While most production companies are honest and upstanding, a few bad apples make life miserable for film crews. Scams and “oversights” occur mainly in the ultra-low or limited budget fields, so for crew members it’s beneficial to know up front the various problems you might encounter. You should realize that producers are prone to stretching the truth to secure financing.
This same mindset prevails when it comes to hiring crew members. Their strategy is to minimize compensation, maximize output, and avoid accountability. For non-union crew members, there are limited protections as to compensation, working hours, or fringe benefits. In addition, with numerous applicants for almost every position, ones negotiating position is severely weakened.
Just the same, a little knowledge may up your earnings and lessen your headaches. How does one avoid being ripped off? First off, be aware and vigilant. Be assertive when dealing with management and know the scams and cons you’re likely to encounter. This article covers the more blatant ones and listed complaint sites profile others.
To pull in quality people producers sometimes play up big names they’ve purportedly signed. A well-known actor, a respected director, can pull in experienced crew members, some willing to work below their standard rates. This is all well and good, if it were true. Such bait and switch tactics work well on investors, so why not use it on production personnel. And if unable to sign these people, there’s a bevy of excuses waiting in the wings. By then crew members are committed to the picture based on this erroneous information.
Job listings can be misleading, especially when it comes to the credits and credentials of the principles. A producer may imply working on a feature when his actual title was associate producer. These little faux pas are reflective of management’s integrity and character. Check out credits on IMDb.com as well as the credited films’ websites. It is better to question early on than to face entanglements during production.
In the hiring process, a deal memo should be your number one priority, as it helps avoid problems down the road. It outlines your compensation, working duration, and your screen credits. At FilmContracts.net, there are online forms for such agreements. If you are unable to get a deal memo, restate the hiring conditions in an email to the hiring party and sent a cc copy to yourself. In this email, state that this is your understanding of the terms and if incorrect, please reply by return email. Hold this email in a special email file and use it as proof that this was your understanding as of that date. While such emails have limited legal standing, they do provide some leverage should problems occur.
In negotiating compensation, one should be aware of the “favored-nations” clause. Such a provision in the agreement guarantees that no other crew member on the picture (in the same job category) will obtain more advantageous terms. Such a cause ensures that you receive a fair deal compared to that of others.
A clause producers sometimes push is a run of show fee agreement. Such a contract locks you in and usually makes no allowance for additional shooting days. Thus, you may be hired to work a schedule of 18 days and actually end up working 22. That works out to a 22% reduction in your pay. A more equitable method is to assign a set rate for days worked beyond the scheduled shooting days.
If part of your duties requires purchasing production supplies, avoid out-of-pocket payments. Instead, get cash from the production manager. Getting repaid can be a hassle as reimbursements can be delayed for months and cause you undue hardship in the mean time. Also, make copies of the receipts and tabulations, as management can conveniently lose these items.
Crew members that bring their own tools and supplies to the shoot may qualify for a box rental or kit fee. This fee covers items such as ware and tear on tools, makeup supplies, script supervisor expenses, and expendables used during production. Replacing or replenishing these items can be a big expense and figures from previous productions can provide good leverage. Funds for these items are not relinquished easily and it’s unfair for you to “contribute” to the production when other crew members receiving similar pay do not.
Working conditions is another major scam. Production companies promise reasonable hours, yet these are often stretched to fourteen, even sixteen hour days. This leaves little time for commuting and sleep. While there are many excuses given the reason can usually be traced back to bad planning. This abuse, especially when prevalent, soon wears down production personnel to where they neither function or performance properly. The way to rectify this abuse is to establish early on a reasonable turnaround time. Simply put, if you work late, you start later the next day.
Another scam is not adequately staffing crew positions. As such crew members are overworked, their hours extended, and the quality of their work suffers. Management’s usual fix for this problem is to add interns, volunteers, or PA’s. However, these people have limited craft experience and thus paid crew members are more involved in teaching than they are in doing their jobs. Management’s ploy is to count heads rather than qualified workers. Adding this unskilled labor creates a numerous problems including lower production quality, safety issues and longer hours. While it saves management’s money, it sets up a culture where the bottom line supersedes producing a quality film.
Messy bookkeeping is another way film crews are cheated out of rightful compensation. Whether done on purpose or through carelessness the result is the same; the crew member loses. Discrepancies are difficult to prove, especially when discovered weeks later. I would suggest keeping your own time sheet. In this way, you have a record of your work hours and a rebuttal against such abuse. Also, hold onto call sheets, as they are proof when you worked.
If you are paid in cash, you might be leery about the integrity of the production company. Without a paper trail, your employee rights could be in jeopardy. Rights to such things as deferred payments, workman’s comp, and state disability. Paying in cash allows the producers to keep your efforts off the books. In addition, producers can cook the books the investors see and inflate production expenses. They also avoid paying state and federal employee benefits such as welfare and SDI. If the producers are hiding funds, then cash payments allow monies to move undetected. While cash payments seem beneficial to the employee, they could lead to problems down the road. When applying for unemployment, pay stubs show that you were employed and eligible to receive benefits. There are also the consequences of not reporting all your income to the IRS. Not issuing 1099’s is another sign the company is a little flaky as there is no federal record of your employment.
