Is Working for Free Worth it?

300 300 Amy Tallmadge

“No pay, but GREAT exposure!”

How many times have you heard that? If you haven’t, you just haven’t been working for very
long! If I had a dollar for every time I saw that line in a casting, I could probably afford to act for
free all the time. Does that mean that an actor should never work for no pay? Of course not!
That’s frequently how actors get their start in this business. But how do you know when a
project is worth doing if it offers no payment? There are several points to consider.

It mainly comes down to one thing – do your research. Who is the director/producer of this
project? Does he/she have a reputation of producing quality work? There are many unpaid
films or web series that are well written, well produced, and well acted. Some of them even
start out as unpaid and end up getting picked up by a network/studio. However, some of them
are…otherwise. Granted, everyone has to learn and start somewhere, but you still need to take
the quality of the director/producer’s work into consideration when you decide whether you’ll
work for him/her or not.

Do you know anyone who has worked with the director that can vouch for how actors are
treated on set? Some directors are worth working with for no pay – they treat their actors well,
they know how to collaborate with artists to get a great performance, and the crew (however
many of them there may or may not be) thinks highly of them. Not to mention, today’s unpaid
director doing a project as a labor of love might be tomorrow’s paid director, hired by a big
studio – you can’t put a price on that kind of networking.

Is the director asking you to do anything for which you should absolutely be given financial
compensation, like nudity, or a stunt? Some actors won’t do nudity at all, and that’s a choice
each artist has to make for themselves, but if you’re going to do it, you should be paid and
paid appropriately. In regards to stunts, RUN, don’t walk, away from someone who wants you
to do something really unsafe that is unpaid – they probably won’t have insurance if you get
hurt. In fact, most paid projects will have a trained stunt performer for anything complex or
dangerous.

Will the project get finished? Unfortunately, I’ve been part of several projects that were well
done, that I’d have been proud to show off, but that never made it past the editing room.
Whether the director couldn’t afford a professional editor or he/she just lost interest and never
finished, if you have nothing to show for it, you may have wasted your time, energy, and
sometimes your own money – which leads to my next point…

Are you being asked to pay money to be part of the project? I’ve heard of this as a tactic for
some theaters when they run kids’ shows, where parents are asked to pay money for their
child to be in the show. Apparently, it’s legitimate, but I don’t like it. A director of a web series
might ask cast and crew to donate to a fundraiser for the project, but if he/she demands that
you “pay to play”, I would advise against being involved.

So, besides what I’ve just mentioned, are there any other ways to help you determine whether
working for no (or low) pay is worth it?

Is there a specific purpose for the project? For example, maybe it’s being done for a particular
film festival or contest, or perhaps it’s a student film being created for a specific class. All those
instances have extra incentive for the director to finish and produce a quality project. In the case of student films, they will also likely have access to quality equipment, further raising
production values.

Are you getting any tangible benefit from being part of this project? In my opinion, the old
“copy/credit/meals” should be minimum compensation – you will get a copy of the project in
some format (often electronic, which is fine, as long as you can pull clips from it for your reel);
your name will appear in the credits, in any advertising, and on any database where the
production is listed (primarily IMDB); and you will be fed on set. Look for language in your
contract that specifies when the project will be finished, or that says you will receive raw
footage by a certain date even if the project isn’t completed. By the way – if you don’t get a
contract to do the project, it’s not an automatic deal-breaker, but just be cautious about joining
the project.

One more thing – trust your gut. Sometimes you get in a room with a director for an audition or a callback and you just feel uncomfortable. And not in the normal anxiety or good, actor-
performance kind of way, in the “I may be harmed if I am part of this project”. If you get that feeling, follow it. There are other projects. I once turned down an audition because the director
wanted me to come to their personal home. That didn’t seem right to me, so I said thanks but
no thanks. Getting out of your comfort zone emotionally, as an actor, is one thing. Actually
feeling as though you are in danger is another. Keep yourself safe, at all costs.

Every actor will have to decide exactly how much he/she is willing to do for no pay. There’s no
right answer that will suit every person. I wouldn’t say you should NEVER work without pay,
either – I’ve done it may times and found it extremely rewarding. Just know exactly what your
expectations are and what is expected of you in return. The “exposure” alone is not enough
incentive for me – you can’t pay your bills with exposure.

Impulsively,
Amy T.