Richard Harrington has worked in just about every area and aspect of video production. His current focus is around exploring the fusion of photography and video, but he’s been involved in countless video projects of all sizes. Additionally, his tutorials and books cover practically every area of the industry, and he’s had a hand in helping influence and even design some of the tools that are used by video professionals. Suffice to say, here’s someone whose experience and insight around what it means to be a working video professional is unmatched.
It’s for that reason that his recent article about how and why video and film have lost their value is so relevant. In this must read piece, Harington documents and details the many ways in which video content has seemingly lost the value it used to have associated with it, and explains how that has changed the narrative for both content creators and audiences. He even posits that plastic is now worth more than a human thought, and laments how rampant consumerism has become.
Harrington gets into some of the causes and solution to these issues, but the bigger questions to consider are around what such sentiments mean for working professionals. Art Adams and Chris Zwar have already published their own responses to Harrington’s argument, but it was a worthwhile to see what the rest of the PVC authors thought about this. Are we truly in a “race to the bottom” when it comes to the services professionals are offering? Can people still make a living in this industry? Is Harrington being overly pessimistic about where we are as an industry, or simply laying out the truth? How can and should these answers impact the approach of a working professional?
This is nothing new. I was predicting this back in the 90s when Avid first put uncompressed SD into a computer. We all know Moore’s law. I knew then eventually editing software would be on everyone’s home computer. When I realized this was going to happen, I did what I always do which is look for a historical model for comparison. So I flashed back to the 80s when I was running my father’s lock shop. I decided to get some flyers made and mail them out for promotion. I had to go to a print shop (Millennials may have to look that up) and they had their graphic artist mock up a design. It wasn’t cheap. And if I wanted anything changed, it cost even more. Then a print master would be made and the flyers run off from it. The entire operation cost a lot of money. And then came desktop publishing.
Jumping back to the 90s, there were no more print shops. If you wanted to make a flyer for your child’s birthday party, you mocked it up on your computer and maybe printed it out at Kinkos. However, if you wanted a professional looking flyer for your business, you hired a graphic designer. What this told me was that there would still be work for good editors even after the tools became ubiquitous.
That is what led to the creation of Alpha Dogs. We focused on selling the talent from day one as opposed to the big facility model of pimping whatever expensive gear they owned. That left me with the challenge of figuring out the least expensive way to operate without letting quality suffer. That’s a challenge that still exists today. But why worry about quality?
The consumer will pay for quality, but only if they know what that quality is. When the consumer isn’t aware of the difference in quality, they will go for the cheapest option. I truly believe Ikea exists because we did away with wood shop classes in US schools. If the consumers were aware of the difference in quality construction in furniture, we would still have more high end furniture stores in business.
For an example closer to our universe, let’s look at writing. Who on this planet can’t afford a pencil and some paper? Very few. However there still some writers making a decent living off of it. Why? Because from the time we are little we are constantly learning to read. Almost any adult could immediately spot the difference between a 5th grader’s paper and a college graduate’s. So we will pay for quality in writing.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that my theory is correct and people will pay for quality they are aware of. Then we need to ask ourselves what we bring to the table, and why the consumer isn’t aware of it. I am primarily a colorist these days. For much of my career that was a dark art whose methods were hidden to all but a select few who had access to million dollar coloring suites. Steve Hullfish finally unlocked the vault with his color correction books. The tools were taken from million dollar rooms into $300,000 Avid Symphony rooms, and now into free software. Why should a consumer pay for it when their child has the same software?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. If our industry fails, we are to blame for our own demise. Our passion for keeping the “illusion of magic” in filmmaking has kept us from educating our consumers. And now they think anyone can do it, which, to some extent, they can. So what do we, as seasoned professionals, bring to the plate? For my own part, I bring experience. I have made many of the mistakes and figured out how to avoid them, that new artist still have to run into. I also bring many years of accumulated aesthetic judgement. And finally, I have started, via my “Why We Need Color Correction” videos to try to make the consumer more critical of color in the content they view. My hope is that if they are aware of what a colorist adds to the final product, they will be willing to pay for it.
A Working Filmmaker
I think Richard has a very narrow definition of “value”, describing it as “content for sale, particularly to an end consumer…”. I suppose if you’re in the business of creating video content that you then market and sell to end consumers, then yes, your model is probably in trouble. But how many people making a living, making moving images, are involved in that corner of the market?
I started on the indie filmmaking side where there was never much money, just a lot of art-for-artmaking’s sake. Sometimes I received grants, sometimes I won prizes, maybe I sold some DVDs, but the goal wasn’t a direct-to-consumer sales model. And now, there are more film arts organizations offering support and grants than there has ever been. There are more festivals than anyone could ever keep track of.
