Archive for the ‘Industry Issues’ Category

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Why the new ghostbusters film needs to be a success…

July 10, 2016
What did he just say?

What did he just say?

Yeah, you read that right. I’m actually encouraging people to buy a ticket for the new Ghostbusters movie.

Not “go to see it” necessarily, just to buy a ticket. And, if you’ll bear with me, here’s why…

Hollywood is a business. If you think the film industry is about creativity and artistic integrity, then firstly, you’re pretty naive and secondly, I’ve got some magic beans to sell you… Hollywood cares about money and primarily, they measure this by box office returns. Specifically, the opening weekend. So if a movie sells a lot of tickets and makes a lot of dough, it’s considered a success and Hollywood then starts to commission similar movies, sequels and films that contain similar elements in the hope of milking that cash cow til its nipples run dry. This is the reason we get the films we do- because we’ve spent money on this shit previously. After the first Star Wars came out, we got loads of scifi movies and after The Matrix we got loads of slick action films with wire-fu fight scenes and leather trousers. But in recent years we’ve had movies based on childhood properties- stuff you’d spend your pocket money on back in the 80s and 90s that studios hoped you spend your nostalgia dollars on now. And we did. Why the fuck else have we had four Transformers movies? Four predictably shit Transformers movies!

Which leads me on to Ghostbusters. A classic movie and a not entirely terrible sequel that spawned a cartoon series and an Argos catalogue full of toys, costumes, bedsheets and y-fronts. As properties go, it was ripe for the remake machine. Fans wanted more, some of the original stars were interested… then things changed. We got a reboot, which means things could be different. We got a new cast, which meant things were different. And that new cast had vaginas, which meant a particularly internet-vocal femphobic demographic got all-caps typing on message boards. And then the trailer came out and even those who were keen to give it a chance and/or were pro-female characters weren’t altogether willing or able to defend it. It looked like a cash-grab (because, like most films, it is!), it looked hastily-put-together and poorly-made and it… just wasn’t funny.

Very few people saw that trailer and thought, hell yes, I want to go see that. Which means very few people will pay money to see it, which means the studio executives will see a terrible bottom line, which means they’ll assume many of the elements that went into the film are box office poison and avoid using them for a while.
And I think one of those elements cast aside to the filing cabinet labelled “Try Again in 2030” will be a primarily female cast. Women are sorely under-represented in the media, both behind the camera and in front of it and in 2016, that’s something to be ashamed of. (And if you’re still cheering at that, get your immature, butt-hurt feminazi bullshit off my blog page and go back to 4chan!) Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way women are represented on screen. They’re in supporting roles or they’re over-sexualised… or both. Female characters should have a greater range of roles than “male character’s love interest/wife/mother/prostitute- interestingly, all roles defined by the place the male character goes into or comes out from- and if we want that to change, we need to do something.

We need to vote with our wallets. It’s the only thing Hollywood decision-makers really understand. If you want more female starring roles, and a wider range of female characters portrayed on screen, Ghostbusters needs to be something of a success, no matter how bad it looks. I’m not saying go see it if you don’t want to…

…I’m saying buy a ticket.

Executives don’t give a shit if you saw a movie, they only care that you paid for it. You’ve willingly bought tickets to see a movie that you knew was going to be shit before and hated it anyway, but this time you’ll spare yourself two painful hours and instead have voted for something worthwhile. And if you do go to see it, well, it might not be as bad as the trailers or reviews make it out to be (hey, optimism!). Or you might find some entertainment in doing a little Mystery Science Theatre number on it with a friend or two. And you won’t annoy anyone else in the screening because I doubt there’ll be many people watching it with you…

But buy a ticket for the film. If you want more female leading characters in movies, put your money where your mouth is. Besides, it’ll annoy the feminazi brigade and that’s got to be worth doing, right?

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…

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A Plan B for Phase 3

October 30, 2014

For many comic book fans, the fall of a superhero is one of the most interesting things a franchise can do. Show Batman as an octogenarian, show Superman as a bad guy, show Peter Parker after he loses his spidey powers. It shuffles the recipe up and provides new angles for the characters as well as playing to our human desire to see good things fall and watch the world burn.

The big question for me at the moment, is whether the comic book movie studios can take the same karmic switcheroo.

