But after a few shoots, you may get offered the elusive “paying gig.”
(Yep, someone actually wants to give you money to do what you love!)
There’s a problem, though — you have absolutely no idea what to charge. You’re left stuck on your own to calculate your day rate. And that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
While you’re willing to work for whatever they can pay, you don’t want to leave money on the table. You don’t want to lose a potential job for asking too much, but you also don’t want to get ripped off.
No doubt it’s tricky territory to tread. And while I can’t give you a magic formula to find your day rate, I can help you figure out what should and shouldn’t contribute to its calculations.
So here’s five factors that play heavily into what gets printed on your paycheck.
1. Budget of the Production
By far the number one contributor to what you’ll eventually be paid is the production’s budget.
Budget is a huge influence into what crew get paid and it makes sense: if there is more money in the pot, there’s more money to go around. On the flipside, there’s a reason your first gigs were unpaid — because there’s usually no budget.
As you talk to a producer or production coordinator, try and get a feel for their funding. Though almost all producers will say “we have a really tight budget” — trust me, they always have a tight budget — most shoots have some wiggle room built in.
If you’re on good terms with the producer, you can ask them directly what they’ve allocated for your position. From there you can work with them to find an appropriate rate.
The key is to realize the initial number isn’t always rock-solid (though sometimes it definitely is) while not being unrealistic in your demands.
For instance, if a producer quotes a $250 rate for a commercial, you probably have a good chance getting that up to $300. But there’s far less of a chance they’ll go all the way up to $500 — and attempting to do so may cost you goodwill, or worse, the job itself.
(Now if you’re unwilling to work for less than $500 then that’s a different story…)
But try and work with the producer within their budget. If you feel the rate is too low, explain to them that you don’t normally work for that cheap. See if you can find some intermediate solution to get more money such as renting them your toolkit, a camera cart, or a few lenses.
On almost all projects I’ve worked on, the budget has set the baseline for any rate negotiations so it’s crucial you learn to operate within its context.
2. Duration of the Job
A film gig can last anywhere from half a day to several months. And the more days you work on a shoot, the more your rate starts to add up.
In the case of longer jobs, this usually works in the favor of the production. They pay a lower rate in exchange for providing a long period of work.
In the case of shorter jobs, the rate is a bit higher than average. The exception being short narrative work like student films. But commercials, corporate videos, and docu-interviews generally pay fair.
When settling on a rate, it is critical to know exactly how many days you will get paid. Why?
Because it changes your perception of the money.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Consider a rate of $250 within two projects: one is a feature film with 25 shooting days while the other is a week-long (five days) commercial shoot.
For the feature film, you’re looking at 25 days x $250 for a total of $6,250.00 — not bad for five weeks of shooting. For the commercial, you’re looking at $1,250 for the week.
In this comparison, both the commercial and the feature film pay similarly on a weekly basis, but the feature film is more valuable in total by $5,000.
Even if we increase the commercial’s rate to $500, it still pays less over the duration of the job.
With the feature film, you’re promised (short of being fired or the production falling apart) $6,250 and a full schedule for five weeks. With the commercial, you’re making good money, but unless you’re able to fill those other four weeks with work, you’ll come out with less cash.
While at $500 the commercial pays double over the feature ($2,500 vs. $1,250 over a week), the money you’re guaranteed is substantially lower.
I don’t have any right answer here as to what’s better — the feature or the commercial — but that’s not my point. My point is to get you to realize that though some jobs may pay less than others, the duration of the work affects its ultimate pay-off.
It’s up to you whether a higher rate in the short term is better than a higher pay-out in the long run.
3. Difficulty and Risk
If your TV viewing habits are anything like mine, then you’re probably a huge fan of Planet Earth caliber wildlife shows.
And part of what makes Planet Earth so distinctively excellent is the amazing wildlife cinematography. This is no accident — crew put a lot on the line to capture those shots.
In the case of these white tipped sharks, some guy has to slip on a wet suit, jump in the water, and hold a camera in front of his face while a known predator three times bigger than him swims around.
Now I don’t know what that camera operator gets paid, but I know it’s a lot more than what I make.
And the reason why is obvious: difficulty.
Those underwater camera operators have to be scuba certified, know how to operate specialty camera rigs, be comfortable doing so, be talented doing so (don’t underestimate this), and be willing to take on some bodily risk.
When thinking about what your day rate for a job should be, consider what difficulties the shoot may present. These may be physical, mental, or a combination of both. It will
never rarely be a shark that’s your most pressing issue — instead it might be unwieldy logistics or impossible scheduling.
So ask yourself: are there any special needs or risks involved in the shoot? Will you be driving 3 hours away to remote locations that require you to hike up onto a mountain? Is the film taking place in a swamp that will suck time away?
