How do I get into this filming lark and make money from it? Part 2: Rates and surviving

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This is probably the trickiest blog post I have ever had to write – hence it is heavily delayed. I have been wanting to write this for a couple of months, and something spurred me on to do it so here it is! Read part one here!

Now…there is no specific amount one should charge. It is dependent on so many factors. Especially these days when many people do everything, shoot, sound, direct, edit. Don’t expect this to spoon feed you the information you need. I won’t be giving you an actual rate to charge people. There is no such thing. This post will give you information that you can hopefully apply to your business model whether current or future.

Here are some of the variable, some…there are loads more!

1: What gear you are supplying if any.

2: What your job is. Are you just shooting? Are you editing too? Are you directing too?

3: Are you doing this as a one-off or is this a multi day job or for a repeat client.

4: Your experience.

5: How much you value yourself/ how desperate you are.

It is a bit of a taboo subject. I don’t for example tell people how much I charge unless they are asking to hire me, and then it is dependent on the above. My rate for 1 day is very different from my rate for making a film of something or being hired to shoot for say 1 week where the rate per day is lower.

What is the least I have worked for apart from freebies? I did a number of cameraman for hire days (no gear) for £225 a few years ago when I needed the work, bread and butter if you will. I was a very experienced cameraman at this point, but because no gear was involved the rate was low. When that same company hired me with gear and my car, it was £550. So as you can imagine I didn’t want to work without my gear. I had invested in the gear and needed a return on that investment. This was for broadcast work. I am not really going to go into that too much in that post, but I will mention it through examples. Broadcast work is so tricky and varied in pricing.

Today with gear like DSLRs being so affordable, you can get a cameraman with said gear for not a lot. A recent posting of the UK website “Shooting People” had a full Sony F3 kit with I believe 4 or 5 Zeiss CP.2 lenses, Sachtler tripod, sound gear, basic lighting gear AND a cameraman for the utterly ludicrously cheap price of £200 (if you don’t know what that is in your currency, please use one of the many currency convertors on the internet)

Now I don’t know if that was a typo, but I do believe this was not an individual but a “production house” hiring their gear with a cameraman. God knows what that cameraman was being paid. He probably would earn more working at McDonald’s! To be honest £200 to rent that full kit would be a steal – if I were to take them up on that offer, I would give the cameraman a chair to sit on and ask him to get me a coffee every now and then whilst I used his gear! 🙂

There are many theories as to why this was so cheap, a rich kid who has had all the stuff bought from him to someone who nicked it all (just checked, I still have my F3!). Whatever the reason for that sort of pricing, if I was looking to hire someone, that would ring so many alarm bells…just how shitty is this cameraman for example? If this is totally kosher and it’s someone desperately trying to get work, then it’s not a good precedent to set and it’s also not financially sustainable in the long term.

SO…with that above recent example in mind what should you charge for the above? Again it depends on YOU and where you are based. In some countries/ cities where there is saturation of the market, you may find it hard to get the price you deserve and you could end up taking far less then you are worth. What is the alternative? Sit and home and earn nothing…something is betting than nothing, right?

I tweeted/ facebooked/ google+/ myspace/ beboo messaged people to get some ideas of their experiences with clients and what they were charging. It was interesting reading. I will put some examples in this post, all anonymous, but it will give you an idea.

In my blog post “State Of Play”, my fictional character, Fred, who represents many of you, was worrying about which camera to buy. In this blog post we catch up on him and find out he actually bought the following. Don’t read into this as what to buy, this is just a random example.

1: Canon 5DmkII

2: Miller DS10 Solo tripod

3: Basic lighting kit

4: Tascam recorder and wireless mics

5: 24-70mm f2.8 lens, 70-200 F4 IS and 50mm F1.4 prime

A nice basic kit, not sumptuous, not extravagant but enough to get the job done. No fancy pants things like sliders, no expensive lights, no matte box and filters, no monitor etc…

Fred lives in London. So he is selling himself as everything from a cameraman with kit, to a someone who will produce a web video/ corporate film for clients.

Fred has no paid work on his showreel.

Fred has phone numbers but no clients.

Fred has no real world experience.

