The Business Side of the Video Business

Less than one percent who will start reading this article will read it to the end and start making changes, the rest will discard it as pure unnecessary BS. This is because statistically less than one percent succeed in the video business.

Regardless if your video production work is for broadcasting, commercial clients or the web, before getting hired somebody will want to see what you're capable of doing. The difference between getting or not getting the job most likely will come down to what's on your demo reel.

For the last five years in addition to my regular assignments work I have also become a crewer. It wasn’t my choice, it just happened. My regular clients had problems finding qualified crews so they kept asking if I knew anyone in my territory that can be trusted to do a good job and and that’s how I became a crewer. Please note that I do this strictly as a service to my good clients. Initially most of the requests I was getting were for multi-cameras shoot where I was the main camera but slowly they started asking me if I could also crew other jobs when I was already booked and couldn’t do it myself. Last year was one of the busiest, I hired over 100 crews days, that BTW is over $200K worth of business. I have a number of skilled crews that I hire regularly, many I trained myself to make sure they meet my client’s needs. The workshops I’m presently conducting are actually an offshoot of informal training sessions I gave to the crews I was hiring. The request from shooters to participate in those training session grew and that’s how the workshops were born, out of cameraman's own needs to better themselves in order to serve better paying clients.

As the news got around that I hire crews as expected I started getting inundated with calls from cameramen looking for work. I’m always looking for that someone who stands out above the rest. I try to follow up on every call I get, but the volume often can get overwhelming so I learned how to detect in the first few seconds those who are worth taking a longer look. The first thing I look at is their demo reel, and usually also the last thing I look, if I don’t like what I see in the first ten seconds I move-on to the next reel.

So based on my experiences here are some personal observations on demo reels.

The demo reel is your marketing tool, you have to show that you can handle assignments and what you’re capable of doing. It’s your first and often the only chance to impress that client, like the old say goes “you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression”. Demo reels should not be an ego booster but unfortunately most reel I see are just that. They say “Look what I can do” rather than “look what I can do for my clients”, major difference. I look for marketable skills, if you don't have those then it only means that you are not marketable, you don't have what clients need. You might very well possess those skills but you have to let people know that you have them, the only way to do it is to show them, in your demo reel. Nobody will pay you to see what you can do.

Enough with concerts and music videos, over half of the demo reels I see have mostly music videos or concerts. I don’t even give those ten seconds of my time.  That’s not a business anymore, Craiglist and the overabundance of videographers looking for work and willing to work for nothing just to get into the concert for free and for bragging rights have pretty much killed that portion of the industry. Those concerts and music videos also don’t tell me anything about the skills of the videographer, everybody with a little of knowledge can point the camera and do funky moves, those are not marketable skills.

The same goes for those “dynamic” demo reel that are mostly made-up of one second or shorter cuts. That doesn’t tell me anything about the shooter either. I bet that even on the worst five minutes long video ever produced I can come up with several excellent one second long clips.

So, what am I looking for in a demo reel?

I want to see the best skill that shooter has to offer and most important I want to see real clients, I need to see that somebody else already trusted and hired this shooter. Why is this so important? It’s easy for somebody to shoot whatever he/she likes and within the confine of his skills, if he doesn’t know how to do it he will just not do it. But when a client or producer ask him to do something he either does it or if he doesn’t know how he’ll get fired. We are not in business to serve ourselves, we are here to serve paying clients, the better we are the better the clients and the higher the paycheck. Simple formula. This is why continuous training is so important for creating a decent standard of living. Never forget that there are thousand like you out there all after the same clients and the same money. Only those who stand out above the rest will get to those clients, but in order to stand out you have to be better and the only way to get better is to never stop learning.

I understand that many are just starting out and don’t have real clients yet, but if one can work for free on a concert or music video perhaps he could also offer to work for free with a producer or other shooters who serve commercial account in exchange of using the material for your reel. An industrial video of a manufacturing plant might not be as glamorous as a rock band but there’s a much greater demand for industrial videos, and those pay real money.

I look for diversity and each segment in that videos should demonstrate the variety of skill that the shooter is capable of doing. I would also like to see a full sequence not just a composite of one second clips. I want to see how he or she told a story with video, the different shots and how they are linked together.

I look for composition, depth, separation, the use of natural light and most important the lighting skills. I look for discipline in camera moves and the purpose of that move. Today I see cameras moving all over the place for no apparent reason, that’s bad and distracting.

I would like to see a variety of subjects such as architectural both exteriors and well lit interiors. Close ups and well lit products such as food shots or cosmetics, jewelry, etc. Plenty of interviews and how the subject, background/ambience and lighting was done. Some nature shots, every day activities, industrial and corporate work, action sports, human interests stories, etc. In few words the more diverse the better.

Customize you reel for each type of client. Doing this today is easy and might make the difference between getting or not getting the gig. So spending an hour customizing your reel with a better chance to land a $5K or better gig might be worthwhile.

