Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 29, 2012

How Long is a Piece of String

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, she has a departmental budget, and 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. They have too many ways to express their outrage — whether directed at my arrogance, stupidity or cluelessness about corporate budgets doesn’t matter — to let it go without another word. After 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 at the very least we’ll want to shoot your 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 — they’d do some great animations for us.”

And she starts explaining what it is she actually has in mind. She starts describing the audience, learning objectives, measurable outcomes… in other words, the nuts and bolts of what actually go into determining cost, quality, and the matters we SHOULD begin with. It turns out she is uninterested in either Ms. Cruz or Babe the talking pig.

Because my outrageous initial cost estimate typically does get us to the true starting point, 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 who that was, please introduce me. I have a few things to say to him or her.

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 an effective way to get 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.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017



  1. Yes, I do remember that earlier post. Very cool new website! I had looked for the site earlier, but couldn’t find it (I failed to add the “com” to Confluent). Now I see what you’ve been up to lately.


  2. I can see from the photo you and the key members of the crew agree 100% of the time Brad.


    • The experienced director learns to take the director of photography’s informed opinion into consideration … and then disregard it. Even in Hong Kong.


  3. My recent experience with motivational safety videos are scary to say the least. It was how a young trainee had taken the wheel, his instructor was asleep in the back feeling quite sure of his competence. Needless to say he drove them over the rocky mountain edge, killing them both. Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water. After viewing the video my trip across the country in my 18 wheeler took long enough to grow grey hairs. What happened to common sense? I would much rather see Penelope Cruz before I die.


    • Life is good, David.


  4. Somewhere back in time I was instructed, “All one needs to know from a potential client in order to sell anything, anything at all, is this: How much money is available to be spent and who has the authority to spend it.” The rest is just detail.


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