Deal memos or crew contracts are the documents you’re asked to sign before a shoot. They are usually whipped up by the production company and form the official agreement between you and those hiring you.
In short, a deal memo is a contract of terms between you and whomever holds the money on the shoot. It addresses common parameters like your day rate, overtime pay, if meals are included, and other common conditions.
But like anything you slap your signature on, you want to know what you’re getting into with the deal memo and make sure you’re getting a fair deal.
10 Questions to Ask Before You Sign Anything
I’m going to assume that if you’re close to signing a deal memo, you have negotiated the basic terms of your work — that is rate, expected hours, and shoot dates.
These 10 questions are to expose the other various scenarios that can, and often do, arise in the chaos of production.
Unfortunately, there is no guide for how to address these situations once you raise the question. What you think is fair and not fair is of personal preference and will depend on many factors. But always be prepared when asking these questions to know what you want and be willing to negotiate.
And if there are any questions you think are important that I don’t mention, please leave a comment with what they are.
1. Is there overtime pay and how is it calculated?
2nd to your standard rate, overtime pay is the most important question you can ask about. Most low budget productions won’t provide you with any, but those shows with money may have it in their coffers to offer crew overtime.
This is crucial to get out of the way before the shoot begins. The last thing you want is to work a 20-hour day thinking you’re making the big bucks, then get the paycheck a week later and find out it was all for nought.
2. Is there a kit rental fee? Expendables?
It feels like these days the idea of a kit rental fee is dead and most producers just expect me to bring along my Cinebag full of goodies.
A kit rental is when you rent your tools to production for you to use. I know it sounds weird, but you’ve invested a significant amount of money into your tools, so try and recoup some of that in any way you can.
Expendables are almost always considered a cost for production to swallow, but it’s always good to confirm this especially if you are working with producers new to the game.
3. Are travel expenditures and other small purchases invoiceable?
This is a question I bring up a lot when I’m working for free on locations. If I spend money on fuel, put wear and tear on my car, and drive to location, will I get paid for it? If I pick up the camera package 2 hours away from where I live, will production reimburse me that time/money as well?
My philosophy on jobs, especially freebies, is that it shouldn’t cost me money to work on the show.
If you’re told travel isn’t included in the deal, I would argue for it — it’s a huge cost to incur on behalf of somebody else when you’re working for them.
4. How and when can I expect to receive payment?
I wish I had known to ask this question when I first started getting small gigs here and there. I was used to working on feature films where I’d get paid from a checkbook every week or two weeks.
But with commercial or smaller gigs, you invoice the company and they send you the money — at least that’s the idea. Sometimes the accountants on these shows are busy, lazy, or a combination of both and will take a long, long time to send you your money.
Make them give you a solid number (i.e. 30 days after wrap) that you can hold them to and, better yet, have them include that in the deal memo.
5. When are meals slated to be served on set?
Getting fed on time with a decent meal has always been a struggle on film sets, especially those of the low budget nature. For some mind-boggling reason, certain people think that it’s OK to make people work for 8 hours or more without ever giving them a chance to grab some grub.
I always check to see if this is in the deal memo because it gives me a tangible document I can reference when I feel I am being cheated out of my lunch break on set.
6. What happens if the shoot goes past its schedule?
If you’re booking jobs left and right, you’re going to want to know what happens if one of those shoots goes past its schedule. Are you responsible for finding a replacement for your position on set? Or can you get out of Dodge before things go from bad to worse?
Even if you’re not busy with a job after a shoot, find out what the contingency plan is so you can know what to expect. There’s nothing worse than a few days of extra work that you weren’t ready for being thrown in at the last minute.
7. Is there a per diem available?
A per diem (per day) is a small amount of money provided to crew members for general daily expenditures like food. It’s provided as a conveinence for those working on location who have to spend more money than usual since they are away from home.
There is no hard rule on the amount of money provided, so if you’re negotiating for one, start by calculating how much money you spend on food per day and then go from there.
8. If the project is scrapped, will I be paid anything?
Also referred to as a “kill fee,” it’s nice to know what will happen if the project you’re scheduled to work on falls through. This is especially crucial if you are turning down other projects to work on one in particular.
It simply isn’t fair for you to set aside a chunk of time in your life, commit it to a shoot, and then get left out of work for those few days if everything falls through.
However, it does happen.
Kill fees aren’t always common, but still, asking for some sort of decent compensation if the project fails is a good idea. If you’re met with hostility, you can always counter, “Well, if it’s such a big deal, are you expecting this movie not to get made?”
