Working for Cheap, Like Real Cheap – A PVC Roundtable Discussion

A discussion on low-balling, low-rates and the $50 video

As the media production climate continues to change so do the rates which video professionals charge to create that media. If the image above is indicative of a lot markets around the United States (and the world) then those rates vary wildly from the top to the bottom of the industry. A similar topic has been explored before here on PVC in another roundtable: Have Video and Film Have Lost Their Value? It’s both an important and polarizing topic and like that discussion a year ago many PVC writers have an opinion on the topic: How cheap should you work when getting your foot in the door of this industry and does low-balling harm the market that is trying to be served?

Grab a cup of coffee for this PVC Roundtable. It’s presented below in email-thread form.

Scott Simmons
The Editblog

This little call for work popped up recently on a local filmmaking group thread and sparked quite a conversation about whether low-balling your video production services in today’s market in order to get yourself established is either a clever marketing tactic that will lead to riches or a whack to the knees that will bring down a local industry … or something in between. It was fascinating to read the responses to this little call for work and I noticed that, with some exceptions, the opinions seemed to fall along generational lines. The more veteran responders who had been working for quite a few years (the old farts) were of the opinion that this kind of low-balling will only serve to drive down rates for everyone and do little to help prop up what these days might be seen as somewhat shaky industry. Those relatively new to the filmmaking-as-a-career-scene (the young whippersnappers) seemed to think that offering your services for low/no fee is really no big deal and it’s a natural and sometimes necessary way to get started in this industry.

It’s probably no surprise that my thoughts lie in the former category. While it goes without saying that no one is ever going to be able to work their whole career making $50 videos and there are producers that would never even consider hiring someone charging such a low rate, I’m of the opinion that, among other things, this type of offering muddies the waters of an already unstable market when it comes to pricing for video production services. It’s wild west out there where you have the $30,000 full-time-corporate-media-person, the video production one-man-bands and media-making-sweatshops disrupting what at one time was a quite well-paying career path. This big shift in the industry can’t be blamed on anyone but father time where gear got cheaper and the talent pool larger. But in today’s world where we have so many more people wanting video media created many (if not most) of these people really don’t know what it costs to produce quality video production. I’m of the opinion that this type of low-balling only serves to, as I said, muddy the waters when it comes to bidding on work for the established video creators. How many of us have heard the “well so-and-so only charges this much” when trying to establish a rate? This type of low-balling is one of the reasons why. The $50 video creator also serves to bring down the average rates for the market where they work though that’s probably less of an issue since I don’t know who might accurately measure that metric anyway.

One bit of advice given to that person looking to make $50 videos was to instead work for free in order to build up some experience and a portfolio. That might be the best advice I read. No one is going to make a living off of $50 videos so they are most likely living for free anyway. Take advantage of that period of your life and volunteer all you can to learn every part of the media creation industry. Of course that is easier said than done since you still have to know people and be connected to even work for free. I think the truth is that’s it’s an incredibly difficult time to break into this industry as the talent pool is a deep as it has ever been. But there are also incredible opportunities out there for media creation into markets and platforms that have never existed until today. No one is ever going to stop the young, ambitious $50 video creator. The best we can hope to do is help educate them on how to work in a business we love and ease into a career path that is, hopefully, both lucrative and sustainable.

avatar 76735Adam Wilt
Camera Log

There are two discussion topics here, lowballing for work in general and a “$50, no ups, no extras” approach akin to the old Earl Scheib car-painting operation specifically.

$50 all-in seems a singularly bad way to go about things from both a producer’s and a client’s viewpoint. For the producer, assuming you work 300 days a year and crank out a finished video every day, that’s $15,000. Even if you’re living in your parent’s basement, that’s chump change for a six-day-a-week job. From the client’s perspective, it’s too pricey to be a “free” job, so there will be an inevitable sense of money thrown away if/when something goes wrong or there’s a disappointing final product (both of which are more likely with a neophyte producer). Yet $50 is so low that it (a) completely devalues the work involved and (b) leads to grossly unreasonable expectations as to what a project should cost.

I like the suggestion that you either work for free or charge a decent day rate. Free gives you the license to work and to learn without imposing financial obligations and the implicit promise of “fitness for purpose”: if you screw up—and we all screw up in the early days—there is much less hard feeling and bad reputation generated when you’re working for free than if you charge even a minimal amount. Once money changes hands the expectations of performance become much more rigid and failure to deliver has heavier consequences.

So, to lowballing in general: I’m against it. Once you’re good enough to charge for services, you should charge a rate that provides a living wage. That’s good, not only for you, but for the entire production ecosystem.

