General Filmmaking

Some Guidance on: “Should I Work for Free?”

If you work for free can it further your career? This article takes a look at some options to make that happen.

“Should I work for free?” It’s a question that enters every video professional’s mind at some point or the other. This article is my attempt to help you come out of the ‘work for free’ conundrum with sufficient compensation.


Just to clarify, I’m not talking about work that falls under the following categories:

  • Pro bono or charity
  • For friends and family
  • Learning/Internship
  • Getting acknowledged and marketed – your name appears on every soda bottle worldwide. If it’s only a tattoo on their left bum cheek…cough…excuse me while I spontaneously combust.

This article focuses squarely on the professional who is intent to make a living with video work. In short: How do you get paid by working for free? Is that even possible?

Let’s find out.

Should I work for free?

The answer is simple. No, never.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Would a cab driver give you a free ride?
  • Is a burger free?
  • Does the CEO of the large corporation you’re pitching to work for free? Was his office gifted to him for free? Was his car free? Oh, so they do pay for what they think has value…and they don’t want to pay you…
  • If the producer is so sure his movie will be a hit, will we put his home on collateral to you?
  • Work for me now and I’ll pay you next time. How about you pay me now and I work for you next time? It doesn’t work either way.

Everyone who works deserves to get paid. In fact, the question is not if you should get paid or not, but how much?

That’s the question everyone (almost everyone) struggles with from time to time? Is what they are getting in return enough to justify the effort? This is where the answer lies.

The ‘returns’ you should stay away from

The next time you are faced with a project that demands perfection, dedication, sweat, time, maybe even gear from you, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Would this project teach you new skills that are in demand, or will it just exercise your present skills? If it’s the latter, then why not exercise them on your own, rather than having to deal with the egos and hassles of a ‘professional unpaid’ gig?

2. When you ‘return’ from this project, will the state of your life be improved in any way, or will you return to the same ‘how do I pay next month’s rent?’ situation? If it’s the latter, why not spend that time earning your rent?

3. Will this project introduce you to cool new and important people? No. Cool people pay. Let the rest go their own merry ways.

4. Will this project take you to far away and exotic places? Great. Don’t go. You’ll be too busy working to enjoy the scenery. Go on your own terms. Those countries are not going anywhere.

5. Will you be part of an important project? A project that does not pay is not an important project. You’d be doing the producers a favor by refusing, because surely they are on a path to financial ruin.

6. Is your favorite celebrity a part of this project? Excellent! You know where they’re shooting. Go hang out there and meet them when you’re free.

7. Is the subject so important or interesting that you simply have to know how it turns out? No problem. Go watch it when it releases.

8. We’ll give you credit – wait, what? When was the last time you read the credits? Will you really call the lowly paid VFX artist, the seven hundredth name under the third column while the fourth song from the soundtrack plays?

9. Have the producers and directors gone on their knees begging you to work for free? Well, in that case … you may stand tall and bless them with your holy hand.dropmoneyhere

The returns that pay

You’re thinking: It’s not that simple! No, it isn’t. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you’re not even looking the right way. Smart people (you know, the ones that auditioned for Jaws but got rejected because they didn’t look like sharks) will put you on time pressure and try to pummel you into submission. Often it’s not the shady producer or the miserly businessman, but the corporates who play this game. If not you then somebody else, right?

They want to squeeze you for everything you’ve got, and the way to get out of this is using the same techniques they use on their higher ups. In short, you appear as if you’re getting squeezed (so their egos aren’t hurt – maybe they’ll soar a little higher) and take what you want right from under their noses.

Yup.  There are ways to work for free and still get paid. Want to know about them? Well, here goes:

1. Mr. Barter

Did you know that even large corporations barter instead of exchanging cash? Barter is giving something in return for something of value. We’ve already established the ‘job’ is not a reward, even though they might insist on seeing it that way. “We’re doing you a favor, kid.”

Why, that’s so nice of you. I’ll surely never forget your kindness. By the way, I’ve noticed you deal in <widget>:

  • Pharmaceutical company – medicines or supplements worth the full rate
  • Consultants – their expertise. If they don’t have any, then get their lawyer or accountant to help you out for as many hours as is your full rate
  • Hotels or clubs – vouchers for free rooms, booze, food, whatever
  • Media – the most expensive slots they have!!
  • Anybody else – whatever they sell, but given to you in exchange for your full rate, but at wholesale prices for larger orders. You sell these off for their regular rate in exchange for profits.

