The Pros and Cons of Unpaid Work for Actors
Unpaid work - the pros and cons
Student films can be a great way of learning - simply by being in front of a camera, working with a script, a director and other actors. It can be the kind of experience you don't get in your familiar school environment. Everyone has to start somewhere and some of the people you might work with on a student project will go on to be the leading lights of tomorrow. If you're between jobs they can be a means of keeping your skills sharp and of networking with other actors and industry creatives. You'll receive at best a token payment, perhaps travel and expenses. As well as the actual on-set experiences, the film is likely to be viewed by a whole host of other people in the business, actors, teachers, directors, so it's another showcase for your talents.
The level of unpaid work varies enormously - from a single person who is writer/director/crew with little or no experience of putting a piece together, to much more professional set-ups with full equipment, sound recordists, lighting camera people, a cast of actors, a director, writer... people who are familiar with making a film and are doing it as a labour of love and to learn more, expand their contacts and CV - just as you might be doing. Similarly, the nature of the project could be anything from an end of year student film to a low/no budget film which may go on to get some kind of distribution or lead to members of the cast and crew gaining representation and the film reaching a wider audience (e.g. being included in a short film competition), gaining greater exposure for all involved.
The flip side of unpaid work is that you may find yourself traipsing halfway across the country, working with less than professional cast and crew and all for the grand reward of a copy of the finished film for your collection. A casting agent or director may look at your CV and see only a string of non-paid (i.e. not professional, not broadcast) credits and not give you a second glance. As with extra work, you run the risk of being pigeon-holed and boxing yourself into a particular type of (unpaid) work, not making the transition from unpaid to paid, professional work. Having said this, most people recognise that you have to start somewhere and you can always omit work from your CV if you feel it won't be to your advantage to include it.