Friday, September 30, 2011

Working for free... thoughts about unpaid internships

Below is an article that appeared today in The Wrap about two interns who are suing because they weren't paid for the hours they worked on the feature film THE BLACK SWAN. I have seen this discussion before and I think it's crazy. There are many people very eager to work on a film shoot. If I wasn't allowed to use unpaid labor I certainly would NEVER hire someone who hadn't worked on a film shoot before. The best way to start in the film business is to be willing to work for free. I did... when I was 30 by the way (married, with a couple of kids and a house mortgage). It's how you learn. Why would someone hire someone who hasn't learned by being on an actual shoot. If you're like me and making films for under $100,000, or under $30,000, it's impossible to pay everyone... it's difficult to pay anyone, actually.

I have used unpaid interns (I have relied on unpaid interns) on every project I've been involved in. I get a few extra hands to help things go a bit more smoothly.

Here's what they get:
• Credit. Screen credit, imdb credit, as well as school credit if the schools is OK with it.
• Knowledge. Learning first hand what needs to be done on a set.
• Contacts. A person who shows up and kicks butt will always be remembered as a hard worker by those around them, which will eventually lead to actual paying jobs.
• Food and beer. What more does a college aged person need?

Think about it. What are film students doing in their free time anyway? If they're smart they're making their own movies, and no one is paying them to do it. Nor are they paying their classmates who turn out and help them. Well, why not step it up a notch and work on some real movies too. On my last project one of my production coordinators, Yukie (a non-paid student intern, who we are giving Associate Producer credit to), worked hard all day, then would go home when we wrapped and work on the web series she's producing. I have no intention of working on anything without Yukie around ever. She's that good... and I never would have met her if she hadn't been willing to work for free. (By the way, here's a link to her web series, Mythomania).

On my smaller films our interns have actual positions (2nd assistant camera, art director, etc). Some people would be outraged at this, saying that these are positions we should pay to have. But people who say this are the-glass-is-half-empty types. I would think most film students would be thrilled to have a real credit on a real film while they're still in school, or even when they're recently graduated. The two folks in question get to have THE BLACK SWAN on their resumes. How cool would that be?

Of course, some young aspiring filmmakers don't want to work for free, but here's the thing, someone always will. That means that the person who is willing to work for free is the person who ends up with the credit, the knowledge, the contacts and the food and beer. If you're an aspiring film person, and you have the means, then let people know you're willing to work for free for the opportunity to learn. Then when you show up, work your tail off and you'll find yourself rewarded down the road.

Meanwhile I will put Masseurs Glatt and Footman on my "never hire" list.

Here's the article (interesting to read the comments as well).

'Black Swan' Sued for Using Unpaid Interns (Updated)

Published: September 29, 2011 @ 10:33 am

By Brent Lang

(Updated: 11:21 a.m. PST)
Unpaid internships are commonplace in the movie business and considered a necessary step for aspiring filmmakers.
But two former interns on “Black Swan” are striking back at the practice.
They’re suing the Oscar-winning film’s producer Fox Searchlight for violating minimum wage and overtime laws.
Russell Nelson, a spokesman for Fox Searchlight, declined to comment.
The suit was filed in Manhattan federal court on behalf of Alex Footman, a Wesleyan film school graduate, and Eric Glatt, a Case Western Reserve University MBA. Footman served as a production intern and Glatt was employed as an accounting intern.
"Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work," the suit reads. "This practice runs afoul of basic wage-and-hour laws."
By relying on unpaid interns to perform production work, the suit says that "Black Swan" was able to keep costs low and improve its profit margins. 
The critically acclaimed film was filmed for $13 million and made nearly $330 million worldwide. 
Glatt and Footman are seeking a jury trial and asking for unpaid wages and attorneys fees. They are also asking the court to discontinue Fox Searchlight's internship practices. 
In the suit Glatt says he worked as much as 50 hours a week for 51 days and was asked to keep track of purchase orders and review personnel files. 
Footman claims he too worked as many as 50 hours a week for 95 days, and was tasked with doing everything from secretarial work to taking out the trash and making coffee. 
The lawsuit argues that the production used unpaid interns to perform “menial tasks” that should have been performed by paid employees.
The suit says that labor rules require that unpaid internships must offer an educational component -- something the “Black Swan” interns say Fox Searchlight failed to provide.
The New York Times first reported the lawsuit. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A poignant post about indie theatrical distribution

This nice post from David Poland on Movie City News is well worth the read.

MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David

The Numerical State Of Indie Distirbution

After writing about the sales at Toronto that were mostly steam, I wondered how the indie distribution scene was looking. So I decided to take a look. All the numbers in this piece are as of this week. So some companies may have more hits or distribute more films this year. Yes. But I think you’ll get the general sense of things…
Six non-studio distributors have had at least one release this year-to-date that grossed over $20 million domestically.
To my eye, that is a new tier of distribution. Let’s call them The Mid-Indies: Weinstein Co, Summit, Relativity, Lionsgate, FilmDistrict, and CBS Films. Only one of these companies, Liongate, existed before 2005. Open Road is being built to be in that category. And Roadside Attractions delivered for The Conspirator, the $11.5m domestic grosser that is their all-time high.
Combined with The Dependants (Fox Searchlight, Focus, and Sony Classics), this is now The Middle in the movie business. Quality drama, smaller genre, and high-aiming doc & foreign language. And it looks pretty healthy. (Sony Classics has the top Dependant grosser to date this year with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and its $54.4m gross to date.)
Summit, Weinstein, and Lionsgate are the only non-Dependants that have been over the $100m domestic mark with a film. And through these years, it’s just been two for the Weinsteins, one for Lionsgate (with the Miramax F9/11 pick-up not really their film to claim), and the 3 Twilight films for Summit with 2 more to come. Those moments are great and glorious, but not the business model.
The high-flier amongst The Mid-Indies this year has been Relativity’s Limitless, which did $79.3m domestic.
You hit your first independently distributed title not released by this group at $5.2 million… IFC’s big doc number for Herzog’s 3Doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I tend to pair IFC and Magnolia as The VODers, though IFC is a bit more aggressive about theatrical than Magnolia is. They have four $1m+ releases this year compared to Magnolia’s one. Regardless, both share the VOD model and the greatest success so far in exploiting that model.
The fourth group I would note are the True Indies. These are companies that release at least three movies a year, hover between $1000 and $5 million per picture and more often than not expect to do under $10 million a year total in domestic theatrical.
This year, 16 distributors had at least one film grossing $1m, but none as high as $5.2 million: Codeblack, Rocky Mountain Pictures, Anchor Bay, Eros, Freestyle, Goldwyn, Music Box, Newmarket, Palladin, Reliance Big Pictures, Producers Distribution, Shorts International, SMODcast, Visio, UTV, and Zeitgeist. But of those 16 distributors, 8 released just one film this year, really qualifying as ongoing True Indie distributors.
Thing is, the companies that are real ongoing True Indie distributors haven’t have the big wins that some of the one-offs have, Outside of the Majors, Mid-Indies, the Dependants, and the VODers, the top distributors were Codeblack with $5.2m for its one release, Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain, and Rocky Mountain Pictures with it’s one release, Atlas Shrugged. The highest grosser in this True Indie class is Anchor Bay’s $1.2m for Kill The Irishman.
This tells you a lot about where the theatrical business is for the smart, proud, and often veteran companies. If $1.2m is the best you can hope for after 9 months of the year have passed, the risk/reward in chasing theatrical with marketing dollars is leaning the wrong way.
Add to the group of 7 from two paragraphs above another 20 distributors who release at least 3 films a year, none of which has grosses as much as $1.2m domestically: Abramorama, Alive Mind, China Lion, Cinema Guild, Film Movement, First Run, Image, Indican, International Film Circuit, Kino, Lorber, Monterey Media, Nat Geo, Oscilloscope, Phase Four, Rialto, Screen Media, Strand, The Film Desk, and Variance Films.
These 27 companies are the True Indies. To date this year, they have grossed a combined $30.3 million domestic.
So that’s my sense of things. Four major versions of indies, plus the self-distribution players and one-timers. Four very different sets of ambitions.
All in, 30 indie films so far this year grossing over $10m. 78 indie films at $1m or over. 277 indie films under $1 million. 184 of those indie films under $100k.
Tough business.
(Edited, Sunday 11:20p – Correction on distribution of The Conspirator.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Some thoughts on production insurance

