The Hidden Danger of Unconditional Loyalty in Film

I’m a painfully loyal person and, while that sounds like a strength, I’m not entirely sure it is. It’s a trait. Loyalty is a strange beast that can often be tied to a lot of different factors that mean what looks like loyalty in others might be something else entirely, while our own loyalty can often be exploited. I want to introduce you to a concept; the difference between having our loyalty rewarded and having our loyalty abused.

We are, to an extent, familiar with the concept of unrewarded loyalty because we are modern-day consumers and I’m sure most of us have had that crappy experience where you realise new customers signing up to the services you’ve been consuming for a long time are getting a much better deal. In fact, as consumers, we are often rewarded for being disloyal. Kinda not cool. On the flip side, within some sectors, there are specific loyalty schemes that offer gifts and discounts in exchange for long-term custom. In both of these cases, how easy it is for a customer to take their business elsewhere dictates if loyalty is rewarded or punished. In the business world, it’s not so clear-cut but it has become normal now for those working a 9-5 to assume you have to keep switching companies to raise you pay grade while those who stick with “the family” keep taking on more responsibility despite rarely ever seeing a promotion. We live in a world where loyalty is penalised unless we’re the ones empowered with choice. It’s all very cynical and it’s hard to know how to apply what we’ve learned to the life of an artist trying to cut it in the film world. Getting it wrong comes with high stakes too. We can potentially lose years of our lives and give up precious intellectual property because our loyalty isn’t being reciprocated.

I’m very lucky in that I’ve been working for myself in some capacity for 17 of the last 23 years as it’s hardened me and trained me to notice the tell-tale signs someone might be abusing a working relationship. Of course, I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve had business partners secretly try to sell the company I’m a director of from under my feet, I’ve had bosses ask me for personal favours after they’ve made me redundant, I’ve helped companies grow only to have them drop me the second they can afford an agency, and I’ve had clients I thought were personal friends sit me on a different table to them because they don’t want to be associated with me at high profile events. I’ve been let down, beaten up, and had my heart broken in business but I’ve learned to stand up for myself and spot when to pack my bags and walk away as a result. In fact, I probably owe the entire fact I’m independent to events very early on in my working life where I quickly realised I was seen as a disposable asset within the corporate world. There are a lot of sociopaths out there and sadly they thrive in a sociopathic economy that elevates them to the highest levels. The problem is, spotting traitorous individuals is difficult because most of them have learned to be beguiling to get what they want. They’ll promise you the world and then disappear in the dead of the night. The danger is that, while the dedication seems mutual, the person you’re showing loyalty to is only showing what appears to be loyalty back because you’re their only option and they need you around for now at least. That isn’t actually loyalty. It’s dependency and it’s easy to mix them up when you’re the other party.

The film world is particularly treacherous for three reasons; the relative lack of opportunities, the rewards at stake, and the timescales involved. It’s a bun fight for what’s available from intern positions to investor funding with supply vastly outweighing demand, so people spread themselves thin and hedge their bets in a bid to maximise their odds. The money and glory brings out the worst in people who can’t separate ego and material success from building tight friendships and honest, hard work. Given that it can take over a decade to get a movie made, overly trusting people run an exhausting marathon with someone only to be dropped right before the finish line. Perhaps the most infamous form of movie making disloyalty is in the form of “Hollywood Accounting” where people routinely find the profit participation they signed up for on a hugely successful film never materialises, because the system was contractually rigged against them from the start.

Filmmaking is by far the most inherently dysfunctional industry I’ve ever been involved with and keep in mind I spent quite a few years in oil & gas. Nobody trusts one another and the more experienced parties have learned to default to the assumption that they’re being lied to with the hope they’ll be proven otherwise. Most people are independent and thus, since they have to look out for themselves, have toughened up the hard way. Yes, many have representation but just look at the recent scandal around packaging to see how, even the people supposedly fighting for your interests can secretly be working against you. I experienced a little of it myself very quickly after breaking in. I had an acquaintance try to steal an assignment from me by going straight to my director and then went on to further abuse the relationship with both myself and said director by using us to get alone with a mutual contact and pitch to them without our knowledge. I hear about stories of betrayal, both past and present, on a regular basis and the following quote has always stuck with me.

“I grew up with the idea that the movie business is a family. It’s like the mob. You don’t rat on your friends. Who you are in a business relationship is a reflection of who you are as an artist.” – Jodie Foster

True mutual loyalty in the film world is like being able to shoot on 70mm – it rarely happens for anybody but, when it does, the results are always beautiful. We only have to look to the tight teams that have formed and gone on to not only work closely together on multiple projects but support one another in perusing their own unique interests. The most impactful in cinema history has to be Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas forming the core of “New Hollywood” in the 70’s and changing the way movies were made and distributed forever by helping create the “New Wave” together by supporting each other’s journeys. In fact, it seems whenever you study the truly successful filmmakers out there, they have this trait in common – a strong team that stuck with them from the early days. I myself am lucky enough to have relationships with industry members that are like family and consider them to be the greatest assets in my career. No success is greater than long-term solidarity with artists on your wavelength, especially when you bring different skill sets that empower one another. That’s collaboration on a whole new level.

