Should We Care?

Should we be excited about Sony’s NEX-FS100 camera?

It’s kind of a trick question.  There is no “we,” after all.  There are instead production companies, rental houses, independent producers, camera enthusiasts, and aspiring filmmakers — just to name a few potential markets for this camera.

At a body-only cost of $5,850, it’s no impulse buy.  Sony’s available E-mount lenses probably won’t impress DPs, so some kind of adapter for PL, Canon, or Nikon lenses will also be required.  Its specs closely mirror those of Panasonic’s AG-AF100: like the Panasonic model, it’s an interchangeable lens system that shoots at 24, 30, and 60 frames per second, all at 1080P (Matt Jeppson has a nice write-up about the camera at ProVideo Coalition).  Any way you slice it, it’s a pro camera.  And that’s sort of the issue I want to focus on.

“We” — the general video production community — tend to view these technological advancements in terms of how they will improve our footage, not in terms of how much they will cost.  NAB is right around the corner, and there are sure to be many tasty announcements that will undoubtedly cause excessive drooling among shooters and producers.  But “they” — the clients who hire us — are more concerned with keeping costs down than getting their videos shot on the hottest new camera.  And therein lies the rub.  The trend I’ve noticed in my own business over the past year is that I’m not realizing any additional return on each new piece of gear I add to my kit.

In 2010 I added an amazing Nikon 20mm manual AI-S lens to my kit, which I found on eBay for $400, and got quite a bit of use out of it.  As a regular reader of CheesyCam, I also bought two essential pieces of equipment that were well reviewed on their site: a Lilliput 7″ HDMI LCD Monitor and a Z96 portable LED light.  The monitor, with extra battery, cost me in the neighborhood of $250, the light around $100.  After shooting some B-roll with the monitor attached to my 7D, I couldn’t believe that I had ever bothered to shoot with overpriced, disappointing LCD magnifiers before.  Focusing was, finally, a breeze.  The LED light was similarly effective, punching up each run-and-gun set-up just enough to make the images pop.

But did I subsequently raise my rates in order to defray the cost of the new equipment?  Of course not.  I’m not sure how many other producers are having this issue, but I’m certain I’m not alone.  The rates I charge need to be competitive enough to secure me a contract; if I charge too much, clients will look elsewhere.

I’m competing today in an environment where the gear I use is not necessarily a differentiator.  I’m using a Canon 7D, but so is practically everyone else.  I’ve got a bunch of pricey L-series lenses, but so does my competition.  Nikon primes?  Yeah, big deal.  HDMI monitors?  Yawn.  Fluorescent and LED lighting gear?  Isn’t that special.

When I was on the other side of the table — when I was bidding out projects to line producers or production companies — they would list out all the equipment that was required for that particular shoot.  If I wanted an HDMI monitor, I had to pay extra for it.  If I wanted multiple primes and zooms, I had to pay for them.  Everything was monetized.  But as an independent producer, I’m experiencing the opposite pressure.  I’m being asked to give a flat rate that includes all my gear, regardless of what that may include.

I was talking about these issues with a fellow producer the other day.  Every new piece of hardware that we are required to invest in ends up as money out of our pockets.  And we don’t necessarily earn that money back.  It would be great if I could say to a client, “hey, I just bought an awesome portable HDMI monitor and it’s perfect for shooting B-roll, so if you want me to use it on this job, I’ll need to charge an additional $25,” — but how do you think they would react?  They would either look for another production company or tell me to shoot the B-roll without the monitor.  What they wouldn’t do is happily fork over the extra twenty-five bucks.  So why not just raise your rate by $25, you ask?  Jeez, why didn’t I think of that?

Last week, I submitted a bid on a fairly elaborate project.  Let me take a moment here to note that any hint of bitterness you may detect in the remainder of this post is purely a figment of your imagination.  Okay, with that cleared up, let’s continue: my bid included a client-mandated three days of studio space, two additional crew members, props, talent, hair/makeup, and casting.  A few years ago, this project would have cost at least three times the budget I submitted.  In other words, low budget video production is making due with around 60% less revenue than was available prior to the HDSLR phenomenon.  So while the barrier to entry for independent producers has gone way down, so too have the prices we can charge.  But here’s the kicker: like a lot of producers these days, I ended up listing my time and equipment on the bid as a single, flat rate charge.  Did I get the job?  Nope.  I lost the bid to someone cheaper.

My portion of the bid — the money that I would have been able to keep — amounted to only 25% of the entire budget.  Everything else was an expense, which I would have billed directly to the client without any markup.  I think it was the studio rental fee that ended up sinking me.  The cost of three days of studio space in the Boston area, with the P.A. they force you to hire, is much more than most small business clients can afford.  As far as what I was charging for my services, I won’t give you an exact amount, but I will say it was pretty low.  And my services included all equipment charges!  Like it or not, labor and equipment costs are viewed by many clients today as essentially the same thing.  Had I gone the other route — renting all my equipment and passing that cost along to the client as a separate expense, while charging for my labor — the budget would have gone up even more.