On the same topic, producers have been known to put down crew member’s work saying it’s not up to par. Then they use this excuse to renege on or reduce promised wages. This ploy is usually done after the crew member’s work is completed and the production has wrapped. The situation then becomes a take it or leave it stand-off, one that can only be settled in court. A crew deal memo has great value in such cases as does support from cast and other crew people. Document your complaint in writing and send it via return receipt registered mail. With the advent of videophones, some crew members query an appraisal of their work during production. Such footage provides additional proof of ones worth.
Vehicle use, parking, mileage is another area where production companies cut corners. Runners, buyers, and production assistants are the most abused on this issue. Running production errands in their own cars, these people are the least able to afford this additional expense. They are also the least assertive members of the crew and thus the easiest to scam. And in their quest to obtain experience and screen credits they will avoid making any waves.
On limited budget films, production companies avoid taking out liability and worker’s compensation insurance. If the company has a shooting permit, then it’s likely they have this insurance coverage. If not, being aware of the risks should you be injured or seriously maimed. Such knowledge may dictate how you accomplish your work. Stunts, lighting and set construction have high insurance premiums due to their higher injury rates. With so little protection, slow and cautious is your only defense.
Productions that are partially funded look for ways to get more money. One way is to convince crew members to defer part or all their salaries so the picture can be complete. They promise they will pay back deferred salaries out of the film’s distribution deal (yet to be negotiated, of course.) Another ploy is to give points in the production in lieu of salary. These offers are bad, bad, bad ideas as the prospect of seeing any money is either nil or none. According to AMPPA, only 2% of non-studio films completed make any money for the producers. Taking such an offer is like betting on a plow horse to win the Kentucky Derby. The same goes for putting your own money into a struggling production. When you clear away the hype and the pressure to be a team player, it is still a bad idea.
This next scam happens often on student films and calling card films. These films are usually made for the expressed purpose of gaining entry into the industry. The ploy is to get people to work on the film for free with the promise of working on the group’s other projects later on. However, when later comes about, the scammer has excuses for not honoring his commitment. The first filmmaker lucks out as he’s got his ticket in. The others have to find other people to help with their projects. Sharing equipment also comes into play with the first filmmaker reneging on use of his stuff. A written agreement usually takes care of this scam.
Low budget films tend to get behind, both money wise and time wise. To take up the slack, management pressures the cast and crew by making unreasonable demands and deadlines. It could mean working faster and doing less coverage. It could also mean working through lunch and/or working late through a second meal break. Compensation for such extra effort is non-existent aside from the ‘appreciative’ thank you. In filmmaking you never catch up, you just lower expectations.
Occasionally, crew members are asked to do something that is illegal. Most are money-saving misdemeanors that can have a serious downside if caught. They include bogus non-profit status to obtain discounts, bogus wholesale permit to avoid paying sales tax, bogus production permits, and bogus insurance coverage. They could also include no safety officer for use of guns, explosions, or fire in a scene. Production companies have also been known to put up bogus no parking signs, block off traffic without authorization, and use locations without permission. Other violations include not getting product/literary clearance and unauthorized use of signage. To cover yourself in these situations, question the legality. If caught, pass the accountability up to the person making the request, such as the producer or production manager. Don’t be thrown under the bus for bad decisions delegated by a superior.
Collecting your rightful compensation can be a long arduous task. Production companies have done everything from outright reneging on your pay to renegotiating a lower wage. Be ready for a multitude of delaying tactics and excuses. “We’re waiting on a distribution deal.” Or, “We’re raising money for a feature that we’ll be able to pay people considerably more.” Another is an offer to up your screen credit in return for less money. Some will denigrate the work you have done or say that it was not authorized to lower their obligation.
What are your options? You can, of course, sue in small claims court and hopefully get full compensation that way. Such action requires documentation, time, filing fees and court time. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Labor, ESA Wage & Hour Division. Such a complaint usually stirs up other violations, some of which can result in severe penalties for the production company.
Another method is posting your grievance online at one of the many complaint sites. These would include BBBOnline.org, Complaints.com and Ripoffreport.com. Another site, Scambook.com, offers a resolution service. Accountants and lawyers use these sites to steer clients away from bad investments. Such postings help spread the word and if nothing else, shame the production company into paying you your rightful compensation.
There are, of course, multitudes of upstanding and honest production companies in this industry. These companies treat their crew members amicably, compensate them fairly, and pay wages in a timely manner. They also listen, communicate and are open to solving grievances. It’s an enjoyable experience and crew members take considerable pride in being a part of the final product. No scams, no cons, just one happy family working together to produce a quality film. That’s how it should be done.