Expectations. We all have them. We expect our doctors to be friendly, competent and willing to take our insurance. We expect our food to be nutritious, affordable and safe. And we expect our movie stars to be millionaires, quirky and always beautiful.
If you are a business owner or decision maker who wants people to know about your product or service, you expect your promotional video to show it in the best possible light at a reasonable cost. And it is understandable if you have Hollywood expectations but only a YouTube budget.
That’s what this article is about; trying to help you maximize the quality of your next video production while keeping a cap on costs…and expectations.
Just Give Me a Figure
Let’s first look at your options. You basically have two; hire a professional or find a friend, family member or co-worker who just bought that new whiz-bang camcorder who is willing to work for cappuccinos. While it is an option that I’ve helped mop up on several occasions, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume you are not serious about the latter.
O.K., so you make a few phones calls to video producers in your area and it sounds like they are more interested in asking you questions than giving you a clear answer about costs. Why won’t most producers simply tell you how much they charge for a five-minute video? This is where expectations and the reality of video production intersect.
Let’s take two scenarios, both using the same professional quality but relatively inexpensive high definition camcorder. In the first example, the producer puts the camcorder on a tripod outside with no lighting or fancy audio and records a talking head for five minutes. The second example involves multiple changes in location, lighting, angles, premium audio, grip and other support equipment and requires significant post-production. The first might only set you back a $100. The second may cost as much as three bedroom two bath (pre-crash) home. And they are both “five-minute videos.”
How does the producer know which you want?
This is where you really have the ability to take and maintain control. Don’t give it up here at the beginning. Give your idea some thought before contacting a video professional. Every seasoned producer will ask you for at least an outline if not a complete script before giving you an accurate cost estimate.
First, write down your thoughts in outline form. Depending on your Left-Right brain style, you may want to capture your thoughts in a more narrative or visual format. Certainly, go with your strength, but try to force yourself to concentrate on what you want to say more than how it should look. Don’t get into the trap of thinking that you need to lock yourself in a room with the coffee maker, just spend 10 minutes jotting down your key points.
Next, talk to colleagues or knowledgeable friends about how you might flesh this out. Again, don’t get sidetracked by thinking about the how, just keep focused on the what.
Finally, combine the input you received and try to turn your outline into something you envision a narrator or actor actually speaking. This does not need to be a completed script, but writing out they key talking points will give the bidding producer a much better concept of the tone and style you want. If you do this, you are much more likely to get a bid that is right for your project.
You now have a document that will communicate your message and associated budget to potential producers. It’s time to begin your search for a professional that can take your concept and run with it. But to where? His script writing software, his studio, his bank? If it is anywhere other than his script writing software, keep looking. The pen (keyboard) remains the most powerful weapon in retaining control of your budget. Do not be tempted to “just get it on video” because of time pressures. Post production can easily cost far more than principle cinematography.
Some producers will help you refine your draft outline/script as part of the opportunity to bid the project. I often provide this initial assistance at no cost so that I am clear about the intent and parameters of the project. More complex script development is a valuable skill and should be considered a paid option.
I’m not going to bore you with the obvious place to look for a producer. A Google search will get you started and most producers have demos online. Good producers should be busy, so don’t let the fact that a website isn’t updated discourage you. If they have time to keep a daily blog or update images from their last shoot, they are probably not all that busy. O.K., enough rationalizing why mine is not updated.
There are essentially two types of budget; the, “what can you do for $X-dollars?” and the, “I want a killer video.” For simplicity, let’s call them Fixed and Flexible.
A truly fixed budget isn’t as common as you might think. Most business allocate a certain amount for marketing, and cannot exceed this amount. That’s an obviously sound business practice. But it often becomes necessary to either bump up overall quality because the subject matter demands it or to make changes to the script at mid-production that results in overruns. If changes happen early at the script development stage, it is much easier to make adjustments to either stay on budget or to find alternative funding such as co-op or sponsorships.
If a truly fixed budget isn’t the rule, the elasticity of the Flexible is not all that common either. If you put a premium on creating a very high-quality video and like the producer’s work, you may give her the first crack at establishing the creative elements without a budget cap. What you’ll likely get is a budget that is more than you intended, so here is how you can make adjustments.
Budget Cuts: Trim, Talent or Trade
Trim the length and or number of scenes. You’d be amazed at how much verbiage can be reduced from even a third draft script in the hands of a good wordsmith. Sometimes the producer can handle this task, other times you’ll need outside help. You can save quite a lot by reducing the number of locations and setups (every time the camera and lights are moved). How much can be done in the same studio or outdoor location? Inside shoots at “real” locations such as homes or business, usually take more time than a fully functional studio.
