How to Determine Your Rate as an Editor

How to Determine Your Rate as an Editor

One of the most-asked questions in the post-production industry is “What should I charge for my services”? Although there are no quick and dirty, magic-bullet answers, we’ve done the research to break it down for you.

In most industries, professionals know how to bill for their services because their respective industries have been around for hundreds of years. Those in the medical field know what’s considered “reasonable and customary”; plumbers, cabinet makers, and roofers are aware of the going rates in their markets; even body modifiers and tattoo artists can easily find out how much their competition is charging. The fact that these disciplines have lengthy histories has helped establish rate structures that are fairly simple to navigate.

And then there’s motion picture editing, which wasn’t even a thing until roughly a hundred years ago. Nonlinear editing came into existence approximately thirty-ish years ago, and desktop, prosumer editing wasn’t widespread until, really, the very end of the twentieth century. In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from a rarified field where a handful of highly specialized artists painstakingly used sharp tools to cut and paste celluloid, to a time where kids with their laptops (or smartphones) can edit films in their bedrooms and post them to YouTube in an afternoon. What’s more, now that video content is used for a vast array of applications, university programs and inexpensive (or free) online tutorials, make it possible for hoards of eager young digital natives to produce results that look pretty impressive. Just take a look at the caliber of artists teaching online courses at Master Class  (who just happen to be Frame.io customers.)

Back in the early years of film production, when most editors were members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, wage ranges were determined by job description and years of experience. But now that the magic of making pictures move is available to virtually anyone, the number of editors who do non-union, non-theatrical, non-commercial projects far outnumbers those who do.

In researching this article, we canvassed professionals of all levels and across the U.S. from New York to Seattle. We talked to editors who do scripted feature films, documentaries, reality TV, long-running animated series, music videos, branded storytelling, Fortune 500 in-house and in-store pieces, trade shows, corporate events, weddings and bar mitzvahs, and more. And while they all very generously shared lots of terrifically useful information that will, ultimately, help inform what you’re worth, the almost universal answer is that in today’s market, determining (and getting) your rate can be one of the trickier aspects of professional editing.

Each sub-industry tends to function a bit differently, so we’ve broken the article into separate sections:

  • Weddings and Events
  • Commercials and Branded Storytelling
  • Documentary Features and Music Videos
  • Episodic Programs
  • Scripted Features

Negotiating Your Rate

 

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Image © Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Before we dive into what you can expect to earn in the various areas of professional editing, let’s address one of the most important aspects of working in this business—getting the highest dollar amount for your hard work. And whether you work as a freelancer, own an independent video production company, or are a staff editor for a larger post house or network, at some  point you’ll need to negotiate your rate. Here are a few tips that can help you be a more effective negotiator.

First, know your market. The rates in Alabama will likely be quite different from the rates in Los Angeles. The more you can find out about what is “reasonable and customary” in your market, the better. You can find some information about specific areas around the internet (and in this article), but always ask around.

Second, know what you need to get paid. Factor in operating expenses such as equipment, software licenses, professional dues, advertising costs, health insurance, etc. If you’re freelancing, you might be surprised at all of the extra things you’ll need to pay for that may (or may not!) be provided with a full-time position. This will help you set a realistic baseline for what you need to make to at least survive.

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Image © Dave Dugdale (learningvideo.com)

Third, make sure you understand whether you’re being paid by the hour/day/week/month or whether the project is a flat bid “all in.” Many freelance editors and videographers don’t use contracts, and if you’re one of them, here’s a guide to remedy that. For starters, when you’re providing a rate or fee to your client you need to have an idea of how long you think you realistically need in order to complete the project. If you’re new to this, you may feel as though you’re throwing darts in the dark for awhile. But, if you have years of experience under your belt, estimating a project’s edit time should be second nature—at least from your point of view.