Having said that, there have always been—and will always be—lowballers. Especially now, when for $5000 you can assemble a basic kit (camera, mike, editing) that will allow you, under many conditions, to generate technically acceptable deliverables (welcome to the democratized market!), there will be kids in parents’ basements, hobbyists, part-timers, and second-incomers partially or wholly subsidized by circumstances outside of production work. These folks don’t need day rates to cover daily living expenses and so they will always be able to undercut those of us who make a living doing what we’re doing.

So you wind up having to make a choice: compete on cost alone, and fight for scraps in the market where the only figure of merit is how low you can go? Or do you sell yourself on value for money: “you get what you pay for”, so spend a bit and get a lot? Do you want to be seen as an interchangeable unskilled laborer hired on cost alone, or as a craftsman bringing added value to the product? Do you want to be an Earl Scheib paint-job, or a good paint-job?

I’d argue that in this day and age where anyone can churn out a technically adequate 4K show using nothing pricier or more intimidating than a freakin’ mobile phone, there’s less advantage than ever in being a bottom-feeder. The most cost-sensitive customers are increasingly likely to do their own work in-house, using that self-same freakin’ mobile phone or a G7 or an A6300 and whatever NLE came with their computer (or a free copy of Resolve). Access to the means of production is no longer a gating factor, and anyone who wants to be a video producer can be a video producer: oversupply is simply a fact of life.

The only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand out: make the case that your competence and artistry are the difference between hiring you and hiring the kid-in-the-basement, that’s what the client is paying for. “The pain of poor quality long outlives the pleasure of low price.” Technical mastery is less important than ever; what adds value is artistry, client relations, production scheduling, people management, and being able to deliver a quality product on time, every time. Yes, that’s harder than simply saying you have a RED and know where the record button is; these are competencies that can’t be bought off-the-shelf but must be developed though hard work and experience.

So what you bring to a production that adds value is you. If you can make the case for that, make that case, and make it worth your while: charge accordingly. If you can’t make that case, either do more free work to build your skills, shadow a mentor on paid gigs and work your way up, or maybe you should find something else to do: the world doesn’t owe you a living making pictures. In an oversupplied market, there are really only two choices: a commoditized race to the bottom, or a value-for-money proposition. There is no middle ground. And in the race to the bottom, the bottom is never reached: there will always be someone willing to work cheaper than you.

Which leaves only one choice if you’re in this for real: go big, or go home. Be a craftsman who charges a decent rate, or find another line of work. Lowballing isn’t sustainable.

Jeff Foster
The Pixel Painter

As any new emerging technologies and shooting capabilities come along – so does the wave of opportunists. As us “old-timers” have witnessed through the decades with desktop publishing, photo retouching & composition, animation and the various stages of video production. When the masses can afford to buy the gear that promotes itself on delivering great content with a mere push of a button or click of the keyboard, everyone who gains access to this new tech are suddenly “experts” in their craft (or so they believe).

One of the funniest Facebook groups I saw pop up years ago was “My Mom Bought Me a RED and Now I’m a DP”, where they shared crappy video production tips, techniques and gear hacks that self-appointed “gear bros” shared online. But sadly, those “gear bros” have actually taken someone’s money at one time or another.

Most recently, I’ve seen the opportunists come out like cockroaches in the Drone Videography field in the past couple of years. And not just the individuals – but the crowdsourcing sites which are truly the scourge of the creative production industry IMO. (I could do a complete book on my thoughts of the sweat-shop practice globally, but I’ll try to stay on topic here).

As soon as the FAA decided to treat commercial drone pilots differently from the hobbyists, a few well-meaning folks started to develop “services” to connect potential clients to licensed drone pilots through their online directories. The client could see who was in their area and look at some of their portfolio examples and then contact them through the site and if a connection is made, the site gets a nominal referral fee. We’ve seen this before – not too unlike an agency, right? Well it didn’t work as planned and quickly snowballed into the typical crowdsourcing low-baller bidding crap and has imploded on itself.

While the serious clients still look for referrals and connections to find the best/qualified shooters for their productions, a lot of these sites will waste your time with requests to shoot a rental house listing (for exposure or maybe $50) or you get the clown that wants you to shoot their “awesome wedding” in some location that isn’t legal to fly in and they have about $100 in their budget.

I think we’ve all come to the realization that the general public is ignorant on what professional work entails – they just see finished products and think it’s gotta be easy because they get great shots already on their iPhone, so they don’t value professional work. Let’s just say “these are not the clients you’re looking for”.