Marvel Studios has just announced their phase 3 for all the big and small screen outings of their properties: nine big, full-budget feature films over the next four years, not to mention TV shows and mini-series. It’s strange to think that only a few years ago, this would’ve been unthinkable for a relatively small studio like Marvel (even if the house of mouse is now writing the cheques) to attempt. Comic book movies have always had a mixture of financial success and critical bipolarity, ever since Donner’s 1978 take on Superman. The average moviegoer enjoyed the spectacle and blockbuster nature of the flicks and comic book fans were always torn between disappointment at how their favourite characters were treated and joy for the fact those same characters actually got a big screen outing. Until fairly recently, there wasn’t really a way to have both- a successful movie that pleased fans and non-fans alike and made a helicarrier full of cash.

Then Marvel took the bold step of trying to make their own movies. Only problem was, their biggest, most well-known properties, both within the comic world and with Joe Public, were in the less-than-loving hands of studios like Fox and Sony and no-one wanted to work with Marvel on their own big screen vision for their remaining franchises. All they had was passion, determination and faith in their material.

Fast forward a few years and it’s obvious that faith and determination paid off. The box office success of film after film, coupled with critical acclaim from both fans and average Joe alike meant the Marvel movie train is a force to be reckoned with. Warners, Sony and Fox are all trying to ape Marvel with whatever comic book properties they have and can get their paws on- most transparently, the DC/Warner attempts to build a roster for a Justice League movie so they can clone a bit of that Avengers magic.

But there’s a potential storm heading their way and it’s something that could affect all these franchises and their outpourings, including knocking Marvel’s four year plan upside the head like a Mjolnir to the face.

If the average movie-going public tire of comic book movies, everyone’s fucked.

Comic book fans often shake their heads at this with all the blinkeredness of a fundamentalist preacher one day after the rapture didn’t happen, but it’s true. In the grand scale of things, the fans are a minority- certainly in terms of box office takings. They might be vocal and enthusiastic and buy all the merchandise, but when it comes to the quarterly bottom line, the comic book fans are not the primary audience at all. Most of the money from these films came from audiences who had no idea about the universe or characters beforehand. They went to see the films because they were big-screen blockbuster event movies and they looked like fun. Which they were. And people love them. But unlike the hardcore fans, the average movie audience is fickle, easily led and prone to boredom. Too many comic book properties vying for their attention and money could confuse or alienate them, particularly if they feel like they’ve seen them before (the remakes and re-imaginings of Spider-Man and Batman really don’t help). And if they lose interest, the Scrooge-McDuck pot of gold that’s financing these films will dry up like yesterday’s spilt Cristal. No amount of fan support will help finance a new Avengers team-up if that happens.

Iron Man Hobo

Marvel’s future fundraising method

The fact is that Marvel really isn’t helping itself here. Two or three blockbuster instalments every year might be fine in isolation, but Marvel isn’t the only contender in the comic book arena. Warners and Sony and Fox and all the independents are all going to be rushing to put their own properties in the multiplexes, Blu-Ray shelves and download charts in the hope of cutting a slice of that sweet, sweet pie and the end result is going to be over saturation and too much choice for the consumer. Something the average movie-goer isn’t that comfortable with.

It happened with Scifi in the wake of Star Wars and it will happen again. I just hope Marvel has a plan B.

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The Role of The Female Director

August 10, 2013
This is Dorothy Arzner. Go look her up now.

This is Dorothy Arzner- one of the first successful female directors. Google her. Now.

After the last few posts, which have frankly all been me banging on about work (or the lack thereof), I thought it would be a good idea to write something more profound and less ranty. So I picked something political- which I don’t normally touch with someone else’s splintery barge pole- and something relevant to the world of the film director.

My friend and film critic Luke Owen recently wrote a post for Flickering Myth about the Bechdel Test and how it isn’t as sound as many people think. For those who don’t know or can’t be bothered to click the link and read the article, the Bechdel Test is a three point criteria to see if a movie has a fair creative treatment of female characters. It pretty much goes thus:

1) Does the film have at least two named female characters?
2) Do they actually talk to each other?
3) When they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than men?

