We artists often suck at managing productions and budgets. We all have to get thru that stuff in the early days, but if you are numbers/manager challenged, my first piece of advice is bringing a producer into your shoots as soon as you can make it happen. That allows you to focus on your craft. Having said that, my staff producer Megan has had a ripping series of posts going on, including this one aimed at those of you who are either managing these budgets yourself or moving into hiring your own producer. Megan is my awesome-sauce staff producer and almost entirely responsible for all estimating for incoming project requests, all line producing, making sure we stay on budget, helping me realize the creative vision and then reconciling (or capturing actual costs) once the project is complete. Safe to say she rocks it. While there are a thousand resources available online to help you write an estimate; you’ll want to listen to Meg – here she offers up some tips for staying on that all important budget during your production. And there are 3-5 more links at the bottom to help you even more w your productions. Best of luck – take it away Megan.
Thanks Chase. There are 3 main components to any photo estimate: creative fees, production fees + expenses, licensing + usage rights. The creative + usage fees will only be impacted by a change in scope of work or deliverables, so it’s really about keeping an eye on the production fees + expenses when you’re thinking about budget and planning.
The fact of the matter is that the more accurate your estimate is, the easier it will be to stay on track once the production is underway. As with most things in life, practice makes perfect, so stick with it. Here are my top 9 tips for staying on top.
1. Get clear:
Make sure you have a strong understanding of the project parameters before you start the job. Ask for a creative brief, shot list or any info that may help paint a clearer picture. The more you know in advance, the better equipped you’ll be to produce the job on time + on budget. Get it in writing – budgets and all the info you need (see later tip 😉 – so you have something to point to while doing all the work).
This step is especially useful if you’re traveling but applies to everything. When you’re drafting the initial estimate, check out the going rate for flights, hotels in the neighborhood, per diem + mileage rates for the state you’re shooting in, car rentals, baggage fees, etc.
Booking talent? Call an agency or two and ask about day rates and availability.
Renting equipment? Call your local shop to make sure you know how much to budget for each piece – and make sure it’s available!
3. Plan ahead:
Regarding travel, keep in mind that flight costs generally rise as you get closer to your travel date. Try to book 2 weeks in advance to avoid getting gouged, or make sure your estimate is padded enough to account for higher rates.
Reach out to contractors early on to check on rates + availability. Most folks are willing to work within your budget constraints if they’re not super busy and if you’re transparent about the job.
Set super clear expectations with both your clients + crew. How long will the shoot day be (realistically)? Is there budget for overtime? If not, make sure everyone knows what the hard stop is. Provide crew with as many shoot day details as possible. Share scope of work, schedule, etc. so there are no surprises + everyone knows what’s expected of them on set.
One of the biggest mistakes I see from junior producers is that they fear talking about things that “might” happen or the uncomfortable cost issues that arise from evolving plans. This is not a good quality. Turn this kryptonite into a strength – be open and willing to chat about budget and all things like it — and you will have separated yourself from 90% of the cost and client management challenges. Be proactive.
5. Get it in writing:
See my note above. Consider drafting deal memos for contractors to outline the length of shoot day, agreen-upon rate + hourly O/T costs, should the shoot go long.
Client wants to add a shot? Have them sign a change order, outlining how the extra shot will impact the bottom line; don’t forget to include crew + location O/T.
Even the most basic stuff should be captured in an email so everyone is on the same page – and if there are any discrepancies you can always refer back to what you’d agreed to. In the biz they call this the paper trail.
6. Know your pinch points:
For those of us that have been doing this a while, we’re able to readily identify the places we tend to get in trouble. The most common areas are food + travel. You might have to get creative in order to stay on budget in these categories, but keep an eye out for places you might be able to make up any overages.
7. Keep a running tally:
Plug receipt totals into an “Actuals” column as you go, so that you always know where you stand. It will help you easily identify if and where you’re over budget, and where you have a little wiggle room.
Don’t let yourself get surprised. Always know where you stand relative to what you’re spending.
8. Allow for contingencies:
Be sure to include the fine print as part of your estimate (as a Terms + Conditions addendum), or as part of a larger contract. Identify who’s responsible for what, outline protocol for any major changes + how any disputes will be handled. For instance, if your shoot is outdoors, include a note about how weather delays will be handled.
Agencies will often issue a PO for the exact dollar amount of your estimate. You’ll want to know how to go about submitting an estimate for unforeseen overages (i.e. you arranged + paid for your client’s car to the airport, or you ended up shipping all product back to your client’s office).
There is an art to this. Practice makes perfect.
9. Be smart:
Your clients are hiring you for your creative vision. You may be able to offer some ideas your client hadn’t considered or find solutions to get the intended results at a lower cost. Pipe up. Don’t be afraid to propose a more cost-effective solution, as long as your client’s needs are met.
Want some more Production advice? Try these on for size:
That’s all I got for now folks. Try keeping these things in mind on your next shoot, and let us know if they helped. Also, feel free to chime in with other tips or tricks that you’ve found especially useful – I’ll keep an eye on the comments and the social feeds with some answers. Until next time!