As Adam said, “go big or go home” – be a professional and produce professional work and focus on finding the quality clients that can appreciate your professionalism and creativity. Those can’t be bought online – those are learned and earned skills. Your clients will appreciate “Craftsmanship over Crapsmanship” any day and will be willing to pay your accordingly.

avatar 76747Art Adams
Stunning Good Looks

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll throw in two more cents.

The goal of working in the film industry is not to make films. It’s to survive financially so one can continue to make films. In the beginning, when you’re living with six roommates in a two bedroom apartment and happy to have any work that comes along because you’re “in the biz,” you can work for cheap largely because you have to. No one will hire you without knowing you can do the work, and the only way you can do the work is to show them.

The smartest way to start out is not to start shooting immediately. There’s a ton to learn, not just about cameras and technology but about set etiquette and politics, resource and crew management, how to work efficiently, how not to screw up in such a way that you ruin a day’s worth of shooting, etc. Lighting, in particular, is best learned by watching others do it, because it’s hard to figure out what tricks are being employed simply by watching the final product. I’m constantly amazed at how complex some setups can be, and how simple others can be, and it’s almost impossible to figure out which kind is which in a theater.

I encourage everyone to start as a second camera assistant and work for a seasoned first assistant. Over time, move up to first assistant. From there, move up to operator and/or DP. You can learn a tremendous amount from each person you work for, and if you don’t progress up this ladder you will still have to learn all of this—but by making mistakes and reinventing the wheel. It’ll take a while, and you’ll burn a lot of bridges on the way.

In the old days a person would often work ten years in each position before moving up. I didn’t do that—I was too impatient—and I only worked about six years as a camera assistant. The lessons I learned during that time still serve me today, many years later. In particular, assisting teaches one to be detail oriented, and this is crucial as a DP. Film was difficult, but digital is vastly more complex, and the amount of knowledge necessary to do consistently good work without screwing anything up is never ending. As the DP, all those details fall to you. Hopefully you have crew who can lift a lot of that burden, but I’m constantly teaching my crew things that they didn’t know so that I can stop worrying about them and focus on politics and lighting (it’s always in that order).

Every time you move up you’ll have to work for free or for cheap in order to prove yourself. At each step you’ll have to prove yourself again. When I moved from second camera assistant to first assistant I had to start all over again, as my existing client base largely knew me only as a second assistant and they didn’t have the imagination to try me as anything else. The same thing happened when I moved up to operator, and again to DP. (One of the reasons I moved up quickly was that I saw some people stay in their positions for long enough that they couldn’t afford not to work, as they had a mortgage and family to support and couldn’t take the financial hit.)

The goal is to stay in this position for as short a period as possible, and to work for as few people as possible under this financial deal. One hard lesson to learn is that you will typically never be paid more, or considered more valuable, than you are on your first job for a client. It’s very difficult to get a raise. Producers will often hire someone else who’s more expensive before they will hire you for that person’s rate. If you work for them for free, you will never get more than free or cheap jobs from them. (There are exceptions, and over time you will build your career out of the loyalty of others who bring you along with them, but those people are hard to find.) As soon as you can, you need to charge at least the same rate that everyone else does.

There will always be a market for cheap work. This is a good place to learn, because screwing up doesn’t cost much. Often, at that level, clients don’t even know if you’ve screwed up. Early in my shooting career I did a lot of corporate work, and I used that as an arena for practicing my feature film lighting skills. As low-end corporate clients tend not to be sophisticated at all, they had no idea if my artistic venture turned out poorly. As long as there was an image they were happy.

I left Hollywood in the early 90s and found myself working shooting corporate projects and broadcast television (“Inside Edition,” etc.) to survive. Broadcast television paid the worst: $300/10 hours, sometimes $350. Corporate was often in the $550/650 range. That was for me alone. The camera and sound gear came from elsewhere. Nowadays I’m seeing people charge that much, or less, for themselves and a full camera package with lenses. That’s not sustainable. At some point you’ll want to jettison the roommates, buy a decent car, maybe own a home and start a family, and—who knows—maybe even save for retirement and buy health insurance. That’s when you have to charge a healthy rate for yourself and your gear. You’re not going to work all the time, you don’t get paid time off, you don’t get vacation time, and you don’t have a benefits package. You have no safety net other than what you build for yourself. (The rule of thumb is that you should always have six months worth of savings in the bank. Often that’s easier said than done, but it’s a good rule.)