Unless you're really working on "no budget" you should get insurance. I have always used the good folks at Since 2005 I've probably used them around a dozen times. I have never had anything but frustration when I've been forced to use someone else (usually when someone says they have a friend who can hook them up with good insurance). The reason why Production Insurance works so great is because they're completely online. If you are grabbing a last minute location, you can tell a homeowner they're insured, get online, put them on your list and print up an insurance form listing them as an additional insured in a matter of minutes… twenty-four hours a day. With other companies you can only call when they're open and then (I have gotten this before) they tell you that it will take about five business days to process. Or even better, when my co-producer got insurance through his friend, we could only get proofs of insurance through said friend, who might be at lunch or golfing, or who knows where when we needed him. Dave Morrill who runs Production Insurance has also been very helpful when I've had last minute needs with the permit office or what not. I think they're services are for films under $1,000,000 budget and that shoot less than thirty days.

The costs vary, and one of the ways to tell if a script will be low budget or not is to look for things that require higher insurance. Got people driving in cars? That's gonna cost you. Got people jumping over fences or off ledges? That will cost you too. Got any scenes on, in or near water. That will cost you as well. Obviously any stunts or fights will also create insurance issues.

You can cover most of your equipment rental with a $100,000 policy. Almost all permit offices will require a liability of $1,000,000. I also get third party damage coverage, which covers our crew breaking stuff. You will often also have to get auto coverage, in case a car does any damage. Getting auto coverage here is cheaper than getting it through a car rental place, if you're renting cars. All this should cost around 5k-7k depending on what your needs are.

I'm jinxing myself here, but up to now I've never had to file a claim. So I don't know how is when it comes to claims.

If you're super low you can fly without insurance. You won't be able to get a permit, but I assume you're off permit anyway. Most rental houses will sell you insurance for your rental at just an additional cost. Some savvy locations will not let you in without some liability. We are generally able to convince most to let us in by putting something about "Indemnifying the owner against any liability claim" in our location contract -- I'm not a lawyer so that piece of information should not be pursued without the obvious care and caution (blah, blah, blah).

One of the best ways to ensure that you don't need insurance is to hire smart people who aren't going to do stupid and careless things. There's a skill set that is vital in the film business and that is working quickly and carefully. Too often I see people who become careless as they try to move faster. These are people to avoid. Real professionals can move quickly, be careful, and still give you the highest quality work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

FORCED CALL; don't do it

 I've been on a lot of non-union projects where forced calls were very common. My recommendation is that unless you want to work with very unhappy people don't do it. A FORCED CALL is when your call time is fewer than twelve hours after your release the evening before. It essentially allows a cast or crew person a chance to drive home, eat, visit briefly with their loved ones, shower and sleep for about six hours. Continual Foreced Calls is a recipe for a mutiny.

On a union shoot you will pay dearly for a forced call. I recently had what I think was my first intentional Forced Call. Sometimes it just can't be avoided. We had a location with a night exterior, which we would normally schedule toward the end of the week, but because of talent availability, location availability, etc. we had to start our week with it. So we went to 10:30 PM and started at 8 AM the next day. None of our crew were working under union constraints and we only had one SAG actor that it would affect, so we gritted our teeth and went for it. SAG penalty for a forced call is a full day's pay. At an Ultra Low Budget contract (for films budgeted at less than $200,000) that means just $100. If you do a Force Call under ten hours the talent is contractually allowed to refuse. I'm not sure if the penalty is the same for higher contracts, but I suspect it is. Imagine if you had four SAG actors on a Force Call with SAG Low Budget Modified contract (projects under $650,000) -- at $268 a day, you're looking at over $1,000 just for the luxury of bringing them in early.

Even if you're not using SAG actors or IATSE crew, frequent Forced Calls is nothing more than a sign that you don't know how to schedule and don't respect the lives of those working with you.

Lynn Chen, the lucky first recipient of a Brainwave Films forced call penalty fee
(and a good sport), on the set of Daylight Savings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More notes on sound in Los Angeles

A couple of months ago I wrote about some of the crazy sounds that interrupted production while filming in LA. Well this morning was stranger than normal. We were filming at Angel’s Point in Elysian Park which is just above Dodgers Stadium (Go Giants). I told my director that we couldn’t shoot at sunset as he wished because there was a game and the noise and traiffic would be crazy. Well, I hadn’t noticed that the LAPD police academy was right below us as well, and our morning was peppered throughout our stay by gunfire! I guess it was target practice day and there was non-stop gunfire the entire time we were there. 

