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Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work

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Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 22, 2006 at 4:22:47 pm

This may be a good post for the Indie Film forum, but I thought I would start here...

I run a production company that does mostly corporate video and commercials. Most of the time I work hourly. I recently finished work on a documentary that I didn't really get paid much of anything for because all the people involved were doing it to try to get a concept off the ground and attract some attention for larger future projects.

Well, it seems to have worked and I now may have some opportunities to direct and edit a few more docs. What I'm not sure about is how I should quote a price. How do people usually get paid for this sort of thing? In the corporate world I can tell a company my hourly rate and estimate the amount of hours and that's not a problem. But with a documentary it would be almost impossible to accurately estimate the hours, and the people paying for it are private investors. Is it more common to quote a flat rate? I want to do the work and I don't want to be greedy, but at the same time, my kids have to eat!

I would appreciate any guidance from people who have made the move from the corporate world to the entertaiment/documentary world. Thanks!

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Tim Wilson
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 22, 2006 at 4:54:27 pm

The process you describe is exactly how I built my own production business. Started doing commercial and corporate work, then left it behind as I moved into full-time documentary production.

One thing to note is that it didn't happen overnight. I used the commercial money to fund the doc business while it was getting off the ground.

The other thing to note is that a client is a client. Doing commercials "for practice" is a fine way to hone your chops...but you wouldn't expect to regularly take a pile of commercials you created to a client you never consulted beforehand and say "It's great work. Would you like to pay me?" The process is client first, then production.

I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but many people miss it. This really is the way it works. There's a reason why corporate sponsors are thanked by name in documetaries, say, on PBS. It's true for documentaries that never air on TV as well -- somebody pays for them to be created.

You've clearly got that part under control, since you're now asking about how to bill. You're right, by the project is the only way to go. From there, it entirely depends on the kind of doc you're doing.

Historical stuff can be a little easier on production. You're mostly shooting indoors, and an interview is an interview. The heavy lifting is in post, where you have to not just edit, but add all the animation and effects that people have come to expect. Indeed, I've found historical docs to be among the most effects-intensive work you'll ever do, short of a creature feature.

Speaking of which, I mostly did nature docs. No question you have to roll tape. And roll. And roll. My experience is that with practice, you'll only miss a few seconds changing 30-minute tapes, but you'll more than make it in post up by not having to shuttle through much longer tapes to find what you need. Practice timecode discipline, or there's no amount of money that will be worth your misery.

It helps to build the story in your mind as you shoot. Pre-production is essential, but it's only a start. Once you get into the wilderness, the story has a way of taking over. If you pay attention, it will help you start to make shooting choices, to understand the b-roll you need, and perhaps most important, tell you what you DON'T need to shoot.

No matter what, shooting takes much, much more time in this scenario. From there, editing takes time, but you know how to edit. While it takes much longer to edit when working with a lot of footage (10 or 15x isn't uncommon) it's much easier to guess your time budget than with effects-laden post.

The reason why I go into this is that you have to have some idea of hard costs (especially tape -- you'll need as many extra batteries as you can carry, too), some idea of the balance of your effort(between shooting, editing and effects), and at least a rough guess of how long you take for each of these.

Then once you've done all this math? Throw it all out. Do what you can with the client's budget. They'll never have enough, at least to begin...which is why your commercial work can balance it out while you get your legs under you.

Sorry to have gone on at such length, but I hope you're seeing that different kinds of docs create much different scenarios for production...and therefore different impacts on budget.

A final note: even though I dismissed the idea of doing spec work for commercials (do the work now, pray to get paid later), it can actually pay off with docs. You can shake loose some extra money if you create a 3 or 4 minute preview of the work you intend to do with EXACTLY the style and full production value you intend to execute. But that's a whole other post. :-)

So where do we start talking from here?


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Mark Suszko
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 22, 2006 at 6:01:37 pm

Good point.

Don't get overwhelmed by the thing, break it down to manageble steps. The following is just one method, not necessarily the best.

