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Making sense of the "Wild West": Finding the right price and the right vendor for your nonprofit's video.

It's the Wild West these days in video and music production. Our firm is based in Nashville, not far from world famous "Music Row" where some of the legendary recording studios sit....vacant. However impressive in appearance, their giant consoles of knobs and faders, along with their venerable reel-to-reel tape machines, have long since been replaced by computers. Today, many of the studios in Nashville occupy the basements and bonus rooms of neighborhood houses. It's never been as affordable or tech friendly for a person to enter the game of music production. When knowledge and cost barriers are dramatically lowered, quality and pricing goes "all over the map."

It's exactly the same Wild West scenario in video production and photography.  As the owner of a used motion picture camera store told me (after valuing my $24,000 Arriflex camera at a few hundred dollars) "it's all digital now." And while my curmudgeon old-school film friends curse the steady influx of inexperienced newbies, this highly-competitive marketplace offers plenty of affordable choices for the communications professional wanting to hire out. 

Most video work for nonprofit organizations is akin to documentary filmmaking, both in tone and in production value. While some larger nonprofits might produce commercials that are high concept, Hollywood-like production pieces that cost in the six-figures, my comments pertain to the far more common videos needed for campaign kickoffs, social media, special events, etc. 

In this arena, it can be difficult to make sense of the tremendous variables in quality and pricing.  The quality part is fairly easy. Just view work that a prospective vendor has done that is of a similar nature to the genre of film you need.  And view lots of it. Remember, a production firm's reel is like the highlights on Sports Center..what you want to look at is the entire game, so watch completed pieces in their entirety. Don't be overly impressed or distracted by their marketing pitch...look at their work!!

If you see pieces that you like, you will want to know if the same production crew members will be available for your project-camera, lighting and sound. And you will want to know if they will be using the same camera systems. Remember, while there are tons of "pretenders" playing video director, they're also a lot of new talent in the marketplace. 

As for pricing, the first thing to do is to abandon the notion that cost is highly correlated to the length of a production. This is a remnant of the days of film where every foot of celluloid that passed through the camera gate was money out of somebody's pocket. And as Superbowl ads attest every year, the cost of producing a 30-second commercial can be staggering. Four minutes of a talking head jabbering straight into a camera, without graphics or b-roll, shouldn't cost you very much. 

Invariably, the single most costly factor in video production is the time and effort required in capturing the footage. It still takes a fair amount of gear and at least a few crew members (2-3) to capture moving footage and sound. Video is most interesting when something or somebody in the frame is moving (whether camera or subject), and fluid camera motion is often gear intensive. Expect to pay between $2,000 and $5,000 plus travel expenses per day for capture. The lower number is for a "run and gun"production team of 1-2 people typically using prosumer quality HD cameras. The higher figure would be for a team of 3-5, with dedicated personnel handling audio, lighting and camera and using pro equipment (which they often rent). If possible, try to orchestrate the capture process to happen over continuous days, especially if your crew is from out of town. Production days can be grueling for both film crews and the staff that manage them, but try to get as much footage as possible "in the can."

Is the $5,000 crew's work going to be better? Not necessarily. If the lean crew is highly skilled, they can be more mobile (get more footage) and their gear/presence less intimidating to the participants. Furthermore, if the lean crew members understand how to most effectively light their subject and handle their camera, their footage will be far superior to a more expensive camera operating in a less-optimal light situation. Again, look at completed work that you like and ask what kind of crew would be needed to produce something of similar quality for your organization. 

The second major cost is editing and color correcting the footage. This can be based on an hourly rate or a flat rate built-in to the project deliverable. Expect to pay $125-$225 per hour for editing. The lower rate is for basic editing, and the higher for color correcting the footage or doing more complicated fixes to audio images. Fees for motion graphics would also be towards the higher range of this scale. 

A much longer post than I originally intended, but I hope you find the information helpful!

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