There comes a time in every film professional’s life where a mental threshold is crossed. You no longer worry about if you are capable of the career you’ve picked. After being burned more than once by “opportunities” sent your way you begin to heavily scrutinize each project that courts you. Sometimes you forget what makes a good film gig worthy of chasing. More importantly, it’s easy to forget what makes for a bad gig. And there are a lot of them out there.
Are there warning signs that point to danger on a given project? Yes. Are there giant flashing neon signs that experience teaches you about? Yes! Do eager beavers ignore these signs and have a miserable time?
Yes! And it is always never worth it!
What’s a bad film gig?
I have a theory: a bad film gig’s unpleasantness is directly proportional to the strength of the producer’s misguided enthusiasm. In other words, the more motivated the project leader is, the more momentum the project has. Obviously this is grossly simplified but the foundation stands true.
When the motivation is misguided or otherwise unprofessional, so is the project. I have observed that most bad gigs begin with a siren blare of enthusiasm and fervor but soon everybody realizes there’s no meat on the bones of the production. Some jump ship, others see the film to the painful end. Often the project fizzles out and dies. The problem is when a poor, hungry film student or newbie doesn’t realize what’s happening and sticks around to be “part of the team”.
The false sense of purpose and inflated excitement that comes from a room full of amateurs that are “making a movie” without a plan or funding has always baffled me. A project without a plan isn’t artistic. It’s just a bad film gig.
The Three Week test
So here’s my preferred workflow: from the moment a developing project hits your desk and somebody asks for your help, wait three weeks before you invest any more than a conversation into it. That’s crazy, right? Three weeks is precious time, especially on indie or low budget movies! Lost time! You’ll kill the project!
If the project dies because of a three week hold during development, that could mean:
- The project schedule is haywire (or non-existent)
- The project has no funding
- The producer has lost interest
If I discover any of the above three conditions exist on a project I’m involved in, I’ll walk away as soon as professionally possible. This may seem radical but consider the ramifications of such working conditions. If the project has no schedule, what’s the plan? How will we know if we’ve filmed everything we need? If there’s no funding, who’s going to pay for the piece? And if the producer loses interest, who’s driving the ship?
Some gigs just aren’t worth it
The more important question is why would you want to be involved in a project with all of these problems? Here’s a hint: you don’t. Even if paid your full rate. I’m not suggesting abandoning a job. I said I quit as soon as professionally possible, which sometimes means you have to stick it out to meet your professional obligations. Poorly run jobs usually result in sub-par work from everyone involved and the entire experience consisting of misery. Payment came but you wasted your time. Aren’t we all filmmakers because we didn’t want to go to a soul sucking office job? No sense in accepting a soul sucking, mismanaged film project.
Three weeks as a proving measure. If the project hasn’t withered but in-fact has grown as it should, it deserves to be taken more seriously. Three weeks of development is hardly a tall ask.
All of this, of course, revolves around the idea that somebody has approached me in the early development stages. If the project is green-lit and ready to go and they need a DP next week, that’s a different animal with its own considerations.
When you’re new, take everything you can get your hands on. In time you will learn what your threshold is for BS and avoid the bad film gig like what it is – a plague on our industry.