I’ve been freelancing in the theater since I was 17. I was a freshman in college, and I saw a notice on a board at TISCH; someone was looking for a lighting designer for a production of Hurlyburly at Theater Off Park. I wrote the number on my hand, walked downstairs to the payphones, and called. I had the job the next day, hung, focused and lit the show with the 14 lights and 6 dimmers they had in house, and was reprimanded on opening night by the set designer for not lighting the beautiful molding on the walls (I had used all 14 of my lights to illuminate the actors…)
I did the work joyfully, and was handed a $200 check at the opening; I had a New York City design credit on my résumé before I was 18 years old!
Over the intervening years, my fees have increased, and my kit has gotten bigger, but one thing that hasn’t changed has been how often I start a project with nothing more than a whole lot of faith. Sometimes, that faith lasts way longer than it should… once, ten days after opening, I had to go into the booth and pull the discs that held all the sound files out of the sampler, preventing the use of any audio in the show that night. The producer, who claimed not to have his checkbook with him when I walked in that night looking for my check, somehow miraculously found it by the time I’d hit the sidewalk.
These days, I have an agent, and work for producers who hire general managers, so there are lots of people between me and that tension. I am a member of a union. I am fairly certain I’ll get paid every time I do a job, though I have certainly been burned, even recently – there have been times when my good faith actions are paid off with poor rewards once it’s too late for me to do anything about it.
But – for the most part, my “in good faith” work is paid off, with good faith.
Here’s my question though – why is it only the artists who make a good faith contribution? Why don’t producers cut a starter check the second we agree to do the project? Sure, we don’t know exactly what I’ll get paid before the contract terms are settled, but the wiggle room is pretty damned small – my agent may squeeze $500 more out of the budget for my studio expenses, or the GM might talk my agent into taking a slightly smaller fee in exchange for a bit more additional weekly compensation, but the numbers aren’t going to be vastly different after the negotiations end than they were when the project was first offered to me.
From the moment I agree to do the project, I’m meeting with the director, doing a space survey, breaking down the script, creating an acoustic model of the venue, starting a shop order, sketching in the studio. I am often obligated, by the calendar that came with the offer, to be turning in paperwork even before my agent and the GM have started talking.
So who is going to be the first producer who sends me a check just as soon as I commit to the project, and when is my union going to create some kind of “intention to file a contract” so that, if the shit does hit the fan, they can be on the case?
It wouldn’t have to be much of a payment. Heck, why not look at whatever you want to pay me, then take 1/3rd of that (which is my standard first contractual payment) and cut that in half again and send me that? So, if you, the producer, manage to talk my agent down further, you still aren’t out any dough, and if he talks you up, it’s no bid deal. We’ll figure out how much it takes to get that payment up to 1/3rd when the contract gets signed.
Because we all know that the schedule’s never going to change. There will always be producers hiring me days before shop orders are due. There will always be last minute projects, staffing changes, unexpected events. And I’ll always want to get started the second I’ve read an exciting script – exciting projects are what make me an artist. And good directors will always want to start talking with me as soon as they know I’m going to get onboard – that’s why they’re good directors.
So, why not have producers show a little bit of that same good faith? It would feel really nice, and it would save a whole lot of stress on everyone’s part. Directors wouldn’t feel guilty, I wouldn’t feel like a rube, producers would know that we are really working together from the start, and GM’s and agents could handle the negotiations with less pressure, knowing that the clients (me and the producers) were already happily getting along.
A little good faith would go a long way…