Let me paint a scenario for you. You’re an enthusiastic film professional hoping to network, so you advertise yourself as crew for hire. Let’s say freelance Director of Photography. Or an editor, or an actor, it makes no difference. Your strategy is to target low budget paid gigs to get some money and experience. You want to avoid the bullshit film project.
You have all this money invested in camera and gear to make yourself a turn-key solution for a production. Word on the street is a couple of producers have scraped together funds to launch an independent feature film and they’re looking for a camera department.
You contact them, the meeting goes well, and everyone’s riding the high. You haven’t seen a script, but they say they have an award-winning writer. They can’t afford your full rate, but you agree to work for less on a “real” movie. There’s no shooting schedule, either, but you’ve cleared out next month and turned down work because that’s when the shoot’s supposed to happen. Everyone’s sure it will be an awesome project.
About a week after your first meeting, the producers respond to emails a little slower.
Then stop responding all together. You’re mad because you’ve since turned down paid opportunities for this “awesome project”.
You, my friend, have been chasing a bullshit film project.
Here are the Top 5 warning phrases to look out for when choosing your next gig:
1. “It’ll work itself out!”
Making a film requires numerous moving pieces to synch up perfectly. It’s very common, if not expected, that something will go wrong on every production at some point. And that’s ok because there are industry best practices that experienced producers and crew members implement to get and keep the production on-track.
But you aren’t working with those people. You’re working with the opposite – complete lack of experience and yet a complete self-assurance mindset. There’s nothing more dangerous than a fool that thinks they are right, especially on a film project. And as someone very wise once told me, there are a lot of fools in the film industry.
It’s fairly obvious to identify an “it’ll work itself out” mentality on a shoot. When problems are pointed out to the producer/director, they won’t be taken seriously. “It happens, it’s the movies!” or some similar cliché phrase will be used to wave away concerns. Pre-production will be fast or non-existent. Production will be chaotic and directionless. Post-production will drag on, possibly forever. Every aspect of the project will suffer because the leaders don’t care or aren’t focused.
What causes this? Hard to tell, but some real life examples I’ve dealt with include when the filmmaker:
- Is more interested in the celebrity/party of making a film than actually making it
- Is unconcerned with professionalism, or in fact actively avoids it in order to be “less stifled”
- Doesn’t take their own project seriously
- Abandons the film for a shiny new idea
- Thinks they’re Woody Allen or someone else they’re not
None of the above will ever benefit a film and are signs of deeper issues in the project. A laissez-faire outlook on a show will destroy it. Remember, managing a film project is like managing a train wreck in real-time. Choosing to NOT manage the project results in disaster. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
2. “Everything’s set, all we need is the budget.”
If “everything’s set” then the financing is in place. If there is no funding, there is no project. There’s only a hopeful script (maybe) and an excited filmmaker.
What do you, the crew person/actor, think when you hear this? Well you’re a nice guy/gal, so you say “Awesome! This project’s on fire! They asked nicely, so I’ll help do the fundraising!”
Wrong. Don’t do it. Unless the project is personal to you as well (think good friends/relatives), you are wasting your time and emotional capital.
Here’s a little secret (not): every movie has financing challenges. Yes, even the big ones. Maybe even more-so than indie films. It is the producer’s job to secure financing and assets to execute the film. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but the fact remains: if you aren’t the producer, it isn’t your job.
So unsavory or inexperienced producers often beg, borrow, and steal their way to finance goal posts instead of network, prove, and contribute to their own project. This means you (the crew person or actor) end up working for free, doing way more than you signed up for, or both.
Then the project doesn’t get finished because there was no post production budget. Sound great? No son, it’s not.
Now don’t take any of this as advice to avoid free work or true first-time filmmakers, especially if you’re only starting out yourself. Indeed, working for free on quality projects can net you quality network contacts. Just keep in mind that you should scrutinize chainsaw-filmmaking that much harder, especially if you aren’t getting paid.
3. “Can you be cameraman / What kind of camera do you have?”
Substitute whatever you’d like for whichever position you’re applying for. What kind of computer do you have as an editor? Can you bring your own wardrobe and do your own makeup as an actor? Again, scrutinize the project carefully.
