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Episode 124 | DOING STUFF FOR FREE (Special)

This episode is sponsored by Kelly Stark

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. J. R. R. Tolkien Unquote

In last weeks show I talked about combining podcast lessons to get yourself moving again with a strategic plan. If you find that you sometimes get overwhelmed with productivity advice, take a moment to go back and check that one out. It’ll help you to get the most out of this show and it’s another engagement on the level of high-level thinking. That’s the ability to work on your life and career at the same time you find yourself living and working in it.

Today’s topic is one I’ve seen posted about again and again on social media and generally speaking I stay away from it when it comes to online forums and Facebook etc as it’s a no-win scenario with some people, but this is my podcast and, well I can say what I like, so today I’m going to give you my take on doing stuff for free. I was tempted to do two episodes, one called why you should work for free and then another called why you shouldn’t work for free but I thought better of it and here we are. This isn’t rocket science but I think it’s worth an episode.

Suffering for your art is most definitely overrated but I do get a certain, I don't know, satisfaction from being able to deal with my paranoia and insecurity. Beth Gibbons

You’ve probably seen the meme about working for free online, where one sketched out character says to the other Hello Creative person, thanks for making that thing, and when the other hands over an invoice the first person proudly announces, never mind that, you’re doing it for exposure! In the next frame we see them try to spend their exposure at a hot dog stand and the cart owner laughs at them and tells them to fuck off. I’ll post it in the show notes if you haven’t – its very funny, and a truism for sure as well, but here’s the thing. It’s not really that cut and dry when it comes to doing stuff for free.

There are some opportunities that could help launch your career—even when you don’t get paid for them. Amy Morin

I’ve done loads of stuff for free over the years, and even now, with 857 professional fight credits I still will do a short film or a theatre show for little or nothing, basically if I want to.

According to Forbes Magazine, there are only ever four reasons why you should work for free.

The first reason they list is: When the opportunity will give you real-life experience.

Another meme that I’ll include in the show notes is one which shows Gene Wilder smiling with the caption oh so you’ve been to college? You must know everything! Well, we all know that having a college diploma or university degree is not necessarily a fast track into whatever industry you are trying to make a career, so volunteering your time for real life experience is a worthy reason to work especially when staring out, for free.

There’s simply no better way to get to know a job than gaining hands on experience, especially when surrounded by people who do it every day. You can ask them questions and gain mentoring from those that really know how things work, and what problems you may face when you later do it yourself. You will also learn some of the hidden problems you may later face and things like how much to charge for a particular professional service.

I did an episode on microwave mentality and that’s something to be very careful of. Nowadays everyone who has watched a YouTube video on a topic will call themselves an expert the same day. Some things take years to learn and there is almost always more to how things work than you might glean from a few weeks, or days or minutes researching how to do it yourself.

The second example given by Forbes is: When the experience will give you legitimate exposure.

Whether it’s a podcaster looking for free content, or a filmmaker wanting you to get involved in their short film, invitations to work for free often come with a promise of exposure. But not all exposure is created equal and that’s the real key here.

If you’re wanting to be an actor for example and your friend asks you to appear in his film for free in exchange for a small credit in the end titles, will that help you get more work? It could if your friend is a famous filmmaker with millions of downloads every month. But, even then, it’s unlikely you’ll be overwhelmed with job offers.

If, however, your friend says he’ll promote the film based on how great you are to work with, or with behind-the-scenes content that will show you in a good light and copy your socials into every social media post, then the exposure might be worth it. A clear call to action from the filmmaker could lead to auditions and job offers.

Too often, however, people who ask you to work for free will give you vague information about how this exposure will help you. They say things like, “There will be influential people in the audience who may hire you,” or “You can sell your products to our members.”

The worst offenders are those that say we’re making this film for Netflix or Amazon, inferring that they are engaged by these companies to do so, but the reality is that this is 99 times out of 100 a complete lie. They’ll be making it themselves for little or nothing in the hope that it will be taken up by Netflix. You need to be very aware of this.

