Now Hiring: Director of Photography for 10 day project
Require 10 years of experience and must own Alexa or better.
Total Budget: $40
If you’re in a creative industry, this probably made your blood boil. As hyperbolic as it might be, we can all imagine seeing something similar. Maybe because our industries are so competitive, possibly because it’s creative and fun, or maybe because people are just terrible, but creative crew are frequently called on to work for next to nothing. We’re not the only ones, certainly, but it does seem especially bad for creative professionals.
You’ve probably all the lines: you’ll get exposure, I’ve got more work if you do this, it will look great on your reel. As if, even if you believed any of these things were true, they would somehow go away if you were paid a fair wage. They are terrible reasons to accept less than you’re worth. In fact, if you’re a creative professional, you should never work for less than $30/hr.
Why $30 an Hour?
In the digital age you can, with fairly minimal on-boarding, perform jobs that require no experience and virtually no skills for $15-$25 an hour. I’m talking about things like Uber, PostMates, Rover, and TaskRabbit. With the massive spread of riding-sharing and other apps, we can safely say the market has deemed the price of unskilled freelance labor to be up to $25/hr. Freelance is an important modifier here, because part time is a different situation, which we’ve touched on in the past.
If unskilled labor creates a floor, then skilled labor must be above that. So now let’s take the lowest level creative professional- someone fresh out of school with no gear and no professional experience. They still have a skill, however developed it might be, and that mandates that the market pay more. A $5/hr raise is extremely fair. In fact, when you factor in the fact that they have to market themselves and find their own jobs, often have gear (even a laptop with the adobe suite on it is often $2k + $600/year), and typically get much less flexible schedules, the mere 20% bump in pay is incredibly modest. And if the lowest level crew member earns $30/hr, there should never be any creative professional who earns less.
OK, Maybe Not Never
The original title of this article was “No Creative Freelancer Should Ever Work for Less than $30/hr, Period.” but it had to change because there actually are some exceptions.
- Assistants, like PAs, should only expect to make about $150/day. You could say that translates to $20/hr, but if you know of someone with a production day that’s only 8 hours, let me know because I’m applying for a job. PAs are an exception to the payment rule because although they might have video skills, they’re not really employing any in their role. Not to devalue the role of a PA or the learning experience it offers, but the job could be performed by a well trained monkey if monkeys would put up with the torrential downpour of abuse that PAs do.
- In the past, we’ve discussed reasons you might be willing to work for free. The same reasons apply to low paid jobs. I have the motto, “I won’t work for cheap, but I’ll occasionally work for free.” Obviously if I was willing to work for free on something and they offered me a token payment I wouldn’t turn them down, but you get the point. Or if you don’t, it’s this: the reasons you work for cheap have to be every bit as good as the reasons you work for free. Maybe that’s a better motto, because it actually makes sense.
In the End, This is On Us
It’d be nice to blame the existence of ultra low paying jobs entirely on the people who expect high end work for virtually nothing, but they wouldn’t have that expectation if they didn’t have some indication it was possible. People are taking these jobs, that’s why they keep happening. We can’t even blame this on amateurs and weekend freelancers. It’s not just the fault of recent grads who grab up anything they think they could put in their portfolio. Experienced professionals who are in slumps and dry spells that take work far below their rate, even if it is still above $30/hr, contribute to unrealistic expectations. Producers who can’t find the stones to issue a change order on a client that wants work outside the scope allow themselves and their crew to be taken advantage of.
This is about setting an expectation in the industry, though, not about blame. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to start out in an industry that doesn’t have many ways in. To be a freelancer and not know when you’ll work again. And I’m certainly not exempt from blame. When I was first starting as a freelancer I’d take pretty much anything that I could ferret out. Even when Black Chip Collective first founded we’d staff basically any video job that hit a minimum total budget. But we made a commitment not only to our clients, but to protect the wellbeing of freelancers who worked through us, which necessitated that we stopped filling ultra low paying jobs. I don’t pat myself on the back for stopping because it was a lapse in judgement to have it happen in the first place.
At some point we in the industry have to stop and say ‘Enough. We won’t be exploited and used anymore. Creative professionals work 12 hour days in an industry we all killed ourselves to get a foothold in. We’re not taking any more abuse.’ We’re at that point now and we have to do it together. We have to hold each other accountable. You’re not going to advance your career by being taken advantage of. The next time someone asks you to work for scraps, give them a firm no, but also tell them why. Show them how their expectations are unrealistic, explain how unskilled freelancers get paid 25/hr and how that sets a floor, or, hell, link them to this article. So sure, work on your buddy’s movie at a nominal fee, but that client that ‘doesn’t really have the budget for a website’ but still wants one? They better get started learning to make one themselves.