The Art and Business of Corporate Film Production, Part I: The Business
It was just a short, 50-word email. An invitation for Dare Dreamer Media to submit a proposal for the production of the film adaptation of The White Envelope Project’s “For the Man Who Hated Christmas.” It’s a true story about a wife’s Christmas tradition of giving to people or organizations in need as a “gift” to her husband who hated the commercialization of Christmas. She’d then write about it, seal the note in a plain white envelope, and place it on the tree as his gift. A request for proposal (RFP) was attached to the email, along with a 2-week deadline to submit a formal proposal. The resulting project, from booking to postproduction, is a quintessential case study of corporate video production, filmmaking, and following one’s true passion. It was also one of my most rewarding filmmaking experiences in 2010. In this two-part article, I will share with you how we won the contract for the aforementioned video (even though our original bid was four times higher than the next highest) and cover a gamut of topics from sales, marketing, bidding, preproduction planning, auditioning, adapting written material for the screen, working on a high-key set, directing kids, collaborating with clients, and, most importantly, how following your passion pays off.
Passion Pays Off
In the March 2010 issue I wrote an article called Recapturing My Roots as a Filmmaker: An Open Letter to the Industry about my decision to pursue the production of cause-driven and inspirational films as the core of my business. Since I decided to focus on this kind of work, I’m happy to report that except for one wedding and four photographer promos, every project I produced in 2010 fit into one of the three categories: inspirational, cause-driven, or nonprofit organization.
A few were done pro bono, but I wouldn’t still be in business if they all were. As I wrote in that last article, nonprofit doesn’t mean nonpaid. In fact, a few of the projects we produced were five-figure deals. For a small, home-based business such as ours that focuses on serving nonprofits and worthy causes, that’s not bad. One of those higher paying jobs was the project I’m writing about now.
Picking Your ‘Hill’
So now that you’re caught up on the background of my decision to pursue this kind of work, here’s how it connects to this project. The client is Giving101, a nonprofit organization in the Atlanta area that encourages giving and philanthropy. The organization was founded by a local family who came upon the story “For the Man Who Hated Christmas,” Nancy W. Gavin’s essay/memoir that provided the basis for the film. Originally named The White Envelope Project, the organization changed its name to Giving101 to expand its mission and scope.
Giving101 found me by Googling “non-profit video Atlanta.” That’s it. I tested this Google search, and as of this writing, my company is the fifth link on the results page. But it’s the first link for a video production company on the page. That didn’t just happen by accident. I intentionally made changes in the wording on our website to facilitate being found by prospects who would be the kind of clients I want to serve. The title on our homepage is “Dare Dreamer Media | Atlanta and Silicon Valley Video Production | Specializing in non-profit, inspirational and cause-driven films.” The short description on the homepage reads, “Dare Dreamer Media is a boutique new media marketing and video production agency adept at social media marketing, narrative film production, and corporate communications. Our specialty lies in producing cause-driven and inspirational films.”
It’s important in search engine optimization (SEO) marketing to make sure the copy on your actual webpages, as well as the titles of those pages (what you see in the browser’s top bar when you’re on a page), all include words or phrases to help you get found. We can no longer rely just on keywords in the metatags. Key components of these descriptions are the company name, location, and the word “video” (of course) as well as the words that describe the type of video production we do. Then, when prospective clients actually arrive at our homepage, the first thing they’ll see is a featured video. I will usually include the most recent video we’ve produced, as long as it’s one that fits into one of those three main categories: nonprofit, inspirational, or cause-driven. (Incidentally, even if you’re adamant, as we are, that the work you do is more film than video, your corporate prospects are much more likely to Google production services with the word “video” than “film.”)
The importance of specializing in a particular area of work is what my friend, ex-advertising exec, master marketer, and co-founder of KISS Wedding Books, Kevin Swan, calls “picking your hill.” It’s a battlefield analogy that states that you will be most successful in business if you can pick a “hill” that you can readily defend. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, be known as the specialist in a particular area, then show your best work in that area. That doesn’t mean you don’t do other work. We still do the occasional wedding. And if Adobe Systems, Inc. called me up again to produce a video series for the next installment of CS, I’d be all over that like gravy on mashed potatoes.