That’s why rates are “high” in this industry compared to others: jobs last only so long, they are not full time all year around, and there are no guarantees. Also, every job in the camera department is chock full of responsibility. I remember producers complaining in the late 80s/early 90s that camera operators and assistants were paid better than plumbers and carpenters, and how fair was that? It’s very fair when one considers that plumbers and carpenters can work all they want year around, when camera operators and assistants can’t. Also, a plumber is not going to destroy a $10 million house by turning a wrench the wrong way on one occasion.

To sum up: is it necessary to work cheaply when starting out? Yes. Is it important to stop working cheaply as soon as possible? Yes. At the top end you’re competing on talent and ability. At the bottom end you’re competing on price, and there will ALWAYS be someone cheaper. If you stay at the bottom, you will never get ahead and you will never make more money. If you want a raise, YOU have to give it to yourself, and make sure your clients know that you’re worth it by committing to that new rate as soon as you’re qualified to receive it. Once you make that leap, you can’t back down. You can do it in steps, and you should be prepared to seek out new clients as you progress because many of the old ones will drop away, but that’s how it works.

At the high end, you can’t actually get hired if you don’t charge enough money. There are some DPs working who I don’t think should be commanding the kinds of rates that they do, but they get the work that they do because they charge very high rates—so they must be worth it, right? THAT is where you want to go, although—if you’re like me—you want to make sure you’re worth it when you get there.

Don Starnes

Most video productions don’t need professional skill or experience, because most videos have a narrow and simple purpose: to get attention and/or waste the viewer’s time. This has always been true. In the old days, achieving even these required professionals who knew how to work the complicated equipment and manage the extensive workflows. Now, cheap robots and algorithms make achieving these goals dead simple for people with money and lots of time on their hands. Due to technological and social changes in this century, there are a lot of these robots and people.

This is not a criticism of video or robots or the people: people have long had a legitimate desire to chill in front of a screen and do nothing. Marketeers have long valued getting attention as an end unto itself. Video can be fun.

The problem is for video professionals who used to be required for these and now are not. It is also a problem for clients who want to achieve more with their videos, to move the audience the way cinema does, and rely on nearly-free video to do that.

To be clear, I don’t use the word cinema to mean theatrical features: I mean media which uses cinematic language to move an audience. It’s easy to give video away, because it’s inexpensive to buy gear and say you’re a video maker. Cinema requires skill, taste and experience; these are harder to come by and thus harder to give away.

Video is dead as a business; long live cinema. The way forward for video professionals is to be proven experts at cinematic storytelling, impress clients who need cinema, and charge a lot of money. Compete on mastery, not on price. Let video go free.

Richard Wirth 

I’m going to jump into this one since I 1) am one of the old farts, now out of the fray and 2) used to be a young whippersnapper trying to break into a business full of cronyism and union restrictions.
To the young guy’s appeal for work at “$50 per video,” he has already shot himself in the foot unless he has a contract drawn up by a good attorney. If he hasn’t thought about all the caveats that need to be in place, he soon will when the client says “We’ve got this corporate video that requires interviews with folks at our locations in Memphis, Knoxville and Cleveland.” Without even leaving his parent’s garage, the show is already costing him money. 
I know because I lost money on some of my early film jobs simply because I wanted the work and wanted to prove myself.
But on the producing side, there have always been “producers” out there willing to exploit the “piss and vinegar” of youth. Producers is in quotes because anybody can call themselves a producer. They might even believe it themselves. But their projects are seldom worth their while and payment is usually a long time coming, if ever at all. And there are none of them we would ever work for (again
Even at the outset, we need to ask ourselves would we ever even want to work for a producer who is willing to entrust their project to a $50 flat rate?
I’m not against the guy trying, but I would say he’s going about it the wrong way. If he wants to establish himself, he should find a “client” like a charitable organization or non profit that could use a well done PR piece or short doc to help them raise money. Offer to do it gratis or for expenses. If he’s as good as he thinks he is, others will soon notice and work at real rates will follow.
Yes, I’m saying working for free trumps low balling yourself at “$50 per video.
There have always been exuberant young people trying to find ways to break into the business. There have always been sleazy producers willing to take advantage of them. It is a fact of life and will continue to be. 
What’s changed is, that due to democratization, there’s a higher quantity of both sides. Just because there’s more product out there, doesn’t mean it’s all better. But some of it is. And when it shows up, it gets noticed. And the people behind it get noticed. And then they charge more because they have a reputation now.
In the meantime, the better producers will continue to make the better projects with the better crews at the better prices because they know they get what they pay for and they, too, have a reputation to protect.

