Recently, we at the Atlanta Film Festival partnered with the A3C Hip Hop Film Festival to co-present the film festival portion. Among the offerings we had a music video director panel. Out of that came two key pieces of advice:

Pay yourself first. Artists get royalties, video directors don’t.

Think about your residuals. How can you keep getting paid after your job is done.

These may seem obvious to many, however, it’s our experience that filmmakers are hyper-focused on getting their projects completed. Pulling a salary is often an afterthought. For a few of you reading this, it may even be an anathema. Whatever money you’re raising, it’s going to production first.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with working for free. However, if a filmmaker isn’t diligent about communicating what their time and effort is valued at, that can develop into a self-imposed ceiling that’s difficult to rise above.

Here’s some advice gleamed from some of the successful producers and directors that have come through ATLFF.

  1. Relying on the sale of your film to get compensated after-the-fact is a risky gamble. Accept that now. As a producer or director, you need to be thinking about your own pay from jump, or you may never see anything.
  2. Paying yourself first increases the chances your project will actually see the light of day. It’s difficult to stress about bills, raise money, build up your team and produce your project.
  3. Include development costs in your production. Going after investors may require flying out to meet with them. Paper and ink adds up. Don’t let these soft and hard costs put you in the negative. When you get paid, you could be covering what you spent, not actually drawing a salary.
  4. Include writing the script when you’re factoring in compensation. Yes, even if it’s your own project. You spent months, if not years writing it. You should get something.
  5. Anticipate issues and know ahead of time which scenes can be cut down, change locations or eliminated altogether. Pulling money out of postproduction, or using funds earmarked to keep your production company solvent to shoot everything as planned is a bad idea. It’s going to cost twice as much, take twice as long to finish, or both. Putting your film on the shelf because you didn’t have the money to take a two month break to focus on finishing your film is a momentum killer.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use crowdfunding as the start of your funding process. Raising partial funding is a much stronger position from which to raise more funds than having no funding at all. If you’ve built a base and a following, your supporters can be the catalyst to moving a project a long.
  7. You can be flexible. Being compensated does not mean you have to see all of the money up front. Ensuring that you’re not coming out of pocket (more than you reasonably should), that you’re comfortable, and you have room to produce your project are the goals. If you only raise enough money to allow you to work one day a week on a project, that’s one day you aren’t rushing around doing something else. Also, it’s a sign of respect for yourself that can demonstrate your professionalism. Working for free isn’t always a sign passion, it can be read as desperation, and even as delusional about your film’s prospects or your own skills.

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