Rates and the industry: favors, loyalty, and conjuring numbers.

I work a lot of non-union gigs, and while I am gathering my days to join Local 600 (hopefully by October, I’ll be in), I hope that I can remain steadfast in future rates negotiations. I expect to use my negotiating skills as much once in the Union as I have booking non-union gigs.

Sometimes, I get a call for a job looking to book a Steadicam operator with gear, and the price they come in with is very very soft (e.g. my equipment’s daily rental is double what they’re offering for rate and rental on a 12 hour day). I know a lot of other operators tend to immediately beat the war drum, decline the job or possibly laugh the person off the phone. Others accept the job whether times are slow or not. My inquisitive nature generally says:

“I don’t think I can do that number, but out of curiosity, how did you budget $XXX for the position? Who gave you that number?”

The responses usually come in a variety of flavors:

  • “Oh, that’s all that’s left in the budget.” (and you said your shoot relied heavily on Steadicam?)
  • “Well, we had a guy that did it for that much a while back.” (and why isn’t he available?)
  • “That’s all we can afford, I’m sorry, I feel terrible for offering it to you.” (honestly, this is the response I prefer, because even if they don’t actually know how low it is, they’ve probably been beaten up all day by other people who hate that number)
  • “Well, that’s all we budgeted for it.” (I really dislike this answer, taking the ignorant route, basically has the attitude of “Seriously? You’re going to negotiate with me? You should be happy and feel special I’m even offering it to you.”)

A friend and fellow operator, Grant Culwell, once introduced me to the analogy of house building when it comes to filmmaking. When you’re hiring a contractor: you solicit a consultation, get a list of price quotes, you budget based off your preferred vendor/rate, and then you book the job. However, with too many jobs and all job positions on set, it’s become: call a vendor, offer a price quote, keep calling vendors until someone accepts it. Rarely do they call back a second time (assuming nobody takes that rate) offering more, and if they do, it’s still not enough because they never asked for a bid.

So, anytime someone says:

Well, we can’t afford to pay you, but you’ll get the invaluable experience of learning filmmaking and meeting people in the industry! We’re looking for passionate people who are in it for the art!

Be sure to use that analogy:

Please, come build a house for me, bring your own tools, we’ll give you some other tools and materials, but we can’t pay you… but you’ll get a lot of experience! Something for your portfolio of houses built! You’ll meet other contractors who know you’re working for free too! Come, build me a house because you love the art of architecture and contracting!” A house that they will then attempt to sell for profit.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but asking a stranger for a “favor” that exceeds help changing lanes in traffic seems anathema to me. So when someone calls, asking for a favor on this job, I’m left to wonder “What did you do for me to earn a favor out of me?” Favors are built on trust and loyalty, and I do them all the time. However, I do favors for people who I know, who I think are trustworthy, and who usually have already taken care of me. “Hey bro, can you come out on this 2-day industrial I’m DP-ing, it’s for a start-up company so there’s no pay, but they’re offering stock in the company for when they go IPO.” My response, depending on scheduling: “Sure, I appreciate all the work you’ve brought me, and I know you want to be shooting more, so I’ll help you out.”

Lots of people do it right, and I usually enjoy booking them and working with them. Lots of times, I get the call: “What’s your rate? OK, great, let me add that to my budget, can you put a soft hold on next Friday and I’ll call you back within 2 hours to confirm the gig.” I get the call back, maybe we’re all good, maybe they “cancelled the shoot” (could mean many things, I take it at face value), maybe they want to negotiate another rate? However, they never just assumed a rate they made up was acceptable. They called, they got numbers from myself and other Steadicam ops, and they budgeted and booked or negotiated based on that.

Should make you wonder what you’re quoting, as compared to what other professionals in your market are quoting. Many times, the person budgeting has nothing to go off… but sometimes, they’re quoting your rate to the next guy. Not a great way to be introduced to him, now is it? Why not give your “competition” a call? Get friendly, discuss rates.

PLEASE NOTE: In no way am I advocating inflexibility. Every business offers discounts in order to stay competitive, and so do we. Those discounts are at the discretion of that person. With the house analogy, not every house being built is the same budget: some are mansions and some are family homes. We bid for what’s appropriate, for ourselves, our businesses and our families.

You can save yourself, and your production, a lot of time and hassle if you call around, budget based on quotes, and then proceed with a vendor. Offer the low rate, and you’re probably going to book the “low price guy”. We don’t like that, because unless you’re very lucky, your product suffers and our trade suffers out of doubt in the skill of all tradesmen… which also leads to lower rates.

“Well, our last Steadicam op sucked, so that’s all we’re budgeting now because the Producer doesn’t think it’s worth it.”


About wbd3

Camera / Steadicam owner Operator based in Los Angeles
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6 Responses to Rates and the industry: favors, loyalty, and conjuring numbers.

  1. Scott Jolley says:

    I have actually put a link to all my competitors on my website. I encourage the producers to call around and find what they need, and remind them if they want cheap, here are the guys to call. I also like the analogy of a guy who needs to hire a guitar player. Anybody can own a cheap guitar, but can they play?

    • wbd3 says:

      That’s a great solution! Of course, in a market like Los Angeles, putting all my competitors on my website is a challenge since we have LOTS of Steadicam ops. I usually do my best to mention that I know they’re calling around, but I hope they consider discussing/negotiating with me instead of gambling on, as you say, another guitar player.

  2. Bryan Sundstrom says:

    Great post, Will. I run the Yahoo Group for Script Supervisors and one of our members suggested I check your blog as we have been discussing the same situation. Cheers, Bryan Sundstrom.

    • wbd3 says:

      Thanks for stopping by Bryan! Yea, I think it’s something we’re facing more and more due to the constant influx of new workers and new people hiring. They have their job: get the best rate possible. We have our jobs: do the job, and get what we’re worth.

  3. Eve Butterly says:

    I like the suggestion to ask how they came up with their number. It’s an opportunity to instruct/inform people who honestly don’t know, and to make a mental note of those who know better–and are out to take advantage.

    Dallas. TX

    • wbd3 says:

      Eve, thanks for taking the time to read! I find it’s a question that’s somehow “too personal” without being at all inappropriate. The simplicity of it always amazes me and the caller, and it catches everyone offhand that their response is usually genuine. Hostility usually tells me they’re not someone I want to work with. Confusion (the usual undertone) indicates the number is without foundation, and a further discussion may be worthwhile.

      People often preface the rates discussion with, “I really don’t want to offend you with this rate…” or “Please, don’t get mad at me, I know this rate sucks…”, and my response is usually: “I won’t get offended or mad as long as you won’t get offended or mad if I cannot accept it.” A lot of times, I’m talking to someone tasked with calling around, trying to hook an op. If the caller is a decision maker, I try to inform them. If they’re not, I try to make the best impression so maybe they’ll go to bat for me, saying “I really liked this guy, he didn’t curse me out or yell at me.” If not, then it was never meant to be.

      Open dialogue is important, and I actually really like Scott’s idea (first reply to this post) where he lists his competition on his website. The employer has a task, and the vendor has a task. Those tasks are contrary: get lowest number, get the highest number. In the end, we both want to see the best product on screen, and any concessions made by both parties must be made in the confidence of that mutual understanding.

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