Just the random thoughts of an old fart.

Jeff Foster
The Pixel Painter

We’re getting into some pretty subjective waters now…

One man’s “video” may just be another man’s “cinema”.

I’m not talking about your average YouTube Vlogger or Facebook Live poster trying to get paid for clicks. I’m referring to more corporate commercial video that’s trying to rise above the noise and serve their marketing efforts without insulting their customers.

I’ve seen the corporate video industry taking on a slow and steady increase in demand for higher standards in quality production – not just at the marketing/agency level, but in customer retention, service and training/support. This also means developing strong partnerships with production houses/providers or bringing a MarCom Video team in-house, so they can maintain quality and consistency in their messaging and brand without breaking the bank. But they’re also NOT interested in crowdsourcing or dealing with amateurs.

Sure, you’re not going to get a Sundance nom from the work you’ll be producing, but you’ll get steady professional work in various interesting environments and get paid well.

They’re also going to expect you to be more of a generalist – not just “the guy with a camera”, so if you’re not a proficient script/storyboard editor, director, DP, and have some good animation/mograph skills, then you’re going to have a harder sell.

Mark Spencer
MacBreak Studio

When I was young my mother told me the following story:

A woman goes to a hat maker and asks him to make her a hat.
He takes a single long piece of ribbon, twists and twirls it, his hands a blur of activity. He produces a beautiful hat which he places on her head.
Looking in the mirror, she says “I love it! How much?”
“50 dollars.”
“50 dollars!? But that’s only 50 cents worth of ribbon!”
He takes the hat off her head, gives it a snap, and it unravels back into a single long ribbon.
He hands it to her and says, “50 cents, please.”

Just as what was so well stated in this thread, we need to demonstrate our capabilities to create something unique out of the raw materials that everyone has access to.

Don Starnes

I agree, Jeff: artistry is subjective. Videos can be cinematic, and the two cultures are on a continuum. I make the distinction, though, because their different customers, markets, purpose, expectations, life style and, to the topic, income have become pretty stark, with video going toward the free.

Video isn’t very good at retaining customers, training employees or telling a brand story— without cinematic meaning. Snappy videos are the noise that a corporate piece is trying to rise above. Aesthetics are subjective; efficacy, not so much. Success with moving, cinematic videos leads to steady professional work, as you describe.

avatar 76747Art Adams
Stunning Good Looks

Don Starnes wrote:

Video isn’t very good at retaining customers, training employees or telling a brand story— without cinematic meaning.

How do you define cinematic meaning? In the commercial and corporate marketing worlds, it’s well known that the best way to communicate is through emotional storytelling. How is cinematic meaning different?

Jeff Foster
The Pixel Painter

I might assume, Art – that this would mean quality visuals/audio and scripting.

Storytelling is as much about what you’re showing as what you’re telling (through VO or interview).

Often times, to dress up an otherwise boring technical read or interviewee, the B-roll saves the project from being a major snoozefest.

Steve Hullfish

I think this “video doesn’t work without cinematic meaning” is pretentious and I completely disagree. You can have a simple screencapture with no cinematic meaning. Heck, as much as I believe in the power of story, I don’t think you have to even have a story to effectively use video.
Video is great at explaining things. Should it be done with some quality? Yes. Should it be done with storytelling? Yes. Cinmematic meaning? Only for some hipper than though art student who refuses to see Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg movies.
The whole point here is about working for a low rate. To even say that someone with a low rate is incapable of “cinematic meaning” would be wrong. This is about either knowing your value or being willing to do something even for the fun of it.

This question would be moot if there were decent producers who were human beings. I’d do something cheap if I knew that the producer I was doing it for would REALLY hire me and pay me what I’m worth for numerous jobs if I did something for free or cheap once.I just asked a recent film-school student to do this for me. I said, “You’re an unproven entity. If you will write a script for a 60 second video and produce and edit it for me – for free, using resources that I will provide – I will give you a BUNCH of work and pay you fairly for it. This is honest to me because I mean it. If the kid proves he can do could work (and I even said that if the product he delivered was high quality, I WOULD even pay him for the “spec spot.”) I know that he is valuable and I WILL pay him and use him and give him his entry into the industry. If he’s bad, then having him do work for free is all it was worth to begin with.

I also have a regular stable of people that I use and pay them their full rate almost always and give them a lot of work. Occasionally I can’t afford the A-level people for a job, but I give them a shot at taking the job for lesser money before I go to my B-players. If one of my A-level people wants to take a job with me for less, they know that I won’t lock them in at that low rate. They know I will pay them what they’re worth on the NEXT job and in the meantime, they can make some cash on what might be a down day for them.

