8 Major Warning Signs for Working on a Low-Budget Film
After the recent tragic death on the low-budget film Rust and the subsequent revelations about lax safety on set, it’s worth examining a few warning signs that indicate we should avoid a particular low-budget project.
All low-budget films are not equal. Many have safe, well-run sets, while others do not. Many of our colleagues have had awful experiences on low-budget projects. Others have had rewarding experiences that helped build their careers.
I’ve only worked on one low-budget film early in my career, and it was a project I enjoyed working on and wasn’t ashamed to include on my resume. I also turned down quite a few other offers. The minuscule salaries weren’t enough compensation for the amount of work involved in the projects.
Here are eight significant warning signs to be aware of for working on a low-budget film:
- The producers are inexperienced, and there are too many of them or both.
Yes, we all have to start somewhere, but first or second-time producers are a red flag worth heeding. There isn’t much wiggle room in the small budgets, and it takes an experienced producer to know where to allocate limited resources.
If there seem to be too many producers for a low-budget film, that means the budget will be squeezed even further, as they’ll all be taking a cut.
Less experienced producers often think they know more than they do, which can be annoying and dangerous. They don’t understand how much time shots take and often try to do more than what’s realistically possible on a minimal budget.
It can leave crews demoralized and ready to quit, as happened with the camera crew on Rust.
Inexperienced producers are a disqualifier for me, as the job will end up being a lot more work for a lot less money.
- The department heads are inexperienced.
The head of a department on set should have some previous experience in their job. Someone has got to make decisions and lead the department, so things run efficiently.
Unfortunately, department heads on low-budget films often lack experience, leading to longer days and lapses in safety protocols. The head armorer on Rust, for example, was a twenty-four-year-old who only had one other job as a head armorer.
Projects with small budgets should have the most experienced people possible, but that’s usually not the case.
This is something to be aware of if you decide to accept a job on a low-budget film.
- Your job description includes more than one job.
Low-budget projects often combine more than one job to save money. It means you’ll be working twice as hard for less money than full union scale.
The unions often permit this in lower-tier union projects, but it’s a lot of work. It’s like having two full-time jobs running simultaneously.
And the producers will have high expectations for each job, even though they may not understand the amount of work required. Things will invariably fall through the cracks.
You’ll be left wondering how anyone could think it was a good idea to combine two jobs and feel bad that you’re unable to do either job well.
- There are lax safety protocols on set.
Irregular safety meetings and lax safety on set are giant red flags on any size project. On Rust, shoddy safety protocols cost cinematographer Halyna Hutchins her life.
In all fairness, some low-budget projects observe safety as diligently as those with far larger budgets. But the death of Hutchins and before her, camera assistant Sarah Jones on the low-budget film Midnight Rider were both due to safety lapses and bad decisions on low-budget films.
There’s always pressure on all departments to make the day’s work, but it can never be at the cost of anyone’s life.
We all have to speak up for safety and use our union’s safety hotlines to report unsafe conditions when necessary.
I wouldn’t hesitate to leave a job where safety takes a back seat to making the day’s work. If the producers can’t make the film safely on their budget, they shouldn’t make the film at all.
- Checks don’t arrive on time or are short.
If anything indicates a project is in trouble, this is it. Things won’t get better; they’ll only get worse.
Some of the crew on Rust report not being paid for several weeks. Then they received checks that were short the correct amount.
Do you think the producers will ever pay them the money they’re owed now? Nope.
It’s not great to work for low-budget wages. It’s even worse not to get paid the low agreed-upon salary.
My advice is to run from shows that short you or don’t pay on time. Trust me, any show that does this has serious problems. There’s no upside to staying.
- The COVID-19 safety protocols are lax.
Crowded passenger vans to locations and crew being lax about wearing masks on set are warnings of other safety fails to come. Even big-budget films with strict safety protocols have been shut down because cast or crew test positive for COVID-19.
If producers seem unconcerned about observing the industry COVID-19 safety protocols, beware.
That shows that they don’t value the health and safety of the cast and crew. Act accordingly.
- Producers ignore or mock crew requests and complaints.
Brutally long days and long commutes are a formula for disaster. Crew members have been injured and killed driving home after working long hours on set.
On Rust, producers reportedly ignored crew members’ requests for hotel rooms after long days of filming. They even had T-shirts made mocking the crew’s requests.
I would never work for producers who thought so little of the crew’s safety needs.
We need to insist that crew members get hotel rooms when needed after long days. Anything less is unacceptable.
And you know what those producers can do with their T-shirts. I don’t think they’ll be wearing them much now.
- The script requires a much larger budget than the producers have.
This seems to have been a problem for Rust. Westerns with many guns need a bigger budget and a longer shooting schedule than what they had.
They should have had several experienced armorers and a shooting schedule to accommodate the time needed for safety meetings and thorough gun checks.
If you're offered a job on a low-budget film with complicated scenes that you know will need time to be filmed safely, ask questions. Always get as much information as possible before deciding to take a job.
You'll be glad you did.
So that's my roundup of warning signs for low-budget films. I don't mean to disparage the low-budget film world.
I admire those in our industry who manage to get projects they're passionate about made on small budgets. As long as they do it safely, with consideration for the crews who work so hard to make it happen.
We work in a dangerous business. We don't need it to be even less safe because of bad decision-making, budgets too low to accommodate the filming of the script, and unsafe sets.
We deserve better working conditions than that.