Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What does a video cost?

The first question on everyone’s mind when considering creating or using a video for the non profit organization is what does a video cost? Well, to have fun with a cliché, this is the million dollar question.

No, a video doesn’t cost a million dollars, but it will cost whatever you are willing to spend on it. My favorite example is that of television commercials. Everyone has seen thousands of television commercials, and whether we know exactly what they cost, we can tell the difference between a $500 local cable commercial for the local car dealer and a $1,000,000 or more commercial shown during the Superbowl. Both commercials last exactly 30 seconds, and both commercials can be effective, but the costs vary widely.

As a video producer, my reply to that question is always “what do you want to spend?” If I know that someone wants to create a 4-7 minute video about their organization to be distributed via DVD and the web, and they were only planning on spending $18-20,000 I already have a tremendous amount of information for my proposal. If someone asks me to just bid for the job and tell them what I think it will cost, I’m lost in a sea of questions.

Should I bid the job as film or video tape? Will I plan on using expensive camera equipment like a crane or Steadicam? How big a crew can I have? How experienced, and therefore expensive, a cameraman can I chose? Can I afford to have a professional make up person? In my work over the past seven years, I have worked on projects ranging from $8,000 to $40,000 on projects of this length. And on each and every one of those, I could have used significantly more money to “put on screen.”

Just like running a non profits budget, creating a video budget is a series of compromises. I have used Steadicam on several projects. Steadicam is a very unique piece of equipment that allows a camera to float on an articulated arm, just away from the operators body. It allows for fluid movements that can have great impact. It was actually invented in the Philadelphia area by a man named Garrett Brown, and first used to much acclaim in the famous “Rocky” steps sequence, where the camera was able to fluidly run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum with Sylvester Stallone. Most recently I took advantage of the Steadicam in a capital campaign video for the University of Pennsylvania Library System. The speed with which we can work out moving camera shots to make a static library much more visually dynamic had a tremendous impact on what could have been a very visually flat video. But, the Steadicam and a good operator and a good assistant are expensive. It probably added $2-3000 to our one day of B-Roll shooting. B-Roll is secondary footage that one uses to cut away to for variety and editing choices within interviews. But without that additional expense, the video would have been far less effective and engaging, and the much larger total budget for the project could have been spent with far less potential for return on investment.

Many of these numbers might sound like they are higher than most people expect. I tend to find that people envision that a video might cost $5-10,000 for a short piece about their organization. My common examples are what I refer to as General Use Videos, which are pieces that can be used in a multitude of situations and describe an organization but don’t include a specific call to action. This makes them the main video brochure for many organizations, and they are often distributed via DVD and the web, amongst other methods. I know that there are people and companies who will work with less funding than mine, but I also know that most video production companies charge at least 2 to 3 times what I do for the same work, and frequently even more. For a 4-7 minute general use video for an organization based in one general geographic area, i.e. no nationwide travel necessary, that the budgets tend to range from $15-25,000 on average, but can easily reach $40 or $50,000. Based on my television commercial example, one can obviously spend much more than that if they choose to, but these are solid sample ranges.

I plan to write an additional article on choosing a video production company and the bidding and proposal process, but I will summarize some main points here. Higher price doesn’t always mean a higher quality, but beware of bargain basement producers. Video in particular is being democratized by the wide availability of inexpensive digital cameras and desktop editing software. There are many very capable producers working with this type of equipment. This is how I started myself, and I still use these tools for projects with greater budget pressures. But, a kid still in film school is like a lottery ticket, and its rare to get a winner. They might be the next Scorcese, but do you really want Goodfellas as a representation of your non profit? This is possibly a bit of hyperbole, but unfortunately in my experience organizations do get what they pay for. How can you expect someone with a full course load and a lack of experience to truly find and tell your story in the most compelling way using college equipment, spare time, and lessons from a book. Professional companies are the way to go. It is possible to find professionals who are willing to work pro bono, or at cost (which may still surprise you if they are used to large corporate budgets), and I always encourage organizations to take advantage of these opportunities. But, again, pro bono work will never be first priority in a for profit shop.

There is an axiom in my industry that I am very fond of, called the rule of thirds. Good, fast, and cheap, choose any two. You can have something produced that will be good and cheap, but it will take a long time to get done. You can have something fast and cheap, but it will definitely not be good. I tend to work on the good, medium speed, and medium budget mode. We take more time to get more from our budgets, but always make certain that we are pleased with the quality.

So, when you are interviewing a potential producer, look at their body of work. Have an idea of what you want to see. But most importantly, have an idea of what you are willing to spend. It doesn’t have to be an exact number, but a range is greatly helpful. If after a meeting I know that an organization was hoping to spend $15,000, but absolutely won’t spend more than $19,000, I’ll usually return a proposal with options. I’ll explain how my $15,000 proposal will get the job done well, but what exactly I would do with one or two higher priced options within that raise. Then the organization’s staff and board can truly evaluate what they are going to get and why.
I like to think that flexibility of that nature demonstrates that my company is dedicated to the project and putting the budget on screen, and not just in our pockets. But don’t misunderstand, most video production is done on a for profit basis, and even when done by non profits it is still expensive. The equipment is expensive, the time is expensive, but mostly talented and skilled artisans and creative people’s time is valuable just like anyone else’s. And talented people with a desire to truly help an organization communicate well can only result in videos that everyone will be proud to show and watch themselves.