Working on an indie film is so exciting and so fulfilling, who needs to get paid, right? Right? Anyone?
Not exactly. As a producer of many low-to-no-budget short films, I am all too familiar with not being able to pay my amazing crew what they truly deserve — so I try to make it up to them in other ways. And because the way to a gaffer’s heart is through their stomach, over the years I have learned how to get quality food for the crew donated from really great spots in my city. Here are my secrets:
Create a flashy one-sheet about your project. Looking professional will get you everywhere. Your one-sheet should include the names, bios, and headshots of three of your main staffers. Pick the three people with the best-sounding bio — seriously. Whether it be producer, director and actor, or director, actor, and art director, etc., make sure you bill your most impressive people. Headline it with a professional looking title and tagline for your film, and write a short description of the project. Be sure to include your contact info at the bottom so you can hand this out in a flash to anyone and everyone, even if you don’t have a letter to go with. Letter, you ask?
Write a form letter. This letter is the key to your donation getting success. Think of it as your cover letter for free food. Show your personality, adapt it accordingly to each recipient, and have fun with it. It should include an even shorter description of the project, specific dates, and what you are asking for. Some pointers for an awesome letter:
–Flattery will get you everywhere. “I live nearby and eat at your establishment all the time!” is a great for any business owner to read.
–Be specific. Leave no room for questions. “I am looking for a donated meal for about 30 people with vegetarian options. We’d need it around noon on any of the following days. Your gyro and falafel plates would be perfect!”
–Make it easy for the vendor to say yes. It isn’t easy, you’re so much more likely to get a yes. Consider something straightforward, like “I can pickup the meal at any of your locations and already have my own plates, serving utensils, and chafing pans.”
–Offer them trade if possible. Can you put their branded t-shirt on one of your characters in the film? Hand out coupons to your crew and at screenings? Definitely offer to thank them in your closing credits. What do they need? Get creative!
–Remind them of the exposure they’ll get. Every business could use some free publicity. “My crew will get hooked on your tator tots!” or “We’ll come by after wrap for drinks and happy hour” are good incentives.
–Sweeten the pot if you can. If you do have fiscal sponsorship, mention this in the letter and that their donation will be tax deductible.
–Offer to pony up if you can. I’m torn on this, because sometimes it dissuades the reader from donating a meal free and clear, but if you feel like they may be on the edge of donating, ask about a discount instead. It’s better than nothing!
Send your form letter and one sheet combo EVERYWHERE! Target independent, small businesses in your area (they are more likely to have the freedom to donate than bigger corporate companies with complicated policies). Get them excited about a film shooting nearby. Email allows you to reach more businesses and quantity is key. Remember: For every 20 nos, you’ll get a yes and you only need a few yeses. Emailing also allows you to reach the owner/ manager easier. I’ve tried to go to restaurants in person but haven’t had as much luck because a person in charge wasn’t around and the letter and one sheet doesn’t always make its way to them.
Don’t be afraid to ask for something small- snacks, drinks or desserts– instead of a full meal. On one film I had a Puerto Rican restaurant donate mini empanadas and we handed them out hot and fresh just as we were going into overtime at 11pm—a perfect late night snack! They cost about $3 each so the restaurant was happy to donate 30 of these instead of a full meal, and because it was the end of their day, they didn’t really need them, anyway. How about a smoothie shop? Healthy fruit smoothies can be just the thing to energize your crew in the middle of a hot summer exterior day.
Don’t forget to ask for staples like bagels and coffee. Bakeries, bagel places especially, have to get rid of their day old stuff and often give trash bags full of bagels out to whoever asks first. Call ahead and find out their day-old policy. Coffee shops will often give you a 5 lb bag donation—try a local independent roaster— because they want to get their coffee out into the world and what they consider a sample will keep your crew caffeinated for 3 days.
Hit the grocery stores, natural food markets and co-ops. They almost always have a donation policy that may or may not require non profit status or that you be based in their area. They’ll often give gift cards, which go a long way when given to your super “crafty” craft service person.
Start early. You know that relaxing magical time when you are early in pre-production, just getting organized and Production Day 1 seems so far away? Yes—use that time to get your free food set up so that you can focus on major pre-production later.
Team up with a non-profit. If your city has a non-profit art center, they will likely be able to fiscally sponsor you (you may have to become a member for a small fee), which gives you non-profit status by proxy. Usually, this means that any donations you receive will be tax deductible (but check the fine print before you go soliciting). A lot of bigger restaurant chains and more corporate companies like grocery stores have donation programs for non-profits and will be more likely to donate of you have non-profit status.
When the yeses start coming back, follow through with your promises. Check back as the date gets closer, arrive on time to pick up your food, thank the owner and the cooks and whoever else you see! Give them publicity as much as possible and follow through with that product placement and special thanks in the credits. Send thank you cards and post on social media pictures of your crew enjoying their food.
With these tools in your producing tool belt, you are on your way to feeding that hungry crew good food without taking a huge chunk out of your budget. Now go forth and make movie magic!