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Old September 6th, 2010, 04:22 PM   #1
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Do high profile interviewees ever get paid?

We are presently in the very early stages of budgeting a commercial documentary, which is a lot larger in scope than anything we have done in the past.

We are wondering if high profile interviewees -such as experts, historians, specialists, in some cases well known directors and actors- would ever expect to be paid for an interview, as part of some standard industry protocol. I personally am not aware of such a practice, but then again would understand and not necessarily be averse to it, although it could raise some interesting ethical issues depending on the context.

However, as we put a detailed budget together we wondered if this is something we need to also think about or be aware of.

Any input, advice etc much appreciated!
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Old September 7th, 2010, 02:19 AM   #2
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Say you were making a film about Bigfoot. You had found a hair sample and wanted it analysed and also wanted to film the process and film the scientist/expert doing the test, then obviously you would have to pay for the service and the interview. Then you'd want to interview an informed expert on primates, you might need to pay for their time. If you then interviewed somebody who had just written a book about bigfoot and was making wild claims that he had actual proof, then paying this person I suppose could be an ethical issue.

I suppose it depends on the subject. If you're making a film on an artist and other fellow artists wanted to be a part of it, then many might be willing to do the interview for the price of a cup of coffee.

What's the subject, presuming it isn't about Bigfoot being a great artist?
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Old September 7th, 2010, 02:19 AM   #3
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I haven't heard of most interviewees being paid for a documentary, but it could be case by case depending on the person being interviewed.

Although, having said that, I got paid a small fee for a 10 min live interview on a radio programme, which was done in the studio.
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Old September 7th, 2010, 02:44 AM   #4
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Oh come on! If you want certain people for their expertise - either industry experts or artistes then expect them to have an agent, and want paying. The fees are often negotiable depending on if the person wishes to support the aim of your project, but in general I'd expect to pay. One documentary we shot three or four years ago was designed to support a theatrical venue in financial trouble, and our interviewees were all well know actors who had started their careers there and loved the place and the man who ran it. Some of these were BIG stars in the movie industry, others TV faces. None of these wanted paying as long as any money raised went to the venue to keep it going. However, other projects using similar faces were, to them, just another job and they charged fees and expenses. Industry people like doctors and other experts already have rates because they get called as expert witnesses for civil and criminal cases in court, or have to formulate opinions to provided data.

Fees for TV work are standard, and pretty well the only time they don't get paid is when the interviewee is actually promoting their latest project. It's quite common in modern contracts to include a clause that commits them to carrying out promotional activities as part of their deal.

Some will do it for free of course, but don't expect it. My experience is that some people quite like doing it and probably reason that it can only do them good. Others the opposite.

I've managed quite a few projects with names and there's a skill in getting media requests ok'd. Some artistes, on their first day will explain to me that they will do this kind of thing for causes close to their hearts but won't do news, or sometimes won't do certain TV stations or even certain newspapers. If they are in the press for the wrong reasons, then expect them to grill you about the likely questions.

So in this case the OP used the word commercial - so some names will want to know who's making the money and what kind of money is being made. Your answer determines not only their fee (or lack of it) or even them saying a simple no!

As a scale of charges, then expect 500 plus expenses for a professional person if they charge their industry rates, and almost anything from an artiste. You'll probably get ten minutes in a dressing room with a star touring to a local theatre for free if it's something they're interested in, but dealing with an agent to get one to you is going to cost in most cases.

The thing is really that these people do have a kind of set price. How much is a private medical? How much half an hour with a solicitor? If you plan a big project, even obvious things can cost far more than you think.
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Old September 7th, 2010, 04:48 AM   #5
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Thanks Adrian and Brian. As you say it is a case by case situation. The film is not promoting some 'cause' or charity, but there is some element of controversy and so there are interviewees who would jump at the chance to be involved. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the exact nature of the documentary at this point as there are NDAs etc involved. My feeling is that all interviewees should be paid something no matter their interest, so that it forms a binding contract confirming their involvement in the production.

Paul -thanks for the detailed information and fee information. But I am not sure what or who the 'Oh come on!' was directed to. I am simply asking for advice and have no particular stance myself on this and am most willing to pay interviewees if that is what is expected, hence my original post as I want to include it in the budget. We are visiting a media lawyer in London this coming Thursday who will no doubt advise us further. But I know the first question he will ask is 'what kind of budget?' and thus want to consider the paying of interviewees in the budget prior to our meeting.

Quite clearly a specialist deserves to be paid for their time. But then again they could also see it as a very powerful and unique opportunity to advertise themselves to a much broader audience, and so the benefits would in fact be mutual, so I can see that an experienced producer would have room for negotiation, depending on the situation.

The fact is that I have searched for some on-line information on this topic and found nothing, so I do very much appreciate your replies, as it has confirmed what I thought might be the case. Anything else I should think about please let me know!

Many thanks
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Old September 7th, 2010, 11:27 AM   #6
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As Paul says it depends on the project, certainly anything that involves agents can bring fees in tow.
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Old September 15th, 2010, 09:56 AM   #7
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I've worked on corporate projects where the people who were in the videos were actually researchers working with the company producing the video. So their fee was more of a stipend.

I know your situation is different, but you may get a break depending on how involved the talent are in the scope of the project.

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Old September 17th, 2010, 09:51 PM   #8
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Interesting question Dan. I agree with all of the responses so far, it is highly dependent on the project, audience and type of subject. I am somewhat opinionated as I produce three types of docs.