I’ve definitely seen a shift towards much lower budgets on the corporate/ commercial side of work in the Bay Area, mostly because of changes in technology lowering barriers to entry for new producer, changes that are well documented on PVC. But I’ve also seen lots of production workers head into the corporate video departments at Sony, Apple, Genentech, etc. People are still making a living with cameras.
In LA, I was on the pitch-circuit with a scripted drama series last year, there were about 60 entities buying original scripted dramatic content, the most there’s ever been. I ended up selling the series to one of these places, and most of my friends from the early aught’s indie film scene are doing the same thing. This has everything to do with Netflix, Amazon and HBO changing the landscape and value-ing content in entirely new ways. And most importantly, I think, it speaks to the value of the Writer’s Guild. Remember the WGA strike of 2007?
That was about valuing and paying content creators (aka the writers) at the same rate and wages for streaming video content as they were getting in their contracts for broadcast. This turned out well for writers and anyone hoping their creative work would continue to be valued monetarily.
I’m struck by this closing argument:
We live in a society where the act of creation is essentially worthless. Ideas hold no value, they are merely vehicles to attach ads to or drive purchase of physical goods.
Consumerism is rampant. Education and intelligence are plummeting. We have confused convenience for freedom, access for knowledge.
Yes and no. Don’t tell anyone at Apple or Disney that ideas and creativity are worthless, you’ll be laughed out of town. Besides, declinism is nothing new.
But it’s not enough to have an idea. A buddy of mine once said, “I don’t see what the big deal is with having an idea. I have dozens of ideas a day, hundreds a week. The trouble is, only a few of them are ever really any good.” (He was a video hardware designer when he said it. Now he’s an IP lawyer. Make of that what you will.)
Once there was a Golden Age of being a video person. It was an age when gear was expensive, fragile, and finicky. You needed serious technical skills to make it work, and the cost of it meant that there wasn’t a lot of it about to build those skills on. Folks who wound up in production got there through a highly restrictive filtering process, constrained by cost and availability, mediated by gatekeepers already in the business.
As a consequence, video people (I’ll use that term as a catch-all for anyone involved in moving images) could command high prices. The barriers to entry were so steep there wasn’t a lot of competition. Clients paid the big bucks because they didn’t have a choice, and though a lot of that money went towards the constant upgrading of ruinously expensive, rapidly depreciating “big iron” gear, there was enough profit, percentage-wise, to live comfortably on. Likewise for day players: gigs paid well because labor was a comparatively small fraction of the cost. Look at those cameras! Look at those 1” VTRs! Of course this is gonna cost you!
The beginning of the end was in the fall of 1995, when the first DV camcorders came out. By 1997 we had the DPS Spark, and the world where big iron was needed to do anything of quality started to crumble, though denial was rampant and continued almost to the present day. Now you can buy a smartphone with UHD recording capability that shoots good-enough video (I’ll come back to that) that in most conditions most folks can’t tell you aren’t even using a “real” camera.
Forget My Mom bought me a RED camera so now I’m a DP, go buy yourself a used iPhone 6S for $410 or so and be a DP. Wanna be an editor as well? Grab ShotCut for, um, $0, and run it on Mac, Windows or Linux. Or get Resolve for, um, $0, and call yourself a colorist while you’re at it. Get yourself an outfit, and be a cowboy too. Clothes make the man, and gear makes the pro: sales and marketing has been telling us that for years, and who are we (or our clients) to disagree? Equipment cost and availability aren’t gatekeepers any more: anyone can play, and lots do. So competition goes up and costs come down: that’s the invisible hand, busy slapping you silly. That’s why film and video “have lost their value”, not any supposed cultural entropy.
If you previously were part of the video priesthood, democratization can be a bitch.
In the Golden Age, if you had creativity and a camera, the world was your oyster, because having access to a camera already placed you among the elite. Now it’s just your idea against everyone else’s idea, baby. The rest of the hoi polloi are busy having ideas, too (with enough monkeys texting away on social media, eventually they’ll write the entire canon of Will Shakespeare, Will Self, David Foster Wallace, and maybe Shonda Rimes for good measure), and these days they all have cameras in their phones.
In the Golden Age the harsh weeding-out process meant that very few people — with ideas or not — ever got the point where they were credible players in the market (however you define it: freelancers, facilities, indie filmmakers, etc.). Now any goofball can pick up a smartphone with a half-decent camera and shoot a watchable picture; mad tech skillz are no longer necessary. OK, many of the goofballs don’t really know what they’re doing; why are they stealing your clients? Consider: if people stealing your customers don’t know diddly about staging, blocking, composition, lighting, rhythm, and drama, why on earth do you expect the customers to know the difference between good video and bad? Lots of folks commissioning creative work don’t have a clue: haven’t you read http://clientsfromhell.net/ ? Haven’t you got a story or two like that yourself?