But if you want to do more of the work that truly fulfills you, if you want to have an edge in this challenging economy, if you want to be able to charge a premium for your services over the Mickey D’s of the world, then you need to pick your hill and market accordingly. Wherever I write or talk about the work we do, my line is the same: “We specialize in the conception, production and distribution of inspirational and cause-driven films.”
The Proposal Process
Now back to the project at hand. As I wrote earlier, I had 2 weeks to prepare a proposal for this client. I got working on it right away.
When preparing a proposal for a prospect, there are two primary tasks I complete. The first is coming up with a vision for the project. Based on the objectives laid out in the RFP, I come up with one to three concepts for the production. Second, based on those concepts I create a budget. I have a Google Docs spreadsheet called “Video Estimates.” In it, I have all the budget projections for every prospect that comes in. I’ll usually find a previous project I’ve done that has a similar scope, then just duplicate the spreadsheet tab, rename it, then make the minor tweaks. If I need to start from scratch, I’ll just duplicate a blank template.
It is very important that you take this part of the process seriously and to not rush through it. It’s also important that you take into account all the costs involved (crew, cast, rental fees, travel, editing, music, etc.) Whenever I hear videographers give the “$1,000 per minute” estimate that seems to be so popular in the industry, I cringe. Under that method, Apple’s world-famous “1984” Super Bowl ad would have cost only $1,000 to make. By the same token, a 2-hour documentary-style wedding film would cost $120,000. I know it’s only supposed to be a ballpark figure, but it’s a terrible, ineffective, and misleading way to estimate a project’s cost. I would never use that method to give an estimate to a prospect, because once you do the numbers and find out that it will actually cost $2,000 or more per minute, you’ve lost credibility. If you’re using that method, stop now!
Once I’ve finished the budget (depending on the project’s scope, budgeting alone could take half a work day), I write up a formal proposal describing my concepts, a description of the deliverables, and the budget amount. It’s our practice not to include a line-by-line estimate because what frequently happens is that prospects will start negotiating line items. In the proposal I provide only those aspects of the production the client will be able to see (the specific crew assigned, the number of shooting hours, a description of the final film, and so on). Things such as how long it takes me to write a script or to edit are not specifically laid out or shown. But I will include those numbers behind the scenes in my spreadsheets.
If the client agrees to my proposed budget, I stick to it, whether or not I go over in my editing time. For instance, if I give a quote based on 20 hours to edit a project and it takes me 30, I don’t charge the client for those 10 extra hours. Likewise, if it takes me only 15, I wouldn’t reduce the fee. The only time additional editing will result in additional money is in the revision process if the client requests changes that go beyond the complimentary re-editing time I build into every project (which is usually an hour).
It may be tempting to provide a low-ball budget to a prospect in hopes of winning the gig. In the world of commercial video production, I would strongly advise against that. You may actually hurt your chances of getting a gig if a budget is too low, especially if you’re dealing with a larger, more sophisticated corporate client that may even be working with an ad agency. “Too low” often translates into “not experienced enough” to handle the job. (Can you imagine if you quoted Apple $1,000 to shoot that “1984” commercial?)
In the case of The White Envelope Project, there was no third-party agency negotiating the deal between the client and Dare Dreamer. The RFP included no indication of what the client’s ballpark range was, so I delivered a no-holds-barred proposal. I put in everything I would want to make the concept I imagined. I figured they might consider it high, but the truth is, I really had no idea, so I saw no reason to possibly leave money on the table out of fear. Don’t ever assume you know what a client’s potential budget is. Some nonprofits have multimillion-dollar yearly operational budgets and could easily afford a five- to six-figure film project. If I do have an idea of what the client is willing to invest, I’ll normally give two to three budget proposals (a high and low, or a high, medium, and low). I want to show the prospects what we could do at the amount they say they’re willing to invest, but I also want to give them an idea of what is possible if they can invest a little (or a lot) more.