If you know that a corporate client is asking for your reel he will surely want to see corporate work. Don’t have him look at rock concerts, flea markets and high school reunion in order to get to the corporate work, move that segment in front, if he likes what he sees he will want to keep looking at your reel to see what else you’re capable of doing.

When I look at a demo reel and I like what I see my second step will be to look at the entire videos where those segments came from in the first place. With web sites and Youtube this shouldn’t be a problem. The better web sites that I get to see are those that have a composite demo reel I call it a teaser, plus there are the complete videos often categorized as per subject.

Avoid repeat and similar subjects. Don’t waste the potential client’s time. If you feel you have to use repeat subjects use those of interest to that particular client’s needs and make sure you have a variety of cuts that are different form each other. If he is interested he will want to see the entire video. Get his attention first.

If you get a call from a particular business and type of business be and go prepared. Look at what his competitors and others in the same industry do with videos and see how those compare to what you are about to show. You better believe that your target client knows what his competitors and other in his industry do and is looking for you do to one better. It doesn’t have to be of the same industry but if at least you have nothing similar to show you’ll both will be wasting each other’s time. Be assured that some of your competitors will have something the clients is hoping to see on his reel. This is why I stress diversity and customize your reel to the occasion.

Lastly, know the overall composition of your immediate market and make sure your demo reel represent that market. If my potential market is in the desert and my reel show a lot of boating activities chances are that those looking at my reel will get the impression that I have nothing to offer to meet their needs, get the point?

Pick an area of production

The areas of production most people in this business would like get into and what realistically are able to get into are often miles apart. The type of training and education you received will have a lot to do on what type of work will be more realistic for you but equally important will be the location you’re planning to set-up shop. As example, most broadcasting work today is done by those who have experience working in the news portion of the industry. The next step after working for local TV station is to move up to national broadcasters and with a higher goal of getting into doing assignments for broadcasters such as The Travel Channel, Discovery, NatGeo, Smithsonian, etc. These jobs are not easy to get and you have first to build yourself a good reputation, these are also the best paid assignment in the business so naturally you’ll see the best in the business working on these projects. Most of the shows you see on these channels are produced by independent production companies contracted by the network, look for closing credits at the end of each program to see who’s doing it. We’re not going to discuss here how to get these gigs but if you’re serious about it start studying their programs, the best teacher is right in front of you on your TV set.

Here we’ll be discussing something more realistic and, relatively speaking, easier to get into like servicing the business community. It’s now time to put on your sales and marketing department hat, don’t take this lightly because what you do here will determine the success of your future, or failure.  You can be the best videographer on earth but if you can not market yourself at least in the early stage of your career all your talents will be wasted. Be realistic about the potential of your business and take into consideration every factor that can result in a success or failure, most important be very realistic and honest about the level of your skills, if not the only one that will get hurt is you. Look at TV programs and other videos, can you do that at the same or better skill level? Speed today means productivity, how fast could you create a similar set up and do you have the equipment to do it. This is what clients will look for. Bigger budgets have more requirements both in terms of skills and equipment, start small first, don’t bite more than you can chew, screw-up once and you‘ll never get a second chance to prove yourself, not to mention that the names of those who screw up spread across the industry like wildfire.

Identify your market   

If your dream is to be a film maker and you live in Kansas chances are that would be a difficult goal to reach, true that films nowadays are made everywhere but you will stand a much better chance for success if you move where most movies are made or where the business deals of making movies take place. However, I’m sure that there’s plenty of video business opportunities in Kansas so your goal should be to create video productions to serve your particular market. Often dreams must be modified to accommodate reality. Start by identifying your market, what types of businesses are there that could generate your customer base. The best and easiest source for this information is your local chambers of commerce or business organizations, I can stress enough of how important this is especially in the early stage of starting a business. Unfortunately what I hear and read from a lot of people in this business when I give the suggestion to join your local business organizations is “I can’t afford to join”, well, here’s an eye opening reality, if you want to be in business you can not afford NOT to join, it’s the cheapest way to reach an entire community of potential clients.  And how’s this for a sobering statistic, for all practical purpose you are classified as a small business and 90% of small business start-ups fail within the first two years, the main cause of failure is undercapitalization, in few words they never properly planned for the necessary operating and marketing capital necessary until the business turned profitable. Printing a few business cards, getting a web site and placing a few demo videos on Youtube isn’t going to cut it today, not when there are thousand of others just like you doing exactly what you’re doing and all going after the very same dollar, only one of you is going to get the job, who’s going to be? What set you apart from your competitors? Why should a client pick you over the other thousand? These are hard questions and this is the reality of today’s business environment in this profession. In most cases the one who makes the best presentation and best understand the client’s industry will get the job, and that’s not necessarily the one who has the best video skills. This is why is so important to become knowledgeable about the composition of the market you’ll be trying to serve and how important the local business organizations become.

