I’m not a perfect project manager by any means, but I’ve been extremely lucky that people I’ve worked with are willing to work with me again and again, even when I can’t pay them. Being able to translate whatever goodwill you can into working relationships is a delicate skill that you have to learn. So where are you screwing up? Let’s break it down.
You Aren’t Paying People Right…or At All
Let’s say you work at Target. There are some things you can expect from your job.
- When you go in for your shift, you’ll get paid.
- The amount you get paid will be something you agreed to when you started the job.
- If you didn’t get paid, that would be bullshit.
- If you didn’t get paid for your shift yet your boss got a bonus because the stockroom you organized was the best in the district, that would be hyper supreme bullshit.
And yet there are some indie producers, directors, and project managers that don’t seem to translate these truisms to their own projects. Here’s the thing: you’re the boss. You have to compensate your employees fairly and in a way that you both agree to. Sometimes this means money, sometimes it doesn’t, but compensation needs to be equitable across the board.
There’s nothing wrong with recruiting collaborators to work pro bono. A lot of people have space in their schedule to take on projects as a portfolio builder without expectation of monetary payment. If that’s the situation you’re in, though, it’s highly inappropriate to sell said thing and make money off of it yourself, even if it’s just going “back into your studio.” That is profiting off someone else’s hard work.
This also applies to paying one set of collaborators but not the other (artists vs voice actors, for example), paying less than originally agreed upon, or asking for free work on the promise of compensation in the future that may or may not come.
It’s frustrating when you’re courted to work on a project, and it falls through. That happens. You move on. It’s not as easy to move on from a project when you’ve put work into it and have nothing to show for it. Even for things like Kickstarter trailers or Patreon launches, get a little money together to pay the people who worked for you.
And if the compensation involved isn’t monetary, you still need to keep on top of distributing it properly. I’ve worked with people, for free, for a project I thought was interesting, then never saw my name in the credits and had to actually fight to get acknowledgement from the producer that I provided a voice. It’s all well and good to pay someone in exposure, but you have to actually provide a vector of exposure to do so. I won’t work with these people again, and I know a lot of people who won’t either.
You’re Toxic/Unprofessional/Annoying in Some Insurmountable Way (Even if You Don’t Realize It)
It’s not hard to not be a jerk, and I think most people aren’t trying to be mean or difficult or toxic at any given moment. Unless you are. Then…like…stop that. My god, it should be really obvious why no one wants to work with you.
But we don’t always know that we’re engaging in behaviors that can be problematic for other people that you’re trying to work with. Maybe your senses of humor don’t match, and things you intend as dark jokes come across mean-spirited to someone else. I’ve known people with a tendency toward self-deprecation that can get super grating in conversation when it becomes something they do all the time.
So, hopefully, you’re already in a place where you’re not purposefully trying to start drama or be a negative influence on your community. But be mindful of how you present yourself on social media and particularly in one on one interactions. Are you being professional? Are you being courteous? Are you reading the room? Remember that the way you interact with a dear friend or a long-time collaborator is completely different than how you should interact with someone you’ve never worked with before.
Your Expectations are Unreasonable or Poorly Communicated
There’s only one project I ever recused myself from as a voice actor and it was in part because how the writer/director handled the part with me. I was cast to play a British adult female. Then he asked if I was able to do an American accent, because, oh yeah, the British accent was just her avatar. Oh, and she also has a little kitty cat avatar that she uses in another situation, you can voice that, too, right? Now, I’m competent enough as an actress to perform as three different characters (especially when they’re essentially all the same person), but that’s not the point. I auditioned for one character. I was cast as one character. I did not agree to play a different character or multiple characters and the extra amount of lines that came with, all pro bono.
Let’s go back to our target analogy. If you applied to work openings, were hired under the promise that you’d only be working openings, and the first time you’re scheduled you get put on closings, you’d be understandably upset. They pulled a switcheroo on you. You don’t want to be the person who does that to an actor or an artist or a writer. It makes you inconsiderate at best and straight up deceitful at worse.