As many self-identifying feminists will point out, it’s surprising how many films fail the test. As Luke pointed out in his article (just read it, I’ll wait…), it’s surprising which ones fail and which ones pass. For instance, “Alien 3” with its strong female lead fails the test because there are no other named female characters for her to interact with. Mysoginist shit like Michael Bay’s teenage boy spank-bank “Transformers” passes because Megan Fox’s character talks to another female character and they discuss how pretty she is.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

While it’s obvious that the Bechdel Test has all the causal validity of an ontological argument (look it up- but if you’re religious, feel free to type your knee-jerk rebuttals somewhere else), the issue itself- the representation of women in film, both as characters and as creatives- is entirely valid.

While the 20th century has seen some amazing progress in civil rights, from race and religion to sexuality and gender, it’s fair to say that we still have some way to go on all counts. Even my generation, which grew up in a world where everyone was supposed to be treated equally, have those who hold poorly-formed prejudices. But certain industries are locked into antiquated elitism and the film and TV industry is arguably one of them. Most studio heads and executives are male. Most of their subordinates are male. For a woman to get into those hallowed ranks, not only would it be a case of dead-man’s-boots on the scale of a small natural disaster, but her contemporaries would have to let her stay and not black-ball her at the first opportunity.

As a result there are relatively few female producers. There are even fewer female directors and writers. There are fewer still female DoPs. Maybe it’s the same problem that female comedians have- that their male counterparts’ material is about anything and everything, but their own material is nearly always about being a woman.

I think the same thing happens with female directors. The female voice is so marginalised in film that when women do get the chance to direct or write, the stories they want/feel they have to tell are about that marginalisation- they’re about the role of women in the world. Whereas male directors have the luxury of audiences knowing man’s “role” in the world (thanks to our male-dominated history) and thus are free to squander their storytelling opportunity by indulging in explosions, pop-culture references and titties.

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What we’re getting to here is the ultimate conundrum with equality as a concept. True equality is where gender just flat-out doesn’t matter. Characters in a fictional story could be male or female (or something in-between!) and it would make absolutely no difference to our understanding or expectations of said story either way. Sadly, as a culture we’re not there yet. And in all likelihood, never will be if you believe in biological pre-determinism. So instead, I think what we should aim for is equality of identity- where every identity is equally valued and equally represented. I’d like to think we’re staring to see progress in this regard but I suppose it’s hard for me to judge these things since I am a) male, b) white, c) English and d) upper-working class- everything that makes me part of the most media-privileged demographic on the planet. I’m like the largest demographic personified.

And that in itself can be a problem. The general consensus is that you have to be part of a demographic in order to create media about/for it. For instance, it would be frowned upon if I, an English white man, were to make a film about Afro-Carribbean culture in 80s Harlem (actually “frowned upon” might not be the right phrase, since “full-tilt confusion” would probably prevail). I couldn’t direct a movie about the women’s rights movement in the 60s or the Zionist ideal in Israel for much the same reasons. In all cases, it could be deemed inappropriate and borderline disrespectful for me to even try. These are stories that should be told from a viewpoint from within the issue (or as marketing types are more than willing to cynically accept, from someone who could have been within the issue) and as such are off-limits to someone like me.

No wonder it is that when these marginalised groups get a chance to tell a story on a large stage, they choose to tell these ones. Because these stories need to be told and society has deemed it that only they can tell it because of the colour of their skin, the God they believe in or the number of X chromosomes they have. And that’s totally fair because someone has to tell these stories and carry the flag. But what of the female director who just wants to make a big budget action flick? Hollywood probably won’t let her. They’ll be more than happy to let her direct a film about being a woman in a man’s world, but won’t let her helm a flick that has Tom Cruise shooting his way through a building.

Which I think is wrong. Stories are stories. Storytellers are storytellers. It shouldn’t matter where/who the story comes from if it’s done well and it sure as hell shouldn’t matter whether or not the director’s genitals can get caught in a zip.

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When You Dread a Job…

August 2, 2013

Over the years since I got into filmmaking, I’ve worked on a wide range of projects- from short films and web series to music videos and corporates- and in several capacities- from runner to self-shooter and director. I’ve directed half hour dramas and crammed shooting into a couple of very long, stressful days, I’ve shot through the night and then through most of the following day with no sleep and I’ve shot and edited multi-camera gig videos, sifting through and syncing hours and hours of footage. But there’s one thing that fills me with dread…

Wedding videos.

