10 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Agree to Work on a Low-Budget Movie
Working on a low-budget movie can be a helpful step in building your film industry career or a waste of time that does nothing for your career or your sanity. It all depends on the project and who’s running the show.
Anyone who’s worked on low-budget or ultra-low-budget projects knows they can be brutal, so there has to be an upside for your career to work on them since you won’t be making much money. From my experience, low-budget films can be every bit as stressful as larger budget projects, sometimes more so.
So you need to ask questions before agreeing to take a job on a low-budget movie, or you may quickly regret your decision to say ‘yes.’
Here are ten questions to ask before accepting work on a low-budget project.
- Is it union or non-union?
If the project is union, that means the company is a signatory, has agreed to the terms of the union contracts, and your risk of not getting paid is low. As a DGA member, I don’t take non-union jobs, so this is always the first question I ask, even before asking about the pay rate.
You’ll also have health and pension contributions, however small, made on your behalf on a union job.
You should understand the specific union contract for the project, as terms will differ substantially from those on a full-scale union project.
If it’s a non-union job, what’s the reputation of the producers? Are there complaints against them? Are they experienced? Do you know anyone else who’s worked with them?
Inexperienced producers and minimal budgets can be a terrible combination, as money often doesn’t get spent wisely, and below-the-line budgets get shortchanged. That goes for both union and non-union low-budget projects.
- What’s the pay rate?
Some low-budget movies pay a decent, though below scale, salary. Some ultra-low-budget projects pay a pittance and expect you to do more than one job for one minuscule salary.
Is the pay rate reasonable for the scope of your job, or will you be expected to work yourself half to death for little money?
Only you can decide if the job is worth taking for the salary they’re offering. If it seems ridiculously low for the amount of work involved, maybe it’s best to pass.
- How long is the shooting schedule?
You should know the length of the shooting schedule for two reasons.
The first reason is that if the shooting schedule seems too short for the scope of the work, there’s a good chance the producers will cut corners and compromise set safety, as on the low-budget film Rust.
The job isn't worth taking if safety isn’t a top priority.
The other reason to know the length of the shooting schedule is to know how long you’ll be out of circulation for working on higher-paid projects. I’ve turned down low-budget job offers because of this, even though I liked and respected the people involved.
If you regularly get job offers for significantly more money, will you be comfortable turning one of them down because you’re working on a low-budget project for less money?
You may want to pass on the job if the answer is no.
- Is the job offer for work in a category above the one in which you usually work?
Getting the opportunity to work in a category above your current one is why many people, including me, have agreed to work on low-budget projects they’d otherwise refuse.
Working on a low-budget movie can be a great way to gain credits and experience working above your current category.
Even though the pay won’t be much, you’ll be gaining valuable experience in a new category that can help your career in the long run.
That’s the best compensation I know of for the low salary.
- If the job is on location, will your travel and hotel be paid for, and will you receive per diem?
If they expect you to work as a local hire, meaning they won’t pay for your travel or accommodations, you need to consider whether the job is worth taking.
If you want to take the job, I suggest you do some serious number crunching before saying yes, or you may end up working for free.
- How many people will be in your department?
This is a crucial question, as understaffing means everyone rushes to do the job of several people, and safety gets compromised.
Understaffing also takes a physical and mental toll on crew members, as you’re working twice as hard for less money. The producers and director are often in panic mode as everyone struggles to make the day’s work and tempers flare.
Even the most experienced crew members need and deserve a certain amount of help to do their jobs properly and safely.
Understaffing is a red flag that you should not ignore. On Rust, it cost the DP her life.
- Are there large scenes with lots of cast and extras, and will you have extra help on those days?
Days with large cast and extra calls are days when many departments will need extra help. Wardrobe, makeup and hair, props, and the a.d. department will all need additional people to help make the day’s work. Possibly other departments will need help, too.
This is where the producer and UPM’s experience comes in.
Inexperienced ones often think they can cut corners on busy days to save money, which never works. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of their learning this lesson, as you struggle with an understaffed department on a busy day.
Ask in advance to ensure you’ll have the help you need on big days.
- Is it a period piece with stunt work, special effects, gunfire, or horses?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, they may have a lower budget and shorter shooting schedule than is realistic for the type of work involved.
I’ve worked on many projects with stunts, special effects, guns, and horses, and each of those elements takes additional time to set up, and the setup can’t be rushed. It takes time to safely get it right.
That was another problem on Rust.
They did not have the time or the budget to shoot the script they were attempting to film. To say safety was lax is an understatement.
Ask yourself if the shooting schedule is realistic for the work involved. If not, it’s another red flag to heed.
- Is there night work?
Night work is another element that takes time to set up, especially if it involves condors.
Personally, I never much liked night work and would pass on a low-budget movie that was mostly night shooting.
Safety can also go downhill fast when everyone is rushing to set up equipment at night. Work always seems harder at night, even on big-budget projects.
Once again, it’s up to you to decide if night shooting is a deal-breaker.
- Is the project following all the industry COVID-19 safety guidelines that are currently in place?
Yes, everyone’s going about their business as if COVID-19 is gone, but there are still industry COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, and I wouldn’t consider working on a project that wasn’t following them.
The COVID-19 industry safety guidelines were updated recently, but they’re still in place.
All projects, union and non-union, big-budget and low-budget, should adhere to the guidelines. If they’re not, you know they’re not serious about safety.
Take this into account before you agree to take the job.
As freelancers, we need to get as much information as possible about a job before we agree to take it. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions; anyone who calls you with a job offer but won’t answer any questions about the job should raise your suspicions.
Low-budget movies deserve a bit more scrutiny on your part, as they’re usually trying to film an ambitious script with a severely limited budget.
My advice before accepting a job on any project is don’t assume anything – ask questions.