“But what if the character suddenly has more lines than expected or we want to change up their design?”
That’s fine. That happens all the time. Communicate with your artist/writer/voice actor, explain the situation, and renegotiate. Pay the additional fees and give them a reasonable amount of extra time to implement the changes.
“But I don’t think people will agree to this if I tell them all the parameters.”
That’s an even bigger problem. If the thing you’re doing is so unsavory you can’t even pay people to do the work, you need to step back and figure out what the actual dilemma is.
It’s all about communication, transparency, and keeping professional promises.
If I had a dollar for every project I joined that never saw completion, I would have the voice acting budget for my next game taken care of. Projects fall through. It’s a thing. It’s how you handle those kinds of setbacks going forward that tell me what kind of producer you are. If I see you casting for something then hop over to your Twitter and see you’ve started five projects and not finished a single one, I’m not necessarily going to automatically avoid you, but my price is going to go up considerably.
And this unreliability comes in a lot of different forms.
It can be saying you’re looking for a writer, then never posting the job application. It can be contacting an artist to commission them, then never getting back to them. It can be casting some actors, then never ever getting back to them with scripts. It’s getting through all that, moving halfway into production, then dropping off the face of the earth. Even being consistently slow to answer e-mails can be enough to turn some people off.
Different people will put up with different nonsense for different amounts of time, but predictability is one of the hallmarks of a good project manager. People need to at least think there’s someone with a level of reasonability on the other end of the line.
The hard part about this aspect of management, though, is that you can keep things cobbled together for awhile under the principle of “fake ’til you make it.” The problem with that, though, is that at some point you have to actually “make it,” or you won’t have built yourself a sustainable project management infrastructure. And people will start to notice.
Your Project’s Just Not Appealing to Collaborators
This one is tough to admit to yourself and may be hard to distinguish between just not looking in the right places. You’re going to run into situations, though, where the thing you’re making just doesn’t appeal to the people you’re trying to attract. That can be very difficult to work around. You might feel you don’t want to sacrifice your artistic vision, but if the fish aren’t biting, you have to change the bait.
Keep in mind that there are a few broad categories of currency artists might be willing to work in: money (the big one), exposure, experience, and, to a lesser extent, fun. Different people have different standards for each. Your project becomes unappealing when you can’t provide these things or the effort to reward ratio is unfavorable. For example, there’s a fandub I still work on even though they don’t pay me and I can’t use it on a resume because I enjoy the character enough to do the 10 lines every two months that are required of me.
If you’re recruiting for a highly NSFW game that someone might feel the need to use a pseudonym for and you can’t pay, the only thing left to gain is the satisfaction of a job well done. That’s not a functional level of currency for a fat lot of people. Especially when you can get job satisfaction in addition to all the other things on a different project.
So what do you, as a creator, do about it? Reevaluate your remuneration plan. Money talks. People will dramatically lower their standards of quality and content for the right price. Rent don’t care, as the saying goes.
Also consider that it’s not the project itself but the way you’re presenting said project. Get some critique on your pitch or your casting call or your job posting. Present a presskit to some friends with no knowledge of the project, judge their reactions, and adjust accordingly. Just make sure you’re not setting false expectations like we discussed above. Nothing like solving one problem by creating another.
What if, after all these considerations (including ones from above) you’re still getting a lot of “thank you, but I’ll pass?” Then there might be something fundamentally unlikable about your proposed project, and you have to do some major reevaluation.
The Timing Just Isn’t Right
This is really the one thing you can’t control, but gosh darn sometimes the stars just don’t align. Do you know how many My Hero Academia Abridged series there are out there floating around Youtube? A completely unnecessary amount. I knew a few abridgers during the worst of it that simply couldn’t find enough voice actors to fill their cast. If you go on Casting Call Club, right now, you’re gonna see it inundated with Sims roleplay videos, Minecraft animations, and Danganronpa fan games. There’s such a thing as genre fatigue, and even if you mean well, you might have just picked the exact wrong time to try to get your production off the ground.
Eliminate any other possibility, rework your stuff, then come back to it a little later.