Occasionally, I receive correspondence from film students who want advice on how to break into the film industry. I always oblige and answer their questions to the best of my ability. I received an email from a disappointed newcomer to the film business who worked on a film as a PA for no pay. And then, he worked for the same producer on another film for no pay. Now, the producer is not willing to hire him for the next film, let alone pay him any money for his work.
The newcomer asked me how come he isn't getting any paid gigs yet. What's wrong with this producer? What's wrong with the film industry?
First of all, working for free in the film business doesn't sound like a very good idea and certainly not something you'd want -- or be able -- to do for too long, but it is a way to get a foot in the door. This newcomer certainly had his foot in the door even though he wasn't making any money. I hope he was at least getting fed.
Although this kind of arrangement may appear to be a serious exploitation of crew members, it can actually be mutually beneficial to both the producer and crew. How else can a filmmaker with little or no money for a production get a crew? How else can inexperienced crew members get experience? Ultimately -- whether the film is a success or not and to at least some extent both sides get what they want; the filmmaker gets his film made, and the new crew members get some valuable experience that they can put on their resumes and even network on the set.
The fact that the he worked twice for the same producer for no money might not have been the best investment of his time. Perhaps the producer wasn't impressed with his work habits either, but then why would the producer "hire" him twice. The newcomer didn't give me any details to the producer, so I am only guessing, which isn't effective.
He asked what was wrong with the film industry. To answer his question I told him that there is another way for people to work for free under the watchful eye of the industry's Big Brother -- film schools or universities. They're called internships and they are often part of a formal course of study at a four-year college, which costs money. It's not cheap. But, you do have some form of regulating by the educational foundations, so students are not "exploited."
Entering into an internship is considered by some in the business to be a noble action, because it suggests that you be so committed to the industry that you're even willing to break in by working for free after paying such a large tuition. However, there are some production companies that pay interns minimum wage. But still that's not much and better than nothing.
When I started out I worked on three projects for no pay to get experience. One was a 5-line part in an independent feature film, which only took two hours of working time. The other two were for behind the scenes jobs. One as a PA for half a day, and the other as a writer, gofer and associate producer. I invested my talents for free to build my resume and to network, which all paid off.
So, I still encourage people who are starting out in the film business to offer to work on a production for free. If you go this route it is imperative that you utilize your investment by proving to the producer that you are serious about working in film, and most important of all network with the crew to find a paying job after this production has wrapped.