When to Work for Free on a Video Production

“Bigfoot has been spotted north of Route Six!” Tony shrieked, bursting through the door. He was covered in dirt and bark, waving his arms to get my attention. As he raced towards me he knocked over a plate of chicken wings and upset a pair of heavily mustached bikers who seemed on the verge of beating him out of his shoes until they smelled him and shrunk back. He’d been in the swamp, a long time, by the look of it.

Tony raced across the room and shoved his cell phone in my face. On it a fuzzy brown blob was moving through a fuzzy green blob, “He’s in the forest!” I looked at the video. “Grab your cameras!” he shouted impatiently when I didn’t move, then jumping up and down, “We’re getting an expedition together to do a video production of him!” Tony was the president of the Skunk Ape, Sasquatch & Yeti Hunters and was the local authority on such things, or at least he was the only one spending weeks in the swamp with a pair of binoculars and a trap baited with a crate of cabbages.

Who could argue? This could be my big break to get a video production onto national TV. In my head I saw crystal clear video of a nine foot tall Sasquatch nonchalantly eating carrots from someone’s vegetable garden with my name scrolling underneath and Wolf Blitzer saying “Amazing video by camera operator Kyle Cassidy” every three minutes. I grabbed my bag and started making a mental note of things we’d need: tripods, cameras, a beefy laptop with editing software, long lenses, a tent, tranquilizer darts …

We jumped in Tony’s Jeep and he tore out of the parking lot, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. Tony was talking a mile a minute, the sightings, the direction the Skunk Ape was traveling, the tool sheds it’d destroyed, the plaster casts, the horrible odors….

“One thing,” Tony said as we pulled onto the freeway, “we don’t have a video production budget, you’ll have to do this for free.”

When (if ever) to Work for Free

Throughout the course of your career as a videographer, people will ask you to work for free. They’ll think they’re being clever, or even generous, offering you the opportunity to shoot their daughter’s steeplechase event, or a party they’re throwing. Artists have been pushing back against this for years often with organized angry responses. (No doubt, many of you have thoughts about this, please share them on the Videomaker forum.)

There are a number of reasons you may consider foregoing the paycheck, and there are a bunch of reasons to say “no thanks.”

Inevitably though there are times when working for free is an OK thing and a good idea, not every payment is in dollars.

Inevitably though there are times when working for free is an OK thing and a good idea, not every payment is in dollars. Ultimately it’s for you to decide where to spend your time and talent, but today we’ll look at some reasons you might want to consider working for free and what it might get you.

Why work for free? There are a number of legitimate reasons you may want to consider foregoing the paycheck, and there are also a whole bunch of reasons to say “no thanks.” Among the reasons you may want to consider it are:

  • To get real-world experience
  • To build a demo reel
  • To learn from a more experienced producer
  • To learn new techniques
  • To attempt a new type of video production
Ability, education and experience make up the triple threat of finding work. It’s difficult to get started when you’re missing one.

Types of free work you might do

While there are lots of opportunities to work for free, let’s take a look at some of the legitimate ones – ones that might actually help you out.

Volunteer: Would you volunteer to record your kid’s soccer game? Lots of parents would. You do it because you like to watch your kid play soccer, you want to be helpful. We all volunteer to do things because we want to see them get done and because we want to be helpful. If it’s a volunteer opportunity that provides something for your reel or gives you an opportunity to spend time with people you like and have fun, then you can consider that compensation.

Intern: There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what an intern is. What it’s not is free labor. In Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the U.S. Supreme Court stated that companies can “hire” people and not pay them if the job is for the benefit of the person being hired, and not the company. They outlined six requirements that must be met for an internship:

  1. The type of work the intern is doing must be similar to what they’d be doing in a school setting if they were studying this field (which means you can’t stick your video intern in a tiny room and have them address envelopes all day).
  2. The internship is solely for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.
  3. Your intern can’t do the job that a regular employee does, meaning you can’t fire someone and replace them with an intern.
  4. The interns have to be closely supervised by your existing personnel.
  5. You provide this training to the intern and you get nothing out of it. You can’t have the intern doing stuff that makes you money, in fact, it may often be worse for you to have an intern.
  6. There’s no promise of a job at the end of an internship. So you can’t say “Work for free for six months and I’ll give you a job.” It’s made clear from the very beginning that the intern isn’t getting any money for his or her labor.

All this boils down to is, “it’s financially bad for a company to have legal interns, which means the only reason they would do it is if they’re really generous and care about giving people job experience.” An internship is more about a company working for free than an employer, though it’s a common misconception that it works the other way around. Beware of someone offering you an internship that’s just you doing free grunt work for them.

This said, if a videographer or news station offers you an internship, it could be a great opportunity to learn how things work, and to meet people who might be looking to hire someone.

Apprenticeship: An apprenticeship is when a skilled individual contracts with an unskilled one specifically in order to teach them the skill they know, it’s a mentor/student relationship. Historically, apprentices were usually minors and served a master tradesperson for a number of years. In a modified form it’s still common in trades like carpentry and also common in fields like video editing. Today, however, formal apprenticeships typically pay a salary. Though it’s certainly possible that you will have an unofficial apprenticeship with someone who will let you come along on shoots to help out and observe.

