Last year I attended a screening in Edinburgh for a short film I’d made. After the film was shown I was invited on stage to do a Q&A for the audience. I tend to get a little nervous standing in front of a crowd however the enthusiasm of those in attendance helped rather than hinder my answers. One man asked what my budget was which led to the next question of whether I had paid my actors or not. When I had informed him I hadn’t he decided to press me further, almost interrogating me. I explained that no one on the crew had been paid however he wouldn’t let it go. It was a fair enough question and one I was prepared for but it got me thinking. Why did he ask specifically about the actors and no one else who worked on the film? Why had he sneered when I explained that I had written, co-produced and directed the film and received no pay for it? It’s a subject that doesn’t go away and has been at the centre of many debates I have witnessed on social media. I felt it was time to directly ask those it affects their opinions on the matter.
As well as being an experienced actress, Helen Raw runs the Raw Talent Company and is the elected Secretary of the East of Scotland Branch of Equity. “I practice what I preach and pay people on my productions (crew included).”
Mandy Bhari is an actress who has experienced both sides of the fence, “I have previously worked on films and theatre where no one was getting paid.” She explains that she was “…happy to work on these if it’s for a friend or if it’s a really great script.” She makes is clear though that she has no time for time wasting.
Paul Bruce runs the Leith Film Festival and is an amateur filmmaker in his own right. He doesn’t pay his actors in cash however he offers them a service in return. “As film-maker’s we can also offer cast various free services in lieu of payment. For example, I make available a quantity of high-quality production stills, I have also cut showreels free of charge in return for acting services and have also shot, edited and prepared audition DVDs etc. These are all things film-makers can offer cast in return for acting services and in many cases would cost cast several hundred pounds to have done privately by casting agencies.”
Andrew Doig runs the Loch Ness Film Festival and produces short films featuring mostly non-actors. “(Filmmaking) can be a demanding hobby thus why I don’t do very often. If you’re helping out so called professional directors or companies who have finance, budget or a payroll then you should ask for pay and expenses even if you are non-equity.”
I put forward the same questions to each individual and was not surprised to receive such contrasting opinions.
How active are you in ensuring that actors are paid for their work?
Helen: Very active! With my Equity hat on I chase up other companies who are consistently lax in paying and do my best to get money due to actors from companies. Some people just won’t pay and some can’t, however, you cannot be a student film maker forever – there comes a time where you need to start paying for your talent.
Mandy: I have an agent so any paid work is usually through my agent. I am an Equity member. I can’t say I’ve been very active in ensuring actors are getting paid but it’s something I’m more and more aware of and I will be getting involved.
Andrew: I usually organise around their schedule,not mine so its when there free and always try and shoot for no longer than 3 hours or so. There’s no audition process it’s usually people I know who are friends who have done a bit of acting on screen before or been involved in local theatre drama labs and if they are interested and available.
Paul: I think that the issue of paying cast in low-budget short films is perhaps the wrong question, we should really be asking why is Scottish Television and film production so underfunded compared to other parts of the UK? The reason we are making low-budget shorts is because publicly-funded broadcasters and film production units choose not to invest in Scottish productions.
Mandy: I think Equity or non-Equity, actors need to get paid for their work, even if it’s just minimum wage. I think if someone is making a film, they really need to take into account actor’s wages in their budget. I’ve worked on some films where they don’t even give you anything to eat or drink which I think is a disgrace. Actors put in a lot of time and effort and this needs to be recognised.
Paul: I think that its incumbent on all film-makers to set certain standards with regards to working with their cast and that at the very least, the film-maker should ensure that the cast’s expenses are met, thus ensuring that no actor is financially worse off for appearing in the film.
Helen: Roping friends and family in to help you on a project for nothing is one thing but putting out a casting, then expecting actors to learn lines for an audition, then to travel to that audition, then to be judged on their performance and then be offered the role/not offered a role without pay is a kick in the teeth in my opinion. If you want an actor for something but can’t afford to pay, don’t expect them to jump through the same hoops they would need to jump through for a professional and paid gig. It’s just rude. Just offer an actor the part without all the rigmarole. If you are auditioning to make sure you get someone suited to the part and able to act it, you gotta pay! Otherwise, get your sister’s brother’s pal to do it!
Andrew: If you’re helping out so called professional directors or companies who have finance, budget or a payroll then you should ask for pay and expenses even if you are non-equity.