Then there’s the client factor; this is where things like versions, lifts, and revisions come into play. Especially if you’re being paid a flat rate, you need to stipulate what’s included in your price up front. For example, if a potential client comes to you with 125 hours of raw footage, 65 of which are interviews, and they need it all edited down to a 30 minute doc for broadcast television, assuming you’re not a staff editor, you’ll need to be able to nail your estimate as closely as possible, otherwise you may leave a ton of cash “on the table”—or spend a lot of OT (as in, “own time”) getting it done if you’ve radically underestimated.

Photo by AJ Garcia on Unsplash

Finally, get as much information as you can about the project right up front. This applies whether you’re looking at a full-time position or a one-off project. Try to ask what they have budgeted for editing the project before you state your rate. Keep in mind that you may have to have a “sliding scale” approach (different rates for different types of jobs) and make sure that if you’re taking less money for a project, it’s for the right reasons. It may be to build a relationship with a new client, to get a high-profile piece on your reel, or to spread your wings creatively. On the other hand, if a client is consistently asking you to lower your rate, consider this handy axiom: fast, cheap, good—pick two.  And then don’t be afraid to remind them that if they’re returning to you it’s probably because you’re good.

Pitching to a client is quite a different task from interviewing for a staff position. An editorial house will probably already have a pay range in mind, and they will also likely have the ability to judge the quality of your skills. An external client, on the other hand, will primarily focus on the outcome of their project and may be less equipped to evaluate your abilities.

clientpitch

When negotiating with clients, most people instinctively speak in terms of hourly wage. Even when pitching a flat rate project, it’s common to simply multiply your hourly rate by the number of hours you expect to spend. But this may be the wrong approach. Especially when dealing with medium-to-high-end clients, you can earn more if you frame the negotiation in terms of value and risk, rather than time.

Chris Do, founder of the very successful design agency Blind, explains the idea in this excellent video. Although it’s tailored to  the design industry, the concepts apply to post-production as well. Do spends 36 minutes with a roomful of young designers (and a whiteboard) breaking down pricing strategy.

We encourage you to watch the video, but if you’re short on time, here’s a summary of his key points:

If you frame the conversation in terms of value (“How valuable to you is the editing of this project?”) you’re more likely to arrive at a higher number. This reminds the client that they want the best outcome for their project, so shopping for the lowest price may leave them unhappy with the result. Framing the conversation in terms of risk (“How bad would it be if this project were edited poorly?”) can also reinforce the idea that paying more to ensure a high-quality, on-time delivery of the finished product is worth the extra money.

This approach may not be right for every client, of course. Some clients will always be motivated by price over quality, while others are accustomed to dealing with hourly rates and insist on negotiating accordingly. This approach may not work for every editor, either. If you’re just starting out you may not have the proven experience (or confidence) to negotiate in those terms. But if you have the chops and track record to deliver on your promises, don’t undersell yourself.

Now that you have a foundation for getting paid what you’re worth, let’s look at those sub-industries we mentioned.

 

Weddings and Events

 

Let’s start with a number: Over 2 million! That’s how many weddings there are in the U.S. every year. That’s a lot of potential wedding videos. On top of that, there are bar and bat mitzvahs, memorial tribute videos, birthdays and quinceañeras, and all sorts of corporate events including awards and honors, parties, and trade shows. If you’re a video editor, there’s ample opportunity to find work in this segment of the business, and the rates that people charge for such services can range from $25/hour to ten times that. Even when speaking with a couple of the most successful pros in this sector, the best number we could pinpoint was that an experienced editor (which means someone who knows their way around the Adobe Creative Cloud or Final Cut Pro X, and can complete a video with titles, color correction, and sound sweetening) could expect to earn between $800 and $1500 per project doing high-end events.

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Dave Williams of CinemaCake “on location.”

