IFH 040: Knowing When to Work for FREE in the Film Industry



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So I know working in the film industry can be tough. Breaking in is even tougher. Many people tell you to have to work for free or intern somewhere to get a foot in the door. Now those people aren’t totally wrong.

The question is when do you work for free? When is trading your time, energy and effort really worth it? In this episode, I break down when you should work for free or cheap and when you need to stand your ground and get paid.

This episode is not just for film students. I tell you my story of when I got to Los Angeles and what I choose to do and why even after having 10 years of experience, credits and work under my belt. Enjoy this eye-opening episode.

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Alex Ferrari 0:00
Now this is something is really a touchy subject, because a lot of people like I'm not going to work for free. I'm I'm worth more than that, I'm not going to pour myself out. And that's great. And I'm proud that you feel that way. But I'm going to tell you how I did it and how I do it and how I suggest other people do it. And I've seen other people do this, as well. So when you're starting out in any business, specifically in the film business, you're going to work for free, you're going to intern, that's a way to get in, there's so much competition to get into the film industry in any aspect or any discipline of the film industry that for you to expect to be paid right out the gate is very unrealistic in today's world. So what I did is I started working for free as an intern at a production company in Miami, right out of school, and I worked for free for about three to four months. And I drove an hour there and an hour back every day, that's my uphill in the snow barefoot story. And they paid for my gas. But that was it. I paid for everything else. Now I was younger, I was living at home, I didn't have much overhead. And I was just trying to get my career off the ground. So I sat there and I worked. And I just was indispensable. And as at a certain point, my my boss quit. And when he quit, I got the job. And that's where my job my whole career started going through that through that process. So when you're starting out, you have to work for free, you have to see what you're going to learn though, because there's a lot of internships, or a lot of jobs or movies or things like that, that you'll jump on to learn and if they just have you running around doing coffee and crap, you know, at a certain point, you know, you have to do a little bit of that but at a certain point you got to learn something along the way. If not, it's not a real fair deal. Then if that if that's the case, then they should hire pa to go do all those runs. But look, I did it. We all did it. There was a bunch of that kind of stuff. I was interning at Universal Studios in Florida, where before before a while I was at school and I had to drive a producer, a producers I basically moved the producer he was moving and I was brought in to help carry furniture. So that's a bit abusive, you know, and at a certain point you just got to go this might not be what I'm looking for. But we all have to do it, we all have to kind of go through through the, the trials and tribulations of working for free. But you have to ask yourself the question, What am I going to learn? What contacts Can I get? And what can I leverage from this relationship. So what I mean with that is like, let's say, you get a job interning at a show, let's say you're working on The Big Bang Theory, as an analyst, I'm just tossing that out there. And you're an intern on The Big Bang Theory, well, because the Big Bang, the Big Bang, The Big Bang Theory, which is one of the biggest shows on television right now is on your resume, it makes it a little bit easier for you to get the next job. So that's where I would in and then you might do a little bit more grunt work at that job, because the prestige of working at that place, opens up doors, so you have to be smart about it. Now, if you're going to go work for free as an intern, or just work for free for a production company that just opened up, and it's two guys fold out tables, no credits, no read anything. And they expect you to do all this stuff for free, there's not really a lot and you're not learning on top of that, if you're teaching, they're teaching you a whole lot of stuff, that's one thing, but if you're not, what's the point, you know, it's like you're just working for free. And that's not the point, if you're going to work, if you're going to exchange your labor and your time, you need to have something in return. If it's not money, then it has to be education, it has to be credits, it has to be something that you can leverage, or getting experienced that experience that you would never be able to get in any other way or something that helps you resume something else that will move you forward in the film industry. So I'll give you a couple of tips, the things that I did, after I started doing all the grunt work. So once I did all that it opened up a lot of doors, having Universal Studios, and having a bunch of shows as an intern. While I was at school, I was already was interning at school. So I was at school and I would you know, skip classes sometimes, because I learned more on the set of working on professionals, you know, backstage and all that kind of stuff working as an intern than I ever did sometimes in in a class about audio, which is another story altogether. But um, so I would I learned a lot during those internships. Then once I got into the field, and I started editing. So that's my path. My path was editing and learning that I started to figure out what sometimes you get asked as an editor, what do you want to learn you can you do this job for free. So when I got to LA, I was Fresh Off the Boat, literally. And I literally just had my final cut system in my spare bedroom. And this is about about 10 years ago now. And I was just just I knew three people in Los Angeles when I showed up. And I was asked to do a few I started doing work and I started getting paid and stuff, but then I would get approached to do free jobs. So what I did was with free jobs that came in, I always analyze them to see what they would be worth to me. If so if it's a free job, I'm like, Oh, it's a free job with with a short film that has no stars, and has no anything that really I can leverage. Or even if it's not beautiful, like beautiful footage. So let's say I've done some free jobs before that the footage is just so stunning, that I knew would do really well on my demo reel. So I would either give them a really good deal or I would do it for free. And I don't do free. I don't do any free jobs now, of course. But at the beginning, you have to start building up that resume start building up those connections. So I would do free jobs. For that, for that purpose. For really gorgeous footage that was very rare, though there was very rare stuff that I would get like that. On a side note, guys, I just want you to realize that when I got to LA, I had already been in the industry working for probably about 10 years and had a decent resume behind me and a decent amount of work behind me. But it lacked a little bit of star power, it lacked a little bit of that Hollywood, you know magic dust, whatever you want to call it. So I was willing after being after already working in the industry for 10 years and building up a lot of credential a lot of credits. I decided strategically to do this again when I got to LA because in LA I was just another editor I was just another guy, I needed something to start making me stand out a little bit more. So that's why I decided to work for free on certain jobs for the reasons I've already laid out. So then I got offered once a