this post, we’ll discuss the shady tactics geared toward film crew members (and how to best spot them). Identifying broken promises before you agree to them is one of the best ways to turn your love of film into a full-blown career.
If you’re in any newly-profitable market, you’ve likely felt an influx of con artists. For every SpongeBob and Baywatch flick to roll cameras on the shores of my beloved Savannah, GA, there seem to be at least half-a-dozen low-budget films with snake-oil producers or clueless young optimists at the helm. Though having a low budget isn’t always an indicator of corruption, a shameful portion of low-budget filmmakers habitually make financial promises they simply can’t keep. These films get made, prodding the filmmakers to use this same model on the next pool of suckers. The wake of good people left behind are stuck trying to convince their communities that filmmaking is a vital industry while struggling themselves to pay the rent.
No matter how you spin it, scam artists in the film industry help no one but themselves.
Whitney Ince has met his fair share of promise-breaking producers.
As a sound mixer who has scaled the ranks over the past 15 years, he’s mixed sound for countless film & T.V. projects like “Trading Spaces” and Birth of a Nation. He’s also spent time on enough projects where the money’s dried up that he’s established some rules to protect himself.
According to Whitney, there are two big indicators to watch out for when sniffing out scams:
“If a movie wants to hire you,” Whitney says, “but it isn’t doing any kind of payroll, that’s red flag number one. I don’t care if it’s union or non-union. A film production should always do payroll. That’s the law.”
It’s much harder to get what’s owed to you if there’s no paper trail showing what’s been paid and what hasn’t. A daily call sheet is another great resource for accountability. Not only does it give crew members the contact information of the people responsible for paying them, it provides proof that you were working on set that day.
“If a job doesn’t want to give you petty cash or a company card,” Whitney continues, “and you’re in a position that requires you to spend money, that’s another red flag.”
Generally, petty cash is doled out in $500 increments, so if the film’s accountant gives you three dollars and a nickel, be wary. Additionally, if a film project wants you to pay for production-related expenses upfront (such as a hotel room), and they promise to reimburse you, they’re probably not going to pay you back. And they probably don’t have enough money to pay what you end up earning for the duration of the project.
“I don’t invest in films. I invest in the stock market. There’s a better return in the stock market.”
Whitney Ince, sound mixer
Save detrimental financial sacrifices for your own passion projects, if sacrifice you must.
Whether you’re a crew member or an actor, you’ll also want to look out for those little quirks that, together, add up to strategic shadiness. Corporate production scams can sometimes be more difficult to sniff out.
“If they’re calling you from a blocked or unknown number, that’s often from a large company with a bad reputation,” Whitney says. “They want to appear like a smaller projects so you’ll agree to letting them pay you less.”
Any agreement made over the phone should immediately be followed up with an email that clarifies what you agreed to. You’ll also want to ask for a response to show the desired person received it. Paper trails are your friends!
If the filmmaker contacts you via email, but he/she is using a personal email address with no confidentiality blurb in the signature, be wary. There’s a good chance you’re dealing with someone claiming to have more clout than he/she actually possesses.
“If a movie doesn’t at least have a budget of a couple of hundred-thousand dollars and some semblance of a power structure, I’d steer clear,” Whitney advises.
These days, Whitney personally avoids any film project with a budget under $2 ½ million.
“I know what I’m worth, and I know how to get paid.”
Whitney Ince, sound mixer
Ultimately, you’ll have to determine the worth of your skills. If you don’t, self-serving low-ballers will gladly assign your worth for you. That doesn’t mean if you decide one day you’re done being a mail carrier and want to now run a camera that you should demand top union-level pay. If you’ve consistently displayed mastery of your skill set on multiple film sets, though, while climbing the ranks of your department, maybe you shouldn’t fill your calendar with those short-film gigs that pay in pizza and a “great experience.”
Often agreeing to a rate lower than your norm isn’t worth the hassle of trying to get a production to pay you when they’ve run out of money. If a film opportunity seems fishy, you’re probably better off putting together a yard sale that month or doing a few odd jobs to pay the rent.
A funny thing happens when you put a price tag on your worth. Suddenly, it seems you’re more appealing to the higher-end, more reputable producers. Many of the producers consistently running out of money start connecting the dots that they shouldn’t even bother with you — especially if you get the noble reputation for warning others of their schemes. Integrity will always be a valuable asset for those who choose to incorporate it into their business dealings.
At this point, you might be saying, “That’s not fair! I’ve got a killer film idea, but I don’t have the resources of a big studio project. How am I supposed to see my vision onscreen without a talented and experienced crew?”
My answer to you would be to start on a level playing field. Just because you’re willing to eat ramen for a year to see your passion project on the big screen doesn’t mean you can expect those same sacrifices from everyone else. Keep your expectations reasonable when you’re in charge. Only propose sacrifices to that talented inner circle ready to climb the ranks with you. Your top goal should be perfecting a business model that includes making more money than you lose. Within that framework, make legitimate filmmaking with an ethically-paid crew your number-one priority.
“I don’t think most indie people making films for the first time are necessarily scammers,” Whitney clarifies. “They’re just inexperienced. Most people are genuine and honest. I find that a bunch of times, it’s just poor communication.”
Though Whitney and I often lament the illegitimate projects flooding into film markets these days, he’s doing well for himself by getting higher-paying corporate gigs on a less frequent basis.
“If you’re in the film business, you’re much better taking a lower position on a higher-end production,” Whitney advises. “You’ll learn more about the right way to make movies, and you’ll usually end up getting paid more in that lower position. You’re not having to chase down what little money a small production might’ve promised you.”
By not worrying about getting involved in every project that comes into town, Whitney’s making about the same amount promised by an accumulation of all the low-budget features knocking on his door. He’s finding more time to spend with his wife, and he even gets to rest a bit between projects. To me, this looks like the formula for prolonged success and a burnout-free film career.
Did I miss a scammy tactic geared toward film crew? Add your thoughts in the comments below!
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