I would break the thing down to known elements you can get a handle on first. If this is an interview-heavy doc, count up the number of folks to be interviewed and figure a day rate package for shooting each one, and total those up. If you can schedule them so one gear rental covers everything, you've saved money. If you can get them to all show up in more or less one place to cut your travel costs, you've saved more money. Total up the interview shoots the production gear and expendables and per diem and etc. and get a figure. Are you going to buy any music? Do you need to get any insurance or clearances for some element? Calculate those. You are halfway to the estimate.

Now consider post.

You know from the number of interviews roughly how many hours of raw tape you'll shoot. You will spend at least that amount of time digitizing and logging. I am a believer that more time spent in quality logging and previewing footage leads to shorter and more effective time in the actual edit. This digitizing step is the modern day equivalent of the offline "paper edit" we used to do in the '70s and '80s. Think of it as the first very rough edit, in fact. If you are a very detail-oriented logger, probably double or even triple the shot footage time for this step. Decide if you're paying/charging full edit bay rates for digitizing or some lower rate, and calculate that. Set the number aside for a grand total later.

The edit itself:

If you are shooting to a script, you could for example pick a ratio of raw stock to edit time and calculate a rough average of expected edit time from that. The more experienced you are the more accurate these guesses get. What I'm talking about is sort of like the ratio of shot film to finished projected product, only I'm talking hours spent trying out and applying edits versus the number of hours of material available, and not necessarily the running length of the finished show. Nobody I know of uses exactly every frame he shot in the final edit, and takes only that amount of real time to perform a master edit ( we would call such a thing dubbing it, not editing :-) )

OTOH, nobody I know has the shooting to final ratio of Coppola's Apocalypse Now either, but something in-between those two extremes.

Say the editing is more or less uncomplicated cuts of a simple tale, told sequentially by just cutting down the subjects responses for time in a generally linear style. Maybe you would figure a 3:1 edit-to raw ratio based on your skills and what you know about the project. You shot three hours of interview, so maybe the rough cut will take nine hours, using this rule of thumb, plus say four hours to log and digitize. This is assuming short occasional breaks, not necessarilly lunches and dinners. You have 13 hours down on this job. 13 hours with only bathroom breaks and coffee is a heavy day, makes more sense to say a day and a half to two days to do a nice edit boiling down the three hours into a finished program. So your spreadsheet or back of the envelope could show that day rate and the cost.

This is just very loose speculation at this point, mind you. In my linear days doing training vids, my hours ratio for editing was just over 2 to 1 for a simple job, but that was under very tightly controlled conditions, without too much fancy FX work, for something very prosaic and not especially creatively challenging, more like "tab a goes into slot b" kinds of things. With NLE and all it brings to the party in terms of creative options and storytelling technique, plus the ability to work with multiple versions and mix between them, I would expect a documentary could be anywhere from a tightly-planned, logged, and scripted one at 5 edit hours to each 1 hour of raw tape, all the way past 15:1 or 20:1 for something so loose it is completely "discovered" in the post process. So much of that depends on what kind of preoducer/director you are, how much anarchy and exploration time you can afford in a place that charges by the hour, etc.

Anyway, that's one way (my way) to guess the actual edit suite time. Will you need to do captioning or add other voice tracks? Lay off HD and SD versions? That's easily going to double the time. And graphics is the wild card, as has been mentioned before. Animating still photos, the cost of stock footage, making maps with builds and moving arrows, compositing... this is all going to have to be a separate budgeting step because it is so variable from project to project.

If you have an hourly edit fee rate in mind, now throw it against the predicted hours for post from above, and total this with the hours for logging/digitizing. Throw in two or three hours for making dub masters, safety copies, or burning simple DVD's without any menus, just for approvals and review.

Add it to the totals from the shoots.

Now you have a *rough* idea of the time and thus money to be spent to get to the first rough cut stage. And that's all you can do becasue you can't predict what changes they'll throw at you after that step. If the client or sponsor can meet this bare minimum figure ( AND you have not begun to figure profits yet! Just costs!)
you will be in relatively good shape. If you're already far in the red on paper, over-cost or over time, before you've even figured in the profits, then the project needs to be re-evaluated to see how it can be brought in line with the resources you have, or you need to go dig up more money somewhere.

