Andersson & Ulvaeus
I was taking a class a few years ago and someone asked me what I did for a living. When I told them I worked in the film industry the response was, “Oh, did you fly to class in your helicopter?”
It is a misconception that film industry people make a ton of money. I tried to explain that my hourly wage is actually comparable to most any skilled labor rate, but average workday is fifteen hours long, I can regularly work up to 18 hrs a day and, yes, my individual pay checks will all the overtime can be large… especially after I have worked a hundred hours in a week!
I pointed out that I work at least 2 weeks for every one of his, and at the end of a contract, which may be only a few months long, I need to live on the money that is left until I get my next job… which could be six months away.
He stopped to think about it then, did the math… and shut up.
Most people only understand what they read in the trash magazines about 6, 7 and 8 figure salaries for people in our industry classified as ‘above the line elements; actors, actresses, directors and producers… definitely not us ‘below the line’ crew!
Certainly when there is lots of work and the jobs come back-to-back, there is a great opportunity to give your tax guy something to smile about. But what do you do when work is slow, or you are just starting out and good paying jobs are few and far between?
I was out to lunch the last weekend with two good friends and fellow costumers, Shelly and Jeff. We were laughing about what we did to survive when we were just starting out in the film biz. Shelly talked about how she survived on Ramen Noodles. I laughed and said that I ate potatoes and creamed corn. I am still really good at being creative with potatoes to this day… but my husband is not so crazy about the creamed corn!
I can remember years ago grabbing a friend and going to Arby’s to buy baked potatoes with butter. It was our treat at the end of a long week; somebody else making the potato for us! Sad I know, but it was only a dollar something… with butter!
When I started working in the industry, I would work film in the summer months and theatre in the winter months. I can remember getting a job sewing and dressing in a dinner theatre one winter and it was the best job ever… they fed me 2 meals a day!!
Manna from heaven! Well, actually it was leftover buffet, but it beat the stuffing out of a fast-food baked potato.
Shelly reminded me to share our stories, and she was right to do so. When you’re starting out as a costumer it can be a real challenge to make enough work to pay the bills and eat. So often priorities get mixed up, and important things are left to slide.
I always tell the students that I teach that you have never made it in this industry until you are retired and comfortable.
I know that sounds harsh, but the reality of our business is that we as crew people are dependant on a huge number of factors not the least of which are government tax incentives, the type of movies being shot and the locations we work in. If you live in an area that primarily attracts Westerns, and the viewing audience dries up for Westerns, there might be a few years of little work in that area. If the government shuts down the tax incentive programs, film work migrates to other provinces, states, and countries that have better incentives.
So what to do… I always say that ‘tithing’ yourself is the best way to survive our rather fluctuating industry.
What do I mean by that?
Figure out how much money it takes you to live in month… and I mean really live. I asked one costumer that question once and she said, “Oh, 1500 dollars.” I looked at her and asked how she got that number… “That’s my rent and my phone bill.”
Hummmm… not quite a complete list.
What I suggest is; write down everything you spend, even the fun stuff… and you need to have fun… for the next three months. See how much you really spend per month.
There are some great apps for this now, so it is really easy to keep track! But for now, let’s make a rough list of possible expenses:
1. Monthly Expenses
Gas for your car
Ordering out/eating out/coffee
Rent for your lock up (if you have one)
Movies and entertainment
And any thing else you can think of!
2. Plus, don’t forget to add in all of the one, two and three-time annual payments, divide by twelve and add this to your monthly expenses.
Holidays & Birthdays
Computer, mobile phone or other big purchase
Roof caving in (this happened!)
And any thing else you can think of!
3. Now add a little bit, like maybe 10%, of the total expenses as a contingency for emergencies.
If we add up the total expenses for 1, 2 and 3, this gives us a good idea of how much money you need to live well and safely each month.
From the basic list of expenses above, for someone living in, let’s say, Vancouver, the total might be on average $4500.00 per month. Please do your own math and don’t take this number as gospel.
Now… VERY important:
4. Income Tax. (if you are incorporated) Pay a set amount of income tax each month so you are not hit with a big bill at the end of the year. Figure out a percentage of your earnings based on your average annual income, and whether you work through a company or personally.
5. Retirement Savings. Nobody is doing this for you so you’ve got to be diligent with this. Put some aside each month so that you don’t end up working all those hundred hour weeks and have nothing to take care of yourself with when you retire! Again, get some advice and put aside a percentage each month.
6. Tithe Yourself. For people like us who do contract work, tithing ourselves is essential. Make sure that during the months you are working, put away enough money to cover all your expenses for the months that you won’t be. How much cushion is enough? It used to be three months worth of expenses, in recent years it’s been six months, but now with things changing and evolving so much in the entertainment industry, you may want a little more.
How much do you put aside for tithing? Again you want to figure that out with advice. It could take a few years to build a proper cushion… there will be setbacks along the way, but you can do it!
Okay, so numbers 4, 5 and 6 could easily add up to another 3 or 4 thousand dollars… again you have to do the math for yourself… but that’s a good chunk of change!
The trick is to set a little more each month aside until you build what you need. This is harder than you think. It takes discipline. You’d be amazed how easy it is to forget all this planning stuff and promise to start again as soon as that car repair is paid off, or as soon as you buy the new MacBook. Good lord, I remember when our roof caved in… that’s another story!
What this kind of planning also does is allow you to see what you can cut out when things become really tight. Ask anybody in the industry if they eat out at restaurants much… does a bear shhhh…
Start now being aware of what is going on around you. I see so many people in our industry that wait… and not so patiently… for their paycheck each week just so they can pay last months bills! I know many people that rack up their credit cards all winter just to spend the next summer paying them off. It is a horrible circle.
But this won’t happen to you! You have been warned… no… you have been PREPPED! You know you are working in a contract-based industry that has ups and downs. You know how to enjoy the ups… and plan ahead so the downs won’t get you down.
You are the enlightened… you are Costume Goddesses and Gods!!