But even that’s not the whole problem. For 90% of the gigs out there, clients don’t need freakin’ Kubrick or Tarkovsky, or even Shane Carruth (whose feature “Upstream Color” was shot on a Panasonic GH2, fercryinoutloud). They need a CEO talking head, shot more or less in focus, droning on about something of no conceivable interest. They need a local car-dealer spot marginally less awful than the other local car-dealer spots. They need corporate junket videos: footage of execs and salemen drunkenly frolicking, cut to the producer’s favorite unlicensed classic-rock ballad, to be screened to boozed-up attendees at the end of the final party (it’s not about “Citizen Kane”, it’s about “dude, I saw myself onscreen, and it was AWESOME!”). They don’t need a film-school grad, they need the media analog of a burger-flipper. So, yeah, that monkey with a 4K-capable smartphone can do the job just as well as a grizzled veteran with 20 years of deep technical experience and a real camera — at least from the client’s perspective. Great is great, sure, but good enough is good enough.
True, there is still seriously top-notch work going on. Go watch Broadchurch, Boss, or Mr. Robot, for example. But if all you’re shooting is a catfood commercial, you don’t need Gregg Toland or Emmanuel Lubezki to do it, nor the high-end hardware, and clients have figured that out.
You wanna be a priest? Fine, go join the priesthood. But video nowadays is like basketball. Anyone can afford a basketball, and the UI on a basketball is so simple even a child can use one. So there are an awful lot of people out there playing basketball, but there are still only 30 teams in the NBA where you can earn a living at it.
My point is this: the Golden Age is over, full stop. It was fun while it lasted but those days are gone.
What to do?
- Aim for those few gigs in a very crowded field where you still can make a decent living strictly by being “a video person”. To succeed at this, you need to be (a) rather a bit better than average and (b) exceedingly capable at marketing yourself. Oh, and (c) a bit of luck doesn’t hurt, either. Sadly, the math shows that most of us will fail at step (a). Steps (b) and (c) are left as an exercise for the reader. Good luck.
- Organize. Unions and guilds have been the traditional bulwarks of the little guy against the implacable forces of the market. Sadly, these stabilizing forces have lost much of their power in the current environment. None of my friends in IATSE Local 600 (cameramen) are very happy these days; there’s just too much outside competition from wanna-bees for the union to carry the bargaining weight it once did. My broadcast buddies in NABET are faring somewhat better — there’s less competition to labor in the bowels of a TV station — but it’s still not the gravy train it used to be. Often, your best bet is an industry association (locally, we have OMPA) where like-minded folks can watch each other’s backs, share tips and gigs, and engage in the never-ending (if sometimes seemingly futile) task of educating clients as why it’s worth hiring actual professionals.
- Don’t be a “video person”, be a video-using person. The flip side of democratization is that all the power and quality of today’s tools is readily available at low cost. You don’t need to be a full-time video person to use video to tell your stories or make a living; video can be part of your collection of tools, not the whole toolkit in and of itself. Yes, that’s empowering and terrifying in equal amounts. Welcome to the future.
This idea that film and video have lost their value isn’t anything new. It’s something we’ve been dealing with since the DV days. I remember discussions back in those days with Betacam owners who were frustrated with people buying $5000 or $8000 DV cameras under-cutting them for shooting jobs. I also remember post houses who owned very expensive Digital Betacam decks lamenting the fact that they were buying DV-Cam decks that were a fraction of the cost and using the crap out of those while their expensive D-Beta decks went unused. As mentioned above, something similar happened with printing and graphic design when desktop publishing came into the mainstream. It’s just something that happens with an industry as a whole changes, as time changes; technology gets cheaper and they are more people wanting to work in that business. I think the film and video business is currently in a place where part of the devaluation comes from so many people wanting to work in the business and so many people willing to work in the business for very, very, very low rates. Many markets have seen a huge increase in the amount of schools and universities offering degrees in media production. I have to use two hands to count the number of schools in my small market of Nashville, Tennessee dumping media production graduates into the market. Many of them don’t stay as they move to Los Angeles or New York but many of them do stay and they’re all looking for work. Most of them are willing to work for very low rates which is sad when you consider many of them have very big student loans in which to pay off. Working in the industry that only pays a fraction of what it used to pay.
What to do about this? I have no idea. I don’t think there’s any easy answer when it comes to shifting the mindset of an entire industry. We’l have to have budgets go back up before many producers are willing to part with more of their dollars. But even if budgets did go way up they know they can get work much cheaper than in years past. Many of us “older folks” in our market encourage younger people working not to go rock bottom on the rates and don’t get into an undercutting war with others. It’s easy to say but not easy to do. It’s sometimes a difficult practice when you’re faced with making $1000 for a couple of weeks work versus not making anything. For many they would rather make that low rate doing what they love rather than make more money delivering pizzas.
