The Cinematographer, Money and You: A Beginner’s Guide to Paying Our Rate
Photo Credit: S & A
Filmmaker Toolkit

The Cinematographer, Money and You: A Beginner’s Guide to Paying Our Rate

nullEditor’s note: As 2014 begins, I’ve been reposting some of our 2013 highlights. Those who’ve already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you’d like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here’s a piece originally published in early February 2013.

It’s time to stop pretending that we are in film production just for artistic expression. Yes – that is extremely important, but so is being able to say that I bought my house, paid for my children’s education or funded a charity with the money I made as an artist.

My New Years Resolution is to stop referring professionals for freebies. There is nothing wrong with doing a job for free, I’ve done plenty, but I can’t in good conscience refer pros (not students) for non-paying gigs anymore. I want directors to make money, I want your films to be distributed and audiences to pay to see them, I want your actors to get royalties and I want your crews to be paid.

I enjoy speaking to newbies in my S&A articles. If I share my experiences, my preferences and a few resources, you should have enough information to get started. If I had to cover all of the intricacies of working with a bigger budget and more players (unions, agents, networks etc), it would become too complex.

In a perfect world, you’ve already read my first article “5 Things Cinematographers Look For In A Director And Project Before Taking A Job” and taken my advice: attach a producer to your project and let them negotiate crew rates.

However, I recognize there are many instances when the director has to assume the producing role: to shoot a sizzle reel to attract quality producers, capture doc footage immediately with or without a producer, can’t find a producer whose enthusiasm nor work ethic matches yours, working on a small enough project and believe your business background can make it happen or you have control issues (no judgment…)

If you’re not entirely sure how to handle crew rates, here are some guidelines to get started. Please remember this is from the perspective of a NYC based DP. I once had a potential client from San Francisco who was shocked that I did not own a car to pick him up at the airport and get the equipment. Not all expectations are universal.

1. Educate yourself on proper rates. You will gain our respect if you acknowledge what we should be paid and then explain what you are able to pay. Although I am non-union, I have been paid union rates. You should know what the standard rates are for DPs and Camera Operators (and the rest of the crew for that matter). With a little research, you can find out what are standard rates for special events/weddings, promos, documentaries etc.

You should also be prepared to answer certain questions related to our rate:

– Will we be working 8 hour, 10 hour or 12 hour days? How many days per week?

– How will you compensate if we go overtime? How will you calculate OT?

– Will you pay for prep days? (Location scouts, film tests and meetings)

– Will there be a kill-fee? (monies paid if the shoot is cancelled)

– Will you pay for kit rental/box rental? A crew member’s kit includes their personal tools, supplies and equipment that they provide for production and often make the shoot run smoother. For instance: a DP’s customized filters or the 1st Assistant Camera’s Remote Follow Focus

– Will travel be covered? Will you pay for gas and parking? Will you pay for travel days? I’m typically offered half of my day rate for travel days and am reimbursed for cabs to the airport, tips to curbside luggage assistance and my meals during travel

– Will there be a per diem? If you hire someone to work for free, I hope you provide a per diem to cover travel, food and odds and ends. Give the per diem in a lump sum at the beginning of production, weekly or daily but never after the project has completed. Also remember: you can not dictate how they spend their per diem (not everyone realizes this).

– What is your payment schedule?

Potential crew members may or may not ask these questions but will greatly appreciate it if you address them in your initial contact. Ideally, you’ll put the agreed upon details in a deal memo (contract). I don’t worry about deal memos when it’s a simple gig, especially if I am paid upon wrap (last day of shooting). I’ll email my client an invoice for their records and tax purposes.

2. Don’t panic if you can’t pay union rates, plus Over Time and a kit rental etc. There are many reasons why a DP will take below their rate:

– Opportunity to travel

– You’re shooting during a slow season (January in NYC) or in a less active market (hiring a local DP in Tampa versus NYC or LA)

– You’ve secured their normal rate for previous jobs but can’t pull it off this time

– An outlandish, “once in a lifetime experience” shoot (covering World Cup in Brazil)

– Production spans several weeks (vs a one day shoot)

– Working with known talent

– Working with new technology or old technology (Yay Film!)

