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Race To The Bottom: How To Stop Undercharging For Your Filmmaking Services

Every Sunday I send out an article to my newsletter subscribers, sharing advice and insight on the business and craft of micro-budget filmmaking. For the most part, these articles are never shared on my main blog, but every once in a while I’ll break from tradition and share an article here for those who may have missed it.

The article I’m sharing today was posted to my micro-budget weekly newsletter last week, and is all about building and designing your optimal career. It was inspired by conversations I’ve had with countless filmmakers who are plagued with the same issue – They’re working longer and harder every year, but are unable to increase their income over time.

Filmmakers run into this issue when they accept the wrong type of projects to work on, or undervalue their own time and abilities. If this sounds familiar at all, this article is for you.

So without further ado –

How to stop undercharging for your filmmaking services…

When it comes to pricing, filmmakers fall into two camps:

1. Those who charge full price for their work and increase revenue every year.

2. Those who constantly discount their rates until they aren’t making a living wage.

Unfortunately, most filmmakers fall into the latter camp.

What separates those who make a good living off of their work is rarely talent, or even skill. It’s a difference in approach to price-setting and client selection.

I know countless filmmakers who are truly gifted, but struggle month after month to pay the bills with their freelance work.

On the flip-side, I know many filmmakers who may have less natural creative ability, but who are thriving financially – working fewer hours on projects that really matter, and increasing their revenue in measurable ways.

This dichotomy is present in just about every creative (or freelance driven) industry…

When I was shopping around for photographers for my wedding a few years back, almost everyone I spoke to quoted me a similar price.

And nearly all of them were willing to reduce that price just because I asked them to, as they were afraid they would lose the job to someone else if they didn’t.

But one photographer I spoke with took an entirely different approach. He sent me his quote (which was at least triple the price of everyone else’s), and very politely outlined his terms, which were fair – but rigid.

For instance, most of the other photographers I spoke to had an option to add on a second photographer or assistant. This photographer didn’t give you the option at all. He would not work without his assistant, and would only accept jobs that paid him full price so he could bring her along.

This philosophy permeated everything he did – from his pricing (which was non-negotiable) to his post-production services which had a very clearly defined revisions process and end date.

Ultimately, we weren’t a fit for each other. His prices were too rich for my blood, and because I didn’t feel his work wasn’t any stronger than the photographers charging 3x less than him, I opted to work with someone else…

But just because I didn’t work with him, doesn’t mean his approach was any less effective. In fact, the very fact that I said “no” to him, is exactly what he wanted.

He had clearly made the choice that he was only going to accept jobs that paid him very well, and he would not compromise on that.

Even if that meant he would only work 1 weekend a month (while other wedding photographers are working every weekend), that was okay – because he priced his services high enough to make that sustainable.

His job was to weed out people like myself who weren’t willing to pay a premium for his services, so he could find the people who were able to pay top dollar.

While other photographers were willing to negotiate their prices and bid against each other, he just said take it or leave it.

Even though most people (myself included) will tell him “no thank you” when they hear his prices, some people simply say “yes”.

These are people who genuinely feel more comfortable paying a premium for service work, and appreciate the structure of working under a more rigid set of guidelines. And these types of clients are optimal for obvious reasons.

They are willing to work on your terms, pay your prices without fighting you, and will give you better material for your portfolio (as they are almost certainly investing in other areas of their event or production too).

So while most photographers are cutting their prices to fight for jobs with clients who don’t want to work on their terms, this photographer avoids the issue entirely.

He works fewer hours than they do, makes far more money, and has higher value clients (and referrals) to show for it. Not because his is any more talented, but simply because he has defined the types of jobs he is willing to take, and he refuses to settle for less.

How you decide to price your services and select your clients will define your career. This is true whether you are a freelancer or run your own production company.

Don’t feel like you need to wait to have the perfect portfolio to go after a bigger job, or to be willing to ask for more. It’s okay for clients to turn you down. As I’ve outlined in the example above, that’s part of the process.

Your ultimate goal should be to build up a client list that truly serves your purposes. To find those few people who are willing to pay you what you are worth, are enjoyable to work with, and whose projects can help you land more work of the same kind.

If you take every job that comes along without having a system, you’ll never get there. Either you need to say “no” to bad opportunities, or you need to make it easy for non-optimal prospects to say “no” to you.

As long as you’ve set some basic guidelines that define how much you are willing to work and at what cost, you can achieve this.

Wouldn’t you prefer to have one client pay $10K/month for 1 day of work, instead of juggling 10 lower quality clients for less money? I certainly would.

And I’m sure most creative freelancers and entrepreneurs would agree. Yet so few people put themselves in a position to reach that level. Not because they aren’t good enough, but because they are scared to ask for more.

It can be terrifying to turn down work when you don’t have much else on your plate. I certainly understand that, and am not suggesting that this path is an easy one.

But if you are willing to create some ground rules for yourself, and only take on projects that absolutely meet your minimum criteria for pay and quality of work, you will begin to attract the types of clients that can change your career.

99% of your prospects will not fit with your vision of the “ideal client”… Which is why it’s your job to find the 1% that are, and provide them with the best possible service you can. 

This is the first step on a path that can lead us to better clients, and eventually more income derived from less working hours.

We can all make the decision today to charge what we are worth, and only collaborate with clients who truly value what we do. It takes a lot of willpower to put this into practice, but I promise you it’s worth it.

That’s it for today…

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

6 Comments

  • Rusty Earl
    February 27, 2019 at 8:51 pm

    I totally agree. I’m sure it has been addressed before, but one thing I would add is that it is okay to do work for free or cheap when:

    1- You are first getting started
    2- Building a reel to show new clients
    3- And the work that you do is on your terms (creatively).

    But you should be tracking your time to see what you have invested. Use that as a method for gaging time on similar future work. After that, figure out a fee that makes sense and cover the cost of your tools used and time spent. Don’t forget the little things like travel, cost of renting gear- insurance- hard-drive storage, etc. Clients appreciate someone with a plan. It’s takes a while, but clients will come back to you when they are happy with your work, they know you are consistent, and you value your time. Thanks Noam for the great writeup!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 28, 2019 at 1:15 am

      Absolutely – And thank you for adding this. A lot of what I’ve outlined really applies once you’ve already begun your journey. At the very beginning, we all need to take on volume to learn, get better at the craft, and figure out who our ideal clients even are. Appreciate the note!

      Reply
  • Vincent
    March 19, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Great article.

    Setting the bar too low makes for bumping your head!

    I’ll add some other tips:
    – Having a solid point of difference to your work / way you work that you communicate well gives you the confidence to charge what you want.

    Otherwise you end up resenting the client, your time invested, yourself…

    And I’ve been there.

    Charging more than you think ‘you’re worth’ is important because generally as creatives we have worthiness issues.
    (and sometimes what others truly value – confidence, attitude etc, is not something we admire in ourselves).

    Keep it it up, Noam! You have another subscriber.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 9:44 pm

      Thanks so much for adding this, Vincent. Awesome points all around.

      Reply
  • Doru
    June 5, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    You’re d… right!
    Great article.

    Reply

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