Another interesting phenomenon that may be contributing to the devaluation of our industry might be all of the online creative networks that seem to exist thanks to the internet. That’s a network where an entity comes together to create a place for brands, agencies anyone needing creative content to be able to offer up their project to the lowest bidder. Sometimes it’s graphic work, sometimes it’s design but often it’s video production. I won’t name any names specifically for the (okay here’s a article about Fiverr) but we all know them and we all have seen them. Some of us might have even worked (or tried to work) for them. I’ll end my thoughts on this topic with a transcript of an online chat I recently had with one such network. There was a Facebook discussion going on about a topic very similar to this roundtable on the devaluation of film and video. Someone linked to this particular creative network and how they are asking people to create full advertising campaigns (in a sense) for free so a brand or agency can evaluate them and pick the one they like. Only then does one person get paid. This seemed like a crazy way to do business so I signed on with them and had a chat just trying to figure out exactly how it works. While it’s not always done that way … it often is so if the chat is to be believed there are a lot of people producing a lot of content for free and never paid for their time and work. That’s great for the brand but bad for the creator.
In the transcript below the name of the network has been redacted. I still love what I do as does many of us in the film and video/content creation business. I don’t think many of us make the money that we once did or even dreamed of when we started this journey but as long as many of us make a decent living we will continue doing what we love. It does still beat delivering pizzas.
Here’s the transcript of that conversation. I told them at the end that I was going to use this as part of an article. There was no reaction.
Creative Network: Hey! How can I help you?
Me: I’m a video creator and I’d like to join your community but I have a couple of questions.
CN:Sure! What can I help answer?
Me: After the brief is created and during the “production period” how many creators are creating content? Is it like they are competing to create the best production?
CN: Correct. The brief is currently open to all members. Some briefs are only open to our US creatives while others are only open to our European creatives.
Me: How many member would that be? Members?
CN: We currently have over 378,000 members as shared on ………
Me: I’m very confused. So after the brief is created it is put out into the community and anyone can create content for what the brand is looking for?
Me: It wouldn’t be 300,000 I’m guessing but is there any limit to how many can create?
CN: Nope. We don’t set a limit as to how many can create.
Me: So during the “selection phase” they might be going over many (hundreds?) of submissions?
CN: Correct. The clients like it that way. They get to really select content that fits their needs as well as get additional ideas for how people see their brand and will often pay creatives to use their content outside of the selections they make for the brief.
Me: Thanks. What exactly are they seeing during the selection phase? Are these proposals from the community?
CN: The briefs themselves are pretty self explanatory of what a brand is looking for. It varies from project to project.
Me: Yes I understand that but I don’t quite understand what is made by the community during the Production Phase. Is it a treatment/pitch/budget/proposal for what the creative will produce if chosen by the brand during the Selection Phase?
CN: Once again that varies from brief to brief. If you join the community you can look at several of our open briefs. You can also look at old briefs and the content that was selected by the brand. To give you a more comprehensive answer to your question.
Me: I understand that … but say the Brand is wanting a 30 second animated preroll …. during the production period do Creatives actually make the 30 second preroll or put together a pitch/proposal in hopes of being selected to THEN produce the preroll ad? Just thought it’d be easier to understand with an example. Thanks ….
CN: I fully understand your question. Sometimes a brand just wants a pitch, sometimes they want the preroll, sometimes they are looking for stills along with preroll, sometimes they are looking for nothing to do with film. It all really varies from brief to brief and we work very hard to make the brief as clear and concise as possible for the creatives in our community. If there was a set process your question would be much easier to answer, but since there is no specific one way we do things, I encourage personal exploration through the briefs to get a deeper understanding of what has been asked for in the past.
Me: Thanks. I can see lots of Creatives doing a pitch during the Production Period but actually DOING the full work seems a bit …. much.
CN: Well we have many creatives that love doing the full work.
Me: Sounds like a way to get a lot of free work. Who would do the full work without any guarantee they will be paid for it?
CN: Over 145,000 pieces have been generated on our platform, a large majority of them being completed pieces. I can only speak to my personal experience as a professional, but I don’t really believe this is the proper forum to be having this discussion.
Me: What? Why? I’m just trying to understand how it works. I’m guessing …………. takes a percentage of the final budget?
CN: Nope. All money put forward for the community goes 100% to the community in a very specific timeline outlined in our membership agreement.
Me: How does ………….. make money then?
CN: There are many ways we generate revenue, but our top priority is serving our creative community with opportunities for career growth and fostering connections with large brands.
Me: OK, thanks.
Do you think video has lost the value it once had associated with it? Tell us what you think in the comment section below. Also read the pieces from Art Adams (Is the film industry dying? I respond to an article that says it is) and Chris Zwar (Art vs. Advertising: The reality behind my first rejection) that are also part of this roundtable discussion.