It turns out that the proposal I submitted was about four times that of the next highest bidder. Ouch!
The Importance of Educating the Client
Less than a week after the proposal deadline after all the proposals were in, I received an email from a member of the prospective client saying that they loved my concepts, but they weren’t sure it was worth investing that much more. I promptly replied, thanked them for their appreciation of my idea, then set up a time to discuss the project over the phone. On the call, the client explained that the story was a contest-winning essay in Woman’s Day magazine in 1982 that had grown in popularity over the years to viral levels. Every Christmas, radio stations across America read it; blogs and other online periodicals post it; and churches use it as sermon examples. But never had there been a film adaptation, even though other websites had asked for one for years.
One thing the client realized was that the concepts for the lower bids were not anywhere near what they were hoping for or envisioning. They didn’t just want a talking head retelling it, but they also didn’t want something too far off from the original story. In fact, one of the first mandates they gave in the RFP was that the script had to be identical to the original story (I’ll address that issue in Part 2 when I write about adapting the script). They really liked the concept I put forth: a white world of memories where the only things we see on set are specific elements that stand out in the narrator’s mind: a Christmas tree, the chair she sat in while writing the white- envelope letter, a picture frame, etc. Everything else would be a high-key white background (à la the Mac vs. PC commercials).
Over the phone I gave the client a quick primer on filmmaking. I explained the importance of the various roles I proposed (DP, audio engineer, director, etc.). I explained the pros and cons of having me personally handle all of those roles along with the trade-offs. I could be the director and the DP, which would save money, but it may require a longer shoot day since my time would be split. In the end, there was only so much they could pull off budgetwise. They invited me to resubmit a revised proposal at half my original amount. It was at that point that I knew the deal was done. With a better understanding of their needs, I knew I could make it work. Even at half the original estimate, the project was still a five-figure job and an opportunity to stretch my filmmaking muscles. Christmas was coming early … literally.
With the contract won, the real pressure was about to start. In order to have the film ready for distribution to their various partners by the Christmas season, they needed it completed by Nov. 30. By the time the contract was signed, it was Oct. 25. We didn’t receive the first retainer check until shortly after Nov. 1. (I’ve learned never to start work on a project until the check clears the bank. There have been enough times in the past where I wasted valuable time on projects that ended up falling through.) That left just less than a month to write the script, audition actors, gather a crew, find props, find a location, shoot, and then edit. Oh, and did I mention I would be gone for an entire week during that period shooting in New Orleans for Pictage, Inc.? This was going to be interesting.
Remember the Four P’s
Now that we’ve covered the business side of the equation, in Part 2, I’ll cover the art: everything from preproduction through post, including client collaboration. In the meantime, remember these four P’s of marketing for corporate film production: Pursue your passion: Find out what fulfills you in this business, then go after it. Pick your hill: Determine the aspect of the business you will become an expert in and make it known to the world.
Price correctly: Throw out the “$1,000 per minute” ballpark estimating theory, and really figure out how much it will cost a prospect to hire you. If you want to give a true ballpark, give real-world examples of projects you’ve already done and how much they cost.
Present your case: When making bids to prospects, write out a professional and coherent concept proposal and budget. Be prepared to educate your prospective clients on 1) what goes into your proposal, and most importantly 2) why you’re the woman/man for the job. Then, if your marketing and sales efforts succeed, you’ll be ready to move on to the three P’s we all, as filmmakers, enjoy most: preproduction, production, and post.
Ron Dawson (ron at daredreamer.net) is president of Dare Dreamer Media, a new media marketing and video production agency. He and his wife, Tasra, are co-authors of the Peachpit Press book ReFocus: Cutting Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business. Ron is also a two-time EventDV 25 honoree.