And believe it or not, that's the SHORT version!:-)

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David Roth Weiss
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 24, 2006 at 7:20:14 pm


Should documentary editors pay a penalty because they are doing the most difficult type of work? Hell no!!!

As you have already realized, docos can be the hardest and most time-consuming of all projects to cut. This is because they are most often created in post from loosely conceived ideas, without a script as a blueprint, and from gobs and gobs of footage acquired at a shooting ratio that greatly exceeds all other types of long-form projects. And, typically the documentary editor ends up wearing many additional hats for which they are seldom credited or paid, often writing, producing and editing. For this very reason in L.A. these days the unofficial title most of us carry is "Preditor," (i.e Produce/Editor). In fact, the Writers Guild is seeking to get doco and reality editors offically recognized and paid as writer/producer/editors.

The question as you have posed it, and even as many experienced editors continue to pose it, implies that documentary editors must somehow be required to be fortune tellers, able to prognosticate the amount of time it will take to deliver a finished project that has zillions of unknowns and variables, and somehow arrive at a flat rate for the whole job. The best you could ever hope to do would be to make an educated guess, and even that is almost impossible without evaluating massive amounts of footage and the wisdom and experience of those who will be working with you. Seldom does anyone get to do either before their deal is actually struck.

So, the real question one needs to ask is, how can I possibly calculate a finite bid on a job that has an infinite number of varibles? And the answer is, you can't. The only way you can possibly come out whole is to be paid for your time, by the hour, day, week, or month. The editor and the producer should establish a realistic completion goal, which you do your best to adhere to, but, you cannot be held responsible for the myriad of things that may arise that are beyond your control. And so, if you guess that it will take eight weeks to do the job and it actually takes twelve weeks, you need to keep getting paid. If you accept anything less, you then become an investor, and you must ask yourself, am I recognized as an investor, and, did I get into this business to invest in the speculative projects of others?

The bottom line is, never work on a flat, especially if you work in docos. You may lose some jobs to foolish souls who are willing to cast their valuable time on this planet to the four winds, but keep in mind, seldom is the quality of a creative person's work very good when they've exceeded their "guesstimate" and are no longer being compensated at a rate that makes them feel worthwhile.

I hope this helps,

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Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 25, 2006 at 6:03:29 am

Those are all FANTASTIC responses! Thanks for all the great insight. I really appreciate it.

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Tim Wilson
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 1:57:05 pm

[David Roth Weiss] "So, the real question one needs to ask is, how can I possibly calculate a finite bid on a job that has an infinite number of varibles? And the answer is, you can't. The only way you can possibly come out whole is to be paid for your time, by the hour, day, week, or month."

Stongly agree with the first two sentences. No way anyone can, or should, bid against infinite variables.

Couldn't disagree with the third sentence more. I like the beginning of it though: "The only way can possibly come out whole is to...."

reduce the number of variables!

I don't mean to pick on you, David. But I heard this constantly when I was doing documentaries, and I never, ever found it to be true of a single project I worked on.

Start by seeing it from the client's point of view. How can you possibly ask them to commit to a potentially infinite budget. "And the answer is, you can't." Reducing the number of variables is the one and only task you have before you take your camera out of the bag.

There aren't an infinite number of things for you both to think about in order to begin, either. As far as I'm concerned, there are only four.

The first is the budget. There's no such thing as an infinite budget, so you adjust your work accordingly. Hey client, I can do anything you want to beyond what we agreed upon, but you'll have to pay me. The one and only way this happens is if you both agree on a target.

Say you're the one doing the documentary, and you want investors. You can only raise so much money. If you want more money, you need to get it. If you can't, you do what you have to do to get the job to fit the money. Or you go out of business.