Why do you think the focus appears to be on actors as opposed to writers, directors? Etc
Paul: I’m not sure why this should be, writers and directors make almost nothing whatsoever from short films. A short film-maker will almost certainly never recoup any of the outlay they put into a short film. Again, this comes back to the issue of serious under-investment in Scottish film/TV production.
Andrew: There is probably more of them, it must be far more difficult for writers, directors and crews as they are putting in far more hours organizing the production and especially if they are hiring the latest equipment as all their money would go towards that in the first place.
Mandy: I really think it’s because actor’s have a great union like Equity. I’m not sure what the union situation is with directors/writers etc but they also need to push to get paid for their work. Working in a creative job should be no different than a regular job. I’d imagine that a lot of actors have a big mouth, like me, and are willing to broadcast the situation.
Helen: Probably because actors are a bit more ‘gobby’ about it and Equity is all over this topic. Having said that, actors are their own worst nightmare because they will be on forum complaining about no pay but then you see them applying for every no paid job going. Having said that, everyone should be paid for their contribution.
If a film has little to no budget/self financed, and no one is getting paid, would you understand if the actors didn’t receive a fee either?
Helen: No I don’t understand this at all! If you are a bunch of pals making a film, fine. That’s a collaboration. The minute you start drafting people in from different areas it’s a bigger deal. If I can raise cash to pay people, so can you! Give up fags/wine/beer/cinema/eating out for a while and watch the cash come in! If you really have no money, use students or your pals – it’s simple really!
Paul: In my experience if you treat the cast with respect and hold to certain standards, if you are willing to help your cast I don’t think this would be a significant problem. The cast I have worked with have all understood that the film budget might mean they are not paid – expenses aside. As I pointed out, film-makers can provide valuable services to cast in lieu of payment, some of these services are certainly worth more than the minimum wage in any case. Casting agencies can typically charge several hundred pounds for cutting showreels and providing press kits etc.
Andrew: I would completely understand, you’re doing this to learn a craft or a skill, the director is essentially putting in the majority of work especially if they are editing the film, if the actor has a problem with the situation then they don’t have to do the project. In an ideal world everyone should get paid but you need the industry to make profit before you can achieve this but you can either sit there and wait for change to happen or go out and make films.
Mandy: Recently I’ve seen a lot of films crowdfunding and it’s a MUST that they factor in pay for actors in this. If you don’t want to pay actors, then get students to do it. It really annoys me when I see a casting call where they want you to jump through hoops but there’s no pay. Clearly some actors must do these jobs, however, I completely refuse. Lately on twitter there has been a name and shame of these casting calls but they can only really be stopped if actors refuse to do these jobs without pay.
Do you agree that working in the arts is a middle class career choice?
Mandy: Not at all. I think the arts (as well as sport) should be actively encouraged in all schools. It’s just another career choice.
Helen: No, I believe that working in the arts is just a career choice. Just because I’m skint and don’t have any money shouldn’t mean that I would expect to bring actors and crew in to work for me for free. I would hold production until I’d raised the cash or found an Exec Producer or raised the money through crowd funding!
Paul: I think the middle-classes are very good at colonising the arts and that there is always a danger that working class and unemployed film-makers can become marginalised through imposing unbearable cost burdens. We need to be careful that artistic expression doesn’t just become a middle-class hobby. Scottish film and television has historically always had strong, working-class roots and this needs to be encouraged and fostered, the voices at the margins of society also have a place in the arts.
Someone once told me that “you wouldn’t expect a plumber to do a job for nothing,” which they thought was a fair comparison. However if I knew a plumber that was willing to help me out with a favour for free, I wouldn’t turn it down. Actors, or anyone for that matter, do not have to work for nothing. The choice is theirs. That may sound simplistic but no one should be able to force you into doing something you don’t want to. I have many friends that are actors and have been gracious enough to lend their assistance in the past. Likewise, they have a friend that is capable of writing, directing and editing a film should they call on me.
I am glad there are people out their however that are willing to stand up for artists against those that are willing to exploit their talents. Many reputable and national mutli-million pound companies exploit thousands every year with work experience placements. Some of these schemes expect people to work full time hours for little to no money and be thankful for the experience. For me that’s where the real issue lies, however that’s not to say that if you’re an amateur production that you can exploit your cast and crew. The least you can do is cover their expenses, something that unfortunately isn’t always guaranteed even if they tell you otherwise (and that includes the major production companies).
You might not be making any money from the production your’re working on but you shouldn’t be worse off for it either. And if you think that’s bad, try starting a band. Some promoters expect you to pay them to perform.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing debate? Please get in touch with your opinions.