Because a Client has No Budget: Sometimes you’re feeling charitable and want to see something happen, other times it’s a friend or relative and sometimes people keep bugging you and it seems easier to do it rather than keep hearing them ask about it. Very often, potential clients will promise you future riches and exposure in exchange for your labor. “Exposure” is a loaded gun. Yes, it’s possible to make money through eyes on your talent, as William Hung knows, the engineering student whose audition for American Idol was so incredibly bad that after it was broadcast, he was signed to a record contract and his album, Inspiration sold nearly a quarter of a million copies. James Cameron famously took no paycheck and no percentage of the gross for directing Titanic banking on the belief that he’d make money from it in other ways (he reportedly pulled in $115,000,000 when all was said and done.)

And in fact all advertisements are simply companies trying to make money through exposure, but often times, the types of exposure clients think they’re offering you won’t translate into sales. Do gigs “for exposure” only after you’ve carefully weighed what you’ll be putting in with what you really expect to get out of it. Is it an opportunity to spend time with people you really like? Does it support a cause you care about? If it’s not for money, then it has to be for love; don’t get taken advantage of.

A Piece of the Pie: In filmmaking it’s common for people to work on “points,” which is a percentage of future earnings, this allows producers to make movies without having to come up with all the money up front, though it’s a gamble for anyone who works on it, because it may flop.

If working for points, make sure you’re working for “gross points” rather than “net points.” Hollywood often does accounting in ways that show movies lost money even when they made huge amounts, partially so they don’t have to pay people points. (Your clients may also have just underestimated their budget and you may be able to work with them to figure out how to do what they want for less than they thought.

Personal Projects: Sometimes you work for free because it’s an artistic project that you believe in and that couldn’t exist otherwise. The history of independent cinema is one of groups of friends pooling their talent and making movies because they want to make things happen. Often these are projects for which nobody expects to make money; time and resource-consuming labors of love. It’s usual for people doing personal projects to offer to pay in “copy, credit and meals,” meaning they feed you while you’re working, you get your name in the credits, and you get a copy of the final product. In the realm of weekend film projects, it’s common and often a good way to meet other people interested in production and work on your portfolio.

Am I good enough to charge people for my video?

If you have a video camera and you know how it works, then you’re good enough to charge for your services. You might not be the greatest video producer, but you have something your client doesn’t, a video camera and the time to put it to work. Figuring out how much to charge is a more difficult question. You want your clients to be happy with the result they get for the price they paid and you want them to recommend you to other people so you can build your business. Pair yourself realistically with the projects you choose.

Occasionally you’ll run across an earnest new video producer with a camcorder, high business ethics, a monumental price list and absolutely no product to show you. The bottom line is: you can legitimately charge anyone for any work you do, but occasionally it makes sense to trade your time for a product to show someone else. If your sister calls you and asks to video her neighbor’s dog’s third birthday party, you can certainly charge for doing that, even if you’ve never recorded a thing in your life. Your time is yours and if people want it, they need to compensate you in some manner, and if it’s not for love, then it must be for money. Price accordingly and make sure you’re not promising more than you can deliver. It’s perfectly reasonable to say “I’d love to record your birthday party. My time will cost you $50 and while I’ve used my camcorder and understand its functions, I’ve never recorded a birthday before.” If they wanted Steven Spielberg, they would have hired Spielberg. Let the buyer beware when trying to get video on the cheap.

How do I figure out what to charge people?

Sometimes people end up working for a lot less than they should, or trying to work for a lot more than they should because they can’t figure out what to charge. Check out competition, quality, and their prices. Lots of videographers keep their prices close to the vest and looking at their websites will get you a “call for an estimate” and this is because prices on things like this are often variable. They’re based on what the client can pay, how difficult the job is, and what the intangible rewards are.

Videomaker’s rate calculator is a free resource to help you determine what to charge for your production work.

Given the option of spending the day in a corporate board room making $2,000 for a video and spending the day at an animal rescue center recording orphaned baby penguins for $1,800; I’m going with the baby penguins. That said, when I’m pricing things online I always skip all the Web pages that say “call for an estimate,” I’d like to see a price list, even if it’s just a ballpark. (And check out Videomaker‘s Video Rate Calculator online. It’s free and is a pretty good base to begin with, rating your expenses and income needs and other things you might not even think about.


Four days later, I was still sitting in a tree, in the rain with my camera aimed across a field, waiting for Bigfoot to show up. If he does, it’ll be worth it. For a sighting like that, I’ll work for free any time.

Kyle Cassidy lives with his wife, Trillian, three cats and a lot of memory cards. He writes frequently about technology and has famously worked for free on occasion.

Girl holding camcorder image from Shutterstock.

Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidyhttp://www.kylecassidy.com
Kyle Cassidy is a professional filmmaker, photographer and writer.

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