The second is the content. Whether you're the creator, or you're working for someone else, preproduction is even MORE important for docs precisely BECAUSE you need to control the variables. Even if it's not a script, it's an outline.

The third is the target length. I built a career on doing nature docs, and most were 30 minutes or less. One example was a welcome video at a national park. Seven to ten minutes tops. The thirty minute gigs were science and nature magazine shows, airing on PBS and government stations. Sometimes I had 3 stories, sometimes 1...but I still had 30 minutes, including credits, period.

There are other kinds of TV gigs. The pinnacles are Discovery and National Geographic. Both build their schedules around hour-long programs with 4 breaks. That's 42 minutes, in roughly 10 minute chunks. Another pinnacle is POV on PBS: roughly an hour, in one 45-ish minute chunk. Same with HBO. And on and on.

YOUR time is the final consideration. You have a life. You have a job. You have other clients calling for your time. You HAVE to put a cap on the amount of time you're going to spend on any one project, or you can't have a business.

So think about a favorite documentary. My three favorites in recent years are Bowling for Columbine, Super Size Me, and No Way Home. Every one of those had a budget, an outline if not a script, and a general target length. Even the feature-length ones can't come in at much more than 90 minutes.

And whether it's Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock or Martin Scorcese, every one of them had something else to do when these projects were over. The calendar was calling. Every important choice they made was based on their own answers to those four basic questions.

(There are some other specific questions that come up, with a subset of the EXACT same considerations. Is Joan Baez available? Is somebody else asking for a fee to appear? Are the rights to a given photograph available? Your decision whether or to pursue these, an alternative, or skip it altogether is made by determining if you have the time and the budget to mess with them. You KNOW the answer, and you make your decision accordingly.)

So in the end, the forces that shape a hard project like a documentary are the same ones that shape an easy project, say, a testimonal PSA built around a 30-second head shot. The answers to each question vary depending on the project, but the questions never do.

What's the budget? You know before you begin.

What's the content? You know before you begin.

What's the target length? You know before you begin.

What does your schedule allow? You know before you begin.

Some of these are firmer than others, but none is an entirely unknown factor before you begin...or else you don't begin. Not if you want to do this twice.

The more often you want to do it -- in my case HUNDREDS of times -- the more important it is that you know the answers to these questions.

Follow these principles, and the rewards are far greater than the money you receive. Fail to follow them more than once or twice, and you WILL be getting an hourly wage...working in a fast-food drive-through.

Good night and good luck.


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David Roth Weiss
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 5:57:06 pm


I used to agree with much of what you said, however, in recent years things seem to have changed, and more and more of the documentary work I undertake and see others undertaking is not well thought out in advance. Its not the way I choose to work, it just seems to be the way things have evolved (or regressed).

For a long time I tried to teach my clients how to organize, script and schedule, but they seemed to resent that and it hardly ever worked. So, after getting burned way too many times, I developed new strategies which have served me well.

And so, I rarely, if ever, work on a flat. Because it works for me I encourage others to adopt the same strategy. Getting paid for your time on the job is a good thing and I think more documentary editors should be paid for what they really do rather than for what anyone hopes or guesses they'll do.


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Tim Wilson
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 6:59:20 pm

I'm still going to disagree, based on my experience if nothing else. I wouldn't dream of doing the easiest job in the world without knowing the client's budget, the intended content, the intended length, and how much time I had to give the project. Once you know that stuff, I don't see any reason to treat docs differently from any other project.

Now that I think about it, though, it occurs to me that, precisely because it IS like any project, you can bill for it like any other project. If you bill hourly, bill hourly. But if you break the client's budget or your own time budget on a regular basis, you're out of business. The other two questions are simply ways to answer THOSE two questions.

I'll confess that I only went the hourly route on jobs I didn't really want. This exposes a prejudice on my part, but my feeling is that the people best-suited to getting paid hourly is manual laborers, low-level government workers, and people like secretaries and assistants in corporate life.

I don't mean the slightest disrespect to any of these, but I conducted business as a principal in my company, and a producer on every project. That means I wasn't a laborer, I was an executive. And executives don't get paid hourly. Hence my insistence on a budget of both money and time before the first shot gets taken.

