Not long ago, I was driving back from Arizona where I just filmed a comedy western pilot with my creative other half and a spectacular team of people. I call this guy my creative other half because in the past 10 months, he and I have collaborated on 15 projects together, with the 16th currently in production and the 17th in pre-production. He takes the words and characters I write and create as an actor to whole new levels through his direction and vision. We already have a short-hand with each other and we haven’t even known each other for a year. We have the same work ethic and drive. He is one of the only people I know who I will willingly admit is just as busy as I am. He might even be busier. But he, like me, always finds time to do good work.
I say all that to emphasize my respect and adoration for this man, and to emphasize that we are almost always in agreement on most everything creative. And as we were driving through the wee hours of the night so that we could both get back to our respective day jobs in the morning after 4 long days of filming in full costume in the hot Arizona heat, he and I discussed why and when we’re willing to work for free.
In all the projects we’ve collaborated on in the past year, both of us have yet to be paid. In fact, in many cases, we were the ones bearing most of the brunt of the cost. So we were, in fact, working for less than free. But both of us are fine with that at this point in our careers. Because we recognize this career choice is an investment. And you’ve got to (often literally) pay your dues before you’ll be able to get a return on your investment.
Of course everybody wants to get paid. Of course everybody wants to be a professional. Of course everybody wants their time to be valued monetarily so you can finally feel like you’ve made it by making money through your passion. And while I hope we can all be so lucky as to get to that point eventually through hard-work and tenacity, I truly believe there are plenty of times you should work for free. No matter how big you get. So here they are:
1) Do it because you need the practice.
If you’re new to the industry, this should be a given. You need to work on your craft. You need to show people that you know how to be on set, which means you need to get on sets. I did a student film about a year ago. I did it because I felt out of practice being on set. I wanted to practice literally being able to snap “on” and tune out all the distractions around me when the director finally yells, “Action!” I wanted to be challenged in an atypical role for me. I went into the project knowing what I wanted to get out of it and that I needed practice not pay. And that’s exactly what I got.
Even the most seasoned veterans need to work on something. In body building, the pros will sometimes go to the gym and only work on their shoulders. They’ve built up enough of their body that they can identify a particular weakness or area they want to work on, and will focus in on that to make their overall body composition better. So, too, should you focus on your career. Creativity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. When you’re out of practice for a while, you get weak. So you need extra reps in a specific area to get strong again.
I do a sketch show called TMI Hollywood (tmihollywood.com) at The Second City regularly. Every week, we get seasoned pros from the industry willing and wanting to come do free, ridiculous, and silly sketch comedy because they love to be in front of an audience. We never have trouble finding guests who just love to perform and challenge themselves without needing monetary compensation. And that’s often the attitude that made them successful in the first place.
As a creative, you always need to be pushing your boundaries to see what you’re capable. And as a human being, you should always be challenging yourself out of your comfort zone. You can always get better. So take advantage of free projects that could serve you in this way.
2) Do it because you believe in the person, project, or product.
I’m lucky in that I hang with a lot of creative, hilarious people. And I’m even luckier that most of these people are self-motivated enough to do their own projects. So I often get asked to play different roles to help out friends of mine. And I love every moment of it. And I don’t even think twice about getting paid for it.
I believe in the people who are doing the project. I believe that they create good work. And I believe that their good work will help create even more opportunities for them, which means more possible opportunities for me in the future. I know from my own experience as a person constantly creating work that when I finally do have a reasonable budget behind me, I’m going to do my best and hire as many of my friends as possible. The people who are willing to stick by me in the dark (financial) trenches are the ones I want beside me when we revel in the riches of the (studio) palace.
Besides, when you work with friends, you never know what’s going to happen. For example, the other day my friend texted me last minute for help for a project of his. He asked me to show up in what ended up being a parking lot in Koreatown. He was decked out in a ridiculously bright and colorful outfit. He explained what he wanted me to do- really silly simple background work stuff for him- and we went off and guerilla-filmed it. After that, we headed to a Karaoke bar to film the last little bit he wanted to get. Then the whole group of people- a couple of whom were friends of mine that I hadn’t seen in months- sat around and sang Korean karaoke tunes and laughed for the next hour. It was an absolutely delightful Saturday that I could have missed if I had been an asshole who insisted on only ever doing paid work.
Which brings me to my final point…
3) Do it because you get to do your passion.
I’m a firm believer that anyone who has discovered their passion is one of the lucky ones in life. I happen to love to create. I love everything about the creative process. I love getting flashes of ideas and writing or recording it before I lose it. I love to look over my notes and attempt to decipher if there’s anything good in the heaps of ideas I get. I love sitting down and writing. I love being on set, getting in costume, finding a character’s physicality, doing multiple takes, then seeing rough cuts and watching how the post-production process really works it’s magic- I could go on and on.
The point is, I love this world. I’m passionate about it. It makes me feel alive. And I’m grateful for any chance I get to pursue that passion. Even if that means I don’t get paid for it. As long as I can make ends meet, I’d rather work for free and feel alive than do paid work for hours without any thrill. For me, my time is valuable. But I choose to measure it through passion and growth, rather than only through money.
Let me be clear before people start freaking out. I don’t always think you should work for free. If someone asks you to do a project that doesn’t fit into one of the criteria above for you, please pass on it. You should spend your precious time and energy enough to only do things that you know will serve you. Sometimes that means being creative. Other times it means hanging with loved ones outside the industry. Be judicious in choosing what free work your willing to do. But please, always be willing to do it.