The Business of Video Production
I've been here. In the early 1990s, photographer Karl Petersen and I started Glint Video in Portland, Oregon. We had two good-sized clients and occasionally picked up smaller gigs along the way.
We sought advice from our mutual friend, news photographer Sam Prigg, who had turned some weekend freelance assignments into a growing video production businesswith an office and his own gear and even employees! When we saw all that he had done to get where he was, it gave both Karl and me the jitters.
We stuck to what amounted to a freelance, on-call arrangement. Soon there were dry spells and too many wannabe competitors with NewTek Video Toasters and low-ball bids. Karl got an offer to be chief photographer at the local NBC-TV affiliate, and one of our clients asked me to write a book. So, we parted ways.
It's tough to get into any business, especially into a high-tech, creative field such as video production, where client expectations shift as quickly as the technology.
Despite that, Sam Prigg is still at it. While other production firms in Utah have folded their tents, Prigg has adjusted to the shifting landscape and grabbed greater market share. Here's his advice.
Sam Prigg's Tips on Starting a Video Production Company
Sam Prigg, the "Head Wabbit" at White Rabbit Productions in Salt Lake City (http://www.whiterabbitproductions.com) has never taken himself too seriously. That hasn't stopped him from creating one of Utah's most successful video production houses. His client list and "statues," as he puts it, make that clear. He's worked for all the major networks, plus Disney, Apple, Intel, and many other big-name clients. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, he had eight crews working full-time for folks such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, and MTV. His "statues" include Emmys, ADDYs, Tellys, DuPonts, and "Most Improved" in bowling.
Sam Prigg is one of the good guys. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him in the mid-1980s during my 4-year stint at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. He has a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in cinematography. For the first half of his 27-year TV and film career, he thought he was going to live and die working for a TV station. But then the business changed and so did he.
Local news operations cut staff while adding news shows (news is relatively inexpensive programming), and TV networks found it was cheaper to make layoffs and hire local freelance crews instead. Sam began shooting on the side and soon started making more money working on weekends and vacations than he was in his day job.
Since he also was becoming disenchanted with that TV news job, he knew it was time to leave. How hard could it be, he thought, to do freelance full time and make a killing? He soon found out, and along the way, acquired a few tips that others might use to not make the same mistakes. Here's what he has to say:
Learning about business is essential to survival. I have a degree in communications and lots of worldly experiences, but the business world is a whole different animal. You'll need to learn about insurance, taxes, bonding, business plans, advertising, equipment purchases or leases, office space, phones, faxes, furniture, marketing, pricing, invoicing, bad debts, good demo reels, production schedules, contracts, the IRS, accounting, hiring freelance workers, firing freelance workers, security, and credit. It's no surprise that most small startups fail after a few years.
Working with a partner...or not. I started our company with a partner, thinking our skills complemented each other. Turns out we had conflicting ideas about how to run a business, and I ended up buying him out. Dissolving a partnership can be like getting a divorce. Partner up if you must, but be aware of the ramifications. Put your expectations in writing. Spell out the roles each partner will take, where the money will go, and be prepared to review the contract frequently.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. When I started my business, I had one client that accounted for most of my work. It was great. I traveled around the United States, shot all kinds of neat stuff, edited to my heart's content, and enjoyed life in the freelance world. Two years later, the client's company got sold and everything stopped. I forgot to broaden my base and to do that marketing thing. I had to scramble to find some new clients. It took a couple of years until I felt comfortable again, but I learned a few things. One is that eggs-in-one-basket rule, and the other is that the time to do your marketing is when you're busy with the project that you're currently working on.
Figure out what kind of video production company you are. When I started out, I was going to offer to do anything at the highest possible level. I planned to shoot, write, and edit commercials, news, documentaries, corporate videos, sports, accident re-creations, school plays, weddings...well, no weddings, but just about anything else. My market was the world. And I could do it on film or videoI thought. It took a long time to discover who I was, but now I can say our mission statement in one sentence: We shoot high-end video for television networks, news magazine shows, and corporations, and we specialize in making people look good. After we figured that out, it was easier to focus our marketing and purchase the right equipment.
Create a demo reel. Your demo reel represents who and what you are. It is your most valuable marketing tool. There are plenty of views about what makes a good reel. My take is that you may have only 30 seconds to make a favorable impression. Why? I know of TV news directors who view aspiring reporters' demo reelschock full of stories, on-camera stand-ups, and clever on-set reparteefor all of 30 seconds. That's all the time they need to make such important decisions. Make sure that you gear your reel for your target audience and have it quickly demonstrate your core values. Our reel has a fast-paced introduction with several shots of well-lit people, well- composed shots of a variety of subjects, and lively music. It includes a few graphics-laden segments and ends with contact information. It runs about seven and a half minutes. I like to watch it. And it has helped us get lots of jobs.
Educate your clients. When I meet a new client for the first time, I usually have to educate them about the steps involved with producing an effective video. It starts with identifying the audience memberstheir ages, educations, and preconceived attitudes about the subject. I then outline the dozen or so steps involved with most productionsconcept, writing, storyboarding, casting, location scouting, crew, equipment, production shoot, narration, editing, graphics, and music.
Don't burn a client. If you make a mistake with some clientsbad lighting, poor composition, arriving late, faulty equipment, dead batteriesthey might forgive you once. TV networks are less forgiving. One mistake and they won't come back.
Adapt to change because things will change. I try to stay up on the newest trends in equipment and technology, such as new recording formats and delivery systems. It's important to understand why they have been developed and how they change the way we do business. Many clients now ask about having their video streamed or converted to DVDs or CD-ROMs. High-definition formats are now being offered at the high-end and low-end. New recording formats include hard drives, memory sticks, and re- recordable DVDs. As a means to stay current, subscribe to technology magazines and join an industry organization such as the International Television Association for its conferences and seminars. View the work of others to see what kind of competition you might be facing and what kind of markets you might be missing.
Deciding what to charge. For the high end of the video production market, it's easier to determine what to charge because TV networks, union contracts, and a universal fee schedule set the parameters for what the market will pay. In the television news, news magazine, and corporate worlds, using broadcast Betacam SP cameras, professional audio equipment, extensive lighting, and grip equipment and being backed by 15 to 20 years of experience, a two-person crew, consisting of a camera person and audio tech, can get between $1,200 to $1,500 for a 10-hour day. You can charge additional fees for the use of a wide-angle lens, matte box with filters, HMI or daylight-balanced lighting, and other production tools. Beginning photographers can usually charge $200 to $350 a day plus $150 to $200 for a mini-DV camera, a small lighting package, and a selection of microphones.
Consider working for someone else. It's easier and much less expensive to work for the kind of company you would like to become. Get your experience with another production company that has its own equipment and clients. Perfect your techniques and broaden your knowledge by working for someone else. Then, as you understand the market and maybe find your niche, you can branch off on your own with a better understanding of the business and where your market might be. Our company is always looking for a photographer with a good eye as well as audio techs, gaffers, grips, teleprompter operators, writers, producers, and just about anyone else who can help make us look good.