I can see the twinkle in your eye. There are barters that don’t work – free movie tickets, free passes, free anything that won’t get you hard cash. If you can’t resell it immediately for profits, it’s not good enough. Don’t be swayed by free stuff that are just entertainment for you.

To the rest, you say NO.

2. Mr. Bank

We will be happy to extend our services, and we fully understand your financial situation. After all, it’s an excellent project and we would love to be a part of it. Here’s an offer you can’t refuse:

Pay us a small token amount and the rest in monthly installments, with interest of course.

There are many variations to this theme, and you’ll find excellent ideas in bank, stock and insurance brochures from across the world. Use it back on the people who created them.

The key here is to get paid more than your full rate. After all, you’re extending them a lot of courtesy by working for less money up front. Aww…if they refuse they’ll seem like the bad guys…

To those who won’t accept your graceful and kind offer, you say NO.

3. Mr. Fixer

We can’t pay you, but we are going to shoot on the Red Epic Dragon!!!!! You: Wow, I can’t wait to be a part of your project. Let me handle the rentals for you…

Do you see where this is going? Every project has hard costs:

  • Food
  • Travel
  • Rentals
  • Permissions
  • Expendables
  • Hardware and software, and so on

They promise you food for your skills? Cool. You promise to feed the entire crew, but you’re in charge of it. They have a budget, and you have a business. How do you feed everyone and still earn a profit?

This is not easy to pull off, because they’ll see through you. Excellent. So you’re willing to pay somebody as long as it’s not me? Thank you for showing me the light.

4. Mr. Network

Can you refer me to three projects that pay? Uh..well…we don’t know any. I thought so, bye!

No wait! Once we’re finished I’ll be meeting a lot of people, and I’ll surely get you some business. Is that okay?

Proximity alert! Tattoo on left bum cheek. Bye!

5. Mr. Co-producer

This one’s dangerous. A ‘percentage of the profits’ is a recipe for a foodless plate. There is one and only one situation in which you agree to this – that they already have a written contract that guarantees distribution by a major business. If this is so, they will have a rough estimate of what to expect in terms of profits – a percentage of which will come to you.

Then talk to the best entertainment lawyer you can afford, and earn your money on paper before you even pay your lawyer. It must be a done deal, airtight, with no gray areas. When you deposit $10 into your bank account, there is no gray area. Money has no gray area.

If at all you’re lucky enough to get such a deal (don’t kid yourself, nobody does, unless they are a major celebrity) then don’t hold on to it if the project isn’t super special. Sell it to another producer or distributor for immediate profits. In fact, you can do this even before you sign – if nobody wants to buy your share, then your share might be worth nothing anyway!

To every other type of ‘profit-sharing’ deal – say NO.

6. Mr. Tax Man

In some countries, spending or working on ‘charitable’ projects entitles you to tax benefits. You must consult a certified accountant to know what you can and cannot get. You can show what you are NOT getting as a negative expense. E.g., if you’re worth $100 an hour, and they’re not paying you, that’s a $100 expense to your business! Again, let me warn you – don’t try to play the system, do it legally according to the laws of your land.

7. Django

Project too long and risky? How about if I work on this bit today, and you see the results, and then we take it to the next level? This works great for corporate gigs. You know – the types who want to do a hundred videos but only have premium coffee to give you in return? Agree to make one video. Get paid. Then shoot the next. Get paid, etc. If it’s just one video, then write the script. Get paid. Shoot. Get paid, ad nauseum.

You see? There are many ways to earn money even if the other party can’t afford your services right now. Sometimes these clients are legit, and they’re honest about it. Well, give them a chance to pay with what they have. If they have nothing, then extend them the same courtesy.

If you’re the kind who needs blinders and likes to be ridden like a horse, then here’s a great flowchart published by Jessica Hische on how to arrive at a decision(click to enlarge):

All Content Copyright Jessica Hische 2011
What do you think? Have you ever made money by working for free?


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