So it’s important to ask specific questions about the exposure you’ll gain. Find out who your audience is and what you can realistically expect to gain. If they’re willing to tell you who else has worked for them for free, contact those people to find out if their efforts were worthwhile. Researching the filmmakers previous work will also let you know if they have any talent, or as is sadly the case more and more if they are utterly appalling, don’t have a clue and live in a world of fantasy. Bullshitters abound in the filmmaking world. Don’t give anyone a free pass to your time or your money. It will only bring you misery.

The 3rd reason listed by Forbes is When you’re supporting a cause you believe in.

This is an obvious one, but worth mentioning. If there’s an opportunity to get involved in a cause you believe in, and you have the time to do it, it may make sense to focus on what you can give, rather than what you will gain. Just make sure you don’t expect your volunteer work to catapult your career.

Finally, Forbes lists this one which you find a little more difficult to swallow, but the situation may arise When the affiliation will be an impressive addition to your résumé.

You might assume the biggest companies will have the most money to pay, but that’s not always the case. If a company with a household name asks you work for free, your affiliation with that organization could impress others and Forbes magazine gives TED is a great example of this.

TED and TEDx speakers aren’t paid. But speaking at a TED event can launch an individual’s career. A successful talk can lead to lucrative speaking engagements, a book deal with a major publisher, and massive media exposure.

I’d give the example of perhaps the Virgin shorts competition, which asked filmmakers to enter their film competition. Winning that award could definitely propel your career quickly forward. I can name my friend John McPhail as a winner of that one, and he’s done very well. John was good before winning, but that association kinda verified him in many employers’ eyes, as a steady hand and a competent director.

I’d add another one to this list, in that by working for free you could make long lasting friends and business associations and that it could lead to future employment as people are more likely to choose to work with people they know and trust than with new people. People that I worked with a Scottish Youth Theatre back in the day are still my friends now, and many of them are working in the industry and I was employed regularly by Scottish youth theatre as I grew past the age where I could be a participant.

I designed and directed many shows for them as a freelancer paid at the ongoing rate as I moved into my career. A creative business associates this morning mentioned that he had loved a particular show from that era of my life. The shows I designed and directed also received great critical acclaim with several 5-star reviews, and I’d love to take sole credit for it but it was the mentoring I received and the particular house style which had already been developed and was taught by artistic Director Mary McCluskey that influenced the show at least as much as my own creative instincts. Had I volunteered there for many years, the work would never have been made at all. That acclaim is still with me, for those that saw them, right now.

Oh, and through that association btw I also met brilliant local creatives like Forbes Roberston, Davie McKay, Fin McLay and big names like Alan Rickman and Brian Cox. My particular mentor when I was working in Design was Graham Hunter, who is still a great friend of mine.

So now hat I’ve listed a whole load of positives let me fire off a few warnings too as the occasions when you shouldn’t be working for free far outweigh those that may actually be of benefit to you.

First, you may want to think twice before contacting strangers to offer your services for free as reaching out might backfire if you come across as desperate. I heard from a 1st AD earlier in the year that particular company was struggling financially post covid and I wrote to them and 2 or 3 others in a similar situation offering to work at a reduced rate. None of them took me up on it, none of them ever replied which was disheartening, but I now find myself in an awkward position that they may believe that I was desperate when I contacted them. It’s rather an icky feeling, and frankly I’m annoyed that they didn’t take the time to respond, and don’t really want to help them anymore.

Secondly, people pleasing and the feelgood factor can come into play in all of this and I’d advise you to hone your awareness of when you might unconsciously be giving away your time and sometimes your money, just to make you feel a little better about something. It’s fine if you choose to do it for fun or because you feel strongly about a cause but if you are giving masses of time away for free, and it’s either not benefitting you or causing you real bother, then you need to limit what you are doing or walk away.

With anything you are doing voluntarily, you need to set limits on how much time you’ll give. A concrete limit will prevent you from overextending yourself. Then, when that person or someone else asks you to donate more of your time, you can say, "I've already reached my allotment of how much work I can do for free this year." You should do this anyway as somewhere along the line doing stuff for free and for fun, is really a hobby and not a professional career. If you’re still working for free after 50 unpaid gigs, you have a hobby as opposed to a legitimate income source.