Fred needs money to pay off the loan for the gear, pay his bills, make sure his girlfriend is happy and eat!

Fred has talent and will get the job done well, if someone gives him a chance.

All of the rate examples I use below are not necessarily market rates but purely figures to illustrate how much increase in rates should be made with time…roughly! Again, these are just my thoughts. Do read the examples in bold for other people’s examples.

So, with so little to offer the clever thing at the start is to simply offer yourself for free to a couple of clients. Free you say? Yep. He is more likely to convince a client to give him a chance as they have nothing to lose and he gets a real client, a real job and something to go on his reel. So how many of these freebies does Fred do? Not many, two maybe three. Enough variety to help him get the paid work.

Sure, he could say pay £100 to the client and they may give him that, but it’s better for him to choose the client he wants to work for, tell them honestly why he is doing it and go for it. Much more chance of getting work. I talked about this in the previous blog post here. I did that a couple of times when I started freelancing, to get some different types of things for my reel. It worked for me.

Now with 2-3 good looking pieces of work under his belt he can legitimately go touting for work.

This is more for getting corporate gigs than as a jobbing cameraman. For a jobbing cameraman it’s tougher as, often, you take what you can, anything. There are such a lot of people out there. When I first started freelancing I did a lot of work which I couldn’t stand. I needed the work. I needed the money. If you are going to be choosy at the start of your career, don’t expect to go very far. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work before you can pick and choose what you want to do!

Fred has found people who want to hire him but are offering a pittance. £150 to produce a web video. Should he do it? Well if the alternative is sitting at home then maybe but he needs to look at the client and ask himself: is this client someone I will repeatedly work for or will this be a one off?

If it’s a one-off and you need the cash, then do it. If it has the possibility of being an ongoing job, pricing yourself so crazy low is bad for you and bad for everyone else. That client thinks £150 is a ok amount to pay. It’s not. Once you start working for a pittance for that client hoping you can then up the charge later, you will find yourself coming unstuck. How after 2 or 3 jobs do you say to said client: I cannot sustain working for you for so little – I need to up rate to £250 or £300. After paying you £150, then they will balk at what you are demanding (probably) and tell you to take a hike, and they will look for the next sap who will charge £150 to make a video for them. You set a precedent with them and once you have done that it’s hard to renegotiate.

If Fred had set the bar higher with pricing at the start, the client may well have said no but it’s important not to undervalue yourself. If you are just shooting then handing over rushes, it’s easier as it’s a straight day rate, but as soon as you start editing as well then it becomes more complicated.

Here are some examples of rates and some stories that people have sent me anonymously.  All of these are in BLUE

9 years experience. $500 for a 10 HR day with the following gear: 5Dmk2 Zeiss ZE 50mm T1.4 Leica R 28mm T2.8 Leica R 90mm T2 Leica R 135mm T2.8 vinton fluid head tripod Rode video mic

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Client/Job depending $600 – $1,200 Day rate with full kit & operator

$600 – $750 ad on per additional camera body and operator

$75/hr for editing. Editing estimates vary between 1-4 hrs of work per minute of finished product
Full kit:
Canon 7D
Lenses: Canon 14mm 2.8, 28mm 1.8, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8, 100mm 2.8L Macro, 200mm 2.8
Redrock Captain Stubling Rig
Manfrotto 503 head
Manfrotto Monopod
Kessler pocket dolly traveler
x2 Arrilite 1K w/ softbox
x2 Arri Fresnel 650
Zoom H4n
Sennheiser G2 lav
Sennheiser shotgun mic
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Between £500-£1000 for a very good & experienced crew depending on the job, equipment needed & length of day. Occasionally less than £500 if we’re providing kit or it’s a local job but not as low as £200.

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About three years ago, as an assistant producer, I was interviewed for a major BBC series. I was asked if I would come in for a trial day…. on location…. oh, and could I use a mixer and would I mind recording sound. Riiiight. I politely told them to f*!k off, hinting that perhaps they wouldn’t get an idea od what kind of an AP I would make whilst doing the job of a sound recordist… on half the money. Anyway. Cameramen have been having their work and rates eroded since I’ve been in telly (less so in corporate land).

