Filmmaker, writer, dog

Paying to Work: The Perth Film Network and The Action Film Plan

Added on by Kenta McGrath.

Although its name may suggest a community initiative or some kind of co-op, The Perth Film Network is a business modelled on Hollywood and aimed at filmmakers with Hollywood-like aspirations, in which everything comes at a price. The organisation runs filmmaking and acting courses but is better known for its corporate-style networking events, which bring "Perth's professional, indie and student film community together" at a cost of $10 per head, or at no cost if you've forked out $45 for an annual membership ($130 for businesses). You can also pay extra to have your showreel projected at the event, set up a display booth, hire extra floor space to promote your film, etc. "You are there to sell you and your product... being you," the website advises. "Don't try and be something you are not."

The Perth Film Network's latest venture, called "The Action Film Project," is what appears to be either a particularly exploitative form of crowd-funding, or an unethical business scheme masquerading as a golden opportunity for aspiring filmmakers. You can read the brief on its website, here.

To summarise, the scheme invites filmmakers to pay to work in assistant roles for a short action film, Code of Silence, under the mentorship of a professional in their chosen department. The cost ranges from $350 (to just "watch and learn") to $1100 (director's assistant, assistant editor, etc.) for a three-day shoot. The filmmakers will purportedly be paying for the experience of working with professionals, a "VIP invite" to the screening, and a credit on the film and on IMDb. "There is no classroom, you are learning on the go and you need to be alert and on the ball," the brief states, "as time is money." Time and money, that is to say, time and money supplied by the paying filmmaker. There's also an option for people uninterested in participating directly to donate to the film in $20, $50 and $100 denominations, à la regular crowd-funding.

The key selling points here – to "experience the reality of a pro set, be mentored and learn" and "create strong contacts with professionals in their field" – leads to a twisted logic in which the number of hours the filmmaker contributes on set is used to rationalise the bargain fee that he or she is paying, rather than a wage that he or she should be receiving ("That's over 30 hours of learning and being mentored from under $30 an hour... You won't get that anywhere else"). By extension, when the brief states that the film will be shot over a period of two weekends, which may be extended, the prospective mentee is presumably supposed to be excited that he or she'll be getting more bang for the buck. Putting aside the question of whether one should or shouldn't be paying to be "mentored" in an industry where unpaid work experience placements are common, the idea of this scheme being a mentorship program has only so much credibility because the film will presumably go ahead with or without all of the roles being sold. In other words, it's unlikely that Code of Silence will become a silent film just because the position of assistant sound recordist isn't filled.

One of the most worrying things about this scheme is that it's vague in its purpose. It's unclear whether Code of Silence is designed around the business model or vice versa. Is it a film that is bound to be made in any case, and The Perth Film Network has devised an exploitative strategy to help fund it? If financial profit is not the key aim, and assuming that the organisation doesn't need to sell every crew position to make the film viable, it'll at least recoup some production costs via the financial input of its own crew members. Or, is this simply another of the organisation's courses, which takes the form of a film that wouldn't otherwise exist, and which would be exploitative nonetheless?

The way the scheme is designed and pitched means it can be both of these scenarios at once. The Perth Film Network claims that this is a non-profit venture and that the money raised "goes into making the film, insurances and paying for your mentors, food, etc." Besides the fact that the cost of "making the film" can refer to almost anything, including the three costs listed after it, the claim is a dubious one. Firstly, there's no specified goal for the budget – "the more money we can raise, the more we can play and do," the brief says – suggesting that production costs, including mentor fees, will simply increase according to how much money is raised. Secondly, the top-billed mentor is producer/writer/director Debbie Thoy, who runs the company and will therefore benefit directly from the sales of these crew positions.

Additionally, The Perth Film Network claims that any profit made after the film is completed will go to the charity Lifelinea crisis support and suicide prevention hotline. However, it's well known that it's almost completely unlikely for a short film, especially a 20-minute action film, to turn a profit, so this also appears to be a disingenuous claim. "If the film comes together well," the brief mentions, "it will be entered into film festivals and showed at other public events." This may suggest that Code of Silence is designed to be a standalone film which will have legs after its completion, like most films. But the clause ("If the film comes together well") leaves open the possibility that the film can simply be shelved after having served its immediate purpose. The Perth Film Network makes no promises: it hints that it may push the film and grant exposure to the filmmakers involved, and also hints that it may not even attempt to do that. This part of the brief also negates the earlier claim that all the proceeds go toward making the film, because showing films at festivals and public events costs money, and both are expenses incurred after a film is made.

There's even a section in the FAQ titled, "CAN'T AFFORD THE PRICE?" which bizarrely encourages those who can't meet the costs to crowd-fund their own attendance, that is, rely on favours to be able to give favours, or be crowd-funded to be able to crowd-fund. The Perth Film Network also provides filmmakers with the option of buying cheaper tickets to the premiere, which they can then sell on to family and friends at a higher cost – a common strategy for pyramid schemes, and similar to the one used by the controversial arts organisation, RAW: Natural Born Artists (see here and here).

It's unfortunate enough, though it may be understandable in the mutually-beneficial context of work experience, that many starting filmmakers are often not paid for working on "professional" film sets. But nowhere else will you find a program that requires trainees/interns to pay to work, for an outcome which can have clear benefits for those being paid. This is categorically different to paying to participate in a training program or to attend a course, for example. If this isn't merely a poorly conceived moneymaking venture, then it's a new and concerning way of funding a film by exploiting those who are desperate for opportunities and don't know better. At the very least, The Action Film Plan is indicative of a toxic and corporate view of filmmaking whereby one can simply pay for (supposed) industry advantages, and those who are unable to afford it simply miss out.