Filmmakers: do's and don't for hiring crew

Problem: How do I go from 1-man (or even a small crew of 3) projects to working with 34 extras, 10 actors, and a 6-person crew who can handle my project on time, under budget, and have it ready in 3 months?

Ready to level up and stop doing 1-man-band projects?

At some point, if you're going to reach billions with stories of hope, then you have to graduate from "I shot this over the weekend with a GH5 and a 35mm lens. I call it Cup Of Joe."

It's okay to start there. Don't live there.

Microbudget-Film-subcontractors

Real filmmakers build a team and look to serve those working with them. Their focus is on empowering their crew to do amazing things. They lead and give credit. They don't stress over mistakes. They don't ogle over the newest cinema camera for hours on end.

I want you to tell stories of love, truth, forgiveness and more, and I hope and pray it's not self-serving. There's a hurt, broken world out there in need of the love of the Father, and stories are one way to communicate. I can't do it by myself, and neither can you. This site is for all of us microbudget filmmakers to level up, and it starts with leading the 5-figure shoots.

When you get to your first 5-figure shoot, you'll need a crew. I talked about some key positions in the post on raising $8,567 for your short film. This post is a continuation and companion piece.

Bonus: for those who stick around, there's a contract you can use for hiring your subcontractors, and it's at the end of the post. Standard disclaimer applies: Neither Church Films nor any of its representatives are a substitute for professional, legal counsel. Use discretion. Modify at your leisure; its use or misuse is your responsiblity.

Let's break these sections down:  

0. Finding Crew

Step 1: Facebook groups

I've been a part of a Las Vegas gigs, film jobs, and actors group for some time. I don't regularly interact there, but I try to stop by at least once a week. 

Long before you start shooting, do the same. If you live in Casper, WY, you're hosed. I've always lived in a big urban county. Even my 6 mos. of turning wrenches in Afghanistan was on a packed NATO base. Hopefully you live in a big metro area. If not, you'd better call Uncle Bob up for help.

Microbudget-Film-Assistant-Director

That one simple post led me to my AD, and she was fantastic. She jumped through the screening hoops, and she turned out to be the best person for that role (next to my wife, who in days past would fill the role of an AD).

Step 2: StaffMeUp

You can post jobs here, to the best of my knowledge, for free. I love this site because it really only seems to attract industry professionals or those who are serious about breaking into this industry. 

Microbudget-Film-staffmeup

I wouldn't recommend them if I had zero connection to them. Sometimes I offer suggestions based on speculation, but as an occasional premium account user of StaffMeUp, I love this site for finding jobs. It's just painless, direct, and again, for serious contenders only.

I would never recommend CL because you'll get exactly what you think you should get on CL: spam, poor spelling (shows a lack of attention to detail → can't have heaps of that on your shoot), and whimsical queries, none of which bode well for your production.

SKIP CRAIGSLIST!

Step 3: Your circle

I found my grip/1st AC/2nd AC from my friend Dale. I simply asked Dale if he had a good contact because Dale went to battle with a 17-man crew for a microbudget feature here in Las Vegas. Surely he would know someone? He did, and I'm eternally grateful he led me to Rad. 

Ask your circle. Grant Cardone calls this your power base: family, then friends. You're missing opportunities to fund your project with capital, both financial and human, if you ignore your circle.

Now, while you may be a blood relative or a close friend, and while you may be paying your subcontractor, you still have to sell all of them on your project. It's appropriate then, as if starting a business (i.e. shooting a film), to start with your circle, pitch the idea, and sell them on turning over some stones with you. My mother-in-law, as soon as she learned of the project, connected me to a lady who then connected me to a UPM/Line Producer in NM who's worked on Hollywood films like Book of Eli and Crazy Heart, et. al.

Trust those closest to you: ask for help.

1. Vetting Crew

Step 1: Accept submissions

Make it painfully clear how to reach you: email/contact form/SMS the office line (can use Google Voice for free to set this up - never mind the reviews - it's a free service, and for what it does, it's fantastic: it allows you to set up a 2nd line that goes to your mobile phone without divulging your cell number).

If you've posted in quality places, people will find you.

Microbudget-Film-submissions

I never once cared about or read resumes and nor did I ask for them. People volunteered them, and that's okay, but I feel strongly they're a relic of the past. References are the currency of hiring people in this film/video world.

Step 2: Ask for day rate and 4-5 references

Don't overthink this step. My request was super simple, but if I were you, I would spell out the need for both emails and numbers (I failed this step early on):

Microbudget-Film-day-rate-references

You'd be surprised, but some people disappear at this stage.

If rounding up info for 4-5 references is too much work (don't go with 3 - you can bank on at least one reference being unavailable despite repeated, varied followups), then you don't want this person on your team. This part serves three purposes:

  • it gives you the info you need to vet work history
  • it screens lazy bones jones people out of the running
  • it doesn't let you jump at the first bite - resist!

Ashley was not and is not the average bear. She responded the same day:

Microbudget-Film-references

And she had 5 references, numbers, and emails. Bueno!