Dave Williams is founder of Cinema Cake in Philadelphia, PA, a 15+ year veteran, and one of the most successful business owners in the wedding, event, and corporate video industry.  Dave notes that if an editor can deliver a finished piece in a few days’ time, they’ll make a pretty decent wage (he estimates between $45,000 and $75,000 annually). If, however, they take a month to complete a project, they might need to find a way to supplement their income. Many of his editors work remotely (made easily possible by using Frame.io) and function as independent contractors who work with him as well as other with videographers. He selects his editors (most of whom have gone to film school) for their storytelling abilities first and foremost; the technical know-how is a baseline requirement.

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Dave Williams on wedding shoot.

At the other end of the country is John Goolsby, another 30+ year veteran, author, instructor, and speaker at international conventions. He is the founder of Godfather Films, one of the most respected wedding film, event, and corporate video producers in California. He has (literally) written the book on the wedding industry, and has decades’ worth of practical advice about how to make money as an event videographer. He’s taught numerous classes on the topic to students who come to him seeking help because their business model isn’t profitable. His solution: double whatever it is you’re charging. The result: many have reported that his advice saved their livelihoods.

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John Goolsby of Godfather Films.

John tells us that it’s common for industry newcomers to find out what the established folks are charging, and then undercut that price to take a piece of the pie.  But being cheaper doesn’t necessarily get you the job (see the section on negotiating); and if it does, your profit margin is going to be somewhere between slim and nonexistent eventually. Underbidding the competition isn’t a sustainable long-term business model.

Both John and Dave serve private-event and corporate clients, and neither finds a need to advertise. Here’s a hint why—they always deliver top-quality products, and word gets around. In their business sectors, they’re creating pieces that are deeply personal, capturing once-in-a-lifetime events, so they have one chance to get it right. If you’ve established that you can get it right, don’t undervalue yourself.

Wedding and event videographers often fail to get the respect they deserve and are sometimes viewed as the low men and women on the industry totem pole. If you happen to work in this segment of the industry, the next time another editor suggests you may be less professional than they are, just refer them to this article.

 

Commercials and Branded Storytelling

 

Back when network television was the only way to consume video content, advertising followed a set process: the agency came up with the campaign and hired a production company to shoot the spot, after which the film went to an editorial house for offlining and on to a video post-production house for graphics, onlining, and audio finishing.

This process still applies for the expensive prime-time TV spots, but now advertisements are appearing everywhere from browser windows to social media feeds to in-store displays. These “small” advertisements are so widespread that they now take up a bigger piece of the commercial pie than the “big” advertisements do.

In post-production terms, this means that agencies have taken some of that work in-house, setting up small video operations to handle some of the less mainstream commercial work, while some brands are bypassing agencies altogether and going directly to editorial houses with their own content—or hiring freelance editors to execute their concepts.

Jon Ettinger, executive producer at Beast Editorial (one of the larger full-service post-production houses with offices in major markets nationwide) talks about the changes in the industry over the last generation. “The democratization of technology has really demystified what we do,” Jon says. “We used to sell a kind of black magic, but now our clients have a much better idea of what we do and how we do it. What used to be a clearly defined vertical model has become much more horizontal.”

And how does that affect rates? “We don’t publish a rate card,” he says. “A big part of what I do now is keeping track of the overall operating expenses so I know what my margins are and then deciding, pretty much on a per-project basis, how we can make the client’s budget work.” Beast has a stable of staff editors and assistants who can rely on that kind of infrastructure to give them a reliable paycheck.

But what about the freelance editors?

We spoke with long-time pros who reside in, and travel to, places like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Day rates can vary based on location (Los Angeles and New York editors command the highest rates), but an experienced editor with a great reel can charge $750/day on the lower end to $1500/day on the higher end, working eight- to ten-hour days. Some of these editors focus strictly on the creative cut, while others deliver a broadcast-ready final. Note that the extent of the work doesn’t automatically affect day rates, meaning that the highest priced editors don’t necessarily color correct or do the online. What they do, however, is bring the best storytelling chops in the business along with unparalleled client skills. If you’ve ever sat in a session with several different creatives giving conflicting instructions with conflicting goals, you know how challenging it can be to wrangle the requests while keeping the job on track. And it almost (but not quite) goes without saying that these editors are masters of timing. When you have only thirty seconds to tell a story, every frame counts.