All of this means that finding mutual loyalty isn’t just an essential part of avoiding failure, it’s a critical part of achieving success. We have to be able to spot it, cherish it, and lean into those relationships while walking away from those who prove to be disloyal, or even better, never getting involved with them in the first place. This is especially important to those of us new to the business and in the early stages of building a career. Many of us are naive, hungry, and so woefully inexperienced we’ll cross a desert for pretty much anyone who looks like they can get a movie made. It’s particularly dangerous for those involved at a pre-production level because the investment of time can be years of work and dedication. Work that’s incredibly personal to us. I’ve watched new screenwriters, dizzied by the most tenuous of “opportunities”, pour their heart and souls into dozens of scripts and rewrites only to watch the people they thought they’d hitched their wagon to suddenly leave the station without them. Hell, I’ve been that writer to some extent. I took multiple midnight meetings between the UK and the US and wrote six episodes of a web series for an actor-producer who ghosted me for sometime and then eventually resurfaced to admit she’d actually given up on acting and had taken up a marketing course! I gave up my precious time. I compromised my personal life. I cared. None of it was reciprocated.

And here’s the thing; I don’t believe contracts fix any of this and, while never a bad thing to have, should never be relied on. If someone wants to screw you over, they’ll screw you over while knowing damn well it will be very hard for you to fight back. Paperwork can mean very little sometimes when you lack the funds and connections to enforce it. I’ve watched people sign contracts and given up lucrative jobs only to be given the runaround and never get paid on projects that dematerialised the second they got serious. Sometimes, trust and loyalty is all you really have and that’s another good reason to chase it. Ideally, contracts should be a case of going through the motions with a friend’s word the real thing of value. There are one or two people in this world I have verbal deals with and I have more faith in those than anything else.

Putting things simply; if you loyalty isn’t being rewarded it’s being abused because, by default, loyalty should bring with it certain benefits over time. Now, judging if you’re getting those benefits can be nuanced, so I’ve come up with a list of pointers.

Signs they are abusing your loyalty

  • Paying you less and less over time, sometimes with longer and longer payment periods (Please note; failing to match inflation is the same as paying less).
  • Treating you noticeably worse the longer they work with you and showing less respect for you than they do for new contacts.
  • Refusing to ever offer long term investment prospects such as partnerships, profit participation, or shares.
  • Making lots of verbal promises for the future but failing to back them up with actual action when the time comes.
  • Taking credit for your work, keeping your efforts a secret, downplaying your involvement, and distancing themselves in public such as in interviews or on social media (Even worse if it involves stealing your credits).
  • Trying to convince you that you’re easily replaceable and very lucky to be working with them.
  • Showing frustration at your limitations and demanding you fill in skills gaps that would usually require an additional person, training, or significant cost.
  • Throwing you under the bus as soon as things go wrong.
  • Having low stature despite being in the industry for some time along with few friends who keep coming back to work on projects.
  • Projecting an inherit distrust onto others despite those people proving they can be trusted.

Signs they are rewarding your loyalty

  • Striving to pay you more as you take on new projects or at least making sure you are paid as promptly as possible if those projects are smaller.
  • Treating you like family or a very dear friend in a proud and respectful way and expecting new contacts to earn that kind of close relationship.
  • Sharing investment opportunities that may be lucrative or offering genuine profit participation alternatives to upfront fees they cannot afford.
  • Delivering on the promises they make or, even better, going above and beyond by surprising with genuine tokens of appreciation.
  • Publicly acknowledging you are part of their team and have made a valuable contribution to projects by building you up and making sure you are included in any group celebrations (even better if they promote your role/credits too).
  • Genuinely hoping everything works out for you on your journey, even if that means you go on to pursue new opportunities elsewhere.
  • Showing faith in you being able to deliver time and time again and a long term commitment to empowering you.
  • Giving you the benefit of the doubt by default, even when it looks like you may have messed up.
  • Having a stature that matches their time in the industry and plenty of friends who keep coming back to work with them on projects (check their credits to see this).
  • Putting trust in people and increasing that level of trust with people who demonstrate their integrity.

As ever, a big part of this hinges on finding people who are on the same wavelength because those are the people you need in your orbit to make the kind of films you want to make while having fun doing it. Mutual loyalty with people on a different wavelength may work fine in business but will struggle to deliver the best results in art, so look for friends who are into the same stuff as you.

Ultimately, everything comes back to trust and kindness, the pillars of loyalty. Draw in people who have a vibe to their soul, integrity at their core, and decency in their heart and the rest should work out from there.