“I hate talking about money!”
Here’s a story about the most difficult ‘money discussion’ I’ve ever had with an employer. It didn’t really work out that well to be honest!
Today I’m a freelance storyteller but in my 20s I worked in the film industry as a freelance electrician.
The work was physically demanding, locations inhospitable, hours were long.
It was a constant scramble for jobs, I never knew who might be in our crew of ‘sparks’, the only definite was everyone else would be a man.
Most of the men were 10, 20 or 30 years older than me, I was on a constant battle to prove I was “as good as a man”.
When I was 25 I started getting put in charge of teams of electricians. As the “gaffer” it was also my job to negotiate changes to the standard deals for money and overtime with the production team. Luckily most deals were very straightforward— because I hated talking about money!
This particular day I was on a pop video in charge of six men, all older and more experienced than me. We’d been working hard since eight in the morning, a flat rate of payment for sixteen hours had been agreed.
The clock ticked closer to midnight and a messenger from the Very Important Producer came around to the heads of department (including me) apologising and saying we were going to run over by “a couple of hours.”
Most of the crew sighed and nodded wearily, but sparks are famous for being pushy about money. My team looked over to me.
I knew what they were thinking: “Who cares what the rest of the crew do? We agreed money until midnight. You’re supposed to be our Gaffer so go and get us our overtime like a Gaffer should.”
At that moment I hated them all for putting me in a difficult situation… jeopardising my precious, vital relationship with the cameraman and the very important producer who had final say over everything. Just for yucky money.
However I also knew that “two hours” could become three or four. Without the restriction of paying overtime, shoots can go on all night. There was safety to think of. (not that anyone seemed to care about safety.) But more than anything I wanted to prove that I could be as good as any male gaffer. Or hopefully better.
At the time I HATED talking about money. But off I went into the production office and, dying of embarrassment, spoke the words I knew my sparks wanted me to say. I demanded triple time after midnight. The Very Important Producer was handsome, kind and friendly but definite, it was impossible. But I shouldn’t worry. He knew how difficult those sparks could be! I was doing an amazing job out there- and as a woman too… He hinted heavily that if I did him a favour this time, won them round, he’d get me on lots of other jobs.
So much easier, less embarrassing, to agree with him! All my conditioning was screaming at me to agree, not to be “a difficult woman”.
There wasn’t any more money he said. Literally none left. These two hours were vital to the whole shoot and everyone else was being a team player for the good of the whole production, we should do the same. I was a reasonable person wasn’t I? I could talk to them, persuade them.
But the thought of going back to my electricians and telling them I hadn’t got their overtime was appalling. How weak I’d look. How …girly!
So I insisted. He refused, getting impatient. “If there was money, you could have it! The budget’s been spent! There’s nothing I can do! Ok? I’m really sorry.”
I glanced at his expensive watch. Five to midnight. “I’ll talk to them” I said.
He smiled and nodded, waving me out. I suddenly realised: he thought the conversation with the electricians was over! He thought we’d agreed to work on, unpaid.
I didn’t go and talk to my crew.
I went to the intake cupboard, shouted a warning, and, on the stroke of midnight, pulled the breaker.
The whole enormous studio full of millions of pounds worth of technical equipment was plunged into pitch darkness and it stayed dark.
A few giggles and gasps were heard. The focus puller turned on his torch. For a few minutes, everyone just stood still by their equipment so as not to cause an accident in the darkness.
I waited next to the main breaker and soon enough the producer arrived at my side to tell me that… in fact they could find the money to pay us after all.
From the murmur that arose I realised the whole crew was grateful. Okay I hadn’t got overtime for everyone but if we electricians were getting paid triple time, the shoot couldn’t afford to go on much longer! It also meant that next time the other crew members might feel bolder about asking for overtime.
We were the only department to protest, but everyone had felt that the producer was being unfair.
I had to talk money very many times but that was the hardest.
What a mess. What a terrible thing to have to do. Talking about money shouldn’t come to a pitched battle!
This problem had arisen because the client was trying to change our agreement without asking. We were within our rights not to work on after the agreed time.
I know storytellers who have been hijacked by unwelcome changes when they arrive at a job. Maybe you have. What would you do in that circumstance?
Over dozens of negotiations, I learned that five things make talking about money easier. They apply to freelance film work but also to storytelling.
Be completely professional in every aspect of your work.
Set your rate based on what you can offer and what the “going rate” is. Then advertise it clearly and stick to it.
Be straightforward about money from the outset. Without fail, get details in writing at the start.
Believe wholeheartedly in your own value.
And remember- being firm but fair about money means the wider community benefits.
…But you will benefit the most!