If those upper-end rates sound high, think back to fast, cheap, good—pick two.

Here are a few reasons why: first, in a business where highly compensated directors or agency execs are only making money when they’re shooting or developing new business, they can’t afford to spend a lot of time editing when they could be (or already are) prepping the next project. In some cases, it falls to the editor to take whatever they’re handed and carry out the director’s and agency creatives’ vision. In those cases that means that the director is handing over a lot of creative control to the editor. Handing over control = risk, which leads them to spend a higher amount on an editor whom they can really trust. Gaining that trust may be difficult, but if you can demonstrate your abilities, you can command a high price.

Second, as anyone who’s worked in the production world for any amount of time knows, things don’t always go according to plan, and it’s up to the editor to find ingenious ways to work around any problems that may have occurred during a shoot, or to work proactively with animators or VFX departments to integrate the live action footage with whatever other elements are necessary.

Third, commercial editors are frequently working within tight and immovable deadlines—if you miss the Super Bowl delivery, you don’t get another chance. For clients who need the highest quality product with no excuses, paying top dollar isn’t a problem. As Jon Ettinger of Beast says, “What we’re focused on selling now is first and foremost creativity, along with the promise that we’ll get the job done, no matter what.”

If you think that sounds rather similar to what the event videographers were saying, it’s because it holds true across the business sectors. You hear the stories from producers all the time: one San Francisco-based producer for a branded storytelling/corporate video boutique states that their usual experienced freelance editors (again, the Adobe Creative Suite power users) charge in the $650-$800/day range, a number which occasionally forces him to hire a junior-level person in the $500/day range—and to sometimes regret it. A client may not have a lot of money to spend in the first place, but sometimes it’s worth gently reminding them that if that’s the case, they really won’t have the money to redo it!

The Numbers for Commercials and Branded Storytelling

One resource we utilized, which I think you’ll find very helpful in your own research, is the 2017 annual comprehensive pay survey conducted by Blue Collar Post Collective. Lead by BCPC co-founder Katie Hinsen, this survey polled nearly 1,200 working post-production professionals (a majority of whom were editors). For each of the segments we evaluated, in addition to the information we gleaned interviewing industry vets, we have some filtered stats from the BCPC survey.

Commercial

Histogram of commercial and corporate video hourly rates for post-production professionals. Info courtesy of Blue Collar Post Collective.

 

Documentary Features and Music Videos

 

Unscripted, often underfunded, and frequently fraught with problems in coverage, picture, and sound quality, documentary films can be among the most challenging projects in motion pictures—and among the most rewarding to edit (though not necessarily monetarily). Even skilled editors with numerous prestigious titles in their resumes don’t pull in the kind of rates that a commercial or high-end corporate editor can. They may do it for the love of storytelling, or because they’re passionate about the subject—or for building their reels.

Rates for documentary editing are truly difficult to pin down—some editors have lent their considerable skills for next to nothing because they believe in the project. That said, an experienced New York-based documentary editor might expect to earn approximately $2500/week at the bottom of the scale and up to $4500/week at the top. Of course, unlike commercial work, for which an editor may be booked for only a week at a time, documentary work tends to require weeks (or even months) of booking.

The good news for documentary editors is that as the people who are responsible for finding the story in what can be a vast amount of footage, they often have the ability to work from their home studios and spend less face time with clients. In other words, if you look back at the fast, cheap, good model, a documentary editor may earn less but the deadline and client wrangling demands can be considerably lower. Nonetheless, a good editor can bring a documentary on almost any subject to life, just as a less talented editor can suck the life out of the most interesting subject in the world.