My early productions were booking digi-guys with kit for well over £1k a day. These days more and more self-shooters are used, and when a cameraman is favoured it’s often DSR kit/man for a third of what they got a decade ago. It’s not all bad – but for the churn-work of regular TV, the cameraman’s hay day is long gone.

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From a Producer’s perspective, I’ve worked with expensive cameramen that don’t warrant the rate they charge and have an “it’ll do attitude”. I’ve also worked with inexperienced cameramen whom charge a rate equivalent to a runner. It’s taken a good 3 years to develop a network of great crew through trial and error. I now have a team of reliable cameramen whom charge reasonable mid-high rates and I know they’ll deliver great footage for me to work with. I think it boils down to level of expectation…I have a high level of expectation and expect to pay anything between £350 – £1000 a day (operator only, no kit) depending on the job.

Other people (production companies and clients alike) have low expectations and refuse to pay industry standard rates for an experienced operator. They want half days or hour rates which I refuse to offer. It’s impossible to take other work on the same day – try explaining that to a stubborn client. You’ll never be able to justify rates to someone that can’t see the difference between something shot with poor images and audio and a beautifully crafted film. They’ll always be delighted with mediocre! I turn away several jobs a year based on principals. We have some flexibility, but your work should speak for itself.

If someone wants to undercut you by 50% then I say let the client find out for themselves what problems this brings.

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A decent rate for cameraman with a good kit in terms of Aussie rates would be 1500.00 for an 8 hour day. I both employ people @ this rate as well as charge myself @ this rate as a Director/shooter (ex3, 5D, GH2), incl your wonderful dolly in that rate !

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My rates vary between $500/12 and $1500/10. mostly settling around $650-950 per day. I try to get a 10-hour deal. usually settle for 12. in the union world DPs often request a 14-hour guarantee so even if the rate is the same, they have more hours applied to their health and pension qualifying hours. I can’t really comment on the union DP rates since I am not getting them, but certainly commercial DPs get $1500-$4500 per day. by the way, all of the rates I have mentioned are not including gear.

I own a 7D but hardly any accessories so I must rent those when that camera is called for, and generally rent what is needed myself on a smaller shoot (and bill production) or on a bigger shoot, work with producers to source gear from my favored rental houses (or sometimes owner-ops). I have found that renting everything needed to use the 7D in a productive cine-style setup usually adds up to about $500-750! it is usually cheaper to rent an EX3 or HPX-170! however sometimes the large sensor is necessary. often producers just want the cheap option (interviews).

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So the above are some examples of people’s thoughts and some varied rates. Very varied.

(Again these figures are not a representation of actual rates, but the increase over what Fred used to charge)

Let’s go back to Fred. Fred is 2 years in. He as has made a fair few web videos for clients/ done cameraman for hire work and built himself up a reputation for a hard worker with a can-do attitude (worth its weight in gold), and has gradually upped what he has been charging people. His day rate with his gear, more than he had before – he’s now got an FS100 too. He charges as a shooter £395 a day, and if someone wants him to make a video then, depending on how much work it is, a base of one shoot day/ one edit day with client meetings before is around £850. Now that he has a reputation and a good list of work/ reel, it’s easier for him to charge more. BUT he will still lose out on many jobs to younger Freds who are at the point he was at 2 years ago. That is inevitable. Not every client cares about quality or would know what quality was even if said Quality slapped the client in the face screaming quality, in Quality Street in the town of Quality in the country of Qualitania on the planet Qualitog IV.

It happens in business everywhere. Get a quote from a cheap builder and don’t expect him to do a good job (or even finish it, I should know!) over the guy who quoted twice as much. You might get lucky, but you generally get what you pay for. Pay peanuts and you get monkeys as they say. So if someone offers you peanuts do you take it? It’s that same point again. If you NEED money then it’s better than staying at home. Sure it can hurt your pride but it’s better than nothing. But is it?

