The dirty truth behind the camera

Things we know but don’t say:

Every young filmmaker dreams of working on a high-budget project. Yes it’s true that much of what you will learn in film school correlates, but the fact is that nothing you learn in college will prepare you for the personalities and varying protocols on each production. We all got into this business for different reasons, I myself fell into the business by accident. So my attraction to the industry is not as significant as those who have aspired to become a Producer, Director, DP, Gaffer, Art Director, etcetera. Therefore, the following opinions are skewed based on my experience in other professions both in the civilian sector and armed forces.

Industry Traits:

There is a distinct personality trait related to each position of any industry, this is no different when you are thinking about the professional film production industry. It’s something I’ve discovered after 4 years of working as a production assistant in Kansas City, Missouri. Of course, I will not generalize people because that is not fair to all working professionals in the business and I won’t single out anyone by name out of respect for the trade.

The competitive nature of the business is understandable, the market is saturated with cut rate production companies who will promise the clients and agencies anything to be able to retain the contract for the job. The issues surrounding the film production industry typically come down to five (5) things:

Lack of Industry & Business Knowledge

  • Excluding intellectual merit, many individuals who decide to start a film production company typically lack standard business skills, namely, financial competency necessary to accurately project expenses for a production.

Insufficient Trade Experience

  • Though an individual may have experience in one or multiple positions in the business, it’s necessary to understand every role thoroughly to establish expectations for each person working in such positions. This is best established working in the entry level positions, such as a Production Assistant. Some will advance or market one’s self as a Producer or Director and successfully retain contracts based on said position, but this sometimes has adverse results based on misappropriation of task assignment which can result in unnecessary overtime expenditures.

Professional Negligence

  • This inherent issue is habitual, many “industry professionals” will intentionally perform wrongful business practices that take advantage of a client or agency. This issue takes many forms, most often companies will overspend, disguise expenses, or inflate labor costs to justify a budget.

Labor Law Violations

  • Production companies will intentionally employ crew members on contract to dodge legal responsibilities such as workman’s compensation and employer taxes. Production companies will employ young unskilled labor as “Production Assistants” to take advantage of a “flat rate” pay schedule, which results in excessive overtime for said workers and poses potential safety concerns.

Market Exploitation

  • Production companies from larger cities, who are well aware of standard costs, will intentionally execute productions in smaller markets, without union representation, to exploit the local workers. In other situations, production companies will travel city to city, like gypsies, to perform work in other markets to take advantage of tax incentives. After a production is completed, it’s not uncommon for a production company to abandon a town after a tax incentive is used.

Local Market Issues

As stated, being from a small market, it’s hard to get all of the industry professionals in the area on the same page. Many people in the Kansas City film production market are starving artists, there’s not enough work in the city to keep everyone employed. So many will take lower rates just to get the job, which feeds the issue. Entry into the market for new talent is also incredibly difficult, many college graduates or interested persons will be blocked entry strictly based on lack of opportunities. This issue enables local production companies to cut rates for all positions to a point where hours worked will, at times, equal or be below that of a federal-standard minimum wage position. For those individuals who establish self worth, and defend oneself from these predatory business practices, are blacklisted by market leaders.

Potential Solutions

These issues can be resolved in a three (3) part process:

  1.  Production companies need to be responsible employers:

    • Production companies need to be responsible by abiding by the standardized union rates and rules. This will not only aid and protect their crew but it will help with providing data that will be equal to that of competitive states.
  2. The local industry professionals need to unionize:

    • To hold the production companies accountable the local workers need to unionize.
  3. The local governments need to intervene and implement industry specific regulations:

    • The local governments need to intervene by establishing instate tax rebate incentives and rules that will hold both the unions and in/out of state productions responsible for employment guidelines.

We all know that this is a long term game and it’s apparent that due to the technical advancements, and demand for online media, the visual marketing service industry will only continue to increase in the future. However, this is a double edged sword because costs adjust according to the technical advancements. This can mean that labor costs for equipment operators with technical expertise will increase, which will offset budgets meaning that production companies will justify lowering rates for “unskilled labor” even more into the future. Therefore, starting now will help to protect employers and employees in the future.

Call to action:

If you agree or disagree with my statements above please let me know in the comments. Please share with those who have insight or input in this matter.