When I started operating, one of my biggest newfound sources of stress became getting paid on time. Smaller productions conduct themselves much differently than large productions. When you shift from a larger production to a smaller one, it’s not a simple scaling-down of project size. There’s also a scaling-down of production competency and professionalism. Think about it, if you were an established producer with years of experience and high professional standing, what kind of a production would you be running? You probably wouldn’t be producing a low budget music video. That inexperience and lack of professionalism effects many smaller productions. Schedules aren’t as thought-out, there may not be a shot list, and the production might waste a lot of time. Unfortunately, those shortcomings are often passed onto the crew in the form of payroll delays. Whereas large productions utilize a timecard system and outside companies to manage payroll, small productions are usually invoice only.
I was introduced to the net 30 payroll schedule when I began sending my first music video invoices. If you don’t know already, net 30 means a production has thirty calendar days from receipt of the invoice to pay it. In my 4 years of operating steadicam, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been paid on-time after submitting a net 30 invoice. In the production world, net 30 roughly translates to, “we’ll pay you whenever we feel like it, if we remember at all.”
The simple fact of the matter is, there is very little pressure on production companies to pay their crew on time. Like I’ve said before, there’s no human resources department in production. Crew members are independent contractors, not employees. Who can we complain to about unfair treatment if a production pays late? There aren’t a lot of options. Productions know this and often take a blasé approach to filling invoices. Sometimes there’s a reason behind the sluggishness with which an invoice is filled. I’ve been on jobs where the production company can’t pay because they haven’t been paid yet by the music label. Problems roll downhill, and the people at the bottom, the crew, are the most effected.
There are several strategies for getting your invoices paid in a timely manner. My favorite method, and by far the most successful one, is to ask for a check at the end of the day. I negotiate the end-of-day check into my agreement when I accept the job and, in those cases I don’t have to worry about when I should expect a check in the mail. The process is quick, easy and removes a good amount of stress from a job. This option isn’t always possible. The biggest deciding factor in whether or not a production can pay you out before you leave is how much money they’re paying you. As you get higher paying jobs, productions won’t want to shell out your cash at wrap. In those cases, you’re on the production’s payment schedule.
What happens if thirty days pass and there’s no check in your mailbox? Do you sit around and hope it shows up soon? Absolutely not. The production has reneged on their agreement to pay you on time, and you must address the issue. I’ve heard other people say they’re afraid to initiate a confrontation like this, but the exchange doesn’t need to be a confrontation. I usually send an email like this one:
Subject: Update on payment
Hope you’ve been well. I’m reaching out because I haven’t yet gotten a check for (shoot) and I’m wondering if you had any information on if it’s been sent out yet.
Notice how brief and non-accusatory that email is? I’m not telling the production that they’ve paid late and are bad people because of it. I’m just asking for information. I’m leaving the possibility open that maybe the check was lost in the mail or something outside of the producer’s control happened to affect my payment. You can be annoyed or angry that you’re being paid late, but that can’t come across in your communications. Depending on the reason for late payment, you may still want to do business with the production company. If the problem persists, you have to start getting annoying if you want to get your money.
One reason film professionals don’t want to address late payment with production companies is they feel like they’ll be burning a bridge. They think that, by inquiring after a check that hasn’t been sent, a company will see them as being difficult to work with. Let me ask you this, if you hired somebody and never paid them, would you hire them again? Of course not. Producers aren’t going to reach back out to somebody they already stiffed. A producer who makes you feel like you’re wrong for asking to be paid isn’t a producer you want to work with again. In those cases, may as well get your money.
There are precious few advocates for crew members in the low-budget world. You must be your own biggest advocate. Productions will treat you exactly as poorly as you let them. If you’re not prepared to fight for your rate and your check, someone will take advantage of you and steal your labor. It’s an unacceptable practice, but it’s a reality in this industry. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Make yourself impossible to ignore. By doing so, you may still get paid late, but you’ll always get paid.