That’s the problem with this topic – it is so full of contradictions not just at the beginning of your career but also deep in. Here are some more examples…

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I live in a town that “has” a definite video community, but it’s not very established as somewhere quality work is found. In fact, we have lots of large corporate headquarters and plants and things like that here because the area is beautiful to be around, but when they need video work, these higher budget opportunities often get shipped in from other locations.
Now, the smaller companies that do want to hire video work out locally, don’t like to pay for things. It’s really easy to find companies that want to do trades and other ways of getting video work done for less or no pay. Those you can squeeze some budget out of, pay very little and it’s seen as an “expensive” service. Needless to say, most talented video people in the area leave the area, or, they leave the whole state for similar reasons. I’ll talk more about the state of Utah as a whole.
Here, we don’t have too great of an video industry (not that many opportunities, lots of people without work so they are willing to work for cheap) and we’re non union. Even with Sundance and all that, plus a seemingly healthy film community, almost all larger productions whether it’s live TV or medium-to-large films, all bring in everything themselves, from personnel to even building their own studio in some warehouse instead of hiring out to someone that’s already located here.
Rates around here, if you happen to land a gig as a camera operator–I’d say it’s fair game to say anywhere between 150$ and a 600$ per day. An average of the guys who do it every day of the week, maybe 250$-400$. In any case, not much when you think about in terms of salary.
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EXAMPLE FROM DUBAI
In terms of people undercutting rates, although unions are illegal here, because the market is so small we actually have a decent unspoken agreement as to what rates should be for personell. In terms of gear, its a bit of a free-for-all. Over the last 3 or so years of working with REDs, Ive found that at least half of the ones ive encountered are woefully underequipped. Most are supplied with faulty cables, little to no media, hardly any batteries and no aftermarket accessories. Almost none of them are maintained other than an exterior clean or receive firmware updates.
This is the most frustrating part of being drastically undercut, as clients fail to see why Kit A: with a full working production kit should cost any more than Kit B with only basic accessories. Look at it like a 5D Body versus a full zacuto/redrock rig. We are relatively lucky, the cameras still go out regularly because our experience with them, its more of a situation where we get hired for our expertise and the camera goes along with that.
A kind of “if you want us, you pay our rates regardless” type of thing I suppose. I guess that shows that skill and reputation will always be worth something!
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As you can see it really varies. To give you an example of where I stand now, and I am lucky enough to be able to more or less choose the work I do through a lot of hard work…
I never do half days. A half day is a full day as far as I am concerned. Do that and you won’t be able to take another half from someone else.
I only work with my kit unless they want a specific camera.
When working abroad or even long distances from home. Travel days. Really a travel day is a lost day of work, and these days travelling is way more stressful and harder than shooting! But I tend to be flexible on this depending on what sort of ticket is bought for me! 🙂 But minimum half day for short haul flights up to 2/3rd for long haul with a good flight!
I own cameras from DSLRs through to a RED EPIC. Hiring me with an EPIC will cost more than hiring me with my DSLR, but generally I didn’t change my pricing when DSLRs came out as the most important and expensive part of the package was always me.
It is really tough for many people now. I have good friends, talented friends who are really struggling. It’s so different from the first time I did freelance sound recording some 15+ years ago with a cameraman who got a cheap BETA SP kit when he was laid off by ITN. He made great money with his camera and he was utterly shit! Even back then I would watch as he would light an interview with two red heads blasting 5 foot away for the interviewee either side of the interviewer. AWFUL! Yet he worked all the time. He had kit in the days when there were not that many freelance cameramen out there.
This brings me to the most important part. How do you stand out? The above cameraman would not stand out today, he would be left behind. This is what you need to succeed.
1: Talent
2: Hard work
3: The best can-do positive attitude in the world
4: Treat every job, no matter how tedious, as if you are doing a Terrence Malick film. If you slack off it’s a slippery slope. Always make an effort even on the dullest jobs. It keeps you interested and makes YOU stand out. I have seen people not bother on jobs they don’t care about and it shows. That same client may then not give them a great gig because of this.
5: Being willing to be part of the team and help out even if it’s not part of YOUR job.
6: What kit you have. See…the least important part, or at least should be. There will be people hired because they own Epics, or F3 even if they suck, but they probably won’t get a second job from that client!
7: Marketing yourself but I will cover that in a separate blog post
Reading some of these case studies and may think it’s all doom and gloom…it’s not. We are in a transitional phase where anybody can get their hands on gear. What this will do is separate the men from the boys. Just because every Tom. Dick and Harry can go and buy a shooting kit it doesn’t mean they will succeed. Talent, attitude and all the other stuff mentioned above will be what will lift you above the competition. If you have it, work hard, create those those connections then you well succeed.
REMEMBER…don’t undersell yourself! Unless of course you really suck 🙂
Part 3 of this blog will deal with marketing, social networking and that good stuff!!