When negotiating your rate for a documentary, keep that in mind. Unfortunately, many documentary producers simply do not have the budget to pay you what you’re worth and will dangle the pedigree of the film and where it may appear as bait. While no one should ever work just for the “exposure,” having a well-regarded documentary on your reel is never a bad thing, particularly if you aspire to a career in long-form storytelling. You may not make a lot of money at the time, but investing in getting good work on your reel is part of the cost of doing business.

And now a word about music videos…

Yes, they’re fun to work on. Yes, they look good on reels. Yes, you’ll get tons of exposure. But as one filmmaker said, “You know that people can die of exposure, right?”

Every editor we asked about music video editorial said that with few exceptions, making a career doing nothing but music videos nowadays is a big challenge (and one of the editors we spoke with had built his career on them). Normally, he’ll earn $1200-$1500/day for a commercial job as a freelancer, but even on a video for a major star, he lowered his rate to $800/day and had to pay for his own travel expenses. However, he knew that it would be a great addition to his reel and approached it with that strategy in mind.

The Numbers For Documentaries and Music Videos

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Histogram of documentary feature and short film hourly rates for post-production professionals. Info courtesy of Blue Collar Post Collective.

 

Episodic Programs

 

Although there are now so many types of episodic content (network, cable, subscription, streaming, scripted, unscripted, animated, etc.) in this particular realm the rates seem to vary less widely. For one thing, if you’re editing episodic television, you’ve probably been at it for a while and are working in a major market such as Los Angeles or New York. For another, there are still many shows that fall under the union collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, among the editors we spoke with, the rates seemed to run somewhere in the $3000 – $3300/week range. Note that many shows are edited on Avid, which a number of professionals prefer for larger projects.

What’s less straightforward are the rates for those newer to the episodic industry. It’s generally a somewhat lengthy process to get from industry newbie to lead editor. First, those who work in episodic content tend to come from film school backgrounds and have, in addition to technical skills, strong storytelling skills.

One young freelance editor in New York outlined her trajectory from graduate student to intern (for which she was paid $10/day) until she was hired as an assistant for $800/week. During the three years it took her to go from assistant to full editor, her rate increased incrementally from $800/week to $1300/week for lead assistant. After that, she was able to raise her rate as a full editor to $2150/week, but notes that other editors she’s worked with who have stronger negotiating skills might earn more like $2400-$2800/week. Along the way, she, too, has taken projects that have paid less in order to build her reel.

She, along with several other editors, acknowledges how difficult it can be to find out the going rates for different industry segments, and (like other editors we spoke with) says that it’s common for editors to have different rates for different types of projects. She also recommends that freelancers try to increase their rates by moving between companies in order to help bump their rates up, as it’s more difficult to negotiate a higher rate when you’ve been working at the same place for a lower rate.

The Numbers For Episodic Programs

Episodic

Histogram of scripted and unscripted hourly rates for post-production professionals. Info courtesy of Blue Collar Post Collective.

 

Scripted Features

 

If working on Hollywood feature films is the holy grail of editing jobs, then the bible of editorial rates is the Motion Pictures Editors Guild wage scale. Available on their website are the ranges for a variety of project types and job categories. The nomenclature is somewhat arcane so you might need a little translation help, but you can at least get a feel for how the rate structures work (example: a low budget theatrical film pays an “on call” editor somewhere between $1,977/week and $3,364/week, while the assistant ranges from $1,200/week to $1,900/week, depending on the “tier” of the production, which refers to the overall budget.). The Guild specifies how many days comprise a straight-time workweek, how many hours in a day before overtime kicks in, and even how much a missed meal will add to your weekly paycheck.

Numerous articles have been written about what it takes to join the union and what the advantages (and disadvantages) are. The best reason to join: your wages are fairly controlled, you’ll get paid overtime, and you’ll have better access to health insurance. What that also means is that if you look at the wage scales for union gigs versus non-union, it often looks as though the union jobs pay less (because they give you all the aforementioned benefits). Which is to say that although the union wage scales can give you a glimpse of what’s reasonable to charge, they’re by no means absolute.