[Shudders]

Nothing against wedding videos or those who do them for a living (you’re braver than I am!), but I hate doing them. Actually, hate isn’t quite right. Fear is a more appropriate term. I fear/hate wedding videos in the same way that a lot of people fear/hate spiders.

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The two scariest things in the world…

I know what you’re thinking. Why? (If you’re not thinking that and are hoping for directing tips since this is a directing blog and all, I hope you don’t take disappointment badly.) Well, I think a lot of it can be divided into two areas- all the issues associated with event filming and all the issues that come from working with clients- combined into a nice, round ball of awkward.

Event filming is very challenging, whether you’re filming with one camera or several. This is mainly due to you having no control or influence whatsoever on what’s going on- the event is going to carry on with or without you and you have no chance to reshoot things.

If you’re filming outside and the lighting changes, tough.

If the interior event you’re filming has very dim lighting for ambience, ditto.

You can’t change it. Because you are not in the slightest bit important. In fact, you often have to try and be invisible. It’s an event for the people attending, not a film shoot for you and your creativity and that can be tough if, like me, you have a preference for shooting drama, where you’re used to doing takes and controlling everything. Sometimes you set up a camera- manned or unmanned- and the subject moves off their spot, forcing you to change and potentially miss something important. Audio can be missed or mis-recorded, natural light changes erratically with no ability to retake and editing becomes about trying to create a narrative with random material that often has little narrative beyond the obvious sequence of events. Clients also frequently want “everything” filmed, something which is somewhere between impossible and bloody difficult since it requires omnipresence and little opportunity to edit creatively.

On the subject of clients, they can come with their own difficulties- as anyone who has done any paid work ever can testify- and usually those difficulties circle around expecting more than they’re willing to pay for and not understanding the production process (expecting a video to be a moving, talking version of their SEO-and-buzzword-saturated website copy for instance).

Wedding videos add a personal element to this because the client is in it and they often have a different self-image and memory of events to what the camera sees and the edit shows. For example, the bride might love her dress and believe she looks like an angel but when she watches the wedding video, the unbiased, non-rose-tinted eye of the camera captures her in all her looking-like-a-wedding-cake glory.

"I'm a beautiful angel!"

“I’m a beautiful angel!”

And as the filmmaker, there’s a limit to what you can do with angles, lighting or post filters to hide that fact, short of comping in Kate Beckinsale in her place.

Actors are used to seeing themselves on screen and have usually got over seeing their imperfections or characteristics to a certain extent, but the average person still cringes when they see their face in a picture or hears the sound of their own voice, no matter how many selfies they post on Instagram or how many Vine videos they share (See, I know about modern trends! I’m cool and on the pulse!).

I also hate the money/work imbalance wedding video work comes with. Wedding clients are frequently willing to drop thousands of pounds on the stills photographer but won’t stretch to a fraction of that for video. This isn’t to devalue the role of the photographer, but it’s fair to say that producing a video of similar quality takes substantially more time and potentially more financial investment in terms of kit, especially since you might be shooting with two or more large-sensored cameras and lenses. I think it’s because good stills are valued as an important memento, where video is asked for because its technically available. Maybe it’s also because video tends to show reality, warts and all, where a still can be doctored and photoshopped much easier and thus is more pleasing. Anyway, it frequently means that the video guy is doing a lot of work, earning less money and then is splitting the cash with a second operator because doing it solo is both harder and virtually impossible to do any justice to the event.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, unsurprisingly, I’m shooting a wedding in the immediate future and I’m dreading it. Oh, I have no doubt the day will go fine and the client seems like they’re on the level, but if I could go back in time and turn the job down I would.

Strange thing is, I don’t get this with other shoots. Not with drama, not with corporate gigs and not with corporate events- despite them having much the same issues as a wedding video. I suppose everyone has their areas of confidence and areas of fear with work and if I was some kind of Jedi master I would say to face your fears and overcome them, but sadly I’m not Yoda and I ascribe in this instance to the “if you don’t have to do something you hate, don’t do it” mentality.

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I suppose if it was fear out of ignorance- ie I’d never shot a wedding before- then I’d be all conquer-fears about it, but I have shot weddings before and nearly all of them have been a sharp pain the sphincter so I think from now on, I’ll be turning weddings down if they come my way.

