Sometimes the hardest part of a job on set is getting paid for it. We’re here to help.
A sound mixer once explained to me why he felt the indie film scene was like no other. “So you go into a butcher’s,” he said, “and you ask for a really nice cut of steak. When it’s time to pay, you say ‘great, I’ll pay you in 30 days.’ That butcher’s not gonna give you the steak, because that’s not how it works.”
His story illuminates a peculiarity in the film industry that sets it apart from so many other careers. Until you’re protected by a union, your expectation for a timely payment is based entirely on the faith you put into virtual strangers. While some shoots will pay you with cash or check at the end of the day, this is far from the norm. Most narrative projects will run you through a payroll company, which is supposed to take around two weeks if you’re a first time employee. For commercials, you can often expect what’s called a net 30, which means you’ll be paid within 30 days. There are also net 60s, and even net 90s.
You need a form of spreadsheet that tracks what company owes you money, for which job, which days, for how much.
Most freelancers walk onto any set expecting a form of the above, which in itself is troubling. Freelance is an unstable business, and with film there are always boons and lulls. To take a job knowing you might not see that money for a month or twi, when you need to pay for rent, utilities, food, health insurance, etc, can be a very stressful way of life.
And that’s when you get paid on time. There are a wide range of reasons why payment can be delayed on a film shoot, though almost none of them are the fault of the employee. Some companies have payout periods- say the 1st and 15th of the month. So if you just worked the 2nd, you’re not getting a net 30 anymore, you’re getting a net 45 as you wait for the next pay period to come around.
Larger corporations have complicated webs of approvals that can keep your timecard or invoice swimming in limbo for months before it gets processed, and even then you might find yourself beholden to a single person sitting at a desk, a stack of checks accumulating, waiting to be mailed. These delays can be caused by something as big as a company going under and as small as a missing digit in your address. Whatever it is, unfortunately, it’s on you to be diligent. Sometimes that means a simple email, and sometimes that means being a detective. On several occasions, I’ve gone as far as impersonating producers on the phone to get the info I need.
Luckily, there are several things a budding freelancer can do to protect themselves from delayed payment:
1. Track it
First and foremost, it is essential that you keep a ledger. You need a form of spreadsheet that tracks what company owes you money, for which job, which days, for how much. If you work several jobs in any month, this will help you keep track of how much money is “floating” and if it’s approaching the 30 day mark on any invoice. There are also helpful apps for this sort of thing, like Wave.
You should also make sure to send your timecard or invoice in a timely manner, so the production company can begin processing as soon as possible. The coordinators or production managers hired to handle wrap out on any job are typically on for just a few more days after the shoot, so if you wait too long it might be landing in the hands of someone less qualified to process it. Be sure to keep track of who receives your invoice, and if you’re not certain it’s been received be sure to double check.
2. Leave a paper trail
Always always always leave a paper trail. There is no one more vulnerable than a freelancer showing up to work, at a flat rate, with nothing but a verbal agreement. What’s to stop a production from saying: “But you agreed to $200 for the day” at hour 22? There comes a moment on every film shoot where a producer asks another producer: “What does it cost us every hour we go OT (overtime)?” If you think that calculation is going to factor in those without an expressly stated overtime agreement, you’re kidding yourself.
The surest way to protect yourself in this industry is to spell it all out in a deal memo, or at the very least an email chain. Make sure you specify the rate per hour, or the number of hours that are included in your flat rate. Spell out what charges are incurred for each additional hour. A standard shoot day is considered 12 hours, and more like 14 for most television. Have this in mind when negotiating terms. Most freelancer deal memos resemble their union counterpart, including meal breaks every six hours, proper turnaround between shoot days, etc. Remember that checkout days and travel days should also be paid. Some productions try to sneak out of this, but the reality is they’re booking you for a day and making it so you can’t take other work.
Also be sure to mention deliverables. In post, always spell out what the deliverables are and the range of time you are committing. For example, an editor’s deal memo might include “ X number of passes, for a final deliverable due on June 15th.” Language like this keeps you from attaching yourself to a project for eternity. A proper deal memo leaves no ambiguity as to what you will be providing, for how much, and for how long. It’s also always handy to include in that deal memo (or to inquire in the email chain) when payment is expected to go out for the job. Make sure you get confirmation from the producer as well. Just sending the email, or sending the deal memo, isn’t quite enough. You need to have a copy that’s agreed to and signed by both parties, or an email back saying something to the effect of: “I agree to your terms.”
When you show up for work without any written agreement, you do so at your own risk.
