Everyone needs to get paid for the job they do, right?  Sometimes it’s easier said than done though.  This blog post will cover some of the things you can do (or avoid) to make sure you get paid for your work.

We’ve all heard the stories.  Some of us have lived them.  Nightmare situations and a subsequent part-time job (or full-time) just trying to get paid for work you’ve done.  The bottom line is that with or without a contract, if someone doesn’t pay  you for work you’ve done – it’s truly difficult trying to get that payment.  It’s important to do as much as you can to protect yourself.  So what can you do?



1.  Evaluate the job.  

  • Have you worked with this client before?
  • Do you know anyone who has?  What do they have to say about that client?  Good reputation?  Bad reputation?
  • What are they payment terms?  Half up front/Half on completion?  Third up front/ Third upon film start/ Third on completion?  All on the day of filming/delivery?  Net terms?
  • Are you going to incur any expenses?  If so, are those expenses covered and what are the specifics?
  • Is the budget secured and in place?  *I’ve seen indie productions that started the shoot without having their budget in place, something changed and the money wasn’t there, and then when it came time to pay the crew – nobody got paid until months and months later.
  • Do your homework in researching the company or people affiliated with the job.  Sometimes the shady ones can be spotted (not always – but find out what you can).  Do they have a website?  If so, does it look like your caliber of work?  Does your contact have any info in his/her e-mail signature?  *I’ve become very wary of e-mails with no phone number, website, or other info in the e-mail signature…


2. Agree to the terms of the shoot.  This means everyone that’s involved with you getting paid.  This might be between you and your direct client.  This might be between you and the shoot’s producer.  Whatever.  Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.  Make sure you’re comfortable with the terms and trust your gut about a situation;  if it feels really shady or iffy – there’s a good possibility it is.  Don’t agree to something you’re not okay with.  I’ve definitely turned down jobs that I could tell were going to be a disaster even before it started.  Generally speaking, to ensure that everyone is on the same page with what you will be paid to do, make sure you address any questions you have.  Here are a few to get you started:

  • Where is the shoot located?  (Remember that transportation translates into time, costs, mileage, rental vehicles, plane tickets, etc.
  • How many days is the shoot?
  • How many hours per day is the shoot?
  • If you go over the set hours, is there overtime?  If so, what are those specific rates?
  • When is payment made?
  • Do you need an invoice and W9 prior to payment?
  • What other crew will be on the shoot?  (This can help gauge if you will be expected to do the job of multiple people)
  • What gear will be on the shoot?  (This can help gauge what you’re doing and working with)
  • If multiple days and non-local, is overnight accommodations taken care of by the production?
  • And so on…


3.  Leverage.  If you are in control of content before delivery (Director, Producer, DP, VFX, Editor, etc), you can stipulate that you don’t hand over the deliverables prior to being paid.  That applies a lot less to large productions or big corporate work than it does indie productions.  With that said, my experience with corporate work has also been a lot more reliable in terms of payment than indie shoots – so generally speaking, “no harm, no foul”.  If you present this properly and nicely, it isn’t a negative thing.  It ensure everyone wins.

  • A good time for this would definitely be something like an indie shoot with a “conditional payment timeline” – something to the effect of, “well, we should have all of the funding in place in time for the shoot but it might be a couple days later”.  Sometimes those couple of days turns into months and years.  Again, trust your gut.  If you know the people and trust them, cool.  If not, be careful and protect yourself when possible.


4.  Beware deferred payment jobs.  Sadly, most people that I know that have been on a deferred payment shoot never got paid.  Some people got paid something but not even the full amount after waiting months (sometimes years).

If you take a deferred payment shoot,

  • Make sure it’s a shoot you would want to do whether you got paid or not (so you’re not crushed if you get stiffed)
  • Get as much in writing as possible; paper trails are a good thing
  • Try to have a contract or crew deal that has some specifics in terms of time frames of when you will be paid and how much
  • In your crew deal, also try to have stipulations as to any sort of breaching clause terms if the payment isn’t paid within the time stated


5. Beware the percent deals.  I regret to say I fell for this one and still haven’t received a penny for the work delivered.  The whole concept is that you get a percentage of the sales of whatever the project is.  Usually the percentages are healthy and you’re told how much money you’ll make and how soon.  That’s the concept anyhow.