No matter what industry you are in there will always be someone who will want cheap over quality, do you want to work for that person anyway?

I will finish with some more anecdotes and examples! Feel free to post your own experiences in the comments anonymously of course. I am sure there are positive stories out there too!
After a shooting for a Client he decided that the location (that he selected!) was the wrong for the Commercial and really asked if I would charge again if I had to shoot it a second time on the new location… because “it’s the same product”. Sound’s like a Fairy Tale, but that’s what I’m dealing with every day, and if you say “yes, of course, because it was not my fault and I have to do the same job a second time” you’re getting fired. That’s how business works over here for the last 12 months.
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We do corporate vids and I lose a lot of work to cheap cowboys like – it makes me so angry. Up here in Glasgow there are a ton of production companies and ‘just out of uni’ practitioners. They all have lovely slick websites, but many of them are producing just awful work, charging ridiculously low rates and undercutting me left right and centre. And I charge a fairly modest rate for me and my EX3. I found out the other day that the graphics company next door are working for a competitor of mine who is offering jobs for free just to get work through the door. It’s unbelievable.
I’m not sure how I can compete long term. I’ve done ok for the past three years since starting up and I have a few good blue chip clients who do know the value of quality. They get great value from me once they’ve signed up. But winning new work when most businesses and the public sector are buying on price, and when there are people out there charging half of what I can charge is just incredibly difficult. So far I’ve been stubborn and have stuck to my guns with rates – I’m unwilling to drop them and become a low quality hack. Hard to communicate that to potential clients who don’t know you yet though.
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it’s often “the big guys” over here who ruin prices. I know a real good DP in Cologne… he has huge Equipment, did a lot of good Music Videos, but industry over here dumped the prices, and guys like him started to deal with that. He goes out with a RED ONE right now for 600.- Euro per Day with a team of four people!?! No joke! On the other hand there are a lot people like me who worked for those companies over a lot of years, and if you don’t want to loose your job, you have to go with those new rates – they don’t care if you need the job or not, the cheapest wins, and it could look crappy – doesn’t matter. I’m one of the people who has his limit to go out there, and that’s the reason why I only had three jobs this year from RTL. There are a lot of people out there now who shoot for 100.- Euro (!) per Day on an T2i, and it’s okay for the Television Stations (mostly it’s still HDV stuff). It’s a real tough situation, and I’m sure it will get even worse.
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I’m based in the Midlands and I spent a lot of time freelance editing and second camera opping for TV production companies until a couple of years ago, even then I was having to do deals with them if I worked longer than a week – usually down to £190 a day. Usual rate was £250. I know it’s not London, and I was working on cable channel shows, but still… The companies have all gone now – either moved to London or vanished.Now I’m doing the freelance thing picking up little corporate or public sector jobs (a nightmare!) as well as starting my own snowboard video website as a kind of labour of love. I find these days I just have to ask what budget clients have got for a job because it will be nowhere near proper rates – this usually involves filming for half a day to a day, and editing a 3-5 minute piece for about £250-£300 if I’m lucky (DSLR)
. I did a filming job the other day for a UK TV documentary – filming on an EX3 with nanoflash (supplied). I worked 7.30 am – 11pm, managed to prang my car on the way out of the car park because I was so knackered and not paying attention, drove home for an hour and a half and by the time I’d charged the batteries and transferred all the media (the kit was being picked up at 8.30 the next morning) I eventually got to bed at about 3.30 am. I got paid £300 for this – it was supposed to be £250 but they took pity on me as the day ran longer than expected ( I knew it would), minus £75 excess on my car insurance to repair the damage.
Most of the time the snowboard companies offer me “product”, which is usually a t-shirt advertising their brand! Doesn’t really pay the bills, but I do it for the love I guess.
Unfortunately the options for me are either do the job for peanuts or don’t, OR somebody else will.