Step 3: Ask basic screener questions

Again, I learned these from this amazing book "Who" by Geoff Smart and Randy Street (rent or buy - it's essential for cutting through the clutter and getting to the meat and potatoes of any kind of hiring decisions without violating any EEOC rules).

I typically asked each newbie crew member these same questions I asked Ashley:

Microbudget-Film-screener-questions

Again, if the subcontractor answered these questions (and most who got this far did follow-through and answer these questions), then it was time to actually contact references. I think I had *one* subcontractor get to this stage and quit. Nope, that's not right. Several quit when I asked for references.

I had one subcontract give 4-5 references, and the first reference I called could not remember the subcontractor whatsoever. They were so embarrassed, confused, and awkward, they asked to call back in 5 minutes.

They didn't call back.

It was a huge red flag to me. I never followed-up on the other references or with that subcontractor.

He never reached out to me either.

Step 4: Contact each reference

At this point, write down on a blank piece of notebook paper what each reference should say about the subcontractor. Ask each reference some qualifying questions like

  • What was your last job with Uncle Bob?
  • What was a low point of working with Uncle Bob?
  • What would you rate Uncle Bob's work as?

The "Who" book has loads of wisdom in this area too - read it!

Give adequate space and make room for the references, their #'s and emails because you're going to send a handwritten thank-you card to them (don't be a lazy bones jones - do it). Also, write down what your subcontractor said their reference would rate them as. 

Without fail, their number always matched what the reference said or it low-balled the reference.

For example, if my subcontractor Uncle Bob said Leia would rate him as a 7, I'd call Leia and ask, "What would you rate Uncle Bob's work as?" 

Leia would say, "Oh, a 9, easily."

9/10 is fantastic. If Jesus, Abe Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, and Groot are a perfect 10, then 9 is pretty darn good.

Some people are big fans of their subcontractors and would Spinal-Tap their answers as an 11/10. No joke - this happened more than once. One reference said a 50 out of 10.

Step 5: Schedule a Facetime/Skype call

Break the ice with face-to-face contact. Emails and phone calls are okay, but in lieu of face-to-face interaction, video conferencing is the next best thing. It doesn't take more than 5-10 minutes. Have more questions ready for them. Make sure you also ask the holy grail of questions:

What are your expectations of me?

Thin-skinned? You need to work on that. Make it a practice to ask your team hard questions because they need to be able to approach you honestly. You and I both need raw feedback. Grab some zinc oxide, and be willing to receive constructive feedback.

At this point, you should be settled on hiring this person.

Note: You'll also get money objections at some point, and I had two crop up after the video conferencing calls. 

Two possible subcontractors really pushed back on the flat-rate pay based on hours and not days, which boiled down to 1.5 days. 

I have to take ownership too: I did not over-communicate the pay. I did let them know from the start pay was based on a set number of hours, but I did not over-communicate this, and that's my fault.

Microbudget-Film-negotiations

Since they reached out to me about the job initially, I stopped following up with them. I was tired of haggling over pennies, and it didn't bode well with me. If they were okay with undermining the original agreement not once but two or three times, it told me what to expect on a set with them for 12 hours. 

Pass.

Step 5.5: Small business ad

I wasn't able to do this with any of my newest crew members, but with Justin, my DP, I did. We shot a small business ad in November, and it sealed the deal. Lunches are great, but there's nothing like a 12-hour shoot to know if two people are going to mesh.

Where possible, vet the working relationship together over a small business ad/wedding video/paid project.

Step 6: Invite everyone to a dinner (not a meeting)

Got everyone assembled? Great! Break the ice together by breaking some bread together. You want your crew to know who they're working with too. Don't assume they already know each other!

I asked everyone the same question if I hadn't already - What are your expectations of me on this shoot?

And I'd ask, "What I can do to make you as successful as possible?"

This is a question worth repeating throughout the life of your shoot. 

But don't be all business. Ask fun questions too - film is fun, and if you're a stiff, your sets are going to be paaaaiiiinnnnfffffuuuullllll.

I borrowed two of these from my last W2 job:

  • middle name?
  • if money was no object, where would you vacation?
  • favorite comedy in the last 10 years?

2. Expectations

This is an area I have much to learn. I wrestled with this as a math teacher, and I still have leaps and bounds to go. 

S-P-E-L-L out every single expectation.

Reinforce them verbally. Have them in writing. Don't assume.

I assume, all too often, people share/see what's in my head. I'm sorry, but unless you have the E.T.-Elliott connection, communication and shared visions don't work this way. 

Communicate. Over-communicate. The beauty of subcontractors is they know what's going on for the most part. You're not training them. They're already skilled at their job. You can't take end results for granted though. You need to be specific.

I once had a subcontractor show up a several minutes late. For the sake of illustration, I'll call this subcontractor Ellie. Ellie called a few mins before call time to let me know she'd be late. She did this again, on our next shoot.

'Twas my fault for assuming that Ellie understood start times meant show up ahead of time. If you're on time, you're late, right? Ellie didn't know my expectations.

By the time the third shoot with Ellie rolled around, I said to her, "be here at 4 pm SHARP." Ellie heard the inflection, she repeated the time back, and sure enough, she was 5 minutes ahead of time, if not earlier on that third shoot.