By joining your local business organization I don’t only mean having your name listed in their membership, I mean get involved in all activities, volunteer to do whatever they need, you have to get your name in front of the members and network with them, face to face network I mean not the social kind, forget about the keyboard, give them a firm handshake, look at them straight in the eyes and when they ask you what you do you tell them: “I’m the guy that create video programs that make businesses grow”, you’ll get their attention. These groups are also constantly looking for speakers for their luncheon or other programs, video makes an interesting topic, think about putting such a program together.

Analyze and study your potential market 

Again we’re going back to the local business organizations or any other method you can think that will give you the most information about the composition of the your immediate business communities, although I’m stressing the business organizations don’t limit yourself to those, there might be established businesses in your area that are not belonged to the local chamber but are members of national organizations, go after those too. Business organization main goal of their existence is the success of their members. The membership directory of each organization has a wealth of information that can immensely help your business getting off the ground if you know what to look for and how to benefit from the information. Each member listing is intended to bring-in business so you’ll see first hand the best marketing effort each individual business use and how they compete in their fields. What you’re really doing is getting educated about each type of business and I can’t stress enough of how important this is when trying to sale your services to a new clients. A good salesman will learn everything that there is to know about a specific industry before making the first contact with a prospective clients. Talking intelligently about their business shows that you did your homework and that you understand their industry needs. 

The first thing you’ll be looking of course when starting your research is who do and do not use videos in their marketing. See which company has the best video, how’s being used and how it was produced, that’s also a good indicator of what your competition is up to, your only goal now is to make it better and more useful for your potential clients.  Find the best and worst of each video then think of ways you could make the combination of all the best videos even better. This is important because most likely all the improvement you can think that will benefit the client will also become your sale pitch. You might start by contacting those firms that have no videos or those who have very poorly done videos and show how their competition are making good use of videos as a marketing tool.

Presenting your services 

First and most important, if you are going to talk business with another businessman then look, act and present yourself like a businessman, there’s no room here for a free spirited  artist, you only have seconds to make your first impression, they have to like you before they like your work. Most likely the first thing you’ll hear after making contact will be “send us some information”. A client will look at your work before deciding if it’s worth to even meet with you in person. Your initial email and your demo reel now become the most important marketing tool, it might very well make the difference between getting an appointment or getting the old “we’ll call you when we need a video done”. 

One thing to keep in mind is that every business today is bombarded with people trying to sell video productions. Respect the fact that business people, particularly owners of small business have very limited time, just like you they have to wear many hats and time is at a premium, therefore don’t waste their time, put priority on what they are looking for or need.

This bring us to the presentation. A producer friend of mine was looking for a cameraman/DP for a corporate shoot specifically for one with good skills in composing and lighting corporate executives interviews and b-roll.  The rates he had budgeted were a decent $800 per day for a four days shoot, so $3200 was very good when compared on some of the below charity rates I see these days. Unfortunately was too low for the freelancers I regularly work with so I suggested he place a posting on Craiglist but spell out exactly what he needs, down to the type of equipment needed and ask to see demos primarily of the type of work he requested. He actually posted the same ad twice in two different markets and ended up with with the same disappointing results. Within 8 hours he received over 100 replies. Only 3 of the reels had acceptable corporate work and only one was smart enough to put the footage of what the producer was looking for ahead in his reel, naturally this guy got the job. Only a small percentage had any type of corporate work at all. Two thirds of the replies evidently never even looked at the requirement or made any effort to give the information the producer was looking for, and that’s a very poor business practice. Too many in this business assume that clients should automatically know about the ability of the creator of that reel to be able to do every type of productions even thou evidently he never done it. You would have real hard time finding any other type of business with a worse marketing mentality  that so many in this profession have. In this age of web communication most didn’t even have a web sites but only Vimeo or Youtube channels. We are in the business of communication yet when it comes to communicating with potential clients too many get a failing grade.

The question that I hear and read the most is: “I never shot ....... how can I show that I can do it” or “I worked on those projects for somebody else and don’t have any footage to show”. No question it’s a common problem especially for beginners or for those forced to make changes in their customer base. But guess what, why should a customer trust you if you have very little experience doing what he needs to be done. I’m sure that you most likely would know what to do even if you have nothing to show, after all this business isn’t brain surgery, but the customer doesn’t share your confidence especially when it comes to dish out his hard earned money, not when some of your competitors are showing exactly what the client is looking for.

One of the most important skill that will drive your career forward is “resourcefulness”, the ability to quickly overcome problems. Being resourceful doesn’t apply only to productions, you got to get the business first, resourcefulness also means the ability to overcome shortcoming and excel in your marketing effort, complaining will get you nowhere, nobody care that you don’t have what’s needed to do business, your competitors however will love you for it.    

Investing in marketing doesn’t limit you only to cash investment, time is as valuable as money and if you’re looking for business chances are that you have plenty of free time. Look in the business directory for businesses that don’t have videos on their web site and offer to do a video for them for nothing, I doubt if any would refuse especially if you can show that their competitors are using videos. Giving away free services in order to improve your marketing position is the equivalent of capitalizing your business, only invest wisely, make sure that the time you invest will yield a good return.

If you're interested in learning more about what good clients and producers look for in a crew, go to the link below.