103CT1 by brainwavefilms

Monday, September 19, 2011

Busted in L.A. (the perils of shooting off permit)

Driving to our location in downtown yesterday I passed one of those ubiquitous yellow signs pointing a crew into their location. They cost about $35 per sign, when you use the film office’s service. I have a friend who makes them for me for free, but I never use them in LA because I don’t want to draw attention to my invariable off-permit shoot. As I passed the sign the thought crossed my mind that with so many shoots going on at once in Los Angeles it’s a wonder they don’t cross paths more often (visions of the Sharks and Jets dancing in the streets of NY came to mind). The thought turned out to be prophetic.

We were shooting in a small bar downtown and at a theater next door. The owners had given their consent, even without liability insurance. They had helped us with our parking strategy. We were good to go. When I turned onto the street at 6 AM I discovered cones up and down it, and no parking signs thrown up. I knew at once there was a shoot going on. In fact, it was a major Showtime series and they were having a huge extras day (100 background players in a club), in addition to their ninety-person crew. They had all the nearby parking lots bought out for trailers, extra’s holding, etc. As soon as we pulled up to unload we had security on us in a second. In these situations it’s essentially my strategy to buy time. As our guys unloaded I went and talked to the key security, transportation, and locations folks. I tried to get them to let us park there all day, even to buy the spots off them, but they weren’t going for it. Unexpectedly they were very severe and protective at first, but softened up a lot as they saw how little we were and as the day went on.

I made a big mistake though. I saw the location manager talking to what I thought was a security guy, and went up and told her a few things. Unfortunately he wasn’t security but the fire marshal. He figured out we were another shoot, and called to see if we had a permit. He peaked his head into our location took a glance and then stepped out, on the phone. I walked out to see what was up, and he asked those fateful words,
            “Do you have a permit?”
            “No.” What else could I say?
            “You can’t film in here without a permit.”
I tried to think of something convincing, but only came up with, “Well, we don’t have one.”

I tried to explain that we were super small (crew of ten, cast of three, four extras), but he didn’t care. However, soon I caught onto his tone. It became clear to me that he didn’t want to bust me, but that now that he knew I was there, he couldn’t just turn away. The trick was to do whatever I could to please him – short of paying the thousand bucks or so it would take to actually get a permit.

You'd think it would be easy to fly under the radar when you're this small.

It was before 9 AM so the permit office wasn’t open, but they do have an after hours number. I called and talked to someone who said he couldn’t guarantee anything but to go ahead and submit an online application. Knowing the film office I knew they wouldn’t get to it until at least noon. By then we’d be almost ready to move.

In a little bit the fire marshal came back, asked who I talked to. He called him, asked if I had indeed called, and that was all he needed. I saw him a couple of times later that day and he was super great. He essentially said to me, he didn’t care so long as I had done something to make the effort, but in good conscience he couldn’t just turn a blind eye. Meanwhile the permit office called around two and rejected my permit, but said I could probably get it for Thursday if I could hold off until then. I told them maybe and that I’d get back to her. We wrapped the location at 4 pm. The next day our production wrapped all together.

Technically, if you apply for a permit you're liable for the permit fee. A permit in Los Angeles cost just under $700 and is good for ten days. It covers all of the city of Los Angeles, state parks and a lot of San Fernando Valley. Most of the cities around LA (Pasadena, Burbank, etc) have their own permitting offices which assess their own fees, etc. I knew our permit would be rejected because we didn't carry liability insurance. I should write in another post more about carrying insurance, but for now, will simply say unless you're ridiculously small, you should have it.

However, the Showtime location manager slipped me some awesome advice about shooting in LA that I hadn't yet picked up: While a film permit is $700, a stills permit is only $60. Most low budget indies can get a stills permit and no one will know the difference. The only issue is if you're trying to control sound or lay track someone might call you on it, but that's unlikely. When I applied I applied for a stills, knowing that even if they assessed me the fee it wouldn't be a crazy price. Fortunately I simply told them that we were gonna try other options and they didn't charge me the fee.

Disaster averted. Phew.