No Free Lunch (the care and feeding of a happy crew)

I have been with Scary Cow for a year and prior to that I led and worked with many volunteer groups for a variety of projects and fundraising. I have developed some strong and highly successful attitudes and tactics for building volunteer teams and for assessing what team leader is a good one for me to follow as well.

There is no free lunch. You are going to have to give to get. All negotiations whether they are social or professional, artistic or intellectual need to work from that fact.  If you are not skilled at fair negotiating, it will show in your film as well as bring you a million headaches while in production and make it very hard to attract crew or get invited on crews.  Here in Scary Cow we are a cooperative.  You want your negotiating tactics to be cooperative, not entitled or sloppy.

In low budget filmmaking we tend to have no or very little money to use as a motivation and/or compensation for goods and services. So we make choices to work without the things that will only be traded for with cash or we use what little cash we have for the things and people that will not accept anything else. Learn what your choices are as well as other the forms of compensation you have to entice people to work with you.  There are many ways to compensate another person for their services, time and goods. Money is the most versatile and therefore most popular, but it is still only one. I personally find it thrilling to troubleshoot all this and find it a fun way to build lasting personal and professional relationships.

You can lose crew and your reputation if you are disorganized, tardy, untruthful or lazy and just want others to make your film for you while you claim all credit. Those attitudes and behaviors are barley tolerated by folks that are paid by the hour to put up with them, volunteers run screaming from them!

The list of things people like to receive and will do things for is long. So you have more leverage here than you might have first thought you did, yea! First you need to know what other than money works and if you can make that happen in exchange for what you are seeking. Nice old-fashioned terms for this are bartering or horse-trading. Then determine the value and effort of what the person has and needs to do to get you what you want. Some people will do great things for something as simple as little forms of ego gratification. Others require you do something equally as laborious as what you are asking of them later for them on their project. Others are motivated by having something fun to do or learn and if your production style makes room for that in any part of the production process you will hook them in. Some people are all about the social rewards; the idea that they might get laid, make new friends, or get new professional contacts that they think only you and you crew can offer. Knowing what motivates people to perform for you is a crucial Director skill. In low budget filmmaking, it is crucial that the Producers also have this skill and knowledge about people, as they are the collectors of the resources of which crew is the most important part of.

Always ask yourself prior to contacting people to volunteer and throughout their working relationship with you: What is in it for them to work with me?  Start any request with 1) a statement of what you have to offer in return and 2) questions about what the potential crew member needs from you to do the job.  3) Never, ever assume they are just going to magically read your mind and show up with no enticement. Then once you have their commitment to you, nurture that commitment to keep it dynamic. The best way to do that is to be committed to them as well and respectful of their time and resources.  These people are arranging their precious free time to help you; they are also paying the same amount of member dues as you  are to get these experiences. Never forgot to re-pay favors that were granted to you by others.  Always be prepared no matter what your crew role is or if you own the project to cheerfully fetch coffee, sweep up debris and listen.  The people who tend to be the very ones with the more exciting and organized movie sets notice those actions and that cooperative attitude.

Giving proper credits on a film people are proud of is a strong enticement. But it requires that you understand exactly what the role is that you are crediting them for. Do not be sloppy or inaccurate with your credits, it will be discovered and cause resentments or mislead people who think someone has experience in a role that they do not and cause them and others to not learn of their real talents.  Don’t deny someone who helped you write your script a co-writing credit, which is also not cool.  Your film and its credits are a fairly permanent thing and will be referred to as a portrait of how you do business for all to see. The more accurate and fair you are the more attractive you are to quality crew people in the future.

Here are some examples of what I am doing as project owner and the producer/director. A) Being new to the herd I had to work harder to gain trust so I made a point of agreeing to work on any project that anyone on my project needed me on. I have done makeup and PA cleanup up for Erin Kane, she in return has given me great advice.  B) Jason my husband has been doing FX work on a few films that loaned us props or worked for us C) I got some new cows on my team that were having trouble finding places on other projects so I gave them new skills to learn on my set (sound and script supervision) and then I recommended them to other top crews. D) I put a lot of effort into hooking people up into carpools and making homemade healthy warm meals. E) I remind myself that these folks are giving up time with their families to work with me and I work hard to have the best AD and Co-producer Veronica Craven  (I really owe her now;) to keep us on time and organized to respect this sacrifice from people who may not even know me.  F) I got a top DP and remind him that I will do whatever he needs in return for the long physical hours and the use of his expensive gear. I have given him use of my home for meetings for his projects and I am still in great debt to him. G) I make it my business to ask if everyone is getting his or her monthly dues worth to work for me. H) I do not wait for a complaint, I check in with folks frequently but if a complaint comes in my attitude is the buck stops with me and I fix it. I do not shrug it off or blame others.

In our co-op here at SC, you are in friendly competition with other project leaders to gain the attention and limited free time of the more skilled crew members.  If you mistreat a PA one day, you might find that in the next round, they’re the project owner of a great film you now can’t get on!  If you fail to do the above you will burn a bridges and people may see you (and warn others) as a disorganized user that will waste their time and that you are not a cooperative person to happily trade skills and goods with.  Another way to work with this is to take extra time in your production to train people so you are adding more skilled people to the herd.  Everyone on your crew is paying dues to work together, they have a stake in getting their needs met for joining the herd and learning is a top priority for most of us. After all everyone is paying monthly dues to learn, make a movie, get credits and have a good time…not just the project owners, producer or directors.

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2 Responses to "No Free Lunch (the care and feeding of a happy crew)"
  1. Dan Daly says:


    This is fucking GREAT STUFF! I hope more peeps than just I took the time to read this and actually soak it up. As a calf to the herd, I learned some good stuff right here. I need to learn a lot about film making before I can truly say I have “this skill set” to offer. I enjoy teamwork and am fine with in order to be a part of the herd and learn more. Thanks for this! – DD

  2. Chris Rasmussen says:

    Take note! ~ Here are the beautifully distilled essentials of team/herd-work. Living by these simple steps of consideration and enthusiasm will all but guarantee a terrific moviemaking – and life – experience.

    Thanks Sion!

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