Getting More When You’re Getting Paid Less

January 25, 2016

In this Insight, learn ways that you get more benefits for your buisiness out of a project even when a client isn't paying you all that much.   

Sometimes A Project Has More To Offer Than Just The Budget

Two years ago I wrote an article here on Mixing Light musing on the concept of doing Pro Bono or as I termed ‘Pro Bono Lite’ work.

Before continuing on with this Insight consider reading that article because in some ways, my thoughts in this Insight riff on some of the ideas presented in that article.

Like most of you, I continually feel the squeeze of smaller project budgets, clients who give you guilt trips in a thousand different ways about price and struggle to say yes to a project when my gut says no.

Why do many of us do low pay work from time to time?

For many it’s just market forces in play, for others it’s about filling in gaps in an otherwise busy schedule, and still for others it’s trying to break through a slow period were any project looks like a good one.

When I see people taking on grading a feature for what is an hourly rate in some markets, I think to myself ‘Who am I to judge, but maybe they could be getting more out of the project?’

What does more mean?

More means more than just the bottom line budget for a project and more as I’ll explain below, can be beneficial for your sales and marketing and even for securing more work in the future.

Three Practical Examples

In the past month, I have had three projects that have allowed me to get more out of a project than just what the project budget allowed. Let me explain the projects and then in the following sections I’ll explore the techniques I used to ‘get more’.


Projects of all sorts can present additional benefits for your business besides just the bottom line.


The Documentary Feature

A doc feature with a low budget?  You’ve probably never heard that one before!

I had a filmmaker approach me about a project shot on Arri Amira with Cook lens focusing on Aboriginal music and specifically a master Digeridoo maker who had been passing down his skills to a few generations of didge builders.

I was immediately interested in the project as I lived in Australia for a while and dig (bad pun) didge music, but I also own a Digeridoo and play it often.

In my initial discussions with the filmmaker, she was up front that the budget was pretty low for the grade – $2500 for a 78 min film.

When I asked her why the budget was low considering they shot Amira with great glass (a pet peeve of mine is producers who don’t save budget for post and put it all into production) she told me it was because 2 weeks before a major funder had actually passed away and the funding was tied up in the estate!

Here’s the thing, besides the sad story, in my initial watch of the film I was blown away by how good the footage was! I was also struck by the filmmaker and her understanding that the budget was low and yet she was willing to be flexible and make a deal.

The Corporate Communication Piece

One of the nice things about my market (Washington, DC) is that organizations, NGOs and companies are always trying to say something! – Something in favor of the government, something against it, something for a cause/policy or something against one.

Recently a nature conservation NGO approached me about a grade on a 3 min video for their website. It was a mix of DSLR and GoPro, with well, not great technique 🙂

I know that this type of client doesn’t usually have a lot of money for an individual project, but quite often these organizations are producing a lot of content to get their message out there and once or twice a year they put quite a bit of budget behind a large project.

I also knew that this type of client generally has a lot of red tape to step through to win a project so I didn’t want to look a potential gift horse in the mouth.

The Narrative Feature

Passion project, labor of love, whatever you want to call it, we’ve all had projects that we’ve been devoted to. Recently mine came in the form of a very good friend who is a super talented DP.

For the past couple years he’d been working on a narrative script and at the same time had been working extremely hard to put together a team of high capable production/post people that could work cheap but also give it their all as the project was 100% self-financed.

Shot on Epic with Master Primes I had no doubt the film would look amazing, but I was struggling trying to find the right balance of a good price and really wanting to help my friend out.

My friend’s big plans for festivals, Netflix, etc., were ones that I heard before, but after watching the film for the first time, I was convinced that these things were highly likely for this project.

A Deal Is Not A Deal Unless It’s On Paper & Signed

There are several ways to get more out of a project, but none of those things mean anything unless it’s documented and signed off on.

Having a verbal agreement for future work, or some other arrangement is great but as you probably know that doesn’t really mean a thing unless there is a proper agreement in place.

I’m not a lawyer (please consult yours) but I have a couple suggestions for how to document what you want ‘more’ of.

Client Services Agreement

As I’ve explained before in previous Insights, I work with a two-pronged approach with each client – a client services agreement and a project order.

The client services agreement is the general agreement I have with each client – it governs payment, rights, indemnification, etc. But it’s also the place I put in language about other arrangements with a client (discussed below).

Property Release Or Project Order

Essentially a property release is an agreement that says – you (client) are giving me X, in exchange for Y and these are the terms.

Often, this type of agreement is used for licensing footage, or other ‘one off’ or otherwise ‘special’ considerations with a client.  Alternatively, if you have a client services agreement in place you can place specific language about a particular arrangement for a project in a project order agreement.


Remember if its not written down in a contract an agreement between you and your client doesn’t really exist.


Which To Use?

I use the instrument of a client services agreement to spell out ongoing arrangements with a client – future work guarantees, special price considerations and so on.  The types of things documented in an ‘evergreen’ client services agreement generally don’t need a separate agreement.

With that said, often I’ll have a client with whom I’ve been working with for a long time and particular project pops up that I want more from.

In those cases, I’ll use a property release, project order or a similar additional agreement or if the client is new and I don’t see any long-term deals I’ll put those details in a property release or project order.

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