I hate turning down work, particularly when I’m all kinds of poor, and a freelancer can never afford to turn down work… but I’m in this game because I love it. I love making films, I love shooting, I love telling stories. And if I’m not loving work, then I don’t think I should do it. Money really isn’t that important to me- if it was, I’d have sold my filmmaker soul to the porn gods long ago.

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Of Friends and Benefits

July 4, 2013

This is going to be a ranty post so apologies in advance for that.

Actually, no. Fuck it. I’m not going to apologise for the rantiness of the diatribe here, partly because I think a lot of this blog’s readership come here for rants and also because under the vitriol there is an important point for freelancers to take on board:

Don’t do work for friends.

Actually, let me qualify that. Don’t do work for friends for cheap.

Actually, no, that’s still not right. Don’t do work for friends for cheap when they don’t respect what you do.

Now you may think why wouldn’t they respect what you do? They know you’re a filmmaker or a videographer or some other creative sort who does this for their career and earn a living from it- why wouldn’t they respect it? Because they don’t really understand that it’s your job. You can see it when they introduce you to their friends. There’s that almost patronising tone to things, where they say “Dan’s a filmmaker” but it comes out on a subtextual level as “Dan wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up.” I’m 32 years old, motherfucker! I’ve been doing this shit in some form or another (granted with varying degrees of success) for eight years. That’s longer than you’ve been an accountant or a manager or an engineer for British Gas… yet somehow I’ve got the career that needs humouring. Like I’m a four year old with a foil-covered box on his head, claiming he’s an astronaut.

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So, why, might you ask, has all this bile come up?

Well, over the last few months I have had a few instances of friends asking for video work- sometimes it works out fine (like with a martial arts training video I’m doing and a music video I have in the pipeline) but a lot of the time it creates more problems than it’s worth (in my case, they seem to be wedding videos and no-budget business promos). An illustrator friend of mine has also had the same problems. You see, if a non-creative-industry friend wants you to do some work for them, there are usually two big reasons to avoid the whole shebang:

1) They have all the same quality, time and cost expectations and demands that any paying client has…

2) But they also think that because you’re friends, one of those in particular- cost- is magically reduced, while the others stay the same.

And therein lies the problem. They are just as demanding on your time, want just as many revisions and alterations, want a high quality product and don’t want to pay full whack for it. Just like most clients. The only difference is that they think that because you’ve been to school/parties/the pub together, that gives them carte blanche to take liberties.

Actually, you know what, that’s not right. That’s too harsh. Unless your friends are utter arseholes, they don’t actually think like that. Not really.

But they do have a difficulty understanding the nature of your job.

For most people, their job is a place they go to for 40 hours a week and do the same thing day after day in order to get a regular chunk of money at the end of the month. It’s a hard concept to grasp for them that, as a creative freelancer, your work life is nothing like theirs. They don’t naturally equate it with a money-earning job that puts food on the table and electricity in the Xbox. In fact, particularly if they’ve known you since before you started in this game, they probably see your career as a hobby you happen to be particularly good at. As such, they assume you’d jump at the chance to do their little project. From their point of view, they’re doing you a favour rather than the other way round.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was a fellow creative looking for a favour. If you have tradeable skills (eg your friend is a graphic designer) then you can probably come to a mutually beneficial skill exchange. But if your friend is a postman what’s he got to offer in trade? That you get your post early and no-one steals your amazon packages?

So, what’s the solution? Avoid working for friends?

Well, that’s probably the safest option, to be honest, even if it isn’t the most practical. After all, work is work and friends and family are probably the first contacts to mine for gigs when you’re starting out. But once you’re semi-established, if you do decide to do favour-grade work, don’t devalue yourself by doing it for free or stupid cheap. After all, if you worked in PC World they wouldn’t expect you to give them a laptop for gratis would they?

Alfie Meme

So what do you charge?

