From time to time I am asked to do a project for an extremely discounted rate (which sometimes means free). I hate to admit it, but generally my first reaction is to scoff and roll my eyes. “Ugh, not another one”. I should try to be a little more positive – I’m working on that. What I should really be doing is keeping an open mind. What does the project look like? Who is it for? What kind of story are they trying to tell? Once you learn a little more about the piece and get a chance to look at it, then you can start to make some more informed decisions.
In my experience, one of the most beneficial parts of working on spec work is the creative freedom. You normally don’t have any bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to get approval and it’s an intimate collaboration with the person hiring you. I don’t know how many times I have teamed up with someone to create a look that we’re both really proud of only to get it shot down by a higher-up. It’s really disheartening since normally they go with a safer, more “normal” look. I’m always trying to do push boundaries and come up with something interesting and aesthetically pleasing while making the project look the best it can. I bet most colorists struggle with this very thing. Wanting to make something beautiful, yet getting harnessed and held back into creating something more safe and traditional. However, we have to remember that it’s the client’s prerogative. They’re paying you to make it look the project look the way they want it to look. And it’s your job to deliver that. You need to provide your creative input and voice your opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s their material, not yours. There are times, though, when that can be extremely frustrating. On spec work, there is normally a little more room to go outside the box and push the boundaries since there is really nobody to answer to other than who is in the suite.
Another thing to take in to account is who the job is for. You have to be careful on this one, though. We’ve all heard the line “If you do this job, I have more work down the road that I can pay you for”. Sometimes that’s true, and it can be a great way to make new contacts. Some of my best, most consistent clients have come from such a situation. But, sometimes it’s complete and total BS. The hard part is figuring out which is which! Normally I rely on my instincts and pay close attention to the level of professionalism and how the person carries themselves. Although it’s not fool proof, that approach has served me pretty well. Sometimes getting in front of new clients can be a great recipe for success and a nice way to mix things up. Showcasing your talents to new people that you normally wouldn’t get in front of is a pretty valuable opportunity. Who cares if it’s free? The exposure can do wonders. If that person has repeat business or is a young up-and-comer and you impressed them with your skills, you already have your foot in the door. And it’s spec work that got you there.
Probably the thing that has benefitted me the most bussiness-wise with spec work is getting the chance to work on material that is outside my normal area of focus. This helps create new client avenues that I normally wouldn’t get to explore. Most of my work is commercial. I don’t do a ton of feature work (probably about 3-4 a year – mainly documentary type stuff). So when presented the option to work on a feature length drama shot beautifully on an Alexa for an extremely discounted rate, it may be something worth considering. How else are you going to get that experience? I’m sorry, but no big feature work is just going to fall into your lap. It doesn’t work that way. You need to have the experience to get the job. And a lot of the times, that experience comes with spec work. It’s a really nice way to expand your toolset that can have some great long term benefits.
All this is fine and dandy and I realize I’m only pointing out the positives. There is one serious downfall to spec work: you don’t make any money! The benefits of spec work that I pointed out only work if you get something in return. A future relationship. Beautiful footage for your reel. Invaluable experiences in the color suite. If you don’t get something out of it down the road, then you’re getting taken advantage of. You don’t want to get walked all over and have to know when to say when. It’s a tough call sometimes because what may seem like a slam dunk can totally backfire. There is no real set in stone way to approach these situations, you just have to weigh the pros and cons and go with your gut. I have learned some valuable lessons over the years. Both good and bad. But mainly good. For the most part, people in this industry just want the best for their project. But ultimately it is a business. And there needs to be some exchange of value. If it’s not monetary, it has to be something else that you can turn in to money in the future.