But what if you’re working on a feature as a non-union editor?

For non-union features, rates can vary extra widely. So many factors come into play: budget, timeframe, who’s making the film and who’s involved, and whether the film has distribution. We’ve spoken to experienced editors who have earned anywhere between $2500 and $4500/week for independent feature work.

Here, not insignificantly, is where your experience as both an editor and a negotiator really counts, because a feature of any reasonable pedigree and budget is going to put extra emphasis on getting someone good. And, if we remember the axiom, that shouldn’t come cheap.

The Numbers For Scripted Features

Feature

Histogram of feature film hourly rates for post-production professionals.  Info courtesy of Blue Collar Post Collective.

(It’s interesting to note that the Bureau of Labor and Statistics May 2017 survey of 29,880 video and film editing professionals showed an hourly mean wage of  $42.42).

 

What the Pros Know

 

Most of the individuals we spoke with are freelancers who have carved out sustainable careers as working editors.  Lee Gardner, a Los Angeles and Seattle-based commercial and corporate editor, makes it a point to network, both in real life (i.e., inviting colleagues to get together in person) and digitally. Whenever he completes a project, he posts it on LinkedIn and says that it almost always leads to more work (hint: he’s fast and good). He also knows that looking at the big picture—who’s involved, what the stakes are, and how to balance the opinions and desires of clients—is key to being successful. He’s well aware that editing is more than just cutting pictures—you have to treat your career as a business, and your reputation is everything. And if you don’t believe him, look at your LinkedIn connections and see how few degrees of separation there are between you and someone you might hope to work with someday. Although the business is larger now than ever, it’s also far easier to connect with people who may have opinions about how you are to work with—and they’re often unafraid to share them.

Lee
Lee Gardner in the edit suite.

Tom Vogt, an established TV and film editor (“South Park” and “Team America: World Police,” along with well-regarded documentaries and numerous commercials) actually has an agent, because he knows that his abilities as an editor are way better than his ability to market himself. He’s had an unorthodox career path, starting out as an engineer but pursuing his desire to make motion pictures, and his passion for storytelling has never diminished. In fact, he attributes all of his success to his passionate pursuit of his career; and he’s managed to not get pigeonholed as “just” an animation cutter, or a comedy guy, or a documentary guy. His approach may not be for everybody—he’s had to take some side steps to push himself forward at times—but he’s also built an impressively varied repertoire of skills. And while he knows that it’s important to remain malleable personally and collaboratively, if he feels himself getting stuck creatively, he’ll move on to something more fulfilling. Oh, and he believes in working hard. Maybe too hard. But he knows that if you want to have a career in motion pictures, being excellent is the key to longevity.

There’s another idea that both Jon Ettinger and Dave Williams embrace, and that’s the notion of coopetition. Sometimes you’re competing with someone else in the business, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t join forces for the sake of landing a project. That’s another reason why it makes sense to know who else is in your market, how their skills differ from yours, and how they can complement yours. Plus, knowing your competition can only help you formulate the best way to sell yourself and your unique talents. Because what makes you most marketable is what you, and only you, can add to the creative mix.

 

Conclusion

 

In an industry that’s as young as motion picture editing is, and that keeps changing as rapidly and dramatically as it does, there are few absolutes. However: the editor is the person who is responsible for taking whatever has been shot and shaping it into a coherent, or moving, or compelling, or amazing story.

So while it may seem discouraging to realize that because supply often exceeds demand—especially in the larger markets—and editors are under mounting pressure to price themselves competitively, remember that striving for excellence, maintaining your reputation and relationships, and running your career as a business are more important than ever before. Now go forth and be good.

Thank you to Lisa McNamara for contributing this article.

Lisa McNamara is a freelance writer and editor, and has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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