Paying wages: is film sustainable?

I am currently prepping the course that I am teaching in Practical Film Producing in January. One of the issues that I am thinking about is the issue of paying people: cast and crew.

As a Short Film Producer, I am often working on a micro-budget. Some films may be self-funded (e.g. by the Director). Some may have a budget from a client. Some we have raised funds from crowd-funding.

The problem with a solely self-funded film is that you don’t have an external assessment. You are making the film for you rather than for the audience, and you and your decisions are not liable to an investor. For this reason, Producers should not be putting up their own funds – they must find external investment.

The Producer creates the budget. In micro-budget films, the above-the-line costs usually get waived (scriptwriters fee, director’s fee, producer’s fee). Why should you get paid if no-one else is? Then you use your script breakdown to plan the rest of the budget. You will be looking at locations (permits, transport), crew (who do you need, on how many days, catering), equipment (incl. kit fees), post-production and deliverables, marketing and distribution. In my experience, the largest costs are catering and transport(1). Many micro-budget filmmakers would rather that the money that is spent appears on-screen. They will spend money on camera and lighting equipment, and will ask their crew to work for free. Some filmmakers will pay the talent before paying the crew, because the performance will be on-screen.

How is this sustainable? At the Guerilla Filmmakers Producer’s Masterclass, Chris Jones and Stephen Follows introduced that there are five stages of Producing.

The first stage: Basic Production.
You’re learning the ropes. You’re helping out on productions.

The second stage: Practical Producer.
You’re producing your first micro-budget shorts with no commercial value. You are entering the films into film festivals and competitions. You might even make a micro-budget feature.

The third stage: The Attempt At The Summit.
You make the breakout film. You’re getting investment.

The fourth stage: The Creative Producer.
Your film company is a profitable small business. You make the game-changer film.

The fifth stage: The Prolific Producer.
You are in control

In stage one, you’re going out and making films with your friends. It is easier to ask friends to work for free. They know you and your passion and you can make it up to them in other ways. As you make more and better projects, you build your network and the amount of people who you can ask to work on your project. Crew that are asked to work for free are being approached by Stage 1 and Stage 2 Producers.

Now the (often unsaid) agreement is that the people you work with on unpaid films are the ones that you will hire as soon as you are paying.  You learn filmmaking by doing it, and filmmaking is a collaborative medium, so you do have to rely on other people to help you to gain experience. You work with people on the unpaid projects, and, if you get on and like them, you’ll hire them again.

But that means that people can go for years before getting paid, and years before earning a living wage.

Filmmaking is the only industry I know that does this.

Now, this is Independent Film. If one got a paid job in filmmaking (such as with a studio or a post-production house), then one could use their salary to pay for their Independent Films. The same issue occurs though – paying your cast and crew.

The Blue Book

In New Zealand, Film Employment Best Practices are outlined in The Blue Book. Crew are generally non-unionized contractors, so can negotiate their own fee with the Production Company/Producer. In general internationally, once crew are paid, it is a high rate in comparison to other industries.

I recently helped out with a London Calling application. Film London had a budget template for submissions. Film London had to be the controlling investor with £4,000; the film budget could go up to £8,000. Usually one would spend all of that on equipment, catering, Art Department, Deliverables etc. But as part of the application, Producers had to agree to pay their cast and crew at least National Minimum Wage. They could have students for free, and the above-the-line players could waive their fee. But the cast and crew had to be paid. And believe me, the budget was difficult. Even kit fees were hard to cover; we had to work out what we could get ‘in kind’ or, basically, for free. Paying a minimum wage should not be difficult. But Producers’ hands are tied by the amount of money that they can raise.

I attended the Screen International Film Summit on Monday. The majority of films that are being made are either microbudget (less than £1m) or high budget (£4m+). There is a dearth of medium budget films (£1m to £4m). This is the same situation internationally. Filmmakers with years of experience and a proven track record are struggling to make their medium budget films (including Gaylene Preston and Mike Leigh). No longer is there the promise that microbudget filmmakers will be able to transition to medium budget and will be able to pay their crew decent wages, because the medium budget range is dying out.

Microbudget Filmmakers, in order to get the experience they need are struggling to pay their crew, or are using free crew to make their films. This is only sustainable for crew if they work on high budget productions: but, if they are not union members, or if they don’t have recognizable credits, can they?

For the industry to be sustainable, Producers need to move away from the freebie mentality. For this to happen, there needs to be more training for microbudget producers on how to raise funds effectively, how to budget for cast and crew wages, and how to build a sustainable business model. There needs to be an aim for recognizing training earned on microbudget films, and support for crew to move to higher budget projects.

What are your thoughts?

Call for more training of microbudget filmmakers


Here’s my issue as well. I am a unionist. I have issues with minimum wage, and would rather people are paid a minimum wage. MacDonalds and Walmart pay minimum wage straight away… but the Film Industry only pays minimum wage after you’ve worked for free for a couple of years??

Also, this.



(1) More so in Wellington, where people drove to locations. We arranged car pooling to minimise transport costs. In London, more people use the tube or bus, and they tend to already have money on their Oyster card so forget to provide receipts. The transport cost in London is for a taxi for the gear.

Links “The Hard Truth: Filmmaking Is Not A Job“. 01 September 2010. Blog post. Accessed October 2013.

Published by phetheringtonnz

Film Producer, Director, Lecturer. From NZ based in London.

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