As a historian, and a filmmaker, I’ve studied the careers of many screenwriters, directors and others. As students, they do unpaid work under mentors (their instructors and more experienced students.) Normally, however, their first industry job is a paid one.
Outside the film industry, I’ve seen something else. Sometimes, unpaid work does lead to a paid job, and even a career.
I know a lot of people who have done internships, work tasters, and the like, and I’ve done a few myself. I’ve seen the difference in results. Here’s a little guidance on choosing a work placement based on my experience.
You’re most likely to get a job at the very place you do the placement at. So, do a placement with someone you want to work for. – Vasco de Sousa
1) They hire people like you.
Don’t waste your time working for a part-time filmmaker who can’t afford to pay. Teachers do work trials at established schools, waiters do work trials at established restaurants, producers do internships at studios they’ve heard of. Find out who they have on payroll before offering your services.
You’re most likely to get a job at the very place you do the placement at. So, do a placement with someone you want to work for.
2) They don’t make promises.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. IMDB pages are not for filmmakers or the real film industry, they are for fans, academics and researchers. If a job offers an IMDB page, it’s about 100 percent likely that it won’t help your career. (Unless you want to start a backwater film festival or teach filmmaking seminars to the clueless.) Screen credits are different, but these are part of standard contracts (and, on a real production, you often have to fight for them.) Offering “feedback” is usually worthless too. Mentoring may be useful, but “feedback” is the noise you get when you don’t set up the microphone properly.
3) They offer mentorship.
You should have someone with more experience than you working with you. This doesn’t mean older, or more years experience, or more credits, (every student has done 100 short films) but more actual hours spent on the field, doing the task for a living. Ignore IMDB credits, they just say how many festivals they entered. They should be better trained than you are, in what you’re doing. In a school, as a teacher’s helper, you work with a trained, experienced teacher. As a runner, you work with a trained, qualified, cinematographer or producer or set designer (or whatever job goal you have.)
“Full training provided” will be much more likely to lead to a paid job than “must have experience.”
Now, sometimes I might do volunteer work that doesn’t offer mentorship. But, I don’t do that under any illusion that it will lead to paid work.
4) Unpaid work experience is worthless for certain jobs.
For actors, writers, and quite a few others, those who know what they’re doing and have something to teach you can normally afford to pay you. And, they would normally prefer to pay you too. For various reasons, it would be better for their business not to use unpaid people in certain roles.
If you want to do it for fun, as an amateur, then great. But, don’t expect to be trained to the same standard or to receive the same guidance as a professional.
5) They aren’t moonlighting.
Look, if you work for someone without pay, you usually want a work reference, right? If you work for a busy filmmaker, it’s bad enough. If that producer is doubling as an academic, salesman, web designer, public speaker, social media darling or festival organiser, they probably will have even less time to recommend you. Let alone give you guidance.
6) They can see your work.
I’ve tried to work with people by distance, and it usually doesn’t work. These same people are much easier to mentor in person. There are exceptions, but if you’re a total beginner, you usually need face-to-face mentoring. And, when you’re past that stage, then you’re worth a salary. (That said, you also get mentored in paid work. We can all learn from each other, if we choose to.)
Anyone have any other tips? Feel free to contact me. Experience from other industries is welcome, especially if you did a work taster and it led to a paid job.