Here is a typical situation. We are meeting with a client who has determined that a video would be an effective marketing tool for his company. We discuss his needs, and what he wants to communicate. Then “the moment” arrives when the inevitable question occurs: “How much will my video cost?” My best answer is: “How much do you want to spend?” Now that response really upsets people. Sometimes, they think we are trying to fleece them.

We often tell clients that we can produce a show for whatever their budget is. By giving us a number to key off of, we can tell them what can be done for that price. Usually, they will respond by saying, “Well, just give us your best idea of what it will take to do a good job.”

Other times, we find ourselves in a competitive quote situation. Our bid may be higher or lower by a large factor. Clients legitimately want to know how there can be such a big price difference. When there is no script to bid from, the quotes can vary by even greater magnitudes.

The only way to explain these variances is to use analogies. You wouldn’t expect a builder to quote you a price of a 10,000 square foot building without giving him a blue print, would you? From a blue print, a contractor determines how much time and materials it will take to construct the building. Without blue prints and a careful analysis, it is ludicrous to ask a builder how much a building will cost to erect. Any builder will tell you a 10,000 square foot building could cost anywhere from $50,000 to a million dollars, depending on what you need

To a filmmaker, a script is like a blueprint. From a script, we can breakdown the costs by:

  • Determining how big a crew we will need.
  • Estimating how much time it will take to shoot and edit.
  • Estimating how much equipment we will have to rent.
  • Determining how many actors we will need, etc.

With a script, we can arrive at an accurate estimate.

However, we are often asked to bid jobs without a script. So, the best we can say is, “If you give us a budget, we can design a program to make the best use of the funds allocated.” If a competitor bids the job for half of our estimate, you can bet that he doesn’t have the same film in mind.

When there is a script in existence and there is great variance in the quotes, it is even more confusing to the client. However, the building analogy works here, too. If you told two builders, “Here are the blue prints for my 3,000 square foot home, please give me a bid” and one of them came back with a $150,000 and the other came back with a bid for $250,000, you would want to know the difference. Was the higher bid using better fixtures, materials, and labor? Probably, the $250,000 bidder could re-bid your house for $150,000 by using cheaper tile, less expensive appliances, and a hundred other places to cut corners, before he had to cut into his profits.

Video works the same way. We can do a video for $10,000 or we can do it for $100,000. If you give me a budget for $10,000, I’ll make sure it can be done within that budget. There are obvious ways to save money, such as:

  • Limit the number of days of shooting by:
    • Taking less time to light the project (save time and use less lights to save money)
    • Don’t do as many takes with the actors (you don’t have time to go for perfection and stay within budget)
    • Limit the number of locations that you shoot at (changing locations eats up time which costs money)
    • Don’t use a dolly to shoot (dolly shots are more interestingand hold viewers’ attention better, but they take time to set up)
  • Use a less expensive crew (okay, there will be some sacrifice in quality)
  • Use less expensive actors (not as good a performance)
  • Use a less expensive camera (with a slight loss of quality)
  • Don’t shoot on a stage even though it might be better (locations are cheaper)
  • Use stock shots whenever possible to reduce your shooting time
  • Reduce the number of computer graphics and computer animation (even though graphics are usually very effective for communication, it is expensive)
  • Use cheaper animators and animation systems (the good guys cost more)
  • Don’t do 3-D animation; simple 2-D graphics are cheaper to create
  • Use fewer special effects in editing; keep it simple with cuts and dissolves
  • Use a cheaper narrator (you’ll limit your choice – the good ones do cost more)
  • Edit faster (see paragraph on editing below)
  • Don’t use an original score, use stock music (reducing impact unfortunately)
  • Don’t put in a sound effects track or use a limited effects track
  • Don’t do a full mix. Mix in the edit bay, it’s cheaper and faster (but not as perfect)

Taking less time in the edit bay to cut a show can save thousands of dollars. What do you give up? Using another analogy, it’s the difference between a $2,000 desk and a $200 desk. Both have the same dimensions and number of drawers, yet one costs ten times as much. Of course, the expensive desk uses the best grain of wood and has the finest finish.

Did you know that a well-cut, 10-minute video often has over 200 edits? When you shoot a film, you typically do many takes. Sometimes, it is not obvious which take is the best until you see it juxtaposed with other takes. So you may have to make five or six edits until you find the take that works the best. Sometimes adding as little as 1/30 of a second to a shot can make a difference between a smooth transition and one that is jerky. Sometimes a dissolve works better than a cut. Sometimes you need to try it both ways to see which works best. Sometimes it’s better if the audio cut occurs slightly before or after the video cut. Editing time often costs over $200 per hour. On the other hand, if you know you’ve only got x number of hours to edit a show in order to stay on budget, you can’t take the time to go for perfection.

Film has a grammar just as writing does. We all know the impact of a comma, a period, or a question mark. Cuts, dissolves, wipes and montages are the grammar of film. Now any third grade student can use commas and arrange words into a montage that we call a paragraph. However, it is unlikely that a student can create as much impact and feeling as a Hemmingway? (Even though the student is using the same material and techniques.) Well, guess what? In video, some directors and editors are much better at using cuts, dissolves and wipes to create montages than others. Guess what else? The good guys cost more.

A finely cut film or video will have more impact and convey more information than one that is done by a hack. But even the best directors and editors need time to do their best work (and time costs money). The old adage, “you get what you pay for” is as true as ever.

Unfortunately, we still have not answered the original question, “How much should my video cost?” If you were buying a used car, and I was a used care salesman, and you asked me to recommend a car to buy, I would say:

  • What do you need it for?
  • How big a load will you need to carry?
  • How much do you have to spend?

Armed with that information, I could make my recommendation. Without that information, any recommendation I could make would be spurious. If your budget is $50,000 and you needed it for high-mileage driving for business, I might recommend a new Mercedes. On the other hand, if you only have $10,000 to spend, I might recommend a good used Ford.

Video is the same. When we meet with you, we try to determine what you need to convey, how competitive our environment, how much impact the audience will need for motivation, how important it is to the success of your company and how much you can afford to spend. Within that spending limit, we can then determine the best way to help you. Remember, if two people are promising the same thing for widely different prices, either there is a communication problem—or one of them is a liar or a thief. So it really comes down to, “Who do you trust and who can you communicate with the best.”



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