I’m fortunate that I’ve been screwed by a producer on only a few occasions, but one screwed me so hard I still have dreams about it. That’s a story for another day.
That incident made me so sensitive that I’ve become hyper-vigilant. Plus I see and hear people getting screwed all the time in Hollywood.
Sadly, this is an easy industry for people with the money – or the illusion of money – to really fuck over hardworking people. They make a few promises one day. The company is gone the next.
I only work for quality producers these days because I know what to look for. If a production doesn’t appear to be well funded and thoughtfully managed, I get the fuck out. (Or rather, I never take the job in the first place.)
The best teacher is experience, they say. The second best teacher is someone else’s experience. Here are some red flags that signal a producer is going to screw you. Consider bailing on the production if you see these.
Red Flag #1: Your Pay Doesn’t Arrive on Time
Labor is usually a producer’s biggest expense, but it’s also their most important. They can’t make a movie without the crew. So if they don’t pay you the right amount and on time, it means the production company has serious money problems.
It usually works like this: You work Week 1, Monday to Friday. You turn in your time card on the following Monday (Week 2). You get paid for Week 1 on Thursday or Friday of Week 2.
If your pay isn’t in your hand or in your account on payday, you should finish your day’s work, fill a time card, put “FINAL DAY” on it, turn it into accounting, and leave. When you wake up the next day, your first priority should be to find a new gig.
There is no excuse not to pay the crew. If a producer can’t meet their commitments, you should find different people to work for.
There is almost no reason to work on film for free. I hear about people all the time who stick with a film even though they aren’t getting paid just because they don’t want to ruin their reputation or a relationship with someone else on the film. It happens all the time.
If you really don’t want to burn any bridges (maybe you’re trying to impress someone to build a relationship) or really want the damn credit, stick around as long as you can afford to. If you can’t afford to work for free, explain that to people you care about on the film. “I’d love to stay, but I have to make a living.” No one will fault you for that. If someone has a problem with that, you don’t want to work for them anyway.
But if you decide to stay with the film even though you aren’t getting paid, you should still do a good job. Don’t kick back and phone it in every day just because the checks aren’t coming. If you don’t want to work without getting paid, leave.
You may have other options, but honestly, my recommendation is to bail if you aren’t getting paid. We work to make money.Bail if you aren't getting paid from the producer. We work to make money. Click To Tweet
Red Flag #2: They Expect You to Spend Your Own Money
A production company is going to screw you if they require you to purchase or rent supplies and tools with your own money. If they need you to buy it, it’s because they don’t have the money.
Sometimes this happens when a sleazy producer tries to get the crew to finance the movie for him. Maybe he intends to pay you back. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way it’s bullshit.
Other times it happens because a producer just doesn’t like the purchase. He would probably reimburse you if he liked what you bought, but since he doesn’t, he has an easy way out. You wind up eating the cost because you didn’t use their money or get approval first.
Let me be clear: If you get a written approval from a producer or UPM to make an out-of-pocket purchase, I’m less concerned about not getting paid back. Sometimes it’s just convenient to buy with your own money and get reimbursed later. Do it infrequently and only for producers who obviously have money.
Whatever you do, do not make a purchase with your own money without getting written approval from someone who has the authority to authorize a reimbursement. One time, I saw a wardrobe girl screw herself out of $3,000 because she spent over her budget. The producer didn’t ask her to spend the money, so he wouldn’t authorize the reimbursement. The girl cried to her union representative, but there was nothing he could do because she had explicit instructions not to spend any more than the budget.
But if you’re told to make your purchases with your own cash or credit card, it probably means they don’t have the money to make those purchases themselves. You might never get that money back, especially if they aren’t willing to put the request in writing.
Red Flag #3: They Won’t Provide a Call Sheet
If you are working on a film crew, you are transient labor. Your job is to show up when they tell you, do the work they tell you, and leave when the production is finished. You need a call sheet that shows when you’re supposed to appear.
A good sign that a production company is going to screw you is if they don’t give you written proof that you should go to work. This usually means they don’t plan to pay you.
Any kind of documentation will protect you – an email, text message, or letter. But a call sheet is best. If the production company doesn’t provide call sheets, you should pass on the job.
What happens if you don’t get paid? You have a few options:
- File a grievance with your union. Sometimes there’s a bond paid by the production company that the union can tap into to get you paid. It’s a long and tedious process, but it can happen.
- File a claim with your labor board. Bring proof that you were told to show up and guaranteed a certain number of hours (your call sheet or deal memo). Unfortunately, sometimes the labor board doesn’t have the resources to help $45/hour professionals when they have to deal with literal sweatshops. (Yeah, we have those in California.)
- File a lawsuit. Often just the threat of filing a lawsuit is enough to scare the production company into paying you. In some cases, you can get paid if your lawyer just makes a quick phone call: “Hey, you owe my client money. Pay or we reserve our rights” (that’s lawyer speak for: “we might sue you”).
You need proof of your hours in all three cases, so make sure you keep copies of your time cards and call sheet. You have to protect yourself.
As you can see, there aren’t a lot of resources for us if we don’t get paid. If the company is bankrupt or insolvent or has since disbanded, you aren’t going to get any money. If your paychecks stop coming, stop working.
Red Flag #4: There Just Doesn’t Seem to be Any Money
This last red flag is harder to spot than the other three, but over time you will learn how to get a feel for a production company just by watching how they work.
Production companies that have money spend money. If you see them taking every step they can to cut every corner and reduce costs, it’s because there’s a money issue behind the scenes. It probably won’t be long until payroll stops.
You can tell a production company is short on cash by the way they treat the crew. If they never bring in craft services but only lay out something chintzy like coffee and apples or constantly bitch about reimbursing you for the mileage on your vehicle, they’re probably afraid of spending.
You can also tell a production company has a cash flow issue if they speed through production faster than they had scheduled (lopping days or scenes of the end of the shooting schedule). This means they’re trying to cut scenes and days to save money.
A producer I know once said to me, “The two best investments I could ever make in my crew to get them to work for me (not against me) is 1) Feed them well, and 2) Buy them a T-shirt.” If your production company can’t do either of those things, they probably don’t have the money to make the movie you signed up for.
The Bottom Line
Don’t stick around when producers don’t have the ability to make good on their commitments. If you aren’t getting paid or suspect you won’t, bail on the production and find new work. Don’t work for free. You’re better off collecting unemployment and watching Netflix – or even better looking for the next gig.