Hence also my point that the only way the task gets infinite is if you let the client make it infinite. They might resent it, but I found that once I got them through this first hurdle, I was in the driver's seat the rest of the way.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 7:13:09 pm

Doctors and lawyers and airline pilots definitely work hourly rates, nothing "Manual labor" about that. I'm not sure this is an applicable metaphor you're bringing into this. Video production appeals to me for this reason, among many others; that it is a fusion of hands-on manual crafsmanship and cerebral head work. When I tire of the one side, I refresh myself with the other.

Back to billing and budgeting: I suppose you could do flat fees, but in discrete steps or sections, as in a flat fee for the pre-prod, a flat fee for the shoot, a flat fee for post up to the first rough cut, etc. and you don't take on the next portion until paid up for all previous ones. The goal is to keep getting paid all along so you are not working "for free" while the guy with the money is making interest on it.

I think some folks wanting to do a doc are afraid that too much advance planning somehow taints the honesty of the doc by forcing it down certain paths. My opinion is that as long as you keep some ground rules for yourself regarding objectivity, and refer to them from time to time, the integrity of the doc will survive okay. But it's foolish to think anyone can make a totally objective piece.

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Tim Wilson
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 10:33:42 pm

Fair enough on the hourly thing. I still never did it, and never will...but you're right that it's not the dealbreaker.

I'm still clear why there's any objection to pre-production in a doc. You can be open to change as you proceed, just as you are with scripted production. But the harder the production -- and docs are the HARDEST -- the more that preproduction pays off.

I'm not being theoretical here, which we could pleasantly debate for years. And I love that. But this is practical. Somebody has a budget. There's time to spend, and time that can't be spent. You either meet these goals or you don't. It's like the old saying, if you don't have a goal, you'll never achieve it.

Seriously. Raise your hands if a client ever came to you and said, "I don't have a particular story to tell. Don't bother with an outline. Start rolling camera on anything you want, and I'll pay you as much as it takes."



Nope. You start with a story. If there's no story, there's no reason to start. Even if the goal of the production is explicitly discovery for the filmmakers, there's still a budget, there's still a calendar, and everything else serves those two masters. Both of those serve the content.

Note that I didn't say that you had to have the content mapped...but I doubt you can name a documentary where the content wasn't significantly mapped out. Maybe it was an outline...but I can't think of a documentary that didn't have a whole heck of a lot more than that before it began.

Funny that you mention that outlines, even scripts, compromise objectivity. If there was such a thing (and I don't believe there is), I think the compromise begins with the camera. You make a choice to point in one direction rather than another, a time to turn it on and turn it off. These at the very least influence content, but since the dawn of documentary production, most of us have argued that these are ethical choices as well as artistic ones.

I'll go further and say that there's no more inherently subjective and actively ethical artform than the documentary. Discuss.

Maybe not here though. :-) Do we need to open a production philosophy community? I'm enjoying this.

Anyway, let's forget objectivity. Maybe it's a goal, maybe it isn't. But there's still some kind of goal fpr the content. It may or may not be the biggest goal of the PRODUCTION -- although I absolutely believe it's always the PRIMARY goal of any documentary production -- but it's one of them.

Again, I may be being overly reductive, but if you don't have an actual story to tell, there's no point for clients to spend money, for investors to invest, no point in taking the camera out of the bag.

My two scents.


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David Roth Weiss
Re: Getting paid for documentary work vs. corporate work
on Nov 26, 2006 at 10:49:01 pm

[Tim Wilson] "executives don't get paid hourly."

True, but executives do get paid by the week, the month, or usually by the year -- still a finite amount of money over a finite period of time. And, just as executives are expected to work overtime when the job demands it, or to attend functions and such, as long as its not abusive, I do the same. The objective is of course not to break the client's bank, but rather to create a situation that is fair to all parties instead of forcing the editor to take it in the shorts, which happens all too often.


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