Don't assume something is obvious. Over-communicate.

3. Contracts

Microbudget-Film-signnow

You know their day rate, so use SignNow or another source to get some signatures. If you're old-fashioned, print out your contracts and have them signed in person.

Apart from the usual rigmarole, I highly recommend including the following sections, and yes, all of these in full-blown Ben-Stein detail are included in your bonus at the end:

Intellectual Property: if you hired them to shoot your film, then you better own the rights to the A/V media.

Delivery: when do you receive the media? If they're a grip, they're not going to give you final deliverables, but it doesn't hurt to include this in your contract.

Developer's Warranty: I keep this in my subcontractors' contracts because I want to know I'm not about to make a copyright-infringing work of art, and that they can do their work. It's peace of mind for both parties.

Arbitration: I talk about this here. Include this clause. Muy importante señora/señor.

Employee: They are not an employee of your company.

Risk statement: They should be responsible for themselves.

Future work: This project does not guarantee future work.

$600: I started including this reminder to make sure folks know I'm filling out a 1099 for them if their pay exceeds $600 in whatever year they're working with me. A 1099 form requires a social. One way to avoid having to chase them down later for their social is to have them fill out the optional W9 - I did this in person with 5 of my crew this time around. You can download this form from the IRS site here. As it goes without saying, secure that form once it's filled out.

4. Payments

Offer multiple ways to pay your crew. Even in this day and age, most people prefer a check when they know they'll absorb the transaction fees of Paypal, which are competitive in the merchant processor industry (2.9% plus 0.30 per transaction as of summer 2017).

Note: Paypal has made it ridiculously, beautifully easy to get paid.

Here's something I learned with paying extras, and 30 years ago, no one would have blinked; the check-issuer would have just done it: I was sloppy and made the mistake of not writing down the check numbers, and when one of them was lost in the mail, it came back to bite me in the rear.

  1. The extra wasn't paid on time.
  2. The "lost" check is out there somewhere. 
  3. The reputation takes a blow. 

No. 3 isn't a biggie, though you do want to be known for how you take care of your people, not for how you send late checks of which I'm guilty of twice this time around. The big problem is indeed No. 1 - as a budding filmmaker, make sure your folks eat first, leave before you, and get paid on time.

5. Feedback

New crew? Fantastic. Old crew? Might be harder, but in either case, have the guts to ask for raw, honest feedback, every day of production.

Example: 

Me: What was the low-point of today's shoot? You can be totally honest; you can't offend me - I promise. I already had someone tell me it was hard knowing when we were rolling because I was too soft-spoken.

Crew: Okay... hmm... when there's a few minutes for an extra take, and the actors don't mind, forget the schedule! Get the extra take!

Easy, right?

You have to be prepared for raw, honest feedback. If it offends you, this will undoubtedly challenge you. If you want to grow as a filmmaker, ask the hard questions, and absolutely, at all costs, take the feedback and don't let it ruffle your feathers. Strive to be unoffendable.

Examples of GREAT questions to ask your crew for constructive criticism:

  1. What am I not doing that I can I do to make you as successful as possible?
  2. What's it like to be on the other side of me during chaotic moments?
  3. What was the low-point for you today?
  4. (If talking to Uncle Bob, for example) You've worked with a 1st AC before (or insert any position here); what I can I do to make Jimbo (i.e. any person other than Uncle Bob) as successful as possible?

The last one looks confusing. Here it is without the remarks:

You've worked with a 1st AC before; what I can I do to make Jimbo as successful as possible?

Ask questions. Questions are powerful.

No. 3 takes time because they have to trust your character. One subcontractor said the low point was when we ran out of fruit snacks (the candy) on set. Days later, I had earned enough trust for him to open up and offer a less tongue-in-cheek answer. Be consistent throughout your shoot with these questions, and if you're the type who can handle stress and still smile, you'll be better off when earning the trust of your crew.

6. Followups

This too is essential. Follow up with your folks. If you truly valued working with Darth, then add Darth to your calendar or CRM (I recommend Streak if you're a gmail user - it has oodles of features, even on the free plan) so you can follow up later. Followups are crucial! Don't let it be the next project that you reach out to your folks. They're people! If you only talk shop, that's going to sour an otherwise good relationship real quick.

My friend Terry and I first connected over IMAG (live broadcast), but we ended up spending time over Denny's and motorcycle rides around Clark County. We understood friendship isn't one-dimensional, and if you intend on nurturing relationships with your subcontractors, make it happen! Go the extra mile too - put their birthdays on your calendar, anniversaries, send a Cold Stone card when their kiddo graduates middle school. Be creative.

...

BONUS: ready to hire a subcontractor? Let's get rolling. This contract will take the pain out of

  • terms
  • conditions
  • developer's warranty
  • arbitration
  • intellectual property
  • expectations
  • payment options
  • intellectual property rights

and more - and makes them a non-factor.

This bad boy is yours when you join the Bold Nation newsletter:

Special thanks to the guys over at feedspot for their shoutout to this blog - they did a top 50 roundup post and included this site. Thanks!

Your turn: what advice do you have for hiring subcontractors that you could share with our microbudget community?