Note the use of the term “cameraman”, when nobody actually uses that term other than non-film people. Camera Operator, Director of Photography, Cinematographer…all of these are professional terms. If you get asked to be “cameraman”, “lights”, or “just come and help”, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a bullshit film project.
A film shoot should be meticulously organized. Each department has specific roles for specific crew members so that every area of a project receives concentrated attention. Even if a crew consists of a mere five people, those five should know exactly what they should be doing at any given moment, and what everybody else’s job is too. When that doesn’t happen…chaos.
My particular favorite ask when talking to a bullshit film project is one involving equipment. There’s nothing wrong with packaging yourself with equipment. In fact it’s a great way to up your value and ensure you’re working with gear that’s familiar to you. However, have you ever had a conversation like this:
“What kind of camera do you have? Oh, we were really hoping to use a RED/Alexa/Black Magic/Canon ect.”
Amateurs focus on camera brands and models without knowing why, beyond knowing it’s “pro gear”. No need to rehash the hundreds, maybe thousands of professional film examples made on subpar gear. Suffice to say if a producer is more focused on the gear or connections you bring than you, the person, then it’s likely a bullshit film project.
The film won’t get finished because production likely won’t get finished (or even started) as anyone semi-professional walks off the set or phones in their participation. How fun!
4. “We’re shooting next week. Know any actors?”
Do I need to point out the obvious? Once again, unless you’re the casting director or above-the-line, why are you getting asked this question? Because the producer doesn’t know anything, and it’s a bullshit film project.
On smaller shows there’s often a lack of personnel to divide tasks amongst. The jobs of the 1st Assistant Director, Producer, and Director get all rolled up into one person, among many others. Good film experiences can still result from a project leader that wears too many hats, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. A complete lack of planning is often the result, with the sole focus on the camera and the “creative” aspect of the project.
So crew is called in last minute, actors are cast the night before, and locations are found the day of. Do you see how this could have been easily avoided if the filmmaker had simply planned ahead of time? You know, a little something called pre-production? But no, pre-production isn’t sexy and isn’t their jam, man. Living in the moment, that’s where it’s at. Nothing like living in the moment of your crew mutiny over by the M&M bowl and Funions set out as “lunch”.
If you identify a complete lack of scheduling, planning, and direction on a project, save yourself the heartache and insult. You won’t be taken any more seriously than any of the props they forgot to bring to the shoot.
Oh and the film won’t get finished, either.
5. “Harrison Ford loves the script!”
The best scene in Brüno by far is the Harrison Ford “interview”. For most of the film Brüno claims that he has convinced Harrison Ford to sit down for an on-camera interview. The joke, of course, is that the interview lasts 2 seconds and Ford obviously hadn’t agreed to it.
Unfortunately real-life filmmakers do this with shocking regularity. Pick a celebrity and couple them with the project in some fabricated way, and presto. You have a false promise or exaggerated circumstance to bait eager crew members to participate in a bullshit film project. If an aspect of the project sounds too good to be true, why do you think that’s the case?
Variations include outrageous claims of:
- Industry connection
- Special/unlikely locations (we totally have permission to film here!)
- What a great opportunity the project is for you
- Festival attention
That last one is particularly ubiquitous. Have you ever watched a short (or worse, a feature) that was a firm 0/10 terrible? And yet somehow the film secures a stream of festival laurels and wins on social media? We all have, because here’s a secret: there are 1000s of film festivals out there, and there are maybe 5 that anybody with industry pull actually cares about. Many of these no-name, no-face festivals hand out wins like they are candy because, surprise surprise, they want the filmmaker to come back next year and spend another $50 to enter again.
If a filmmaker has to convince you of how high-value the project or themselves are, both are likely not. Collaborating is like dating – anybody worth your time doesn’t have to tell you how wonderful they are.
Special mention: “We’ll fix it in post.”
Although I’ve never heard it on a paid gig before, the entire Internet filmmaking community has made a meme out of this one, so it must still happen. Just say no when this gets brought up: better to get it right on set then get it wrong and you can’t fix it later. Because you often can’t.
Hopefully this helps you avoid taking a bad gig and souring your opinion of the indie film world more than necessary. There are great projects out there with little money, and horrible projects with lots of money. It’s a people business, so learn the people and choose wisely.