Indie filmmaking, the Minimum Wage, BECTU, Co-Ops and all that

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Media & Representation

tompagenetAbout eight years ago I sat in a cosy Islington pub with BECTU acting general secretary Martin Spence to discus his problems with Shooting People's posting of non-union (and non-NMW) jobs.

It was the first time I'd found myself conflicted with the pro-uinion leanings I'd been brought up with. My parents met in the Salford communist branch and as a teen I cut my teeth in graphic design making the monthly newsletter for my mum's college union, NATFHE. I can't dispute the wonders of unions in protecting workers the world-over from unscrupulous employers, saving lots of lives in the process.

But sometimes passions cloud judgement and indie film is a strange fish*. No-one would suggest a musician who gets out her guitar at a house party should earn Musician's Union rates, yet because a film require a group of workers working with an employment-like relationship, there is room for confusion.

I'm not talking about broadcast TV on cost cutting cable networks, or commercials and pop promos shot on the cheap. But the shorts, micro-budget features and documentaries made by crews often with little experience, frequently helmed by a director shooting their first or second, that may never make it to any screen beyond the local pub or Vimeo. There's very rarely funding and a huge number of people keen to help out on them. Many are terrible but a few are masterpieces. And it's so rare that any of these films recoup their costs, let alone make a profit, that no-one worries about cash other than getting their expenses covered.

Martin Spence's point when we met was, as it is now, that people working for free should be collaborators, and therefore co-investors. He saw the co-op model as a suitable structure, and having explored the co-op principles myself in recent years I agree that they are great structures. But there is still an admin overhead - a co-op requires a legal framework, eg. a limited company - to be formed. So for one short film there would need to be a company created, annual accounts and returns made, as well as a co-op members agreement drawn up, which all parties should sign up to. Annual accounts would then need to be distributed before the company was eventually wound up. 

It doesn't seem too much to ask if the film goes on to success - dozens of festival wins, TV sales and perhaps a major award nomination. But the overwhelming majority of short films don't fit into this category. When I came to direct my first short, a year after meeting Martin, I took his points half way, and drafted a simple contract for all cast and crew guaranteeing them a share in any profits proportionate to time spent by them (five hours by a runner was the same as 5 hours by the director), but without the legal structure that formalises that. In the end my short (trailer below), made for £200, (which covered great food and an exploding sugar glass) like so many, went nowhere and there was nothing to pay out. Thankfully I didn't also have to submit accounts and cover the related costs.

Eight years on and the debate seems to be still around the same points, except there is more shouting on either side. Chris Jones's blog response to speaking at BECTU, and the email sent out ahead of the event, show there is a reactionary element to the discussions that's forcing a polorisation of views between people who would otherwise agree. Meanwhile the recent legal victory for BECTU over London Dreams adds a genuine threat for filmmakers afraid next time it could be them (although the current BECTU guidelines do make it clear that some types of voluntary work is OK)

It seems the core issue is, should people be allowed to work for free if they want to? A third of the audience at last week's debate seemed to think they should not. This is a shade of crazy, as far as I can see. I've worked for free on Netribution for ten years - so have all the dozens of writers here. I don't think I'm depriving NUJ journalists of jobs, or allowing myself to get rich off this free labour - we all write for free because there is no money to pay for what we write about and otherwise there would be no site. We're humans, we communicate, that's what we do.

And the web works like this. The Times may be about to charge a £1 a day, but hundreds of people still submit thoughtful comments on their articles for free. People spend hours editing Wikipedia, mashing up obscure 70s TV to 80s beats, blogging, tweeting, podcasting and making shorts for the web - the motivation is not profit, but something else. To try and stop this - or even attack it - would make BECTU look ridiculous.

But Martin Spence is no militant Trotskyist. I remember him as a principled and intelligent man, who is simply aware that the the film industry exploits the keen and ambitious every day. We all know of people who have worked unhealthy hours, in dangerous conditions, for no or minimal pay, only to be cast aside once they're exhausted and it's good that this issue is being raised because the explosion of web filmmaking will probably only see this kind of work increased ('my last film got a million views on YouTube, work for me for free for two months and you'll be famous').

So the opportunity here is to create clearer guidelines,  and form a consensus on the dos and don'ts of indie production. The risk is to further throttle an already struggling sector which simply couldn't continue making shorts and features if everyone on the shoot was paid. BritDoc and Shooting People's Jess Search has made good suggestions to acknowledge that non-profit, no-/micro-budget production should be exempt from NMW responsibllities, with proposed new guidelines for 'unpaid jobs' adverts open for comment.

Personally I'd like to see a kind of voluntary kitemarking, implemented by Shooting People and other employment networks, and backed up by the public funding bodies. There could be an Approved level - which means that a job conforms to union standards of pay and conditions. Then a Collaborator level - where those working on the film will get a contractual co-ownership and profit share of the finished project, potentially in place of fees. And finally a Non-Profit level - where the producer guarantees the work is not for profit, that there is no budget to pay fees but that they will meet health and safety and public liability for the work.

Anything not fitting into one of the three categories shouldn't be publicised (and indeed Shooting People's current posting guidelines are more stringent than this I believe). Then it is for the UK Film Council and Screen Agencies to decide which level to ask the producers of the low budget short film and microbudget feature film schemes to use - as there is no way some of their films can be produced on BECTU contracts, and most of them depend on people working for free.

It might also make sense for some BECTU/UKFC/DWP backed internship guidelines - as the US economy thrives on unpaid internships (even Apple UK advertises them) - and such work is seen as a regular part of the career ladder. How can these be made to work fairly without being only available to bigger businesses?

What mustn't happen is that indie producers like Chris (or much further down the ladder, myself) become unable to produce films, books, websites or house parties because they could get sued by BECTU, or any union, for contravening NMW.

(*indeed the best analogy of the night of the BECTU debate by Jess Search was to the fish industry - exempt from NMW as it is impossible to forecast how many fish will be caught - and hence how much money the fishermen can earn)