If you don’t have any ambition to lead your department or your own team, you can skip this post. If, however, you’re working toward a higher-level position where you have more autonomy over your career and projects, the information in today’s blog is invaluable in making that dream concrete.
One of the most exciting and daunting new realities I discovered after making the jump from assistant to operator was that, for the first time, I had real control over how much money I made per project. As an assistant, or in any equivalent position, you generally take the rate production offers. If you’re on a union project, that rate is typically set according to whatever contract the production has with your union. You can rent out some of your gear to productions, but you’ll be competing with the rates set by large rental houses. For instance, in the camera world, most camera equipment is rented from camera houses. Because the larger camera houses service many shows at once, they rent out their gear at discounted rates to stay competitive. Basically, those larger houses are following a business model that prioritizes a large volume of rentals over individual item rental rates. Camera assistants can rent their own gear to a production, but their rental rate is set to match whatever the camera house charges.
This is a long-winded way of explaining that, when you’re in a lower-level assistant position, your earning potential is set with very little room for adjustment. When you break into a more specialized role, you’re going to start hearing the question, “what is your rate?” I still struggle to answer this question because there is no correct answer. If asked out of the blue, the closest answer I could give is, “it depends.”
Our rates depend on a variety of factors. I quote rates based on the size and scope of a project, the director or cinematographer attached, the talent attached, the type of project, where the work will air, and many other variables that are weighted differently. When I started steadicam, for example, my primary focus was gaining operating experience and making contacts. I accepted any job I could, regardless of rate. Just like when I was first beginning my career, my main objective was getting on set.
You’ll be doing small, low budget projects for a while. During that time, you won’t see a massive variety of offered rates because they’re all going to be in the same low range. As you accumulate jobs in your new position, however, people are going to start passing your name around. You’re proving that you can handle a certain level of responsibility, and productions are going to start reaching out and offering you larger projects. When that happens, it’s important that you learn to value your labor correctly.
How do you know when it’s time to raise your rate? I wish I could give a concrete answer but, the reality is that you have to feel out the process, and the timing varies from person to person. The best advice I ever got was that, when you feel in your heart that your work is being undervalued, it’s time to start asking for more money. You need to be acutely aware of your value to a particular production. Let’s say, for instance, you get a call to work on a music video for a small artist, and the production offers you $600 for the day. They’re calling you because they need a warm body to fill a position in their crew. That $600 rate is the best the project can offer because the budget is small. You’ve probably been offered a fair rate.
Now let’s say you’re called regarding a music video with a well-established artist. The artist has a large following, a recording label behind him, and an established production company producing the video. They offer you $800 for the day. They’re offering more money; is that a fair rate? Let’s dissect this deal. Sure, the production is offering you more money, but how big is their budget? If they’re representing a big artist, they’re probably working with a sizable amount of money for the shoot. How much is this project worth to the recording label fronting the cash? If the label has allocated a significant amount of money to the project, they’re expecting a healthy return on that investment. There’s money here, but the $800 price tag means the production company reached out to you because they think you’ll work for cheap. Is that who you want to be? The cheap call?
If you’re skeptical of this example or think you can rely on productions to offer you a fair rate up front, you are in for a rude awakening.
Of course, I’ve gotten calls from large productions who have offered me a full rate with no negotiating. Those calls are the exception. For the most part, the film industry is an underhanded business, and you need to recognize that most productions are out to get your labor for the least amount of money. One time, I agreed to a mid-level rate on a music video, only to show up and find myself on an enormous production. I talked to the producer and calmly explained to him that I felt misled by the scale of the shoot. What he told me shocked me. Apparently, the record label set a budget for the production company, and the producers hired the crew based on that budget. Then, once the crew was all hired, the label increased the project’s budget. That budget increase wasn’t reflected in anybody’s rate except mine, because I renegotiated a new deal right there on set.
If you let productions take advantage of you, they’ll do it every time. You have to be an accurate assessor of your worth. With time and experience, you’ll be able to demand larger rates and leave the low budget rates behind. You may think, “Kyler, by asking for more money, won’t I miss out on work?”
You’ll lose some jobs by steadily increasing your rate, yes. However, if you never increase your rate, you’ll always be doing low-budget work. Productions will know they can get you for cheap labor, and they’ll call you for that cheap labor. Meanwhile, when they want somebody skilled for a big project, they’ll call someone who specializes in larger projects. I know operators who have been working for much longer than I have who are still doing low-budget jobs because they never increase their rate. Your most important skill, aside from your on-set skills, is the ability to understand your value and communicate that value to productions.