3. Know when to fight
It’s a delicate trapeze act, for sure. When money’s tight and the season is slow, it’s hard to flat-out reject work that seems fishy, or isn’t getting you a deal memo soon enough. But when you show up for work without any written agreement, you do so at your own risk. A lot of people, especially in the lower rungs, are afraid to advocate for themselves. They might worry about “bugging” the producers or getting “blacklisted” for being too difficult. I would argue that a producer who gets upset by your trying to be professional is likely unprofessional themselves. Treat things like this as a red flag. If a producer refuses to answer your questions, especially about the rate of pay for the day, be very cautious.
A friend of mine who had been waiting for two months on a check reached out to the producer asking what was wrong, to which he replied that payment could be expected 60 days after the release of the commercial. Commercials can take months to edit, not to mention that many have specific seasonal release dates way after the shoot. Without written documentation to the contrary, it’s hard to fight this no matter how ridiculous. Think about the butcher analogy again—it’s like telling them you’ll pay for the meat once you’re done eating it.
When all else fails, and this is the hard part, you gotta fight. There is an art to getting yourself paid if there seems to be an issue or delay, with plenty of room for creativity.
4. Pick your contact
Always make sure you’re talking to the right person. If you reach out to someone from the crew who has nothing to do with money, you’re merely slowing down the process. It’s best to start with a producer—usually the coordinator or production manager. If you are particularly low on the totem pole, you might want to first speak with your department head. Like it or not, a producer is more likely to respond punctually to someone like the DP or Production Designer. I’ve seen many department heads go to bat for their team with quick results. Do not reach out to the director of the project unless they are also a producer, and even then treat it as a last resort.
5. Keep your cool
It’s important to remember that we’re all human. 99% of the time, delays in payment are the result of a very simple mistake. Don’t go in guns blazing. Be respectful, but assertive. Find out what the problem is, and make it go away. It may be frustrating, but killing them with kindness is always better (and faster) than starting with hostility. And generally speaking, producers want you to get paid, too.
6. Move up the ladder
If your first contact isn’t delivering, now we start to get serious. Go above them if you can, even if that means the topmost producer. They’re not going be happy to hear it, but that anger is going to be directed at their subordinate who can’t seem to do their job. Sometimes going to the top gets things handled in a few minutes. Feel free to CC the original contact, as it might light a fire under them. Even if it takes a few tries, eventually you’ll find the person who cares enough, or is competent enough, to get you squared away.
7. Get annoying
If you still haven’t gotten a check (or an answer as to when to expect it), you shouldn’t be afraid to become a squeaky wheel. In the past, I have resorted to sending out daily annoying emails to a producer (see above), attaching pictures of giraffes and chubby dogs to each, that ended the same way: “If you would like these emails to stop please send payment to the below address…” He lasted three days.
Be persistent, be aggressive, and appeal to their emotions. For instance, you can mention that winter is a particularly slow time for freelancers and that you rely on timely payment to make ends meet. Use language that creates urgency, like: “I will reach out again if I haven’t heard something by this date.” Finally, remember that phone calls are harder to ignore than emails.
If you’re on a long-term project and concerns are mounting about when payment can be expected, or worse—whether the money is even there at all— sometimes you’ll see the crew revolt. DIT locking the hard drives up somewhere, electrics cutting the power; these are extreme but true examples of ways a crew can force answers about payment.
You deserve to be paid in a timely manner just like everyone else, and you should never be afraid to stand up for yourself.
8. Go to court
If you really make it all the way to step 7, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Threaten legal action if the issue is not resolved in a certain number of days. Different states handle this in different ways, but most have a form of small claims court. In New York, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act provides a multitude of legal options. More often than not, just the mere threat of legal action gets that check in the mail real quick.
To this date, I have never actually taken anyone to court. But I make the threat from time to time and things sort themselves out from there. The reality is that these long-delayed payments never cost as much as a prolonged legal battle. It is never worth it to the production company to go to court over a freelancer’s paycheck.
Overall, remember, the film industry is a tight-knit community. If you’re ever concerned going into a project, ask a friend if they know the production company. Some companies have a bad reputation for late payment. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work for them per se, but you can be extra careful when negotiating terms. Never forget that you are a skilled professional. Maybe you’ve been doing this for years, went to school for this, got certification in it. You deserve to be paid in a timely manner just like everyone else, and you should never be afraid to stand up for yourself. When it comes right down to it, this is your livelihood. Don’t be shy and never give up, because odds are the producer on the other side already got paid. Why shouldn’t you? Good luck.