Maximizing Volunteer and Student Production Experience to Get Your Foot in the Door

Posted on: Jan 11, 2024

Photo Credit: Maria Symchych // Shutterstock

By Jessica Mathis

Many struggle to break into the entertainment industry. While some may go to film school to build a portfolio, many run into the conundrum of needing work samples to find work, but needing work to create said samples. 

There is much debate about working for free or cheap, but it is still a tried-and-true method to build one’s resume, portfolio and reputation when starting out. If you go this route, there are things to keep in mind. Here are some pointers for using volunteering as a stepping stone.

The Benefits

First, let’s look at the benefits of working for free or cheap:

Skill Development

Working alongside professionals is a fast track to learning real-world experience and problem solving. You can make and learn from mistakes, and soak up all the years of experience around you.

Exploring Interests

Some people aren’t sure which role they are most interested in. Volunteering can give them a chance to explore those areas. For example, someone might know they like the art department, but experience may help them realize they specifically enjoy making or buying props. Working as a production assistant in various departments can offer valuable knowledge and experience, because assistants tend to go everywhere and hear or see everything.

Building a Portfolio

If you are in a role that requires specific skills, you have the chance to build a portfolio. A portfolio will become your calling card and help you solicit future paid work. You can also use these samples to apply to film schools or for grants.

Networking Opportunities

Experiencing a variety of sets and teams is a great way to build a network. By doing a great job with a positive attitude, you can garner attention from those you work with. They may invite you to work on other projects. If the project you worked on does well, you may gain some recognition for your ability. You may find someone you ask to be a mentor, or others you would like to share your script or project with.

Gaining Recognition

You may gain some recognition. For example, if a project goes to a film festival and wins awards, you can add the award to your resume and accomplishments. 

What to Watch For

Not all free work is beneficial. When you decide to work for free, there should be a strategy to it.  

Here are some things to watch for when working for free:

The Filmmaker’s Reputation

Try asking people you know if they know anything about the person “hiring,” or do some Googling and Facebook searching of their names. Even with paid projects, this can be a valuable practice. I once saw a lot of red flags about a project where the director was telling me they were reshooting without a lot of their original crew because they lost them to COVID and other projects, but after some digging I found out it was because they had not paid some of their crew and they lost their SAG status and had money problems.

They had burned a lot of bridges. You can also ask the director or producer some direct questions about the project regarding your time commitment, expectations and who they’ve worked with.

Watch for Red Flags

Never be afraid to say no to a project or leave if something isn’t adding up, or they seem to be running crazy without safety practices. This relates to both physical safety and emotional safety. Pay attention to how the filmmaker speaks to and about others, and the care they give to the safety and professional respect of everyone.

Working for free should never equate to personal abuse or threats to safety. I worked on a paid project once that planned for the talent and crew to be in the water on boats and swimming without a lifeguard or safety coordinator. The crew and talent rose up and they changed the scene. The industry has learned some hard lethal lessons related to safety from productions where someone was accidentally shot, or when a train came down a trestle they were shooting on because safety wasn’t being considered.

Quality of the Project

This is a big one. Your goal is to have work samples you can proudly share. Don’t hesitate to ask for previous work samples from the filmmaker. When soliciting free or cheap work, most filmmakers should expect to have to pitch the people they are asking to be involved with by showing them what they’ve done and sharing their plans for the current project.

Ask them who is providing the various elements, such as sound and camera, etc. and look those people up, too. The project quality isn’t just about how it looks and sounds. Loads of filmmakers never finish a project they’ve started. You’ll want to ask them about other projects they’ve finished and if they have the funds and time to make sure the project is completed.

Consider Your Own Needs

You’ll become more selective about the projects you work on for free or cheap as you build your portfolio. Strategize rounding out your portfolio to showcase different skills or genres. If you already have a drama and historical sample, you may want a comedy sample next.

A cinematographer may want to add a particular type of work, such as a dolly shot to their portfolio. Only consider projects that would add that new piece you want to add to your portfolio or would include someone you want to meet, for example. It’s also okay to ask for a script to consider to make sure it’s a project you want to be involved in.

Getting Your Non-Monetary Value

You’re working for free to gain non-monetary value, such as contacts through networking, IMDb credits, or work samples. Even though you aren’t getting paid, it doesn’t hurt to have an agreement in writing that stipulates what you get.

The industry is full of stories where people work for free and never get the credits or video copies they were promised. If you haven’t gotten what you were promised, follow up to ask for them. You can diplomatically let them know you’d love to maintain a positive working relationship with them.

Do Your Best

Be sure to give unpaid work the same amount of your energy and talent you would give a paid project. Showing up late or doing half jobs with a poor attitude will only do the opposite of what you set out to do and will build a negative reputation. Even if the filmmaker on that particular project doesn’t seem to notice or value you, others will. Your positivity and dedication will pave the way to a successful future.

With these tips, you should be able to create a strategy that allows you to use unpaid opportunities as a tool to build a solid future in the industry. Your goal is to find creators who are out there successfully creating quality work and approach them with your offer so you can learn, refine your skills and prove yourself. Be mindful of the projects you decide to dedicate your time to and don’t be afraid to vet everyone you consider. Remember that while you may be new, you are still a valuable asset who just needs others to see it. 

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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