1. I have spent the last 6 years producing DVD bonus material for all of the studios. The subject of paying interviewees comes up often in this arena and it is tricky. Let me give you some examples. If I am producing a "doc/bonus feature" for a DVD/Blu-ray release, some of them are 10 minutes long and some of them are 2 hours long. I don't really consider the short 10-20 minute pieces docs, although I have done a few that actually were short form docs. If we do a 90 minute piece for a classic film like "King Kong" or "The Wizard of Oz", I would say that we are then veering into the field of actual documentary filmmaking because we are telling more a story and presenting more of an editorial POV.

Basically, budgets for producing this material have been slashed and burned. For some evergreen classic titles, I have worked with budgets as high as half a million dollars. Now days, the typical budgets are more in the $30k to $60k range for most of these projects, which kind of precludes doing 90 minute to 120 minute real docs, we are more down to the low cost bonus features that typically aren't really docs. For classic films, I am used to having to pay for interviews because we typically interview historians, film experts, family and friends. The amount of pay is small though and we always term it an honorarium because it is usually between $250.00 and $500.00. I think this is fair for classic titles. Sometimes we don't pay interviewees, especially if they have a book or lecture series or TV show on the subject we are interviewing them about and they are benefiting from the exposure. You would be amazed, you can find experts on almost anything if you look hard enough. I have done interviews with people who know EVERYTHING there is to know about specifically Indian weapons used in classic Westerns, lingerie used in classic film noir, experts on obscure silent actors who most people have never even heard of, Disney fanatics, Comic book fanatics, etc. You just have to negotiate with these sorts of people, some will need to be paid, some will do it for free, some will beg you to do it for free because it will legitimize them as a "recognized expert" in their little sub-culture. We often refer to these people, affectionately as "foamers", as in foaming at the mouth geeks/fans.

2. Legitimate "real" documentaries typically do not pay interviewees, because it is sort of a conflict of interest if you, as a storyteller and filmmaker are paying your subjects. The DVD bonus stuff I work on is technically promotional material that adds value to a DVD or Blu-ray release so there isn't usually as much of a conflict of interest as far as the viewer is concerned because it is implicit that even though we, as the filmmakers might like to present it as a "real" doc, if the piece was commissioned by a studio as bonus material, it is never really going to be taken as seriously as a legitimate "real" documentary because all content is vetted and approved by studio heads and lawyers. Believe me, I have butted heads numerous times in the past few years with the legal departments of all of the studios about content in the bonus material that I was producing for them and nothing will ever get through that is in the least bit controversial or "real". It is their check that they are signing for you to produce the piece so you have to comply with the studio editorially or they will reject the piece and not pay you.

In "real" documentaries, It is often viewed that if you are paying your interviewees, they are beholden to you because you are paying them, that they will say whatever you want because you are paying them. So if you are producing a legitimate "real" doc that will air in festivals, TV or the theater, you probably shouldn't be paying the interviewees in most cases, although some famous documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris have been known to pay subjects and it is controversial. This is especially true with political documentaries but can be an issue with any story, if you think about it. Once again though, you may or may not be able to land interviews with certain key experts, witnesses, historians, etc. without paying them so I guess that you as the filmmaker need to think about if you pay a subject, will their interview be scrutinized IF you do pay them for it.

3. Some other observations. I have interviewed major industry players including Scorsese, Lucas, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Peter Jackson, etc. and for people who make tens to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, why will they even care if you pay them? What is a $500.00 honorarium to someone like Tom Hanks or Ron Howard? So the rule of thumb is if you are interviewing A-listers, they are doing the interview out of genuine concern for your project or subject, not because they give a crap about any piddling money you could pay them. So with A-listers, pay generally doesn't enter the picture.

4. Promotion - If you are working on a doc about any kind of current mass media or entertainment property, you typically won't have to pay the subject, there is an unsaid rule of "you scratch my back by giving me your interview, and I will scratch your back by promoting you and your product/cause". I sometimes shoot press junkets and this is all just part and parcel of stars, directors and producers promoting their product. Nobody gets paid, other than their deals with the studios for making the film/TV show/etc. The same rules can apply to non-entertainment related causes like charities, causes, etc. Generally, if your project is going to help promote something or someone, you won't have to pay for most interviews.

5. Genuine interest - I interviewed Peter Jackson while he was in the middle of making one of his films. He took the time out to sit down with me because he was a HUGE fan of the film I was making the piece about. I have had lots of "experts", both real and imagined, sit down with me and give me hours of their time simply because they were huge fans of the films I was working on, mostly cinema classics.

6. There are a lot of people who will NOT participate in interviews unless you pay them and pay them a lot. I have offered Quentin Tarantino $25k to sit down and do an hour interview and he turned it down.

Hope that you find this helpful,

Dan Brockett
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Old September 18th, 2010, 07:54 PM   #9
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Dan you have some great points in there. I agree with your idea that documentary subjects should not be paid because it would be a conflict of interest.

However there's one thing I'd like to point out that you didn't mention, which I've found in my experience with (lower end) doco work:

People won't expect to be paid if it is a part of their everyday work. University Professors, for example, are employed to share their knowledge, and spend much of each day answering (sometimes repetative) questions from students, the press, government bodies, etc. They are generally happy to share their thoughts, and will be getting paid by their employer for the time they spend with you.

People will also agree to do it for free if there is some benefit in it for them - ie althletes might get a bonus from their sponsor, a writer/historian might get the chance to promote his latest research, a politician gets to be a politician, an artist gets to show thier work, etc.
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Old September 20th, 2010, 01:17 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Dan Brockett View Post
There are a lot of people who will NOT participate in interviews unless you pay them and pay them a lot. I have offered Quentin Tarantino $25k to sit down and do an hour interview and he turned it down.
I saw him as an interviewee in a documentary on Sergio Leone, I don't think I'd like to pay $25k for his contribution, he was the hip film maker talking at hyper speed, everyone else was great. Scorsese would've been much more interesting, although perhaps less hip.
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