All of this can become confused with another problem, and I’ve mentioned many times before. If you have a mindset that you are doing someone a favour, then that favour is not a contract for future work, future return of favour or even future respect. This mindset can delude you into believing that you are more important than you are, or even worse, it can be completely true. I’ve saved many a project with my involvement, only to later on be cast aside or forgotten about when it comes to credits etc. I’ve also been in the unfortunate position of having what I’ve done for free passed off as someone else’s work. Volunteering your time can be soul destroying so try and keep on top of this.

When you give something for free, either your time, money or equipment - your valuable things - is very often not at all valued by those that take it. They will forget you had any involvement if you let them. I’ve seen work that took weeks to prepare in terms of an edit for example, simply dropped at the last moment with no explanation. I’ve seen work created by others, changed and put out as that of someone else, I’ve all too often, as I’ve talked about before seen my props or costumes or other valuable items thrown away as people dismissed them. Some people have even given me real grief about lending stuff for free. On a TV show called the A list I had my mats, left there in case required, thrown out in the rain by the time I returned. I’ve provided mats to a production that angered the props department so much they refused to help me with the, because I later found out that they carry mats themselves and charge production for their rental. I didn’t know this. I had props lost several times and never replaced either. I’m still stinging at the loss of these things.

It’s a sad truth that time given for free is often not at all valued so when you give your time, or anything else away for free let them know it. Let them know in writing that you’re doing it for free, and what it would have cost, let them know if lending something, what the value is of the item if lost too. I got a payment from the A list as the mats that were binned had a value to them.

Remember to, that you don’t need to do every small non-paying job that comes along. You are in control. And always suss out if the person you are working with is legitimate, as I mentioned before, there are too many scammers out there that will take you for everything you’ve got.

I’m still owed money from Rainbow Theatre company from like 1998 when they ran a whole fake show for charity and never gave the charity a penny.

Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships. Stephen Covey

Doing stuff for free is a two way street though so let me talk a little bit about how, if you are the beneficiary of someone’s free time, you may get a little flak along the way.

One of the criticisms I got on completing my first feature was that we didn’t pay anyone. That rumour went round and round. The trouble is, it wasn’t true. A lot of the times if you’ve made a few small films for free, with no budget, then when you’ve got some money and are people, the haters will assume you didn’t pay anyone anyway. It’s very aggravating

People will criticize you anyway if you get involved in say the Virgin shorts competition, because you are the leader of the group. I had a real set to with an arsehole that was criticizing John McPhail for not paying people on his short film. When I said like the 48 hour film project the Virgin shorts competition stated you couldn’t pay people, so it wasn’t John’s fault, everyone on his team accepted that, I was given a real earful as the guy just didn’t want to hear it.

Next, if people are giving you their time for little or nothing the very least you can do is thank them for their time and credit them properly. Scottish filmmaker Steve Johnson impressed me he other day as on Instagram as he was promoting his latest feature, he correctly tagged his entire cast and crew, that had accounts at least, in his promotional posts. That took, time and came and attention and attention, and I am sure it is greatly appreciated by all of them. Saying thanks is a vital part of all of this.

I’d warn however though not to let anyone hold their previous time commitment to a project over you and demand favours back. I had to direct a mall promo piece as I felt guilty for something I’d had help on a few years before. Trouble was on that one, I had actually paid them quite a lot, they’d just never considered it a paid gig, just a favour they’d done me.

Also don’t aggravate someone that’s giving you their time for free as they will just put off helping you out and become unreliable. You want to treat people with respect.

If you have a little money don’t pay one person and none of the others. I worked with an idiot filmmaker who did this. Word of course got out, and it pissed everyone else off. If you are making a short film, either it’s everyone paid or everyone unpaid. That’s the way it should be.

Next don’t ask people to give you their time unless you are at least willing to pay their food and travel. Unless it’s a group effort and everyone knows where they stand of course. Food and travel are the minimum you should offer. If you can’t run crowd funder for your short to raise enough money for travel, food and few production costs, you are simply not putting enough effort in.