As for the FIVERR guys, I get that that is bottom-feeding.

But I’ve also gotten really inexpensive work done by people I’ve found on sites like VIDEOHIVE.NET or AUDIOJUNGLE.NET and they are willing to do the work. I don’t know if I should feel bad about that. I have gotten high quality custom music tracks written for a specific video for $45. That’s nuts. But if somebody can do that at a quality level for that money, then I will take it. Does that mean another composer that would want me to pay more is losing out, I don’t know what to do about that.

Don Starnes

Yes: video can be good at explaining things. I often watch screen capture videos to learn things— for free. I’m sure that everyone reading this who makes explainer videos is feeling squeezed. Why wouldn’t I hire the cheapest person to make an explainer video for people who a) are obliged to watch it or b) are already interested in the topic? If I needed to compete with other educational videos for market share, keep an audience interested, or ensure that they retain the information, I’d need to use storytelling, etc. (the stuff of cinema) to make it work.

I agree that there are people who work for a low rate and use cinematic language to make moving videos. That hobby is not sustainable and, as you mention, seldom leads to well paid work. High-end work tends to be more cinematic; those people have good clients and make a living. Low-end video tends not to be very cinematic: those people have low-end clients and struggle.

avatar 76735Adam Wilt
Camera Log


I think this “video doesn’t work without cinematic meaning” is pretentious and I completely disagree.

Perhaps the phrasing is unfortunate. Think, instead, of the difference between ENG and EFP: capturing an image versus crafting an image.

In ENG, the goal is to get the shot, usually in constrained circumstances: existing light, limited time, no real ability to place the camera and compose the shot other than what you can do with your zoom lens. Is it stable? In focus? White balanced? Well exposed? To a first-order approximation, that’s the job, period. A good ENG shooter tells a story by capturing reality, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. (This isn’t to disparage the effort and talent required by a good news cameraperson: getting there, getting the shot, and getting out is a skill-set unto itself. News shooters face constraints that render EFP-style shooting impossible, so it’s sort of an apples-to-oranges comparison I’m making.)

In EFP or “cinematic” work there’s more freedom to place and move the camera, to light, to set-dress, and to use wardrobe and makeup. You’re not capturing what’s already there as much as crafting a world as seen through the lens. Yes, you need all those technical checkoffs from the ENG-style production, but you then build on top of it, going from a “found” image to a “made” image.

You can shoot a corporate training film or talking head ENG-style or EFP-style. Given today’s equipment—HD or UHD capture, Canon or Sony PDAF, etc.—you can get perfectly watchable, sharp, well-exposed, technically unobjectionable ENG-style material without much effort, and start shooting five minutes after you walk in the door. Doing it “cinematically” might require a couple hours of prep, to rig lights, sliders, backgrounds, and makeup, and probably more folks on the crew, too.

In both cases, the message is the same, and both productions look perfectly fine to the casual observer. Both productions do the job, and for many purposes, the ENG-style “video” does a good enough job.  Sure, the “cinematic” production looks better and does a better emotional job… but frequently, good enough is good enough.

And given those tools—HD or UHD capture, Canon or Sony PDAF, etc.—you can get that ENG-style video with a consumer camera pretty much set up on full auto—or at least with a one-push AWB, locking the exposure, and tapping the screen to tell the camera what to track focus on. It’s not rocket science. Heck, it’s hardly a skilled operation at all: you don’t need to know how to thread the film in an Auricon; you don’t even need to know how (or when) to clean the heads in a Betacam deck.

That’s the “video” that’s a commodity process (or product); and anyone can do it. And if anyone can, anyone will, and (for a first approximation) everyone does, and there’s no point trying to compete in that market except on price.

An EFP or cinematic production brings a lot more to the shot that simply getting the shot. It’s not a question of technical competence (which is increasing automated away) so much as the soft skills of effective lighting, composition, selective focus, direction, and crew management. These are things you can’t buy in a box or download off the ’net; you have to learn them. And, like that ribbon-turned-into-a-hat, that’s what’s worth paying the big, big money for.

But you still need a client who sees the value in the cinematic show above and beyond the ENG-style show.

I’d do something cheap if I knew that the producer I was doing it for would REALLY hire me and pay me what I’m worth for numerous jobs if I did something for free or cheap once.

