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‘I Heard You Paint Houses’. ‘Yes, And I’m Also A Film Graduate’

Facing unpaid work culture as an aspiring filmmaker

Photo by User 1820796 on Pixabay

An Eastern European migrant working twelve-hour shifts on a fruit farm. Impoverished children making designer shoes for $1 a day in a sweatshop somewhere in Asia.

These are the common stereotypes which arise when someone mentions exploitation and modern slavery.

But very few people fail or refuse to acknowledge the degree-level educated intern working a 48 hour week at a globally acclaimed production company based in London — for free.

As a Film graduate and new entrant into the Film and Television Industries yet to secure my first paid professional credit, I appreciate how intimidating and futile it can seem to avoid accepting unpaid work, not to mention further exposing or challenging those who use or advocate this.

With even major broadcasters such as the BBC who scandalously advertised Runner positions disguised as ‘volunteering’ for filming at Wimbledon just last year, it becomes clear that this degrading and unethical practice transcends the territory of seedy independent producers and remains far from being completely banished altogether.

So, Why Is Unpaid Work Wrong?

First And Foremost: It’s Illegal (Obviously)

‘Placement’, ‘work experience’, ‘internship’, ‘shadowing’ and ‘volunteering’ are terms often misused in job advertisements to substitute what is, in actual fact, work that ought to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage (NMW), as outlined by the National Minimum Wage Act of 1998:

‘ …calling someone an ‘unpaid intern’ or ‘volunteer’ does not prevent them from qualifying for the minimum wage if they are really a worker ’.

Job seekers who don’t recognise the necessary distinctions within this vocabulary risk finding themselves victimised by opportunistic employers who are either ignorant of the law, or whose contempt leads them to disregard it.

One of the few exemptions to this rule is student placements. As further stipulated by GOV.UK:

‘ Students working as a required part of a UK-based further or higher education course don’t qualify for the minimum wage if their placement…does not exceed 1 year ’.

Another example includes shadowing. By its very definition, this involves a prospective employee observing an industry professional during their work schedule, as opposed to actually performing any of the duties themselves.

Simple enough to follow, no?

Apparently not, considering how a survey conducted by the Sutton Trust revealed that 86% of internships in the Arts and Media sector were still being paid below the NMW or nothing at all in 2018.

Below is an example of a regrettably legitimate job advertisement I discovered while scouring an online film jobs board. I cannot recall which.

‘ Hi there, we’re looking for a runner to help out as part of a small team on a short shoot this weekend. Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget to cover payment or expenses BUT you will be credited and get a hug from me x ’.

Let’s establish something from the outset. A credit shouldn’t be the primary selling point of a job vacancy, especially when it’s used in place of actual monetary payment.

Ever had a car salesman make a big point of adding in a fourth wheel to your vehicle purchase? It just doesn’t happen (I hope).

And the only time a ‘hug’ should be accepted as payment is if it resembles that which Joaquin Phoenix gives Richard Harris in Gladiator (2000), because this is still a better fate than continuing your career being insulted in this way.

Further noting the mention of expenses (or lack thereof), contrary to common belief, ‘expenses-only’ contracts do not exempt workers from their entitlement to the NMW.

Equally, nor does a worker waive their right to the NMW by willingly entering into an ‘expenses-only’ arrangement. (I found this out the hard way).

Unpaid Work Is Counterproductive

This extract details a conversation between a father and son surrounding the definition of an intern, plucked straight from Noah Baumbach’s Academy-Award winning film Marriage Story (2019).

Henry: What’s an intern?

Charlie: It’s like a helper who isn’t paid.

Henry: Why aren’t they paid?

Charlie: They’re young, they’re learning. I don’t know, maybe if they do a good job, they get paid later.

Ouch!

Call me old-fashioned, but when did ‘do a good job, get paid later succeed ‘fair pay for a hard day’s graft’ as the status quo for employment practice? (Yeah, I know it’s only a film).

One can only assume that this issue is far more prevalent in Hollywood…

Unfortunately, the Entertainment Industry is bound by an antiquated and somewhat elitist ideology stating that unless someone grafts and sweats and bleeds until they’re finally deemed worthy by the God of Film, then they don’t deserve a place in this industry.

Employers tend to overlook that interns aren’t stupid. Quite the contrary. They’re fully aware that they’re being used and that no matter hard they work, their future at a company was most likely never secured to begin with.

And so whilst interns struggle to make ends meet, producers and execs at the top of the pecking order reap the rewards of an increased budget and wider profit margins achieved by directly disobeying the legislation of HMRC.

Speaking from personal experience, interning for a company with this knowledge weighing on your mind, despite however much you enjoy the role itself and the people whom you work with, does subconsciously impact on your performance.

Of course, the natural counterargument here follows with statements such as ‘no one forced you into this’ and ‘you should’ve looked this up beforehand’. Both are true.

However, companies’ reluctance or inability to replace unpaid opportunities with paid ones, consequently ensures that any pre-existing paid roles become more fiercely competed for. Precisely what new entrants need to hear in a post-COVID-19 world, I know.

Therefore, the freedom of new entrants to decide between unpaid and paid work is questionable, considering that the former is typically required as a prerequisite to obtaining paid opportunities.

Next to the obvious financial reward in return for services provided, paying interns allows them to feel like they belong within a workplace instead of resembling a dispensable outsider or the receiving end of a cruel joke.

Don’t believe me? Notify the next bartender, sales assistant or cleaner working on a zero-hour contract you meet that they must continue working for free and see how they react. Just a tip: be sure to wear your shooting pants…

Is It Ever Acceptable To Work For Free?

This section may seem superfluous considering the discussions presented so far. Nevertheless, there are occasions when low-paid or unpaid work is acceptable, within reason.

For instance, I would always consider engaging in free labour on the short film of a friend or acquaintance in between my paid work, in return for a contribution towards food and travel expenses and/or a kit fee (depending on the gig).

Why? On-the-side collaborations are mutually beneficial for everyone, but especially aspiring creatives, by providing greater opportunities to network, hone skills and produce high-quality work that generates exposure, which may otherwise have been less achievable during their day job.

Essentially, assess each case by its own merits. Don’t be afraid to say no if someone’s requirements exceed your own abilities or what feels fair and reasonable. (I.e. don’t let anyone take the piss!)

The Verdict

Unpaid work and internship culture still represent a major barrier for newcomers attempting to break into what is a highly competitive industry.

Evidently, something needs to change. However, this task shouldn’t fall to employment-rights campaigners such as Mark Watson and Tanya de Grunwald, or alternatively to new and established industry professionals who by protesting, risk jeopardising their entire careers.

Ultimately, amending this practice is the responsibility of senior figures within the Entertainment Industry, considering they hold the power and influence to do so.

Until such change materialises, however, then based on the fate of past noble efforts to combat unpaid work schemes such as the 2005 TV Wrap Campaign, the recurring trend appears to illustrate that whenever media coverage and industry uproar surrounding this issue appears to ease, certain shady producers and companies will resume this employment practice as usual.


‘I Heard You Paint Houses’. ‘Yes, And I’m Also A Film Graduate’ was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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