In short all of this stuff adds up to not taking the piss out of those who give you their time for free.

Let me say one last thing about credits, and it’s a hefty warning. Very often people will come onto short films and other projects for the credit. If you are giving away the producer credit, or the writer credit or the editor credit or the flippin’ lighting or makeup or costume or whatever credit, you better be damned sure that the person you’ve just handed it off to is not a drongo - that’s Australian for idiot – I heard it once on neighbours. Because if they are, you’re going to have to not only cover their ass but everyone that watches the film is going to think they are the ones with the talent when you are the one that actually did it. I urge you to put in your agreements with this that come on board that if someone doesn’t earn the credit, that they can have it taken away from them. Believe you me, this one is important.

The oldest, shortest words - 'yes' and 'no' - are those which require the most thought. Pythagoras

All I’m going to say is that if and when you agree to do something without pay, don’t turn around somewhere down the line and complain on social media that you were never paid - It’s ridiculous. If you have a good reason to do it, I’ve given you many today, then do it, but if you don’t - don’t. And don’t complain when you see a filmmaker for example posting about an unfunded short on social media, or appealing for help on Facebook forums. In my business at least, filmmakers have next to no money. It’s a real struggle. Rather than complain about the fact there’s no money, just say no. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. No one is forcing you to, so let it go.

Call to Action

Today’s call to action, if you have enjoyed his episode is to go onto Apple Podcasts and leave a review of this show. Your reviews help the algorythm to promote the show and help it in turn to gain more listeners. I’m very grateful that you’ve taken the time to listen, but that review, hat little expenditure of your valuable time, will help me back tenfold.

In next week’s show I’ll be talking about the cycle of productivity as understanding that will help us with our drive towards success, but for now let me thank all of the sponsors for this season William Samson, Matt Herbert, Kelly Stark, Scare Scotland, Fraser Coull, James Tiffoney’s “Shipyard Shenanigans, Petra Kolb & Warner Bros. If you’d like to sponsor a future show please from me a line on the official website or drop me a DM on twitter. We will be looking for an executive producer for season 10 that starts next week, if someone is interested in that, drop me a line but…

This season was exec produced by Christopher from Artos Digital who when I discussed this with him said that he likes to do work for free on occasion just because it makes him feel good – I asked him for a quote on it. He sent me this -

The only return you should expect from doing work for free is expertise, (the building of) a trusted reputation and above all else, some inner happiness. And when your glass of expertise and good reputation are nearly full, the jug of happiness can always be refilled. Christopher McPhillips

Thank you Chris for that and thank you for supporting season 9. It really made a terrific difference.

In the mean time I’ll end with some words from Tony Robbins and it is particularly applicable to todays topic. He said

Success is doing what you want to do, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want.

Now take control of your own destiny, keep on shootin’ and join me next season, which happens to be next week, on FILM PRO PRODUCTIVITY AND SUCCESS!

  • The music you can hear right now is Adventures by A Himitsu and the exec producer this season is Christopher McPhillips from Artos Digital

  • You can view the show notes for this episode on the official website

  • You can follow my personal account on Twitter and Instagram @fight_director or follow the show on Twitter @filmproprodpod or on Facebook @Filmproproductivity

  • Please support the show by subscribing, spreading the word and leaving an AWESOME review.


Season 9 Executive Producer: Christopher McPhillips from Artos Digital

2-time winners of 'Social Media Agency of the Year' at the Prestige Awards; Artos Digital specialise in marketing communications, coaching and personal branding. Owner Christopher McPhillips launched the business from his home in Bathgate and now works alongside his wife, Electra, for specialised event-management and fundraising. Enjoying a broad portfolio of clients over the years, ranging from established enterprises to start-up's - a good fit for Artos Digital given their adaptable and agile approach. Christopher and Electra have combined their talents for three significant clients this past year: Reconnect, a SCIO who run the Regal Theatre in Bathgate; Pro2 Wrestling in Ayr; and Puppet Animation Scotland in Edinburgh.

Thanks: A Himitsu Music: Adventures by A Himitsu

Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0

Music released by Argofox

Music provided by Audio Library –––


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