How to compete with filmmakers who work for free

Advances in digital video over the past decade have brought many advantages to filmmakers and videographers. In short, there have been many special breath-throughs for those seeking to earn their living from their craft. Cameras capable of producing video footage suitable for television or cinema are more affordable than ever. Additionally, the software to edit and polish your project is more affordable too.

Unfortunately, these same advances also mean the appearance of enthusiastic amateurs, happy to offer their services for free. Fear of losing a client can make it tempting at times to cut your rates or even waive your fee to woo a client. Sadly, that won’t keep you in business. This article aims to give you some strategies to help you compete with free.

There’s no such thing as free

One thing that needs to be stated upfront is that there is no such thing as free. You might not be getting a fee for a job but there is a cost to you.

For one, your time has value. When you are doing a job without payment you are giving up the opportunity to earn income. Your equipment – camera, lights, editing computer – is expensive and you need to budget for its depreciation in value over time. Using your equipment increases wear and tear. In turn, this shortens your gear’s life for both free job and paid jobs alike.

The software licenses you are using to edit the project costs money. You might be on a monthly or annual subscription, but there’s a cost nontheless. And don’t forget that you will need to store your non-paying client’s footage, at least until the project is finished. Hard drive storage costs have come down over the past few years, but storage still isn’t free.

So, how do you stand out from the free competition? How do you convince a potential client that it’s worth spending money on you, rather than going with a free competitor?

Lead with a good demo reel

A good demo reel is an important place to start. Choose the footage that shows the quality of your work and edit it together to wow your potential clients. Keep it short; 1-2 minutes is enough. Plus, make sure the content is appropriate to the market in which you are competing.  If you want to make promotional films for local businesses, showing the amazing footage you shot of bands at a rock festival is not going to work and vice versa. It is worth having more than one demo reel to highlight your skills for different clients.

Poor audio will ruin a video. So, if it is relevant to your clients, include snippets of interviews, to show that your work will sound as good as it looks. Your demo reel is your shop window so take time to make it work. Demonstrating your skills for editing, adding captions or titles and producing a finished video is just as important as your skills as a camera operator.

Build a website

Social media is a great way to advertise to the world. Yet, a dedicated website of your own will help you stand out from competitors and give your business more gravitas. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There are lots of services available online to help you create an impressive website without the need to be an expert web designer.

Keep it simple – a home page with your demo reel (or reels), plus a page with your rate card. Add a page where visitors can watch a selection of your completed projects. Make sure you get permission from your clients to use these.

Most importantly, include a page with your contact details. Add a paragraph or two to introduce yourself. Then, highlight your experience and the added value you will bring to the client’s project.

Offer added value

Ensure that you let your prospective clients know what added value you can bring to your video productions. Aerial shots from drones are very much in vogue at the moment and can dramatically increase perceived production value.

Adding movement to your shots with gimbal or a jib will make your footage shine. For clients who will be distributing the finished video via their website, the ability to include 360 degree video could be a big selling point.

It is important to remember that your clients are unlikely to be up to speed with the latest tech and terminology in film and video. When talking through the additional kit you can use be sure to keep your explanations simple, so as not to leave them feeling lost or confused. Referencing shots or images that a client may have seen in an advert, film or tv show is a good way to help them understand what you can offer.  

Name-drop and network

If you can demonstrate a successful track record, paying clients are going to more amenable to giving you their business. So, make sure you highlight the names of any prominent or high-profile clients you have worked with in the past. Are you a wedding videographer? Feature local celebrities or online influencers. If you make corporate or marketing videos, highlight work you’ve done with the biggest or most well-known companies.

clients to pass on your details to friends and colleagues.

Ask clients to pass on your details to friends and colleagues. Don’t be shy about asking for comments or testimonials to post on your website. If you want to use clips from their videos or company logos, seek permission first. Or, have a clause in your contract agreeing the use of their project in your publicity.

Hold your nerve

It can be difficult to remain resolute when you are dealing with people who balk at your fee, but hold your nerve. You have to accept that there are some clients who will never pay a fee and so move on to find the ones who will. Don’t spend time on clients who offer the carrot of a potential paying job somewhere in the future if you do a free job for them now. It’s very unlikely that these clients will ever want to pay a full fee.

If you are considering working for free for a client on the promise of future paid work then as a minimum you should be getting paid your out-of-pocket expenses such as fuel, parking and refreshments. If a client can’t offer even that goodwill gesture then you should be very cautious.

Sometimes a refusal can actually work in your favor. You may also find that a client who chooses to go with a free competitor will later come back to you once they have received the finished project and realize why it is necessary to pay for good work!

When it is ok to work for free?

Despite everything that has gone above there are times when you may want to offer your services pro bono. The important thing is to make sure it’s on your terms.

For example, you may wish to work for free if the client is a local charity or community group.  

You might be happy to work for free on an artistic project that you believe in but which simply wouldn’t get made without volunteers. In independent film making it’s common for crew and cast to work on “points” which are a promise of a percentage of future earnings.

If you want to move into a new market or field you may reach out to potential clients offering to provide a video for them without charge, but with their agreement that you can use it to promote your new venture. Similarly, you may want to test out new kit in the field on a job where you won’t be having to refund a fee if things don’t go as smoothly as you had hoped.

How much to charge?

And finally, when you have secured your fits paying client, how do you decide how much to charge? Take time to research what your competitors charge – you don’t want to be pricing yourself out of the market but also you don’t want to be underselling yourself.

For help in setting your rates the Videomaker Rate Calculator is a great place to start.

Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies is a freelance cinematographer and camera operator from Manchester, UK. He also produces and directs short films as Duck66 Films. Pete's latest short Once Bitten... won 15 awards and was selected for 105 film festivals around the world.

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