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Working on ‘Spec’ is not necessarily a bad thing. It does have the benefits of keeping one’s skills sharp during production lulls and as you mentioned, filmmakers get the opportunity to evaluate and forge potential contacts.
Initially, as freelancer and in the early years of my company a significant number of projects I did were either on spec or straight pro bono. Doing those jobs helped get my outfit up and running in addition to building a solid work reputation. However, working on spec costs the filmmaker money up front with no guarantee of payment despite what any oral or written agreement (if any) may state. Now when I do spec projects, they are exclusively in-house projects so that funds put forth can be specifically written off in the likely event that the project doesn’t pay off. Also, during said projects a more concerted effort to compensate parties working on the project is made. Though we may not be offering ‘pay’ for a specific project, we provide lodging, catered meals, copies of the completed work and samples of merchandise generated to promote the film. On our last project, we had an old hollywood hand onboard and he commented that, ‘in all the years he’d worked in the biz he had never been so well taken care of. All he had to do was show up to shoot!’ We did that for everyone from the producers to the pa’s.
More often than not though, you run into spec jobs that are shall I say ‘raggedy’ to put it nicely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed on spec projects because of producer’s attitudes ‘well you’re working for free so we can get you to do anything….’or their obvious lack of organization and sometimes ‘criminal’ mindset (we never had any intention of paying anyone anyway.) You are correct, it is one helluva gamble. I don’t disapprove of spec work, but I do suggest the same amount (or more)of research one would put forth in investigating a potential paying gig. Once you accept the facts that you’re probably not going to get paid, you probably will have to cough up some money in order to participate (directly or indirectly) and you will have to ‘spend’ an amount of your time that could be used in the pursuit of paying gigs you should be able to pursue the project with enough passion to see it through.
I’m glad your friend and collegue can make a living on spec gigs. I strongly believe that’s a regional thing too. If you live in the areas where there is ‘high production traffic’ like california, new york, miami the amount of spec gigs are astronomical compared to lower traffic regions. Outside the high traffic areas, spec work gets sporatic and the resources needed to participate get more expensive making spec work far less a viable option for filmmakers living those areas.
With today’s economics however, I do believe spec work is going to increase exponentially. Investor dollars have evaporated significantly and it was hard enough to get money before.