“Talent” is the name used for anyone in front of the camera or narrating the script. It doesn’t always imply the person has it. If the person is a pro, is good looking and can walk and talk with authority, they deserve to be paid well. But since this can be a big part of your budget, think about looking for a cheaper alternative. Business owners or key personnel can often serve as the most authoritative talent as they have skin in the game. Of course, you’ll need to be open to the possibility of you or associates not coming off well on-camera and be ready to cut costs elsewhere.
Some producers are becoming more open to trading part of their services. If you have something they might want, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Most mid-level producers, however, remain leery of participating in “percentage” deals in which they are promised part of the action should the product or service become profitable.
More Hollywood, Please
You want to keep your video from looking like a used car commercial, but how do you do that? Well, it’s important to have an appreciation of what makes a Hollywood film look so good in the first place. For starters, it is shot on actual film or $150K plus digital cameras with lenses that are also ridiculously priced. The camera often moves on cranes, dollies, an Steadicams operated by true professionals. The movement, while potentially so subtle you hardly notice, adds a good deal to this filmic experience. The audio is often redubbed with microphones that are exquisitely sensitive. The lighting, even outdoors, is complex and powerful. And of course, actors, sets, makeup artists, and other professionals add their unique value and expertise to every project. I encourage you to actually read each line of the credits at the end of the next film you watch. Your eyes will be strained but you’ll have a visceral understanding to our question above.
The best way to take control of the look of your next video production is by knowing what to expect before you contract with the producer. Judging quality is not easy because it is somewhat subjective. Production Level is a generic term for distinguishing between relative video production qualities; the higher the level the closer to the look of a Hollywood production. For example, on a scale of one to ten, your average YouTube video is a one, local television news is a four, good regional commercial production a five or six and Spielberg’s latest efforts are usually around a ten (see below for a full ten-point approximation).
As you might guess, higher production levels also come with higher costs. So when comparing proposals it is important to compare like Production Levels. Cost per Finished minute is an all-inclusive gross approximation and costs will vary substantially based on the requirements of the client and demands of the script.
10-Point Production Level Comparison Chart using,Production level, Quality Examples, and Cost per minute:
1 Home video, YouTube submission $0-$50
2 Good home video, low/no budget (bud) documentaries (docs) $0-$100
3 Student film productions (equivalent commercial value of school costs) $50-$200
4 Local TV news, low bud docs $100-$700
5 Better Local TV commercials, infomercials, mid bud docs $500-$2,500
6 Regional TV commercials, national “reality” shows $1,500-$5,000
7 National news magazines, low bud feature film $2,500-$30K
8 National TV commercials, high bud docs $2,500-$75K
9 Mid bud feature film, high bud music video $5,000-$100K
10 High bud feature film, high bud TV commercials $10K-Don’t ask
Details of Mid-Budget Production Levels
Level 4: This Production Level will produce a final video similar in quality to the field reports generated by local television news broadcasts. It is characterized by its raw quality and quick shooting, gathering of story details, and small amount of editing. The emphasis on speed means there is little or no pre-planning, no special lights are used, there is little manipulation of background elements and time spent adjusting composition. This level may be appropriate for those clients trying to simulate “news style” footage.
Level 5: This Production Level will produce a final video similar in quality to better examples of local broadcast commercial production, infomercials, and mid-budget documentaries. Pre-planning includes location scouting, acquiring and evaluating test footage, coordination and rental of appropriate supplemental lighting, grip and other video equipment. More time is spent lighting and composing each shot so that the final image has a more three-dimensional feel.
Level 6: This Production Level will produce a final video similar in quality to Regional TV commercials, national “reality” shows. Pre-planning and tests exceed that of Level 5 and even more attention to lighting and composition details provide a more film like quality to the final production.
A Producer’s Confession
Even if they never mention it, I believe a good portion of my clients at least fantasize about having a “Hollywood” quality video. Because most of the better regional producers (and I consider myself one) are keenly aware of this desire, many of us have inferiority complexes. Yes, it’s true, we all want to make our clients look beautiful and our videos look as much like they were made in Hollywood as possible. This prompts us to go deeply into debt to get equipment and to keep honing our skills that will get us, and our clients, closer to that “Hollywood” goal.
Here’s how you can use this weakness to your advantage. On projects that have been passionately conceived and well thought out, I am often impelled to provide that extra bit of “magic” at deep discounts. That “magic” has included use of my camera crane where it was not budgeted, discounting of my Steadicam operation, tossing in my in-house narration, or by providing extra time in post-production to give the video a more film-like quality. In short, when the work becomes it’s own reward, you often get more than you pay for.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely concluded it is not always possible to get a video that looks just like it was produced in Hollywood without paying the price. But with the suggestions I’ve made, you should be able to find a producer that can get you awfully close while staying within your budget.