– Huge incentive: paying the day of the shoot and in cash

3. The more responsibilities given to your DP, the more you should be prepared to pay a higher rate. Before you convince yourself that $100/day is acceptable to pay your DP because you’re paying in cash and traveling to Des Moines, let’s go over a few more considerations. DPs might accept a reduced day rate if they are shooting a small HD camera. However a higher rate should be offered if :

– Shooting on a higher end camera (requiring more expertise)

– You expect them to handle sound

– You expect them to light an interview or a location. Please note: unless you’ve worked as a shooter, never tell your DP that  “it’s a simple lighting set-up”. Explain the look you need, if possible, show us the location and we’ll determine if it’s simple

– You expect them to manage a crew

– You expect them to bring their own equipment and/or are in charge of picking up and transferring equipment. When your DP is bringing their own camera, it is respectable to pay what it would cost you at a local rental house with a 15% discount. This is not always possible but you should get as close to this figure as possible

– You expect them to edit the footage

– Your project is for a corporate client

Once I agree to a rate, I am satisfied. I would never ask for a rate increase if we were planning on shooting with a 5D but suddenly got access to an Alexa. I would, of course, ask for additional crew. You will run into trouble if you ask, for example, that the DP manage sound or driving the truck a week into production. They may say “certainly” but don’t be aggravated if they say “no”, request that you hire more crew or want to renegotiate their contract

4. Pay Negotiation pet peeves. These are my pet peeves, so take them with a grain of salt:

– Someone wants to negotiate an hourly rate or a half day rate. If we are only shooting for 5 hours but I have two hours of travel? I don’t have time in the day for another shoot. Or if we agree to a 5 hour day but an actor is late or we lose a location? I don’t want to renegotiate on the set for my day rate or if we should consider this OT. If you hire me for that day, I’m yours for that day

– Don’t promise Deferred Pay. By “deferred pay”, I mean money based on film profits. I don’t mean paying a portion of our fee now and the remainder due in a month. With the exception of the early days of InDigEnt, I don’t know of a film crew receiving deferred pay. I could be totally wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke “accounting is the most creative department in film production?” There always seems to be a “reasonable” explanation for a film not turning a profit

– Don’t promise bigger jobs in the future. Let’s just do an amazing job now, treat each other with respect and whatever happens in the future, happens. My favorite directors, producers and I are always dreaming and scheming of jobs to do together. But I cringe when a new producer promises to hire me on some big gig coming up if I accept the $1.25 now

Another article that might be of assistance: “First Time Making a Documentary with a Professional Film Crew? This is What We Wish You Knew

Lastly, I have advice for crew newbies: Your rate will be dictated to you when you start out. If you have any questions if it’s a fair deal, ask your Key or others in the industry. Initially, I wouldn’t make too much of an issue over your kit rental or OT. Just work. Work, build relationships, build experience, have some fun, gain some war stories and later on, you can get particular.

If you learn nothing else, remember this: Never – EVER – complain about your rate on set. Even if your complaint is justified. Even if you’re being paid with a Metrocard and Eggo Waffles while the rest of the crew is getting $1k/day. I always make sure my Keys are getting the same rate but have worked for DPs without the same standard. Years ago, I did a music video as a 2nd AC and got a flat rate. Grips and Electrics were given OT. The shoot lasted 23 hours. Not my fondest memory but I learned.

Once you agree to a rate and conditions, the conversation is over. Trust me, if you complain, you will be overheard and labeled difficult or ungrateful. I must assume if you took a job, it’s because you saw some value: to work with a great crew, get bumped up to 2nd Grip or 1st AC, travel, to pay your cell phone bill or do something other than watch Ghost Whisperer reruns all day. Suck it up, learn and move on.

Chat film with me @CybelDP.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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