As mentioned in a previous post, I suggest adopting a three-rate structure. You have your standard rate- what you charge most clients (in my case £35 p/h). You can apply special rates or bulk pricing to this to give clients a sweeter deal and for most instances, this is the only rate you’ll ever need to quote. Then you have your budget or “friend” rate which might be 20% off the standard rate. Whatever you do, try to avoid dropping below this because it’ll only hurt your worth and damage your friendship if you’re not careful. The third rate is the premium rate- maybe 20% up from the standard- and this would be used to pitch for a higher grade of work or if you know the client is going to haggle you down. Start high so you’ve got somewhere to go…

The other way is to figure out what your friend wants to pay and divide it by your hourly rate so you know how long you’re going to take on it! So if your hourly rate is £25 and they only want to pay £100 for your services, that’s four hours you’re going to spend on it. The downside to doing it this way is that the quality of your work is likely to suffer because you’re rushing or only getting so far with it and not polishing to your usual standard. Most creatives hate this because they’re perfectionists at heart, but honestly, it’s something you really have to learn how to do- push aside your perfectionism and learn to live with a just-good-enough approach to some things. Remember, true perfectionists rarely get paid. Just make sure the client or your friend knows what their price choice means and what they’re missing out on by scrimping. Point them at the quality-speed-cost triangle if need be!

cost speed quality venn diagram 2

For those of you who haven’t seen this before, it basically boils down to “you can only have two.” If you want it done quickly and cost very little, then quality has to be sacrificed. If you want it good but cheap, then it’ll take ages. If you want it high quality and fast, then be prepared to pay handsomely for it, arsehat!

It’s tough as a newbie freelancer though if you do tailor your work to their budget, because you have to let the project go at a lower quality than you’d ideally like. It bites, but you have to either be willing to do sub-par work for the low fees or you have to turn down those jobs to keep your standards up. Trying to give a job your usual attention to detail and hard graft when they’re not paying for it is devaluing you- and in this case it would be you doing it to yourself. The client would not be at fault.

So, my advice? Only take friends’ jobs if you’re starting out and need the experience or the credit. Otherwise, by all means give them a discount, but make it clear to them that they are a client in every other way- no liberties, no demands, and a decent wage for you. If they don’t go for it, don’t push it or hold it against them. It isn’t worth losing your friendship over.

And in case any non-creatives are reading this and are still confused as to what the problem is, have a look at this:

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Make sense now?

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Rates and How to Pluck Them Out of Nothing

March 30, 2013

SonicandWileE

So… rates.

I’ve wanted to write something about rates and things for a while, but held back because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m a suitable expert in the subject. But nonetheless, here’s my thoughts on how to set them and how to stick to them.

You first start thinking about your rates when you enthusiastically take that call or email from your first potential paying client. The conversation goes a little like this:

“…So does that sound like a job you could do?” they ask.
“Yeah, that sounds good” you say, imagining the new kit you can buy with the proceeds.
“So what’re your rates for the job? Can you do us a quote?”
“Errr…”

Sound familiar? So you now have to work out a price for them (when you were kinda hoping they’d tell you what they’re paying) and its hard to decide what figure to give them. Too much and they won’t go for it, too little and you could be doing yourself a disservice (and they might not go for it because you look too cheap!) and you have no idea what sort of rate they’re expecting or hoping for because they won’t tell you. In fact, they probably don’t know either. It’s like the blind leading the blind to an art gallery and one trying to describe to the other what a painting looks like.

blind-man_o_937187

The only thing you can do here is work out what you’re worth, then adjust it for the quote if necessary. But gauging what you’re worth is the real problem. In this industry, just like most others, people don’t discuss what they earn per job and this is because when you quote a number like that, the other person becomes quite judgemental based on it- are you really that good or are you lying/bragging/conning people? How many days of work are you actually getting at that rate? It’s not a pleasant non-conversation to have. The other thing is that there are so many variations on job role, responsibilities, skills and sectors of the industry that there’s no real standard rate to speak of either. Even the broadcaster’s union BECTU struggle to define rates for key personnel.

So how do you work out your rates? Well, here’s my approach- work backwards from what you need to earn. Now, the figures below are all my rates as an all-in-one video producer for corporate and event work where I can essentially set my rates for clients. As a director for drama, it’s a little different, but I’ll get to that. Anyway, to work out your rates, there’s a couple of benchmark figures you need to figure out first:

A) What hourly/daily/monthly rate do you get from a high-end-but-average-unskilled-even-a-monkey-could-do full time type job? ie what would you be earning if you weren’t working in film? This is to give you a base-line for earnings. If you’re worth your salt, you will not be charging anywhere near this low. I took high-end high street retail as my example- £8 per hour (£72 per day or £1387 pcm).