9. Will the footage be made available for me to put in my reel?
Not as pertinent a question for us below the line camera assistant types, but when you start working as a camera operator, director of photography, or some other crew with direct impact on the visual nature of film, being able to obtain footage for your reel helps keep it updated and fresh.
Be warned, however, getting reel footage isn’t always easy. I’ve heard horror stories from actors and crew alike about productions that drag their feet to provide even a simple DVD copy of footage.
If you can knock this problem out of the way early on, and have it in your deal memo, it can make things a lot easier a few weeks after the shoot when you’re looking to slice and dice a new reel. Being friends with the editor helps, too.
10. What, if any, rate is provided for prep/wrap out days?
While prep and wrap out days aren’t as work intensive as actual production days, you are still doing some work, giving up time and should be compensated as such.
Some productions will want to pay you a half-day for this and, if a half-day is all it will take to get done, there’s no harm in accepting that.
I find with most producers, negotiating for prep and wrap out days is all about being reasonable and fair. They don’t want to overpay you for a glorified packing job, but you don’t want to work without making some money. So meet in the middle and offer a discounted rate if they are hesitant. Making something is better than making nothing.
Problems Arise Without Deal Memos
I remember a few years ago standing in front of a production accountant holding a check in my hand and looking at it funny. Something about the number of digits in the amount field just didn’t add up.
“Wait — what about all that B-Roll we shot?” I asked
“I was told you guys did that on your day off,” she said.
“Yeah, but we were still working. It was everyone else’s day off, but not ours,” I countered
At this point the DP stepped in, “We should be getting paid for those days. I know it was on our day off, but we still have to build the camera, move the camera, and we don’t get to just sit around and enjoy the day like everyone else.”
Finally, she conceded and accepted our returned checks in exchange for talking to the producer.
Even though we were lucky to get her to see our side of the argument that time, I always regretted having just assumed I would get paid for something like that. When I went back to the crew house, there was nothing in my deal memo about B-roll and, if the producer had wanted to be a jerk, he could’ve held us in limbo on that money.
The moral of the story is to address every problem you can before you do any work on a production and make sure it’s in writing and both parties sign it.
Without deal memos (or specific enough deal memos), you can find yourself arguing for certain things you expected while having no grounds to stand on. Don’t just assume productions will do the right thing, even if you have worked for them before or think you know what they stand for.
In the end, the film industry is still a business and the act of chasing money or pinching pennies can cause the most friendly producers to become shrewd like Scrooge McDuck.
Should I Sign One Even if I Work for Free?
You should definitely try and sign a deal memo if you are working for free. “Free” is a relative term and can mean all sorts of things. Are they getting your labor for free? Your tools for free? Everything for free?
A deal memo on a “free” shoot will allow you to build the framework for what crosses the line between the costs you incur and the cost production incurs. For instance, if you are a production assistant and go to buy some camera tape, you’re going to want some sort of deal memo stating you can invoice production for that.
I’ve worked for “free” on shoots before, but still been paid $100/day for a kit rental and travel compensation and I signed a deal memo explicitly stating that I would receive that money.
Deal Memo Samples
If you have yet to encounter a deal memo in your film career, here are a few samples:
- Crew Deal Memo from The Complete Film Production Handbook
- Crew Deal Memo from Filmcontracts.net
- Director of Photography (DP) Deal Memo from Filmcontracts.net
There are various forms that deal memos can take. I have signed some that are pages long with paragraphs of stipulations (one even explicitly ruled out coming high to set) and I have signed others that are simple statements about the rate I agreed to.
Out of all of the samples above, the deal memos I’ve encountered are most like the DP deal memo.
Protect Yourself with the Deal Memo
Deal memos are traditionally seen as legal protection for the production company hiring you, but it’s a two way street. These documents also secure certain rights of your own, most specifically your right to get paid.
You would be surprised at the number of stories floating in the industry about crew waiting to be paid. And not just from Mom-and-Pop production companies, but from major studios. I have a friend who AC’d on a big CBS drama and had to wait 5 months to get paid and only after hounding them for his money.
The papers you sign are there to protect you as well so you can hold a production company to its legal obligations. Hopefully you won’t even need to do that, but it’s nice to have the Ace up your sleeve.
As long as there are no hidden clauses, and you have thoroughly vetted the document, then you shouldn’t worry about signing a deal memo and having it come back to bite you in your ass. Just make sure you take care of your end of the deal.
Note: If you are in a union, then you probably already know most of this doesn’t apply to you. Unions already have pre-negotiated most of the common questions that arise in deal memos. And if you’re in a union, you’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to getting your fair share.