2014 is the year I acquired an agent, and just in time: I’m awful at negotiating. I hate the process and the games. I’d rather just get on with the work. Now it’s out of my hands, but I have a few tricks I can pass on if you’re interested…
I’m still not quite sure how I acquired an agent. The primary criteria for attracting their interest seems to be not needing them. While I’ve got a nice body of work to show, most agents I spoke to wanted to see almost nothing but national spots on my reel and hear that my calendar was nearly completely full. They were interested in negotiating deals but not necessarily managing careers. One agent, however, was different, and I’m very lucky to be with her. She has a knack for talking people into paying me what I’m worth and she offers objective career advice, and that allows me to focus on shooting and not worry too much about the dance behind getting the job.
Still, over the course of my career I learned a couple of dance moves that I can pass on. They don’t work in every situation but they work often enough.
TALK TO THE DIRECTOR
We all get these calls: “Hi, I’m a low level staffer at XYZ Productions. Are you available next week, and what’s your rate?” As soon as they hang up with you they’ll call the next DP, and the next, and the next. In the end they’ll present a list of showreel websites and rates to the director and producer and they’ll choose the DP who does the best work for the lowest price.
I stopped playing those games. I told them, “I’m available, but before I talk rate I want to chat with the director. Please have them give me a call, or give me their contact information so I can call them directly.” Rather than potentially disqualify myself by quoting a rate that’s beyond their budget, I sought to make myself more than just a name to the director. If they knew me as a talented individual with an easygoing personality instead of simply a name on a list then perhaps that would sway them toward using me, even if my rate was higher than they wanted to pay. Or maybe they’d come back and negotiate a rate we could both live with. (For some reason very few companies negotiate anymore. They just collect your rate information and look for the cheapest deal. It’s very odd.)
It’s easy to dismiss someone when they are just a name on a website with a dollar amount attached. It’s a bit harder when you talk to them and they sound like someone you might like to work with.
GET THEM TO SAY A NUMBER FIRST
There’s a well known rule in negotiating: the first person to say a number loses. Rather than say what your rate is, ask them what their budgeted rate is. If it’s okay, then you can say yes immediately. If it’s too low then you can try talking them up, but at least you’ve opened the door to negotiation. (If you quote a rate that’s higher than what they have in their budget they’ll most likely just move on to the next person rather than talk to you about compromising on your rate.)
And, once in a while, they’ll say a higher number that makes you gasp a little with joy, but you’ll respond as if the rate is a little on the low side and you’ll make an exception this time.
HOLDS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND
My agent tells me she likes to keep things fluid. She doesn’t mind holds: to her it means we’re still in line for the job, whereas to me it means that the production is probably still shopping around. Before I signed on with her I had adopted a policy of only taking holds if I was definitely on the job but the shoot dates were in flux. If the production company was still looking for DPs I told them I wouldn’t hold those dates until they were ready to commit.
I’ve spoken to several DPs who say they don’t accept holds at all anymore. The practice has become somewhat abusive toward creative types, as we think we’re on the job if it happens while the reality is we’re simply names on a shopping list.
I don’t mind holds if I have an agent dealing with them. On my own, though, I didn’t want to deal with them unless I knew I had the job and the dates were the only variable. Anything beyond that was often simply abuse.
IF THEY ASK IF YOU OWN A CAMERA, THEY DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT YOUR SKILLS
Or they’re looking for the best DP they can get while saving on camera gear. I don’t own gear so I don’t get these jobs, and if I get a call and they ask what camera I own I know I’m probably not getting the job. And often that’s okay.
In the “old film days” the DP was highly respected because they were the only ones who knew how the image would look the next day in dailies. They commanded respect simply because they could do something that no one else on the crew could do reliably and predictably: make pretty pictures without seeing them. Now that we can see live pictures it appears that many directors and producers mistakenly believe that they are now equally qualified to make visual decisions. Cameras and post workflows are more complex than ever, and what you see on the monitor is rarely what you’re actually getting, but explaining those details in depth to some people is a lost cause. The fact that they can see an image is enough for them, and over time they start to form opinions as to what kinds of equipment makes the kinds of images they like.
Equipment is the least important part of the equation. It’s possible to make awful pictures with an Alexa and great pictures with an iPhone: it all depends on who is behind them, and whether the tool is appropriate for the job. Personalities, however, are hard to quantify. Technology is much easier. And many of those above the line in the film industry want to quantify as many factors as possible that contribute to a successful project… even the unquantifiable creative ones.
There was a time when I hated getting those calls, because I knew I wouldn’t get the job. Now I realize that it was okay to be rejected for those gigs: if I’m not being hired for what I can do but instead for the gear I own, then I’m not going to be treated as the trusted collaborator that I want to be.
It’s interesting that the low budget world seems to be retreating to an earlier era, where cameramen were hired strictly because they owned a functioning camera that they could crank at the proper speed.
DON’T TALK SPECIFICS WITHOUT A SCRIPT OR STORYBOARD
Earlier this year (pre agent) I got a call about shooting a potential spot. They didn’t have boards or a script, so the producer described the action to me and then asked what I might need to do it. She talked about building six or seven sets in a stage and shooting them all in a day, so I—envisioning actual three- and four-wall sets appearing in a one-take dolly move—told her what crew and gear I’d need to pre-rig all that.
I didn’t get the job. When I saw the final project I realized that her “sets” were just set pieces along a wall, with the camera moving left to right from one to another, and unlike her verbal description there were plenty of edits between and within sets. It was dead simple, and I would have required half the crew and gear that I’d quoted.
The problem was that I thought big, and she thought small: a “set” to me is a room with three or four walls, whereas to her it was simply a background. If I’d seen boards I would have had a better idea of what she wanted to do, but her description alone was general enough that I created a picture in my head that had nothing to do with what she was thinking.
Now I won’t discuss any crew or gear specifics without seeing something on paper. Even then, though, I can get myself in trouble. Recently I spoke to a producer about a project that I thought I could do very cheaply, but there was a line item in the budget for a generator. “I don’t think we’ll need that,” I said. “The only windows in the house seem to be in the bedroom and the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure we can get away with smaller lights.”
“The director wants to find a kitchen whose walls are entirely glass, so we’re assuming you’re going to want a big light or two,” the producer told me. And they’re absolutely right—but a house with glass walls wasn’t in the script.
What I really like to see are storyboards, at least for the projects I shoot (spots and corporate). We often have one day to get a lot of very specific shots, and without knowing what those shots are it’s hard to make the most of today’s thin advertising budgets. Part of the negotiating process is making sure you aren’t discussing a different shoot to what the director and producer have in mind.
Negotiating is an interesting dance, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore. If you do, though, I hope these tips help you get the jobs you want while avoiding the ones you don’t.