Why I'll work for nothing





I know, I know. This is a REAL hot potato.

But I'm going to stick my head above the parapet and ruffle a few feathers by proclaiming that not only am I prepared to work for free, but I'm a fan of working for free.

Why on EARTH would I work for free?

Okay, let's clarify this.

I won't work for free for companies who are taking the Michael by not paying me a decent professional fee when they have lots of income at their disposal.

I won't work for free for filmmakers who are badly-organised, have no strong sense of vision, have no concept of professionalism and treat actors as if they are prostitutes instead of artists.

I won't work for free if I simply can't afford it at a certain point in time. There's a limit to the amount of time that can be given to collaborations and that usually arrives the end of the month.


There's a myth to be busted right here: on a good collaboration you are NEVER working for free. You may not be recompensed in hard cash, but if it's a worthwhile project you should be growing as an artist, learning more about your craft, meeting fellow creatives and forming working relationships, developing new skills and creating magic with other people. And opening up the possibility to further, exciting collaborations.


So here are some of the reasons I work for free (on worthwhile projects):


  • I need to work. I need to create. I'd rather be creating something amazing for free than not creating. I get hungry. That's just how I'm wired.


  • I take pride in working with as much passion on collabs as on paid work. Often with more passion, because they can be a physical and emotional slog and they're held together by love and dedication. I need passion in my life and this is one place in which I'll find it. Whilst I have an agent and I love my paid work, I am not defined as a professional by my earnings. I am defined by my heart for my work and by the work I produce.


  • I honour the commitment and drive of filmmakers who put their heart and soul into creating fabulous stories. I understand what it is to want to tell a story and have no resources. I want to help make things happen.


  • People have worked on collabs for me. I am indebted to them, so I pass it on. I have formed lasting working relationships with people. I have known team spirit and generosity beyond what I could have hoped for. It's a beautiful and special experience and I want to be part of that process, always.


  • If I collaborate I get the chance to work with people FAR more talented and knowledgeable than me, in a filmmaking culture that is much more accessible than paid work. I get to be the least experienced person in the room and that forces me to raise my game. So I get better. Then I go out and raise my game again.


  • When I see other creatives working with passion and commitment and striving for excellence on an unpaid project I know that they'd be AWESOME to work with on a paid project. So I remember their name and I file them away for a future opportunity.

Collaborating with Edward Ashley, Otto Baxter and Bobby Lockwood

I don't hold the opinion that working on collabs undermines my value as a professional. Discernment is the key. Some argue aggressively for the "fact" that working for expenses-only projects forces everyone's professional value down and those of us who indulge in unpaid work are somehow responsible for perpetuating a sort of black market in slave-labour filmmaking. Really? I recently had a casting breakdown through for a global company, seen in every supermarket, looking to pay a couple of hundred pounds to a professional actor to appear in one of their commercials. Who's the biggest crook?


Professionalism is not simply about being paid. It's about who you are on every set, in every situation.


I have professional and creative choice. And I exercise that right to choice by selectively taking opportunities to grow and create and connect with other like-minded creatives.


Inbetween my paid work. Because at the end of the day, I still have to eat.

PS Yes, you have to cover my expenses. And I like to be "fed and watered". Just don't call it that.

Write a comment

Comments: 9
  • #1

    Dom (Monday, 30 March 2015 13:35)

    Wise words, V. With experience from the other side of the camera, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments.

    The critical thing to remember when working for free and, more importantly, having others work for free for you, is that someone who is not being paid, is by definition working on their own time and giving that time up to whatever the endeavour may be. Thus, they must be treated as an honoured guest and lavished with gratitude for their charity and the 'host' is, accordingly, due the same.

    Exploitation occurs where that simple rule is not met.

  • #2

    Paul Walker (Friday, 14 August 2015 09:17)

    It's a good debate. I stopped doing freebies, but then as you mention , I'd rather be creating and learning than not , so when asked I think twice about saying no

  • #3

    Andy (Wednesday, 06 April 2016 01:42)

    And why did the big company offer such low wages? Because they know they will find actors who will do it because they see us all doing stuff for nothing. If they thought they could get away with paying nothing they would. Pretty soon they might be able to if people keep working for free...

    If you want to make a film raise a budget, just a small one, but raise one. Take yourself seriously if you want your actors to. If you can't raise even the tiniest budget, then use your mates. Film makers manage to find money for the stuff they categorically CANT get for free, and its actors who have taken ourselves out of that category. I feel, that by working for cheap, and I mean really cheap, I am already doing enough to help low budget film makers get their movies off the ground. Working for free though sets a bad precedent industry wide. Working for free helps no one.

  • #4

    Vanessa (Wednesday, 06 April 2016 11:00)

    Hi Andy - thanks so much for your comments. I agree that big companies with budgets should pay appropriately, absolutely. And yes, I did raise a small budget for my film (see my blogs on crowdfunding) and that covered travel, accommodation, food etc.. for my team. Some of my team even refused travel expenses because they wanted to contribute to the overall budget. Many donated to the crowdfund. These are not only talented industry professionals, but also generous and outward-looking professionals who want to make beautiful films together. They want to see things happen and be part of it. I don't believe it has done me any harm professionally, in fact the opposite. I recently secured a recurring role in EastEnders, so I think my agent would also agree. My lead actors have both appeared in high-profile BBC dramas. You get out what you put in. Being creative and making stuff is what we do in this industry and many of us feel happier being busy :)

  • #5

    Karen Brace (Wednesday, 06 April 2016 11:15)

    Thank you for sharing this. I wholeheartedly agree with your reasoning Vanessa and as you rightly say discernment is key.

  • #6

    Andy (Wednesday, 06 April 2016 13:07)

    You miss the broader point Vanessa, and unless there's a connection that you didn't mention above, your EastEnders job has no relation good or bad to the fact you do unpaid stuff, it's irrelevant, coincidental. Also, great that you raised a budget! You didn't budget for actors though did you, because you knew you would get them for free. You DID budget for the things you knew you would HAVE to pay for, and you raised that amount so you could have raised more. Case in point. If someone wants to then decide not to take the offered wage (as minimal as it might have been) that's lovely, but not to offer it in the first place is damaging in the grand scheme of things. (I'm not talking about genuine collaboration here by the way).

    "You get out what you put it" sadly and categorically not true. I know scores of actors that bounce from unpaid gig to unpaid gig, have done for years and years, never earn a penny. And then they quit. They didn't get out nearly what they put in. The issue is that not paying becomes expected, the norm. That's the wider damage. It goes like this:

    Producer: Right that's the equipment budget, now how much do actors get paid? I'll call Equity..?

    Director: Well hang on, my mate just worked on this other film where the actors all did it for free, they were happy to, so...

    Producer: Oh right. Well, lets see if we can get some for free then and if not we can think about paying them a bit. Right, food budget...

    And on and on it goes to the point where some film makers even expect actors to be GRATEFUL that they are being given the chance to be in their film for free. I've seen e-mails like from film makers to actors saying this. You have to look at the bigger picture.

    I know actors are split on this but its really important.

  • #7

    Vanessa (Wednesday, 06 April 2016 13:17)

    Hi Andy, the EastEnders casting is entirely relevant because my unpaid work is on my showreel which got me in front of the EastEnders director who gave me the role. Without the unpaid work I have little showreel, hence no EastEnders casting and no recurring role on EastEnders.

    Other than that I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this!

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  • #9

    My Hacks (Sunday, 02 July 2017 12:46)

    Thank you very much for writing such an interesting article on this topic. This has really made me think and I hope to read more.