Snoop Dogg video, and I stoop knock music video to color grade. And the director was a kind of first time director. He just happened to get Snoop Dogg to be in one of his music videos. And I said he's like Could you do it? I don't have a lot of money. And I said absolutely. Because I could leverage Snoop Dogg into other jobs. So the second I did that Snoop jobs Snoop Dogg video for free. I was offered a ton of other work and it kept paying off for years to come because I would have snoop on my reel. I would have snoop on my website. I would have Snoop everywhere. I would just market the hell that I worked with Snoop because I leveraged his fame and his cachet, to benefit me and to push me forward as a colorist. So then as other things started coming by, when people start looking at you, they're like, Oh, he's worked with Snoop Dogg. So he looks like I look much more professional. But really, I was just a guy in a bedroom. In, you know, Toluca Lake, you know, it was not, you know, it was it was in a big a big facility, but I gave the impression that I was. So that's one way you one reason why you would do free work like that. So after that, you start doing less and less less free work. And then at a certain point, you just don't do free work anymore. Unless it's something really significant, or someone you really want to work with, or it's a director you really want to build a relationship with, or a producer or production company or something along those lines. But at that level, when you're dealing with those higher up levels, generally, those people don't ask for you to work for free anymore. It's more when people are starting out. So that's that's one story. Another story is a friend of mine, who's a visual effects artist who wanted to get into the big visual effects houses, but he's starting to build his career. So he would do a lot of free jobs doing visual effects. Now, his his things were not as much well, and of course, anytime you can get a star on your demo reel, or be associated with a brand, a company, production company, a show a movie, a series, and that has cachet, you want to take advantage of that. So what he did is he would do jobs that would have visual effects shots that have that we're working on famous actors, his faces or in the background or shots with these famous actors on it. So he started putting those things on his demo reel, I was guiding him during this process, because I was telling him how to do this. So he would do a bunch of little, you know, little crap shots that you know, didn't really do anything for his demo reel. But all of a sudden, he would put a face on his demo reel. So his demo reel started getting better and better and better. Not particularly, not particularly like he would do some really high end shots. But the the shots that would be predominant in the demo reel would not only just be the high end shots that he would do that had no cachet to it other than the technical aspect. But he would he would sprinkle in all of these stars and actors and projects that he would work on that might have not been technically the best thing he'd ever done. But it showed that he worked with these people against leveraging their fame, their cache, to move himself forward. So he did a bunch of that. And when he went to get interviewed at digital domain, one of the reasons why he got the job, and a bunch of other people who were more highly skilled than he was to his he admitted this, they said specifically was because he was he had such a long history of working independently. And because of that, and then also the cache and having stars on this film that all helped. And he found that out later after he got in, like yeah, you're the only one that looked like you You knew what you were doing. Well all these other guys might have had cool shots, but none of them had the cache that yours did. And then it also he was building up his IMDb credits. So IMDb, obviously if nobody knows it's Internet Movie Database, or IMDb calm, which is the industry standard for where all credits are and stuff and everybody wants credits on there because that's where people go look you up. So people look me up all the time. You just type in Alex, Ferrari and IMDb, I'm generally the number one guy, there not a lot of other Alex Ferrari is doing what I do. And you'll see all my credits from as a director of production and so on. So if there's something that can build up your IMDb as well, that's another reason to work for free or very inexpensively to get that that thing going. So again, when you're working for free, you have to figure out and ask yourself those questions. What is it going to do for me? Am I going to learn anything? Am I going, how am I going to leverage this? And how am I going to use the cachet that I might get from this thing to move my career forward with credits, resume and or demo reel material. Now again, I'm talking about demo reels and posts and stuff like that. But if you're just starting out in production, you just want to associate yourself with amazing people and amazing projects. So pa on shows or interning on big shows will hopefully open up other doors and if you could, once you're in those doors, you can start trying to work for free. So let's say you get in the door of a show like 24 I'll use it you know before they cancelled it 24 was a huge show. And I knew a lot of people who worked on that show. So you know, an intern would come in work and then maybe they'll start paying but then they'll start befriending the production of the production design department. So then they would start working for free maybe off hours and you know, things like that for them to the point where they befriend those people, those people those higher ups in that department and they and they go Hey, do you want to come work for us? And all of a sudden now you're not just a PA but your production design pa or you're an art department pa and now you're going down that path And now you're building up your credits that so you have to choose which path you want to go. But this is how you get in. And this is how you start moving and leveraging and growing and building your resume building your, your ambient, not your ambience, but your cache as a person in the industry. So if you're in LA, this is a lot easier because there's so many big cache projects and people that you can work with. But if you take you know, you work here for 10 years, you go out to a smaller market, all of a sudden, you are the big fish because you've worked on all these other projects. So again, there is benefit to working for free, you just have to know when to do it, and why you're doing it. And don't get abused because there's people who will abuse the hell out of you. Trust me, I know this for a fact. I anytime I've ever worked with interns working for me, I've always taken good care of them, and always tried to teach them and help them. And in one of our past episodes I just did with one of my former interns Brandt's person who has gone on to direct you know, three or four big features and work on propaganda films with David Fincher and all this stuff. He was my intern, and I made sure to teach him everything I could teach him, so he wasn't just running around getting coffee for me. So I always try to help as much as I can when I have interns working for me So remember, just figure out why you're doing it and if it makes sense for you, but those are just some tips on how to know when to work for free. So hope you guys enjoyed this episode if you have if you want to check out the show notes head over to indiefilmhustle.com/040. And again, please head over to filmmaking podcast calm and leave us an honest review of the show. It really helps us out a lot. So keep that also going. Keep that dream alive. And I'll talk to you soon.




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