Dear Distinguished Client,

How are you? Or, wait, first of all who are you?

You’re a budding director working on your first project. You’re an established one. You make short films. Documentaries. Blockbusters. You wear shades and walk tall.

You’re a game designer trying to put together that crucial breakout team. You have a vision. You’re starting with a mod before you embark on your first “real” game project. You need good and passionate people.

You’re pretty awesome, in short. I want to be just like you when I grow up. Or…almost. See, there’s something that’s been bothering me and I’m an honest kind of guy, so I wanted to bring it up. Just between you and me, just as a sort of FYI. I mean it’s all been said before, but some things are worth re-stating, you know?

I come from a film and media schooling background, so I know what it means to have to put together a film or game project on a shoestring budget. I know it’s hard and frustrating, and I also know that it’s exciting and engrossing. So exciting that you’re willing to do it without getting any compensation for it, because you’re just that selfless and passionate. That right there is truly admirable dedication. The problem is that just because you are willing and able to do your part for free, doesn’t mean you can expect that the rest of your team is in the same position.

Part of that shoestring budget needs to be set aside for making sure that each and every member of your team gets compensation for his or her work. Their time is valuable to them and invaluable to your project. Their work is what brings your vision to life, so even if you can only pay each person $10, you really should. It’s the gesture that counts. We’re all trying to forge long-lasting work relationships here with talented and driven people, and that doesn’t work if your team doesn’t feel appreciated.

Now I often talk to other young freelancers and they ask me questions about their first gigs and whether or not they’re getting ripped off. There’s a funny clause that pops up in most work offers these days and it’s an extremely perplexing one. It goes something like this:

“This is a small project, so we can’t pay you, but we’re offering full credit and a free copy of the final product as compensation.”

I’m sorry, what? Credit and a free copy are excellent, but they’re not compensation. It’s common courtesy. If you use someone’s work in your production, stating where you got it from in the credits isn’t some special negotiable honour you’re doing them, it’s the most fundamental tenet of working with creative content. It’s basic attribution of effort. It’s the law, in point of fact, and so trying to spin it as some sort of favour is disingenuous.

The point isn’t that you always need to pay your people though. You should whenever humanly possible, even if it’s just with pizza and beer, but we all know that sometimes there isn’t even a shoestring budget. It’s a guerilla-style effort. That is also totally fine. I’ve done plenty of work for free over the years, and countless other freelancers continue to do work for free, but only for people who — despite having no budget — truly appreciate the efforts of their team. We like working for people who inspire us to great artistic achievement, and who are putting together a product that allows everyone’s work to shine, or delivers an important message, or is moving, or is simply beautiful.

If you show us something that’s truly spectacular and visionary, or unassuming but powerful, we will want to do our best to help you. We want to participate in your opus. In return, you’re not going to offer us credit and a free copy — that part is understood. Instead, you’re going to shrug and say “Look, we don’t have any money. It’s just my friends and me. We may make some money down the road if people like it, but I’m making no promises. The point is to bring this film/game/etc into the world. We love your stuff, we think you could really nail the vibe we’re looking for, and so if you have some spare time, we’d love for you to join us.”

…Where do I sign? No problem, done deal, my pleasure. Simple as that. It’s about presentation. And just like you’re not going to “offer” copy & credit, we’re not going to half-ass our part of the job. We’re going to do our best. Always. If you have an ambitious and cool project on your hands, then we will do our best to help you. Why? Because not only will it then make us look good, but we’ll forge a working relationship. And down the road, maybe we’ll need your help for something. Or maybe you’ll be hugely successful and have another, bigger project — with a budget, perhaps — that you need our help for. We’ve got your back.

Ultimately, we do what I do because we’re passionate about it. Helping bring a story to life, helping highlight and augment the work of other artists. Unfortunately, keeping up with the bleeding edge of the tools that facilitate our work is not free. And our time isn’t either. Neither is yours. Sometimes we all need to do charity work, but let’s make sure we don’t get confused: it is not the norm.

Anyway, you’ve got a meeting to get to, so I won’t keep you. Just wanted to put that out there, see how you were doing, wish you well. Good luck at that place with those people, you’ll blow them away. And give me a call if you’re free this weekend, maybe we can grab a coffee or something, I want to hear all about your new project…

Yours sincerely,