Here is an article I wrote for Backstage.
As actors breaking into this business, it’s essential to work on student films, to build confidence, on-the-job training, obtain footage for demo reels (which is pretty much mandatory these days), and to build a résumé. It’s a great way for newer actors to work with up-and-coming directors and film students, to network and start at the ground level with a new batch of filmmakers (who may go on to do bigger and better things when they graduate). As an acting coach, I always recommend my students get involved with as many student films as they can when they are starting out.
Over and over I hear from my talented, hard-working actors how hard it is to get their student film footage after they have finished a project—even though it was promised to them in the initial audition notice. They take time off from their survival job, work hard for no money, have a great experience on set, are promised “copy, meal, and credit,” yet sometimes they never receive the footage at all after repeated requests (even months and years later). Why does this happen and what can we do about this? This seems to be the norm these days, and actors need to speak up for themselves so they aren’t taken advantage of.
I believe that professors should make it a requirement for their film students to give actors their footage before they get their final grade. It should be mandatory, and it should be a contractual obligation for the director. After all, we are all in this business together, and we need to look out for each other. I believe all actors should be paid in some way. It’s respectful and incentivizes them. If that’s not possible, they should be compensated some other way. Giving an actor their footage gives them a reason to show up and work hard, and lets them know you aren’t taking advantage of them.
Now I’m not talking about a film that is going to be submitted to festivals, where the director doesn’t want the footage getting out there before the film does. I respect film directors, and understand their need to keep their footage from leaking. I’m talking about small student films that are meant for the classroom environment, which are filmed cheaply, with great equipment, which is a great way to actors to get their foot in the door and have footage with great production value.
Here’s the truth. Student films needs good actors. It’s a win-win. It makes the director look good, and they get a good grade on their project. If you don’t have good actors, the film doesn’t work. You are lucky to get such good actors to work with you as you figure out how to direct, as it makes your job easier. Also, it’s a smaller world than you think. Directors work on other projects, as do actors and crew members. People develop a reputation. My actors will show up to set again and again for the directors who are responsible and give them their footage in a reasonable amount of time. It’s a win-win. For the directors who don’t, eventually good actors just won’t want to work with you.
Here are my three ways to get student film footage.
Sign a contract. When you sign on to do a film, come up with a simple contract to hand to the director on the first day of filming. Something that says, “I’m excited to be a part of your film. In exchange for my free services, you agree to give me a copy of the film within three months from the shoot date.” Any director who balks at this is probably someone you don’t want to work with anyway, right? The truth is, they are lucky to have you on their set. You submitted your headshot and résumé, auditioned, beat out lots of other actors, landed the job, and they are fortunate to have a trained actor in their film working for free. So when the film is finished, and the director submits the project to their professor, just email a copy of the project over to the actors. Simple, right?
Stalk the director. After a reasonable amount of time goes by (one month or so), email the director and say you had a great experience and would like to use the footage for your reel. That’s the nice way to go about it.
Email the professor. I’ve heard of actors having lots of success in calling or emailing the student’s professor, and mentioning they never received their footage. It reflects poorly on the student, and no student wants to get bad feedback, right? Half the time the professor has no idea the actors never received their copy.
Let’s change the way we do things, respect our actors, and give them what they deserve.