Building a Team on a Budget - Unpaid but NOT Unfulfilled

Updated: Mar 5

Like most young filmmakers, my first experiences on set were primarily in small unpaid productions, and I’m sure many of you can relate when I say that a lot of those experiences were…...not always pleasant. It didn’t take long before I learned that usually there was one key thing that made the difference between a good production and a bad one. Regardless of budget or how the film turned out, how hard we worked or how much we were (or were not) being paid, the best sets to be on were always the ones where the director and producers had taken just a few extra steps to make their crew feel VALUED.

Now, I get that I’m over simplifying a bit and it’s a lot more complex than that. For me though, that’s really what defines a successful indie production, especially when the crew is working for ANYTHING less than their proper day rate.

It’s something my producing partner and I remind each other whenever we're facing a difficult decision or things don’t turn out quite the way we’d hoped. “If we can walk away from this with our team still feeling fulfilled and wanting to work with us again, then we can be proud of what we achieved, no matter what else happens.” So over the next couple blog posts, we’ll be talking about some of the things Jacob and I do to make sure those people donating their time and talent to us will leave the set having had the best experience possible.


One of the very first things you have to learn as a director or a producer, is that there is no such thing as a “no-budget” film when you’ve got cast and crew to care for. Everything costs something, if not in cash then in time and energy. That means if you can’t offer standard day rates, which most of us starting out can’t, then you need to think extra hard about what value you’re providing the people helping you make this film. After all, you’re asking them to sacrifice time with their families, or working on their hobbies, potentially even gigs they could actually be getting paid for. So what can you offer people in lieu of their day rate? Well, there aren’t really any wrong answers here, you just need to be able to answer that question before sitting down with someone to ask for favors. That being said, there are a few things that really go a long way for people when they’re considering an unpaid project.

1: Working with someone they can trust.

Nine times out of ten, the reason someone agreed to work with me on an unpaid project was because they trusted me. Those who’d worked on my past films had originally worked with me on other sets, as something other than the director. They had seen how I worked below the line, and they trusted that I would bring the same dedication to a project as the director or producer. If they hadn’t worked with me before, then I did my best to earn that trust by showing I would always value the time and energy they gave to my project. Doing so mostly comes down to being as thorough with your pre-production as humanly possible, so you are never wasting said time and energy, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

2: A Great Story with a Clear Voice

A well written script that connects with people is usually your greatest tool in building a strong team on a low budget. Money will always get people to show up of course, but a great screenplay can truly spark someone’s passion. It can inspire them to go above and beyond for you just from the desire to see your story told in the best way possible. Not everyone is going to connect with your script as you might have hoped, but those who do sign on out of a love for your story will not only be the most passionate people on that set, but they often become the biggest advocates for your film after you’ve wrapped.

“But wait, not everyone is trying to make some indie drama that’ll change people’s lives! What if I just want to do a cool chase scene, a sci-fi/action spoof, or some edgy experimental film?” Well a film doesn’t have to be complex to be good, right? All you need to focus on is knowing your audience and telling a story that keeps your audience engaged. That applies just as much when someone is reading your script to consider working with you. Don’t worry too much that someone will say no just because you think they won’t connect to your script though, that’s where having a clear voice comes in. There have been numerous occasions where a crew member told me that my script wasn’t really their cup of tea, but they still agreed to come on board because they could see I had a very clear vision and so were willing to put their trust in me.

3: Gaining new skills and experience

Another really good thing to look at is what new opportunities your script offers for people to flex their creativity or try out a new technique. Does your script take place at night? Well perhaps there’s a more experienced DP out there who mostly does bigger stuff, but hasn’t had the chance to shoot a lot of night exteriors before. Or maybe there’s a camera operator who just got a new steadicam arm and they’re wanting to test it out before taking it on larger productions.

4: The shirt off your back….figuratively.

Most people in the film industry know what it’s like to be starting out as a filmmaker, so they know you don’t have a lot of money to throw around. Again though, this is all about showing you value your crew’s time and energy, so you don't have to bankrupt yourself but also don't feel there’s anything too small to offer. For example:

“Trade for Trade” Many of us have day jobs that aren’t related to the film industry, and oftentimes we develop useful skills that we’ve never thought about applying to film. So think about what you have to offer others beyond just this project and if you can, offer a trade-for-trade deal of some kind. “Gas Money” I think we can agree that the courteous thing to do when asking a friend for a ride somewhere is say, “Hey man I know it’s out of the way but do you mind giving me a ride and I’ll toss you a couple bucks for gas?” Well why shouldn't it be the same with a film set. If you only have $100 left in your budget, don’t use it to rent a fancier lens or a bigger monitor, split that money amongst the crew so they at least get ten or fifteen bucks each. That’s usually enough to cover their gas for that day or a drink with friends after wrap. Yeah it isn’t much but it’s SOMETHING!

It goes such a long way for your crew to see that you’re trying to put them first and acknowledge that their work has value.


So now let’s talk about how we actually show that we value our crew’s time and in doing so, earn their trust.

1: On time, Prepared, and Professional

First is something that I really wish I didn’t have to say, but unfortunately experience has taught me I do, and that’s BE PROFESSIONAL!!! Remember that whole “everything costs something”? Even if this is a project people are mostly doing for fun, they’re still giving their time and energy to be there, and you should be giving at least the basic professional courtesies of being on time and prepared. After all, if the goal is for everyone to have fun, then as the producer it’s your job to ensure that by providing the proper foundation for your cast and crew to do so. Trust me, being professional by no means hinders your crew from having an absolute blast on set, quite the opposite in fact. That preparation is going to be key in being able to communicate your needs effectively to the team, so you don’t leave people confused and frustrated.