The elephant in the room, pt1

March 5, 2014 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

“Where’s the fucken money, shithead?”
“It’s, uh, it’s down there somewhere. Let me take another look.” – The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen.

Today’s topic is how to pick your unpaid projects for putting together a showreel, which is about the only reason to work on a film for free in the first place.

When you’re getting started as an actor, you have nothing to show the world whether you’re any good or not. What you need is a showreel! But who’s going to pay you money to appear in their splendid thing, unless they can see you act? It’s a classic chicken and egg situation, and it’s a bitch to crack [sic].

If you have a wodge of cash, you can hire a company to make a bespoke showreel for you, but this is fraught with problems: you have no guarantee that they can offer you material that plays to your strengths, or other actors who aren’t terrible, or even that they’re much cop; after all, all their advertising will show you the very best their work can be, won’t it? Furthermore,  a showreel is testament that people have taken a chance on you for their project. If you buy one, all you’ve shown is that you have money.

What’s the alternative? To work for free, of course. Star Now, Talent Circle, mandy.com, Casting Call Pro et al are all awash with the chance to give of your time in the hope of getting decent showreel footage; all you have to do is persuade the buggers that you’re worth auditioning, and try to work out which ones will produce something worth being in in the first place.

This, alas, is where it all goes a little dicey. I made a personal decision to work for free until I got a showreel together of which I was proud; in the end, it took eight months to get something functional, and a little over two years to get my showreel to the stage that I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about updating it for at least a year.

I’ve done some unpaid shorts that were good enough for a start-out reel; some that were modestly paid, but so terrible they’re not even on my CV, let alone on my reel; and some where the script was so good that I had real confidence that they’d turn out fine (and they did).

So how do you spot the ones worth doing? Here are my personal guidelines (all of which I’ve seen in action):

The Application:

– If a person cannot write a complete/coherent sentence in their advert, their script will likely be poor. The same goes for syntax, grammar, etc.

– Similarly, if a person cannot be bothered to spell-check their advert, how precise are they likely to be on set/in the edit?

– Their lead role is a Detective Chief Inspector, but the age range is 25-30? What did he do, arrest Lord Lucan on his first day? They’ve plainly done no research into police careers, so why should the rest of their story be any better? NEXT!

– If the advert claims it’s a thought-provoking/thrilling/visually stunning piece of work, I avoid. It’s not been made yet! They may want it to be visually stunning, and that’s fine. But no-one ever wrote an ad saying “This will be a visually bland film, with mediocre framing, poor lighting and unimaginative mise-en-scene.” If they’re trying to sell me the sizzle, it tells me they don’t entirely believe in their project. I may be overly harsh here, but it’s something I’ve learned through bitter experience.

– If the plot is either laid out in full in one giant paragraph, or alternatively, if there’s no info on it at all. When they’re unable to sum up their basic plot in a logline, it makes me wonder what other corners they’ve cut.

– Other warning signs include a lack of information concerning dates, and a refusal to pay even expenses.

The Contact:

So you’ve found something you like the look of, and you’ve been offered an audition. But you’ve still got this funny feeling that it’ll be a waste of time and energy! Why might that be?

– They refuse to send the script over. If you’re not getting paid, you have every right, as an actor, to vet the things to which you give your time. If they don’t want you to see it, you’ve got to start asking why.

– They send the script over and it’s not properly formatted. If they can’t be arsed to produce a professionally presented script, why should you bother reading it?

– They send the script over, and it’s just terrible. Now, if I’m getting Equity minimum, I’ll grit my teeth and make a crappy line work; I won’t grind myself into the ground rescuing someone else’s unspeakable dialogue for free, though.

– They want to do the audition in a coffee shop. SERIOUSLY? There’s a multitude of pubs that’ll let you use an upstairs room for free. If they can’t be arsed at least to try and make you feel comfortable, don’t give them the time of day.

– Other things to consider: most of the unpaid short film roles you’ll see come up will be student projects. Have a look at the film schools in question, find out their reputations, look at efforts by previous alumni (they’ll be all over youtube and vimeo, I guarantee it). If the script is consistently poor; if the lighting is slipshod; if the sound is terrible on all of them (the single biggest problem I found with the shorts I did): then the students are not learning to consider these things. Find out which schools have tough entry criteria, and which welcome anyone with good credit at the Bank Of Dad.

If you’ve applied all these tests, and you still think you stand a good chance of getting worthwhile material, then go for it, and give of your best. You’ll be doing it for the contacts (always worth nurturing, believe me), for the showreel material, and for more experience, which is, when starting out, always a good thing.

Next week: when to STOP working for free.

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