Determine the size of the production company you need. Although there are many factors that determine the cost of a video shoot (as explained later), the first consideration for staying in budget is the type and size of the production company. Large production companies have multiple studios and sound stages, editing suites, and a sizeable staff. These are the people that television stations and Hollywood producers call on when they need a local production for television, cable, or film. They are very experienced and produce fantastic results, but a considerable price tag must accompany such overhead. Often they are unable to service small businesses because they cannot accommodate such small budgets, as they’d usually have plenty of calls and projects from clients with deep pockets keeping them busy. The next step down is a smaller, full-time production company. Small and medium sized businesses are the core of their clientèle, so they are compelled to keep a video project as lean as possible, yet deliver the best possible quality for the money being paid. These production companies may have a small, single studio and editing suite, or they may work out of their home studio and rent a sound stage when the project calls for it. There may be one or two full time employees, and the rest are contract crew on a per-project basis. This helps translate into lower production costs for you. The final category of video producers is part-time, weekend-only videographers. These producers have a camera and a computer, and want to make some extra money on their free time. They can often underbid anyone else in town, because they already have their full time job and any extra money on the side is fine with them. But their ability to understand corporate, commercial, and broadcast needs are limited, and often shows in the quality of their production…it just looks like really good quality homemade video.
Choosing a medium-sized, full time production company will give you the most bang for the buck. This is not to say that large companies intentionally price themselves out of range for small businesses, some may be very willing to work with you. It’s just that a large production house will probably not be as eager and excited to earn your business for a $2000 project when they’re used to getting calls for $20,000 jobs on average. You don’t need to directly interrogate each company about the size of their business. Look at their website and see examples of their clients…if they seem to favor Fortune 500 companies, TV stations, and feature films, then you can assume that they’re a large production company. Or if you see a 30,000 square foot facility with immaculate furnishings, you can deduce that the price tag they give you will be sizeable.
Compare company demo reels to see who can give the best quality for your budget. Once you’ve determined the size of the video company to use, then it’s time to compare demo reels among the companies in your price range. One of the main factors that will determine visual quality in the portfolios is the format the project was shot on. Video technology changes drastically every 4-7 years, and what was broadcast quality 15 years ago with $50,000 cameras can be achieved with a $3000 HDV camera today. The producer should match the video format with what provides the best noticeable quality for your budget.
There are many other factors that can determine the overall quality of a video production, but choosing the format is the foundation upon which many other costs are built upon. You have to ask yourself, “Will spending X amount of additional dollars on a higher-end format increase my response rate or accomplish my objectives better?” If you’re doing a TV spot, then quality is critical for that first impression. For an employee training video, immaculate image quality is probably not critical. That’s why it is the opinion of this author that the HDV format offers the best balance of quality and cost, for any type of video production. As you watch the demo reels and portfolios of various production companies, pay attention to not only the mere image quality, but also the lighting, camera movements, and audio quality. One way to practice this is while you’re watching TV at home. Instead of zipping past the commercials of the show you’ve tivo-ed, watch and focus on the details of how national commercials are shot. Notice the smooth diffused lighting, the track/dolly camera movements (i.e., not much zooming!), and the deep contrast with vivid colors. Even if your video project is not a commercial spot, you can train your eye to notice quality by comparing it with the standard.
Consider the professionalism and business practices of the company. After a budget is finalized, the producer should create a treatment (blueprint for the video) upon which your contract will be based. You should know ahead of time exactly what will be done, what equipment will be used, what crew will be hired, and how each scene will be storyboarded. Granted there is an element of creativity that will vary and not necessarily translate directly onto paper, but strive to have everything in writing so that there are no misunderstandings or faulty expectations. Consider the personality and professionalism of the salesman, the director, or producer you are working with. Do you sense that he understands your industry or is eager to learn about it? Does he provide valuable input without being pushy or cocky? There should be a free flow of input into the project from both sides, without any ego problems. These traits may seem trivial, but video producers can be a creative and finicky bunch that take their art very seriously. It is paramount to have not only a creative team, but one who puts your needs and goals above their own.
Paul Lyke is the managing director at MidSouth Visual, Inc., a Nashville video production company. His passion is to create immaculate visual communications tools for small business owners and entrepreneurs, but without the big studio price tag.