As I already mentioned, a different production company won the job with a lower bid.  Does anyone really believe that, in this environment, producers can just add an additional charge to their bids to cover the rental cost of an AG-AF100 or the upcoming NEX-FS100?  Conversely, does anyone believe that producers can instead purchase one of these new cameras and then raise their rates in order to make back a portion of their substantial “investment?”

I put that word in quotes because, ultimately, an investment is defined as something you spend a little money on now in order to increase your earning potential down the line.  If that’s your reality, great.  But, from my perspective, buying one of these amazing new cameras right now would be no more of an investment than dropping six grand on a gold Rolex.  Who knows, I might even be better off with the Rolex.

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2 responses to “Should We Care?

  1. I feel your sentiments, and I’d like to expand on central theme. in MN, I’ve only encountered one prospective client so far who put up a fuss about my bidding labor and equipment/materials as seperate line items. I told him this was a fairly standard format which emphasizes customized production and budget transparancy. He retorted that he had never seen a bid from another production company that wasn’t a single number and aked “why should I pay for your equipment?” I was a bit shocked by this until I realized: he manages marketing for a widget company where everyone is completely stuck in the vendor/distributor (or cost/volume) mentality, so he survives by finding vendors who have the greatest production volume and can therefore offer the lowest price with the assumption that their widget part is the same as the widget parts everyone else is selling. ie: why we buy so much cheap crap from Hong Kong vendors on ebay.

    Yes, it’s the dominant purchasing mentality, but I think more and more people assume it applies to every industry EQUALLY, even creative services. In general, I think people have lost any familiarity with custom-tailord deliverables and their perception of quality is limited or skewed by the lowest end of the market captializing on the “miracles of modern technology”. This is especially common for remodeling contractors, graphic designers, and of course media producers. In general, this trend will lead to a decreases in production quality and an increase in general noise.

    The shallow DOF trend, for example, has totally taken advantage of this because people notice “the look” even if they don’t know what creates it, and guess what–it costs less too! So, suddenly, it’s ebay bargin hunting for video clients. I’ve always been one of those ornary people who believe that shallow DOF should cost more because our industry needs cost/quality differentiators like that. But now that 7D footage can be cut with film footage and most people can only see the difference in cost, “we” are indeed in a tricky spot. Only quality OR volume will lead to strong business and a reasonable standard of living, so, going forward, it looks as though we have to choose between two extermes. I have no intention of offering package deals or hiring an indonesian camera crew to save costs and if a client wants to go with the lowest bidder or create their next promo with their iphone, I have to be comfortable with that.

    I think the HDSLR product line has been a curse as much as a blessing, but it’s also a very valuable wake up call for those who were used to business in the 90s. And maybe 10 years from now, clients will begin to realize that spending real money again will help them stand out instead of adding to the noise. But for now, we have to commit to one of the extremes in order to thrive.

    No new camera has shifted a client’s perception the way the 5D or 7D has. That said, since I never bought into the 5D craze (only rented) and I recognize that I have to jump on the band wagon eventually or my work will begin to look dated, I am seriously considering this new Sony. It will undoubtedly help me deliver better images to my client than with my current Panasoinic, but without many workarounds associated with DSLRs. Your words are wise, though. Trying to stay current with cameras is a game one really can’t win at–unless, maybe, one has clients who care about paying more for quality they can’t see. And even then, the gold Rolex would probably impress them more.

    Tricky times, these are.

    Thanks for the great blog!

    • Thanks for your excellent comment. Over the past few weeks there’s been a flurry of new camera announcements, especially from Sony. The funniest part of this new push by Sony to dethrone Canon in the DSLR market is that it potentially involves a whole new investment in E-mount lenses. It never ends. I still love my 7D, but I’d definitely consider a Canon camcorder with interchangeable lenses — something Panasonic and Sony have already brought to market — if such a thing ever appears (and I think it will). But how on earth will I justify a $4,000 expenditure? I just completed a shoot that resulted in nine two-minute videos for the client, each one to be uploaded to YouTube separately. But it was only a one day shoot, and I was forced to bid an incredibly low flat rate in order to get the job. Was it worth it? I’m not really sure anymore. I love the work, but I literally can’t believe how much content people are getting at incredibly low rates. You’re so right about the 90s. It used to be that video had a cost attached to it, and only people who could afford it jumped in. But a thousand here or a thousand there is unbelievably cheap, and no matter how good a job I do, there will always be someone out there who will work for less. One thing I’ve done recently is forced myself not to buy any new gear. It doesn’t really solve anything, but at least it means that the money that comes in doesn’t end up going to the credit card company. Thanks again!

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