Don’t Swim at the Bottom

If you’re competing on price alone, you’re going to lose. Compete on what you can DO!

I’m on a couple of email lists, and a thread on one of them caught my eye this morning. It was about crew and pricing, and inevitably someone stumped us all when they posted a very low price for a two person crew with a Varicam package.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this business is that you have to charge what you’re worth. If you don’t know anything and you’re barely competent and you can record imagery but can’t guarantee the color or the sound or the lighting are right… then charge very little money. If you’re good at what you do, you have to charge more than the lowest going rate. You’ll lose a few jobs, sure, but in the long run you’ll get more money from better clients.

Here’s the way it works: I’ve seen production companies come and go, mostly on the bottom of the food chain, and the failures all try to do the same thing–turn out a product for a very low rate, and try to get as much work flowing through as possible. As a business plan this sucks, because there’s ALWAYS going to be someone cheaper than you out there, and if you’re competing on price alone you’re going to lose work once you’re not the cheapest act in town. If you’re turning out mediocre video cheap, and someone else comes along and turns out mediocre video cheaper, you’re out of business. And you’ve worked damned hard at getting throughput, so you’re exhausted AND broke.

The companies and freelancers that succeed are the ones that do good work and charge appropriately for it. They don’t kill themselves taking on all comers; they go out and find the clients who appreciate good work and pitch to them. That’s the hardest part: finding the right clients. There are lots of clients who don’t know the difference between news footage and high-quality HD production, and there are lots of mediocre people out there who can give them a product they can live with for not very much money. Successful companies and freelancers rise above that.

Here’s the best part: the companies that appreciate high quality work won’t accept a lowball bid because they equate low budget with poor value. They actually WANT to pay someone decent money because they know the odds are better that they’ll get a good product out of the deal. They don’t want someone cheap, they want someone good.

This might be a good time to introduce the production pie chart. You’ve probably heard of it–it’s quite famous and it works every time. Divide a pie into three slices and label them “good”, “fast” and “cheap”. You can have any TWO. You can have good and fast, but not cheap. You can have good and cheap, but not fast. Or you can have cheap and fast, but not good.

The goal for anyone wanting to go far in the production industry is to be good and fast… but not cheap. If you’re just starting out, you’re going to have to work for less–that’s understandable. But as you gain knowledge of your craft and develop skill, you must charge what you’re worth. Otherwise you can make just as much money with a lot less stress sitting at a desk somewhere.

Here’s what I posted to the email list as a response to the lowball bidder:

A jack of all trades is master of none.

My experience is that when people charge so little, they typically have little to offer beyond a very low rate. And yet there are producers who are perfectly happy with the cheapest camera package and crew they can find–in spite of the picture being poorly lit, white balanced and exposed, or tape not being rolled, or distorted audio, etc.

I used to run into this a lot in LA. A while back one of my local Bay Area clients sent me out on a shoot with a producer who was also the director of the media department for the company’s Southern California office. Over the course of the shoot she spoke frequently about how proud she was to work so “efficiently” in LA, and she was astonished at the rates she had to pay in Northern California. “I pay $1200 a day for a crew and camera in LA,” she’d say, “and if they give me any lip I just get another crew.” Her footage always looked like news, and whenever we sent footage down there for her to match, along with lighting diagrams, her crews could never do it.

I remember a director who worked for a company that was very cheap, and hired cheap local crews whenever they flew him around. In one location he ended up doing all the lighting because he could do it better than the crew that was hired. In another case, part way through an interview, the cameraman leaned over to him and said, “Just so you know, we’re almost out of tape.” The director thanked him and continued the interview until the tape was done. He then waited patiently for the tape to be changed. “No,” said the cameraman, “you don’t understand. We’re OUT of tape.” He’d only brought two and had to go home to get more.

I used to know a guy who charged $550 for a himself, including a camera package (I believe it was a Sony D30). Producers hired him for his gear and made him the PA. His gear–lights, lenses, everything–arrived in duffle bags, and he frequently forgot to bring a mixer. (Very nice guy, though.)

If you’re competing solely on price, something’s wrong–both with the way you’re working and the people who are hiring you. You have to bring more to the table. People have to want to hire YOU, because of what you can do for them, because otherwise there are lots of people who charge cheaply for bad work and there’s no winning that race.

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at http://www.artadamsdp.com. Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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