B) How much do you need to earn per month to keep afloat, pay bills and keep a roof over your head? This isn’t what you want to earn, it’s what you need to earn. For me, I can just about get by on £1200 a month after tax, so I’m looking at £1440 as a bare minimum.

C) How much would you ideally like to be earning at the end of the first year? Obviously this is somewhere between the ideal and wishful thinking, so try and be realistic. What would cover all your overheads, allow you to grow both your business and give you a bit of financial freedom? This figure will periodically improve and increase over time, so for the purpose of this bit of maths, ask yourself what you’d like to be earning in twelve months time. For me, I picked a modest figure out of whatever orifice you pluck numbers out of: £2500 per month.

Your basic rate, for the first year at least, is going to be somewhere between B and C, slowly picking up until you get to C at the end of the year. This increase isn’t going to happen necessarily by raising your prices, more by you getting more work as time goes on. For me, I picked a monthly earning of £1750 to start with. Lets call this D.

You then need to work out an hourly and daily rate- which means working out how many hours/days of work you’re likely to get in a month. Without a frame of reference, this is bloody hard if not impossible, so you need to look at yourself, your opportunities and your ability to create opportunities. Look at your connections, your previous work, how many big jobs and how many cheap jobs are you likely to get, put it all together and be honest with that assessment. For me, as a video producer (where I write, shoot, light, edit and liaise), I figured I’d get one big(ger) job and one cheapie per month, where the former requires twice as much work as the latter. So say about 50 hours of work a month? With my monthly gross of £1750, that gives me an hourly rate of £35. An average on-shoot day as an all-in-one producer might be 8-9 hours, so lets say £300 as a day rate including my kit.

From here I can put together a rates list with extras or create package deal rates. I can also work out my minimum rates just by applying the same maths to figure B (roughly £29 per hour or about £260 a day). So now, if a job comes in I know that B is as low as I can go and D is what I’m aiming for. If the client can’t afford B or doesn’t want to pay it, I at least know that if I negotiate a cheaper rate because I really want/need the gig, that I’ll be in a deficit of earnings this month and will need to get another/better gig to balance things out as soon as possible.

Artist_Work_For_Free_CloseUp

It’s worth getting into this business mindset. If a client wants to haggle you down below a rate your comfortable with, have the strength of mind to say no and hold out/look for a better gig. Remember, it’s fine to do cheapies if they don’t detract from the time you could be earning from bigger jobs but if the client’s going to haggle that low and then drag the work out or be a pain in the arse, it just isn’t worth it. So know your options and chances at any given moment. If you have the time, work. Self-employed professionals frequently have to take the work when they can get it because the busy times are going to cover for the dry spells. That’s part of the reason why hourly and daily rates frequently seem high if your only frame of reference is job A. The other is because you have an uncommon skill. Not everyone can operate a camera or direct actors or edit professionally using Final Cut but pretty much any retard can learn quickly how to sell a TV, pour a pint or make a frappuccino. Not to dismiss or demean those jobs but they are generally unskilled- hence the borderline minimum wage attached to them- and you need to cultivate the belief that you’re better than that (ideally not in a snobbish way) if you want to succeed. So charge what your skills are worth. A good benchmark here in the UK is as follows:

  • Less than £15 per hour- relatively unskilled, no previous training required.
  • £25 per hour- skilled, some specialist training, maybe a relevant qualification, minimal professional experience
  • £35 per hour- skilled (broad and/or specialised), relevant training and/or professional experience- up to 3 years in relevant role(s).
  • £50+ per hour- specialised skills, some might say “talented”, recognition of your peers, professional experience in this role for 3+ years and several more beforehand in relevant roles.

Now those figures don’t come from a book or a trade website- they come from me nosing around and trying to find out what professionals of varying skills in varying industries charge or earn. Freelancers generally charge 30-40% more than their salaried equivalents earn, so that’s another thing to bear in mind. If nothing else, the above rough rates are a starting point for a discussion or rumination about what you should charge.

As a drama director, rates can go into the above £50p/h bracket quite easily if the show has a reasonable budget, but you’ll need recognised talent or experience to snare those gigs. I currently use the same rates for directing as I do for video producing- if only to keep things simple. Having said that, if a decent gig with good credit and exposure came along at £15 per hour I think I’d take it!

Self-respect be damned…