Difficulty is an important factor to consider for two reasons:
- Productions should pay you more for taking on risk (such as shark swimming)
- You may find that the trouble of a particular shoot demands more money.
The first reason is obvious, but I want to expand more on the second. I bet at some point you’ve experienced the feeling that a production isn’t worth your effort — that even though you’re getting paid, you’re not getting paid enough for what you’re doing.
That’s where difficulty comes in.
If a shoot appears like it’s going to be so demanding, so grueling, and so exhausting, how much money is it worth to you to put up with? What’s your price you to weather those conditions and feel comfortable doing so?
This isn’t a question that pops up on every shoot, but when it does, it makes a huge difference.
4. Non-Monetary Benefits
As I’ve discussed before, a bigger bank account isn’t the only result of being paid. You also get paid in experience and experiences. A job may not offer much in terms of money, but it could offer any number of enviable opportunities:
- Shooting on Anamorphic 35mm
- Filming from a helicopter
- Working with a well-known celebrity
- Free hotel room somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
- A chance to work with good friends
Money is hardly the only factor. Those other elements in play can (and should) shape your rate.
If the rate offered by production is too low for you, what else does this shoot offer unique from other jobs? Maybe nothing. But maybe something extraordinary will come up that makes you disregard the low pay for the experience you think you’ll have.
Besides life experiences, you may also find rate is secondary to your career experience. Examples include being offered a crew position previously above you, working with a respected name, or crewing in a new department on set.
Networking and career advancement easily offset a lower rate in the long run, especially early on in your career. So don’t be afraid to look beyond the dollar signs towards the other benefits of the gig.
5. Other Potential Jobs
Determining your day rate often boils down to this question: “What is my time on this job worth?”
And when thinking about that, you need to also ask, “What is my time worth for other potential jobs?”
Perhaps you’ll be so lucky (or unlucky) to be asked to crew on two productions that overlap. In this case, you would be stupid not to compare the jobs to each other. Do they offer similar rates? Or are they different? How drastic is the divide?
Consider which production you’d rather work on regardless of rate. Now calculate how much the rate needs to go up to make you feel confident in that choice (if you weren’t already).
Basically don’t be afraid to compare and even leverage shoots against each other.
When talking with a producer, it wouldn’t be out of line to tell them you were offered another job for a higher rate, but really want to work on theirs. Ask what they can do for you. In some cases, they can’t do anything, but in many cases, they can stretch their budget a bit further.
It’s also important to consider other jobs you don’t even have booked yet.
Let me explain…
A good friend of mine who is a cinematographer recently wrapped a feature film. He is immensely proud of it and, over lunch, told me it was some of his best work.
About the only thing he wasn’t happy about was the schedule. The film took over a year to make with shooting days spread intermittently over a year and often adjusted at the last minute. During this year, his schedule was constantly in flux and he was always shuffling obligations around.
“It wasn’t so much the time that was an issue,” he told me, “But I had to turn down family events, cancel plans with friends, and even miss out on other jobs.”
Even though my friend had no idea these future jobs would arise when he accepted work on the feature, he had to turn them down as a result. The feature didn’t pay him much and it’s likely he missed out on hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars as a result of being committed to it.
So when negotiating your rate, it’s important to think about what you might miss out on. This is, of course, a dangerous game: if you turn down a job with a low rate thinking you might bag a bigger one, and then don’t, you’re left with no money as opposed to some money.
You’ll find out after a few years in the film industry that your schedule will never line-up for every job that comes your way. Each gig you accept carries the risk that you’ll miss out on a better one.
Navigating the Business End of the Film Industry
No matter how creative we like to believe it is, the film industry is still a business and us freelancers have to deal with money. This is usually secondary to our creative pursuits, but necessary to pay the bills, clothe the kids, and eat a hearty dinner.
There are many factors that influence a day rate — budget, duration, difficulty, other gigs, your market — and because of that there is no magic formula.
I know from experience how frustrating that is to hear.
I remember with my first paying gigs I had no idea what to set my rate at. I had no baseline.
What I ended up doing is asking a camera assistant what an acceptable rate is for somebody with my experience. He gave me a fair price and I started adjusting my rate from there based on all the factors mentioned above. As I gained more experience, I shifted that baseline a bit higher.
My suggestion to you is to do the same — approach a crew member you’re on good terms with and ask them what a decent rate for your position is. Poke and prod to get them to tell you both an average rate and a good rate. That way you have a baseline to go off of and a ceiling to reach.
Then, when you’re in negotiations, ask for the good rate. If producers take it, awesome! If they don’t, negotiate down to the average rate considering all the factors above.
If you approach it the right way and consider the right things, picking and settling on a day rate doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it may seem.