How much does it cost to hire a video production company?
THE COST OF VIDEO PRODUCTION
The obvious answer here would be one with numbers. The client version of the question is ‘how much would this particular concept cost, rough ballpark, I won’t hold you to it’ and the production company response is ‘what’s your budget’? Both are valid opening salvos in what often becomes a staring competition.
We wanted to take a different approach to it and help readers understand what is the single biggest influence on cost. Because it is absolutely not the client’s appetite for quality. It is the client’s appetite for risk.
Perhaps we start by adding up all of the individual elements of a simple video production. We’ll get into figures and larger shoots later but a standard one day corporate video shoot it may look something like this:
Producer (project management) – 1 day
Producer/director – 1 day
Camera operator – 1 day
Runner – 1 day
Equipment – 1 day
Travel, accommodation and subsistence
Editing time, music etc
RISK AS A COST METRIC
This simplicity would suggest a relatively narrow budget range for this kind of production, which is true. So where does risk come in? And how do you account for the difference between this kind of shoot and something bigger, say a mid-range promotional film or even a higher budget TV commercial.
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. Let’s talk about sound.
In this corporate video production scenario it’s quite straightforward and the camera operator is sufficiently skilled and experienced to record their own sound. But what if it wasn’t? What if it’s a high-pressure shoot in a noisy environment and you’ve only got limited time with the interviewee so the camera operator really needs to focus solely on their main role, image quality? It would make sense to add a sound recordist, just in case. And these are the three most important words in this article – just in case. Because the foundational cost of video production has much less to do with quality and far more to do with risk management.
It’s worth noting that a quality sound recordist is relatively expensive. We tend to book ours through the wonderful folks at Linkline. Sound is also one of the video production disciplines least likely to openly negotiate their rates. We’ve had a number of shoots where the camera operator has arrived with a van full of very expensive equipment and the sound recordist is still the most expensive member of the crew. Why is this relevant? Because in this budget range the decision to employ a sound recordist is a non-trivial chunk of the budget.
But they say sound is 51% of a movie and if you’re making a corporate video of talking heads then the talking part carries some weight. So under the right circumstances the client can be persuaded that it’s worth it to employ one, even on a relatively small corporate shoot. That’s because having this extra, highly competent member of crew mitigates the risk of the final product being compromised to the point of uselessness. Here, the sound recordist is there ‘just in case’.
Yes, the sound quality will be better. Sounds recordists have the equipment, knowledge and experience to record better sound. On top of this the adaptable, neuroplastic quality of the brain means that a sound recordist’s years of listening for good sound have caused their brains to literally adapt to being better at it! But in a low-risk, low-pressure shoot environment would the sound recorded by the operator be so much better that the audience would notice? Would they even care? Honestly, that’s highly unlikely. So where the decision is made to include a sound recordist it’s done so to reduce risk of the sound being catastrophically bad, rather than subjectively better. It’s a function of risk management not quality.
This is in some measure how you account for the exponential difference in cost between a one day corporate video shoot and an international sports commercial. Both could theoretically be done with a couple of people, a camera and a sound recordist.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COST AND COMPLEXITY
You may argue that perhaps the commercial is shot on an Arri Alexa cinema camera with eye-wateringly expensive Cooke S-series lenses rather than a Sony FX9 and Canon zooms, so the cost would go up. True. But not by £200k. So, why?
It’s because large numbers of additional crew are required to share the burden of risk between them. Let’s say the client is now thinking about a mid-size promotional film that has a couple of locations and a handful of actors in it. The crew for this is going to be bigger than on the corporate video.
In a corporate video the interviewees tend to be sat down for the whole thing, so they don’t move, which means the camera operator can set the focus at the beginning and only check it occasionally, reassuring themselves that it’s still in focus.
But if the actors in this promo are moving around (which they probably are) then keeping them in focus is suddenly much harder than it was. You can rely on the camera operator to do it, but they already have a bunch of things on their plate such as lighting (even when they’re not recording sound). So ensuring the actor is sharply in focus throughout the shot has become too important to make it a part of someone’s job. It becomes someone’s entire job. Hence the role of 1st Assistant Camera, or in old money, the Focus Puller.
Is this a function of quality? Yes. It’s unarguably the case that an out of focus film is worse than an in focus film. But the subdivision of tasks amongst larger crews is not really to make the film better, it’s to prevent it being worse. It’s only from a position of technical safety that you can focus on making any given film better. Having to go again because an actor’s performance is subjectively not quite right is much better than having to go again because the focus is objectively poor. The Focus Puller de-risks the shoot by reducing the number of takes required because the shot was out of focus.
Now you’ve got actors and unit moves between locations. Which means there’s more to keeping on schedule than simply having the producer look at their watch and suggest we wrap up this interview.
THE RISING COST OF PRODUCTION
For the majority of shoots there are very few shots on the shotlist that can be deleted if time is short. The sunk cost fallacy, a cognitive bias where individuals continue a behaviour or endeavour based on previously invested resources, such as time, money, or effort doesn’t really apply to production. Once you’ve booked the various aspects of the shoot, it needs to be finished.
