Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 24, 2012

Video Production Zen

As many of you faithful readers know, I’m launching a new business venture. Part of launching any new business is the creation of a website for that business. It will come as no surprise that a feature of that site will be a regular blog. That, in fact, has occupied my time recently, and taken me away from my usual publication schedule here at Under Western Skies. Today’s post is a preview of one of the first blog posts that will appear on the new business site when it goes live in a few days. I thought I’d share it with you before it debuts there, and hope you enjoy it … especially the link to the video at the end.

One of the most common and most challenging questions every video producer gets is, “How much does a video cost?”

It’s a reasonable question. The head of marketing or sales or product promotion or safety enforcement has decided that a video will improve her ability to market or sell or promote or enforce. So, since she has a departmental budget, she needs to know how much it will cost.

She calls the in-house video department or the person who did that great video at the company’s annual conference and asks, “How much will it cost to do a video for my new safety campaign?”

There are many ways to answer this question. Early on in my career, I developed my answer, which I always give. I state it matter-of-factly, without drama or any excitement:

“A million dollars.”

This elicits a variety of reactions. So far, no one has actually hung up the phone or walked out of the room without another word. They have too many other things to say in order to express their outrage and exasperation — whether directed at my arrogance, stupidity or cluelessness about corporate budgets doesn’t matter — to let it go without another word. After they get in that word or two, I can continue:

“Well, I’m thinking we want Penelope Cruz to be the narrator — that way she can do the Spanish-language track, too, so we save there — and we’ll want to shoot at the very least in our operations in Shanghai, Sydney and Paris to make certain we’ve got the global message, and I think we can get the animators who did “Babe” — you know, the talking pig? I know those guys — to do some great animations for us.”

And she starts explaining what it is she actually has in mind. We delve into all that boring stuff about audience, learning objectives, measurable outcomes, blah, blah, blah. In other words, the nuts and bolts of what actually go into determining cost, quality, and those other mundane matters. Turns out she is uninterested in either Ms. Cruz or Babe the talking pig.

No matter. I intend to keep answering, “A million dollars” until someone — just once — says “yes.” I only need one to make my career complete.

A notion that used to widespread but, fortunately, seems to be receding, is that there is some magic cost-per-minute of a finished video. The number used to be $1,000. No kidding. LOTS of people would talk to me about a project, and say that they understood the “industry rate” was a thousand dollars per finished minute of program. So, a ten-minute program? Ten thousand bucks. I would tell them, yes, we could do a video for that flat rate. In fact, I said, if you want an hour-long video, I’ll get your rate per minute down to, oh, $850: $51,000 instead of $60,000. And then I’d describe what they’d get onscreen. They always seemed unhappy with that part about no special graphics or nifty editing or spiffy sound track: just a person talking to the camera and pointing at flip charts. Somewhere, in the mists of time, I know that there was a producer who established that thousand-dollar-a-minute “standard.” If you know him, please point him out to me. I have a few things to say to him.

Within the confines of the media production world, however, there is one answer to this question that stands out. It resembles a koan, the Zen practice of using a word or phrase or question to provoke the “great doubt”, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.

Hence, to the question, “How much does a video cost?”

The accomplished media practitioner responds thus:

“How long is a piece of string?”

The answer is at once simple and profound. One might say, “It depends on what you’re going to do with it,” or, “Depends on where you cut it.” Those are excellent responses, but, of course, they only continue to beg the important further questions which the media Zen master must then pursue, such as, “How soon do you need it, who are you showing it to,” and the all-important, “Do you want Penelope Cruz to be the narrator?”

All my colleagues from my earliest days in corporate media recall hearing this question from our own departmental guru, our boss. It’s a good, fairly unobnoxious way of getting the client to understand that the answer to the question of cost is a rich combination of production qualities, scheduling, talents and skills and hardware that have to be considered.

Before you ask what your video is going to cost, consider that “piece of string” question first.

Now, there’s a payoff to the “piece of string” gag. Decades before I began working for that long-ago boss, he used the services of one of the foremost production houses for industrial films (it was all film in those days). The Calvin Company, based in Kansas City, turned out thousands of films for motivation, training, product information and education. There was in our department a former Calvin employee, a brilliant producer, whom said boss had hired away from Calvin. Now I will direct you to a link on which I encourage you to watch the highly entertaining film from 1963, “How Much?” All will be made clear, and I’m confident you’ll enjoy this piece from Calvin.

Click the URL or paste it into your browser.

Meanwhile, if you have a project that calls for Ms. Cruz’s narrative gifts, contact me. I know she can do better than to keep working with that Almodovar guy who puts her in all his pictures.



  1. Glad to see the UWS Blog back in action! Looking forward to many more here and in your new business venture.

    (Query: How much would it cost to get UWS to give a critical analysis — very short, mind you — of that English literary phenomenon known as (dare I say it) “Beowulf?”


    • What can I say but … a million dollars!


      • Should have seen that one coming. 🙂 OK, forget the video production. Just a few lines here on the UWS blog, then.


      • I AM working on it, trust me. In negotiations with Ms. Cruz’s people on the filmed version.


      • Great! An acting and singing Beowulf! Cruz also does ballet — a dancing Beowulf? Never wuduv thunk it! This will be amaaaaazing.


  2. Thanks for the million dollar scenario, I hope to use it some day! The closest to that I have come was when asked “Ok, we’ve got your band doing these 3 events all at once, can you split them again and do 4 things at once?”. After thinking about it, doodling on paper, weighing all the factors, my reply is something like “Yes, we can do those 4 things. But, all 4 will sound like doo-doo and no one will be happy”. Every time I’ve used this answer, the reply was “Doo-doo? We don’t want that! Stick with doing only 3 things at the same time!”


  3. I always like to use “how much does a hen way”


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