Film commissions across the country are doing more than just offering tax incentives and discounts on film permits to attract film and TV producers. They’re assisting producers who openly violate their own states’ minimum-wage laws by helping them find local cast and crew members willing to work for no pay. The websites of film commissions in more than a dozen cities and states feature job hotlines and bulletin boards where hundreds of casting notices and crew calls are posted by producers seeking “unpaid” or “volunteer” actors, extras and crew. Some even have sites specifically dedicated to helping producers find unpaid film and TV workers. The website for the Montana Film Office, for example, has three such recent postings.
“We are not advocating, in any way, the violation of the minimum-wage laws,” says Montana Film Commissioner Deny Staggs. “But we aren’t looking to regulate and say, ‘You can’t post.’ We’re an open-information state. If someone wants to post on our page, we post it until somebody tells us we can’t do it.” In New York City, the website of the Mayor’s Office Of Media And Entertainment has a “Reel Jobs NYC” list that denotes “unpaid” jobs with an asterisk. Federal minimum-wage laws, however, require that all workers be paid at least $7.25 an hour — even extras, production assistants and so-called “interns” if they’re not receiving college credit. And unless a company is an IRS-recognized nonprofit corporation, it cannot employ unpaid “volunteers.” This applies to web productions, low-budget productions and short films, as well. The only exception is student films, which are not intended to make a profit. And it’s unlikely that the Department of Labor would go after many producers of low-budget, ultra-low budget, or crowdfunded productions that don’t pay their casts and crews minimum wages.
Show business is one of the last remaining industries in America where some people are willing to work for free, hoping to get a foot in the door. It’s not uncommon for low-budget producers – along with some established film and TV companies – to try to skirt state and federal minimum-wage laws by not paying their workers. But it’s something else entirely for government-financed film commissions to knowingly help scofflaw producers violate those laws.
Last fall, the Pennsylvania Film Office, a quasi-public agency, posted a casting call chirpily looking for unpaid extras to work on a movie set alongside some pretty well-paid actors. “So you want to be in pictures? Here’s your chance!” the casting call crowed. “The producers of the film entitled Franny, starring Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James, are looking for extras for a big hospital benefit scene on Monday, November 11th. It would be an unpaid, full-day commitment, time to be determined. … Lunch, snacks, drinks, and screen credit will be provided.” In fact, screen credit was not provided, but at least they got snacks.
There are hundreds of state, city, county and regional film commissions in the United States, but the vast majority of them don’t have this problem — because they don’t post job openings on their websites. The New Mexico Film Office has a site dedicated to “Casting Calls and Crew Calls,” instructing producers to “please state in your announcement if the positions are paid or volunteer.” “We don’t know the veracity of everything posted on the site,” said New Mexico Film Commissioner Nick Maniatis, “but I’m going to look into this, and we’re going to put something up there saying that all employers must follow state and federal laws.” True to his word, a few minutes after being interviewed, the New Mexico Film Commission added this notice to its jobs bulletin board: “IMPORTANT: All listings must adhere to city, county, state and federal laws.”
And there are numerous other examples around the country:
* The Greater Philadelphia Film Office’s website currently lists dozens of producers seeking “volunteer” workers – from actors and extras to cinematographers, makeup artists, costume designers, stunt coordinators, location scouts and composers.
* The Pittsburgh Film Office has a page dedicated exclusively to “unpaid job listings” that currently includes postings for unpaid makeup artists, gaffers, boom operators and extras.
* The Texas Film Commission jobs hotline currently lists six productions seeking “unpaid” or “pay-deferred” cast and crew members. So-called “deferred pay” is a common gimmick some producers use to skirt minimum wage laws by promising workers pay if and when their films turn a profit – something that no other business in the country tries to get away with because the law requires for-profit employers to pay their workers whether they make a profit or not.
* The Dallas Film Commission‘s site also has a current posting for a “pay-deferred” film crew. And then there’s this: “Because there are many people with considerable production experience,” the Dallas commission states on its website, “it may be difficult for an entry-level person to find employment opportunities. To obtain production credits and experience, and expand contacts, novices should consider volunteering or interning on productions, and let professionals they meet in networking know they would be willing to serve as an unpaid assistant, if necessary, on a project or two.”
*The New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission last fall helped the producers of an unnamed feature film find an unpaid assistant to run errands during three weeks of production and preproduction in Atlantic City.
* The Virginia Film Office website posts numerous cast and crew calls for unpaid workers. In February, a crew call was posted for a project that was offering “low pay” for a key grip, gaffer, best boy and makeup artist, but “no pay” for a production assistant.
One indicator that a project is for-profit is that some of its crew members are being paid. If other members of the cast and crew aren’t being paid, minimum-wage laws probably are being violated. “Our mission is to create opportunities for Virginians to find careers and jobs in the industry, and to get paid in doing so,” said Virginia Film Commissioner Andy Edmunds. “I’m going to check into this, and if it’s clear that it’s a commercial enterprise, we will not be promoting unpaid positions. Some people do exploit others’ passionate interest to be involved in this industry, and that is unfair,” he said.
Said Montana’s Staggs: “Typically, we are assuming that anybody who is putting a call out for that sort of thing is a low/no budget production. They hire students and people to gain experience. We don’t know if it’s a for-profit or nonprofit production. We are trying to develop our up-and-coming workforce. We vet the things as best we can, but we tell people they have to do their own due diligence. We’re not encouraging people to not pay. We’re just providing an opportunity for the citizens of Montana to discover that for themselves.”
He added: “If somebody says it’s no pay, they are volunteering their work. As long as the person comes of their own volition and can leave whenever they desire, technically they are not an employed person.”
Wrong. As the Labor Department noted, for-profit ventures cannot employ “volunteer” workers. It’s illegal.