Most rates of pay for crew are dictated by the Advertising Producers’ Association and the crew union BECTU and they generally rise at a rate considerably above inflation. Between 2018 and 2022 the day rates for a Director of Photography and First Assistant Director rose 25% and 27% respectively (perhaps it’s time for BECTU to represent the NHS!) This means the cost of one day of production is a big investment so to combat this production companies and clients pack the shooting days so full there is rarely contingency and they run into overtime costs when the days run long. Usually a few hours of overtime in one packed day of production is much cheaper than two days with a baggy schedule. The enormously detrimental impact of this approach on the physical and mental health of crews is a separate and troubling subject.
If, as a client, you’re spending £20k+ on a promo, you don’t want to get 15 hours into the day and have the freelance crew walk off because no-one was managing the schedule or keeping people informed about when the end would be. If you only shoot 3 of 5 interviews on a corporate video, you can still make a film. If you only shoot 5 of 8 scenes in your promo, it’s MUCH harder to make the film work.
Enter the First Assistant Director, organisational ninja of the Film Set.
THE COST OF TIME MANAGEMENT
This is a more obvious function of risk because this role is responsible for creating the schedule. Without using AI, or algorithms, just experience and the knife edge balance of optimism and a slightly cynical view of human nature, they determine the most efficient way to marshal the shoot’s resources in pursuit of the maximum number of takes. They are the ulcer-developing, chess grandmasters of production, thinking 7 moves ahead, working through branching chains of possibility, usually efficiently hiding a sense of near panic because the director wants ‘just one more take’. They’re constantly thinking about the take in progress, the shot that’s happening next and how to squeeze 3% more efficiency out of the day.
The First AD is the shoot’s saviour, the crew’s protector and interestingly, often the person who sees a way through, saving the producer’s ass and the director’s vision. The role is entirely risk management.
DO EXPENSIVE CREWS MAKE BETTER FILMS?
At a certain point the cost of high quality crew becomes decoupled from the rates dictated by APA/BECTU and some crew such as in-demand, award-winning directors and well-established Directors of Photography can demand significantly higher rates. Surely this is a function of quality rather than risk? It will be better because we’re hiring the best people, no? Probably, yeah. But as the old saying goes ‘nobody got fired for buying IBM’. If you use the most expensive, most awarded agency, production company and director and it goes wrong then the buyer has a rock solid defence of their job. I used all the best people! If at any point in this process you take a risk on an untried director or a cheaper DoP and it goes wrong then that defence is much weaker. The most expensive path is the one of least risk.
Almost every job on a film set can be seen as a function of risk first, quality second. The decision to recruit a role is one of risk management. Only once this decision is made does it become one of quality, choosing which person to fill that role.
So how does this answer the original question, how much should I pay for video production?
HOW TO DECIDE, BASED ON COST?
Let’s go back to that one day corporate video but with numbers this time.
Producer (project management) – 1 day (£400-£700 per day)
Producer/director – 1 day (£400-£700 per day)
Camera operator – 1 day (£350-£750 per day)
Runner – 1 day (£125-£150 per day)
Equipment – 1 day (£500-£1,000)
Travel, accommodation and subsistence (🤷♂️)
Editing time, music etc (Editing at £350 – £650 per day, let’s say 2 days for first draft and 2 days for amends).
Most production companies either have a percentage line item for their profit margin or it’s hidden within the day rates. Let’s say that’s 20% at the bottom end and 40% at the top. That would give you a total cost of between £3,810 where every rate is the cheapest and £8,260 where every rate is the most expensive.
That’s a pretty broad range so how do you interrogate those costs to decide what level of budget, quality and risk you’re comfortable with?
If a production is inexplicably cheap then the company perhaps doesn’t understand the job or their own value. Both are red flags. Or they’re desperate for work; an equally alarming proposition.
SOME COST QUESTIONS FOR CLIENTS TO ASK
Presumably, if you’ve read this far you don’t already have an innate feel for what any given video production should cost so the only thing you can do is dig into the quote. The following questions may be useful, especially when you’re comparing different quotes from different companies:
– What size is the crew? And ask the company to talk you through each of the roles and why they are there. This may highlight different approaches for different companies and help explain differences in cost
– How many shooting days are there? More time almost always equals a better product. But no-one has an infinite budget so this usually comes down to ‘what is the minimum amount of time in which we can reasonably do this well, and include a contingency’?
– How much profit is the production company making? The majority of the production industry uses freelance crew, and those that use in-house staff usually hire out their staff at market rates. So, the basic cost of production should be fairly similar. Simply ask what their profit is and how the cost is structured. Some companies will be able to defend it, and some won’t. Some companies can charge more for their services because of their brand and experience, or because they’re loaded with work and don’t need to take cut-rate work. But either way it’s not a secret and you can use that information to inform your decision.
Hopefully that’s a real nuts and bolts explanation of what goes into the cost of a video production, and gives you a basic framework to understand how these things start adding up.
Feel free to get in touch if you’ve got any questions, or even better, if you want us to quote on something.
We’ve recently updated the ‘Why Us’ page to expand on this kind of thinking, exploring why clients choose us for their video production.