I just asked a recent film-school student to do this for me. I said, “You’re an unproven entity. If you will write a script for a 60 second video and produce and edit it for me – for free, using resources that I will provide – I will give you a BUNCH of work and pay you fairly for it.”

Sadly this is the exact argument used by innumerable producers who wish to snaffle some free labor and then never call you again!

Steve Hullfish

I do not advocate doing cheap work or free work, but I also talk to students all the time and tell them, do as much WORK as possible. TRY things. DO projects. If there’s somebody willing to pay you something and provide a real project to work on, that COULD be a useful thing. Even when you work on your own projects, there is an element of it that misses interaction with a client or other creative entity that is sometimes valuable. So, to do inexpensive work at the beginning of your career is a good thing sometimes as long as you don’t get caught up with a person who will take advantage of that.

The flip side of this is that “cheap work” is very subjective. I think this discussion is about really cheap work, but some would define working “under their pay grade” by different means. I recently had a request from a client to find a photographer to work with me on a film shoot. I found someone that was excellent and used to getting $7,500 a day for stills. That was too much for the client, who brought in his own guy for $1,000. When I told my guy that he’d been underbid, he said he’d do it for $1,500 a day, but by then he was a day late and more than a dollar short. So, I’d say that many photographers would say, “$1500 a day and that’s cheap?” So this is really a slippery slope depending on the value of the work and the cost of getting someone to do it who is at least “good.” The $1000 a day guy that the client provided did a very good job and was a pleasure to work with and provided more than adequate services that met the client’s expectations. So is $1000 a day undercutting someone? It sure did. So does that mean that I am undercutting someone at the rate I request? Probably, though many people would love to charge what I charge per day. So this is all relative in a very real way.

I can create beautiful, cinematic images with my Canon 5D MkII and my laptop computer. My client doesn’t know that the image is severely compressed. My client just sees some very good looking footage and isn’t pretentious about how the image was created when he shows it to his boss.

Of course I prefer to use a better quality camera. I prefer to work with a DP who knows what he’s doing and takes a lot of the pressure off me as a producer or director. But the quality of the image has nothing to do with the cost of the image. EFP and ENG are slightly antiquated terms, nowadays. I can certainly relate to them, being the age that I am and having come from a news background myself, but crafting an image is no longer the exclusive domain of us old farts. I see great work and beautiful images from people who are happy to work for way, way less than I will work for. The implication was that someone who works for these crazy wages isn’t “cinematic.”

Video is dead as a business; long live cinema. The way forward for video professionals is to be proven experts at cinematic storytelling, impress clients who need cinema, and charge a lot of money. Compete on mastery, not on price. Let video go free

This whole “video” and “cinema” thing is so deceiving. Few of us are shooting either. What does “cinema” mean? Are any of us doing work that plays in a cinema? So, how do you tell your clients you’re making “cinema?” What does “video” mean? I haven’t shot with a camera that shoots “video” for over a decade. By I don’t call what I do for my clients “cinema” because it’s not. Is it high quality? Yes. Is it cinematic in visual quality? What needs to be. What do you call what goes on YouTube? What do you call what goes on Netflix? What do you call the video content that my client puts on their website? Do I tell my client I’m making “cinema content?” They would have no clue what I was talking about. Mastery is mastery whether you call it cinema or video. Feature film editors might have looked down on “TV editors” at some point, but now what is on Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime is often better than what’s at the cineplex. Is the Canon C300 or the Sony F5 or even an A700 a video camera or a film camera? It’s neither.

The only thing I agree with in either of these sentences is “compete on mastery, not on price.” But what does “video” have to do with “mastery?” I just don’t see this as being relevant to the argument. Why can’t you do both? Why can’t someone who can produce quality images and tell a good story do it cheaply or even free? I don’t agree that it should be done, but the cost of the work is absolutely ZERO indication of the quality of the work.

98Eric Escobar
A Working Filmmaker

What a lightning rod of a question.

From 2005-2008, I taught digital filmmaking in the Cinema Department at SF State. Within a few months of graduation, I’d inevitably receive emails from newly graduated students asking “what should I charge for X service?”

It was always a heartbreaker of a question because there was zero matriculation opportunities for them as post houses shuttered when the economy tanked, none of them knew what anything cost. Everyone was scrambling to position themselves as a “full service production company” because they had a MacBook Pro and Mark II, and no one, professional or newbie knew what to charge. Suddenly I, and all the other established professionals, were competing for directing and post jobs with people who had been in my classroom a couple of years before. It was yet another era of upheaval in the industry.

