Monday, March 29, 2010

Working for Free

This item originally appeared on The Bread Line Blog, a blog dedicated to examining the effects of America's ongoing economic downturn.

When you enroll in film school, people start to take you a little more seriously as an aspiring filmmaker. You still face a certain amount of skepticism from a great many people, but at least your goals -- and your intentions to achieve them -- come off as a little more authentic. People have a better understanding of how to relate to you. What was once perceived as a flight of fancy now seems more practical and attainable and, most importantly, comprehensible. When they see a "making of" special, or a magazine interview with Quentin Tarantino, they think of you.

In 2000, while I was right in the middle of film school, a friend of the family passed an article my way. A soon-to-be-released movie had amongst its producers a native of my hometown of Erie, Pa., so the local newspaper did an interview with her. The movie in question was Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, that Dungeons & Dragons -- the rather regrettable adaptation of the role-playing game starring Jeremy Irons and Thora Birch. But, quality of the movie aside, it was interesting to know that someone from my hometown was a producer, and that it was really possible for a lowly Pennsylvanian to "make it in Hollywood."

I've long since forgotten the name of the producer, and the article does not seem to be archived online. But as I recall, the interview questions focused on what it's like to go from a small Pennsylvania town all the way to big, bad Los Angeles, and then how one actually manages to become a producer on a movie. In the course of answering one of the questions, the producer said something that stood out from everything else in the entire article. Something that would haunt my remaining college years. Something that would stoke my anxieties about taking the dive and moving to Los Angeles. She said that when one is getting a start in the entertainment industry, a great strategy is to offer to work for free.

I couldn't believe what I was reading. Work for free? But how? How do you manage to pay your rent, or buy food, or, hell, go out to see a movie once in a while? Because isn't that why you wanted to get into this business in the first place... because you love movies? I couldn't imagine working for free in Pennsylvania, so how was I supposed to work for free in California, where the cost of living, as I understood it, was far higher?

And then I started to get indignant. Why should someone have to work for free on a movie? When it comes to money and Hollywood, all you ever hear about are these $80 million budgets and these $200 million box office returns. Are you telling me there's no room in there to toss a newbie a few hundred dollars a week to help them get by?"

"Not me," I assured myself. "Maybe this woman worked for free to get her start, but that's not what I'm gonna do. I know I have to start low on the ladder. Of course! But I'll make sure I'm earning at least a little bit of money. I have to!"

And then I worked for free.

When I got to L.A., I had no immediate prospects in the entertainment business, and had no idea how I was supposed to get that started. I began working a couple of part time jobs - at a grocery store (Ralphs, as featured in The Big Lebowski) and a video store (remember when you used to have to go to a store to rent a movie?). I'd had no L.A. or New York internships during my time at film school, so I didn't know anyone and didn't have any professional experience. And when that's the situation, there's really only one way to get your start. You work for free.

My aunt, who lived in Ohio, informed me that a neighborhood friend of hers had a son who was producing music videos out in L.A. She offered to put me in touch with him and see if he could offer me any advice or opportunities. It just so happened the company he worked for was bringing in interns at the exact moment I contacted him, and he offered to pass my resume along.

So that's how it happens. You you become an intern or, simply, an unpaid production assistant. "Un-work," as I refer to it. This accomplishes two of the most important things you need to start your career in entertainment - it gets you experience, which is far more valuable than any college degree; and it helps you make friends and acquaintances, which is how you're going to find your way into future jobs. Since entertainment jobs are essentially all freelance, you live by your connections. These are the people who will inform you about job openings on their shows and will get your resumes to the right people (along with the ever-important implied recommendation).

How do you keep a roof over your head and food on your cheap Ikea table while you're working for free? It's surprisingly manageable, even in the high-cost-of-living city of L.A. Obviously, you're not living extravagantly. But as long as the bosses at your part time jobs are somewhat cooperative, you can usually work out a schedule where you can earn enough to get by, have plenty of face time at your unpaid entertainment job, and even have enough left over to go out to the occasional movie.

How do these multi-million or billion-dollar companies justify using free labor when they seem to have so much money to kick around? Well, I can't honestly say it's justified. There are a lot of people with padded pockets walking amongst the zero-dollar interns in any given office, and it seems like there should be a way for them to remain rich while still tossing a few bucks to the underlings.

But ask any line producer on any show at any time and they'll tell you the budget is beyond stretched. And they're not lying; they can only work with what they're given.

It may suck to have to work for free but, in a way, it's the greatest gift a newcomer could ask for. It makes the game so easy to play. People who are stressed out about money love to get things for free, and you're in a position to underbid anyone. It's an investment in yourself; you'll gain experience and contacts that will pay dividends later.

I worked around the office of the music video company for a couple months, and was invited to be to an on-set production assistant on a couple of their music videos and commercials. With that experience on my resume, I was able to convince "The Amazing Race" to hire me for a low-end position. From there, I worked my way up to higher positions on a variety of shows. It's amounted to some six years of employment. And that, my friends, is what we call a career.

Recently, however, I've been looking for a change. I'd worked those six years mostly in post production on unscripted TV shows. When I finally took a moment to give my life some cold, hard analysis, I remembered that I'd never really meant to pursue post production, and had never been all that passionate about unscripted shows. It was time for a change. And, as luck would have it, a friend who works in animation informed me that they were accepting interns at her company.

It's hard to press the reset button at age 29. But I'm not getting any younger; I can do it now, or wait until I'm even older and more ingrained in what I've been doing. So I took the chance. For almost a year now, I've been putting in several days a week at the animation company. It's been great to try something new. I have plenty of anxiety about whether or not they'll be able to hire me, especially in this economy. But at least this time around, I have one thing that I didn't have before - the knowledge that working for free is a great strategy that pays off.

So what can I say? It's like the lady said: a great way to get your start is to offer to work for free.

Accept it. Embrace it. Don't resist it. It will serve you well.

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