With that, if you take a percentage deal shoot:

  •  Have a really good contract in place (probably good to have a lawyer look over it depending on how much work you’ll be putting in)
  •  Have terms established in regards to time lines and what happens if a certain amount of time elapses with no sales
  •  Find out exactly how you can audit the finance side of things.  It’s easy for someone to say they didn’t sell the content – do you have any way to prove otherwise?
  •  See if you can find anyone else who had a positive percentage deal experience with the company you’re considering working with; Find out his/her experiences.



AFTER THE FACT (You already did the work and didn’t get paid)

Unfortunately, if a client isn’t paying you, there isn’t much you can do to make someone pay you after you’ve delivered the content.  Some people say you should take the client to small claims court.  It’s all debatable about how worthwhile that is – but let’s take a look at some of the perspectives…

1. Small Claims Court –  I guess a lot of this depends on what documentation you have (contracts and e-mail correspondence), how much money is owed, and the odds you think you have of both winning the case (and the client paying up after the court ruling).

I’ve never personally taken this route.  My thought process on not going to court revolved around “how much is my time worth to try to chase them down?”, “how much am I chasing them down for?” and “even if I get a court ruling in my favor, what are the odds of them paying up?”.  Also, would you become known as the person who sues someone at the drop of the hat?  That might not be the full story – but most people don’t care about the full story.  For me, taking someone to court has never felt worth it.  Hopefully that will remain the case.  :)


2.  Contractual clauses – If you have something in your contract about content delivery and payment timelines, you might have something about content ownership in the case of contract breach or non-payment.  If that’s the case, you could take claim of the content and either use it or sell it to another client.  Obviously this is a conditional thing and if there’s nothing in your contract or no contract at all, it doesn’t apply


3.  Give the content away for free to the public – or sell it as stock footage.  This one might be a little more tricky and a lot of due diligence should be done prior to going down this road…   This blog post is not official legal advice.  Here’s a hypothetical for you:

A director that you work with frequently puts you in touch with someone and you’re “hired” by that person to film a concert.  Based on that trust you have for the original director, you just say, “okay, I’m in” and don’t really get anything in writing.  Additionally, the shoot required you to rent a car since it’s non-regional – thus forcing expenses that are promised to be reimbursed.  You deliver the footage at the shoot.  Fast forward six months or more (even a year or two) and all you get are excuses about why you haven’t been paid.  Nothing is in writing.  What do you do?

Basically, my understanding is that as a DP you own the copyright to any imagery you create unless you sign it away  (*Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation).  Additionally, you paid money for the rental car incurring those expenses – so without being paid by anyone else for the content, you actually paid money to do the shoot.  If you still have a copy of the original footage, I don’t know if there is any reason why you couldn’t give that content away for free to the public (as stock footage or content that might just be fun to post on youtube or whatever) – it might get you some positive attention and appreciation for your work.  With that, it’s important to make note about issues about audio sync licensing and image release forms which may require you to note footage as “for editorial use only” or remove the audio from the footage.  If the footage is not being profited from (by giving it away from free), you might be totally in the clear – but definitely do your homework if you ever plan on doing that.  Also, a lot of stock footage websites have “editorial footage” sections and you could potentially recover some of your expenses or even get paid a buck or two by selling your content on those stock websites as “editorial content”.  Another possible outcome is that the client would rather pay you the money you were supposed to be paid than fight you legally about these measures you’ve taken.

*Reiteration – If you plan on doing anything like this, make sure you cover your bases legally.  This post is not legal advice.


Obviously none of the “after the fact” options are desirable and the best way to do things is to protect yourself as much as you can from the beginning.  I hope this entry was helpful.  Thanks for reading!