There’s a reason why younger and just-starting-out (career changers!) media workers have to work for free or next-to-nothing: they have no choice. When experienced workers talk about the impediments they faced getting into the industry and cite cronyism and union restrictions, they’re talking about the obstacles from last century. The ranks of union workers in our industry have been decimated and isolated to New York and LA, and the business model for video making are so perilous that companies open and shutter constantly.
If you’ve lasted long enough to build up a client base and network of professionals, then you really have nothing to worry about if someone wants to make a video for 50 bucks.  Work speaks for itself, and when I was teaching, what my students were really asking for was business advice. They did great work, many of them had been making videos since middle school thanks to cheap gear and FCP in the classroom. There was nothing intimidating about the tech or workflows for them. What they lacked were honest to goodness internships, mentorships and months in the tape room learning business skills and craft from more experienced professionals who had now become one-person shops. When we lost big post houses and on-line workflows, we lost chances for the new generation of young professionals to learn from us. They have been on their own for a long time and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change because there are no more tape op jobs. No more off-line/ on-line and all of the gear and software is a hell of a lot easier to use than it was twenty years ago.

I had an intern at Kontent in San Francisco, she worked with me for about a year and a half, then graduated from the Academy of Art. She was already getting paid for real work a year before she finished school. She, like a lot of her peers knew how to make art with computers. That was Ayumi Ashley and she is now one of the top colorists in Northern California running her own full service post house, MFD in San Francisco. She’s hardworking, talented, and grew up using the tools that we all use. What she needed was enough time in the marketplace to establish herself and let everyone see her work. What I had to offer was chances for people in the Bay Area production community to meet her and encouragement that she was already really great. That’s the deal, that’s what you may have had back in the day in that million dollar post house: someone senior to you, who knew all the inside baseball and gossip of the industry. Someone to vouch for you.

My advice to newbies now, is not to take career advice from people in their forties and fifties but to ask for opportunities to work with them. The world we built our profession in was wildly different than what they are facing in 2017 so what do we know about “starting out”?. Keep their overhead down since cities are so much more expensive now, and just keep creating work for free, for fifty bucks for trade, whatever. It is a long game and automation is going to obsolete those sure-bet skill sets in the next decade anyway. Aim for the places and projects that allow you to show off your creativity and originality. Cultivate regular clients because it’s easier to work with someone you know than someone you don’t.

What I always ask of anyone in an established position in the industry is to consider mentoring someone new. Doesn’t have to be giving them a job necessarily although that is great if you can do it. As I run around freelancing now, I constantly run into my old students from a decade ago, it’s an amazing feeling to get to help someone do the thing that I love doing so much.


Jeff Foster
The Pixel Painter

What I learned from my grandfather when I was a kid (he was a 35 year veteran of the Detroit Auto Industry and a Union guy at that):

“You can have it quick.
You can have it cheap.
You can have the best quality.
Pick any two.”

This has stuck with me for over 40 years and whenever I feel like I’m failing with a client, it’s because I’ve broken this simple concept.

One more pearl of wisdom from one of my early mentors in product photography & retouching (Joseph Kennedy, who did negative retouching on most of Marilyn Monroe’s classic images and the famous Lamborghini ads from the 70s):

“If it’s not selling, then you’re not charging enough.”

This may cost me a lot of potential clients over the years, but again – every time I get suckered into accepting a lowball client “budget” I get screwed and kick myself for not holding out and knowing my value. It’s always a fail all around if I work for less than I know I’m worth. I’ve rarely ever had a client tell me at the end they didn’t feel their investment was worth what they paid (except for the guy I took to court for stealing my work).

Ok – I’m done now.

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To everyone who contributed to this discussion, thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s definitely valuable. I feel that the advice of “go free first, then move to a respectable rate” is very solid. I see one potential Achilles heel to it though. Considering the ever-deepening talent pool, wouldn’t this approach possibly lead to a steady increasing reliance on free labor from incoming young folk? To all the smaller production companies, it can look very attractive to bring in a relatively competent “intern” that doesn’t weigh down production budgets rather than hiring someone. Obviously fair companies / producers won’t go… Read more »


I’m a newbie to the industry and don’t agree at all with working for free. As for the $50 and Fiver folks, they’re outliers, as mentioned above no producer is going to hire them anyway, it’s going to be Mick of Mick’s Fishing Supplies in some rural town in Iowa, who want’s someone to add star-wipes to the video his nephew shot on his phone. … Well actually come to think of it, there can’t be much fishing in Iowa but you get the point. We’ve all got value, a production company wouldn’t let you even work for free unless… Read more »