The 10 Step Guide to Getting (and Keeping) Client Approval
As filmmakers, it’s easy to underestimate the number of stages that involve interaction and approval from clients. In fact, many of us might think that getting client approval is just a single step. But in practice it requires a continuous series of checks to get your project over the line.
Understanding and mastering this process is key to ensuring you have an enjoyable collaborative experience, and that you’re covered for cost overruns. It’s also what keeps your clients coming back to you. No one wants to get to the end of a process to find that your client isn’t happy thanks to poor communication early on.
So let’s take some time to cover the key points at which you’ll touch base with a client and what sort of interactions you might expect in this process.
Step 1: Treatment
Generally the first step in any client work is the concept or treatment approval, where the overall goal or idea of the project is laid out and a strategy for achieving it is devised.
This usually involves several rounds with the client to get the creative finalized. But while you might think that the creative you used to win the job is what you’ll get to shoot, there’s generally a tremendous amount of revision required after you’ve booked.
These revisions take the form of written treatments, storyboards, lookbooks, and mood boards. Occasionally even edited video, like sizzle clips and animatics.
This should be an enjoyable period, because it’s an open universe as you work together with the client to evolve the creative to fit your creative goals into an estimated budget.
One of the things you’ll want to avoid is feeling like you’re “upselling” your client. They’ve put out a brief or an RFP (request for proposals) with a figure in mind, and they’d love for you to get as creative as you like—within reason.
So it’s good to split up these jobs on your team. One person takes the creative lead in the client-facing conversations, while another explains the costs of things. Like a good cop/fiscal cop routine. That way, the creative lead can say “You know what would be cooler than an exploding Honda? An exploding Lamborghini!” Without then having to be the downer of saying “But it’ll cost more.” Let fiscal cop chime in with that note.
This is also a great time to get a handle on the power structure in your client’s company. It’s easy to mistake the person you interact with as the final decision maker, but that is rarely the case. More often, you’ll be working with someone to prepare a project, only for them to run it up the flagpole for approval by the senior creative director who’s managing the campaign.
The sooner you learn the hierarchy, the sooner you can train both your team and the client. If you get the chance to chat with the team, take it—it’s a great way to learn how the land lies. But you should also pay attention to how conversations pan out in typical workflow and collaboration tools (like Frame.io) or email chains.
For instance, let’s say you’ve put together some storyboards with a moodboard and you put it on Frame.io for feedback. Notes start coming in from members of the client team with different shot ideas, parts of the mood references they don’t like, and more. You’re a filmmaker who believes in collaboration, so you’re excited to dig into the notes and see where you can use the feedback to make the project even stronger.
Be careful. Don’t assume that the person commenting the most has the most power, and the quietest person has the least. Instead, pay attention to other details, like names that are consistently included on review links. These clearly have a stake in the job, and might even be the most powerful team members (like the CMO or creative director). But they may also be the least vocal because they’re juggling a dozen projects and rely on their teams to get projects ready for their review.
“Don’t assume that the person commenting the most has the most power, and the quietest person has the least.”
So watch how conversations play out. For instance, if you’re getting a lot of notes on a moodboard from one contributor, but these immediately stop after someone else chimes in, you can see who holds power within their organization.
And if you’re thinking “Too easy. Their job titles are a dead giveaway.” It’s never that simple. There are always dynamics within teams; favorite junior creatives, marketing team members with less sway, and all kinds of internal politics in play.
You might not even get their job titles. Some companies don’t use email signatures or Linkedin, and websites might have a nebulous Meet the Team section that doesn’t describe the nature of people’s changing roles (or hasn’t seen an update in years). Some might even have founders who never took on a job title.
Even when job titles are offered, they can be highly context-dependent. For instance, in commercials, the director—who has near-dictatorial power on a film set—may defer to the creative director. The job titles look similar, and the title holders do similar things (setting up shots and talking to actors), but they have wildly different power levels based on the context of where they work.
Spending some time building a mental who’s-who can pay out later on.
Your first goal in the treatment is to get your vision, your take, your version of the project signed off. Use storyboards. Get them approved. It doesn’t matter what size your project is.
You might feel reluctant to lock yourself into storyboards as it can feel like you’re backing yourself into a corner, but they’re a great way to cover yourself and they don’t tie you down as much as you might think. You’re promising that you’ll shoot the boards. But you’re not promising that you’ll only shoot the boards; you can still add more shots on the day if more creative ideas come up.
“You’re promising that you’ll shoot the boards. But you’re not promising that you’ll only shoot the boards.”
But the real power of approved boards is that your client can’t ask for things in post that weren’t in the boards. If they start asking for close-ups or aerials that were never boarded and approved, having approved boards can buy you some negotiating room.
Taking a more nebulous approach with your treatment might feel like it gives you more freedom on set, but it comes with an increased risk of your client being frustrated or disappointed with what they see in post.
Step 2: Budget approval
The moment your treatment gets sign-off, you’ll want to move into budget approval. This is generally a quick stage since you’ll be delivering a budget that’s in line with your original RFP, right?
Yes, there’s room to maneuver at this point if you have elements in the creative that can justify the bump in costs—like your exploding Honda is now an exploding Lambo because the client loved your upsell. Just don’t be tempted to throw in expensive ideas that you didn’t already run past the client.
At this point the only thing you’re showing to the client is the top sheet of the budget. This will list the basic categories and their overall spend; Director, Producer, Camera Department, Art Department, etc., along with a total. That’s your budget for the gig.
The full budget, which shows how much every member of the art department is making and how much petty cash they get each day and how much is put aside for renting props, is usually too much detail for more clients.
You may also choose to run two budgets. The external budget you send to clients and the internal budget you use to do the job. The latter is where you keep your contingency.
On every job, you should keep 10 percent aside for all those things you can’t predict but may well happen. Like on-set accidents, or finding out that your overseas VFX crew isn’t as good as their website promised, or that you’ve vastly underestimated how many flowers it takes to fill a room. Those are the things that contingency covers.
“You want your business to pay rent, keep the lights on, and keep making cool stuff, right?”
You should also put at least 15 percent of the budget aside for profit—you want your business to pay rent, keep the lights on, and keep making cool stuff, right?
Just bear in mind that many clients don’t want to see contingency or profit in your company’s overhead lines. In my experience, they’ll negotiate harder on these than anything else.
So consider leaving these lines off your external budget and “bake” the figures into your other line items, instead. So your Art Department estimate is $6K, but the external budget’s line item reads $8K, and so on. That way you can cover your profit and contingency without listing them into the top sheet for the client to question/challenge.
Get it in writing
Experienced filmmakers tend to move fast on budget approval for good reason. When you hand over a budget for a complete project, it’s implied that the client is getting a discounted rate because everything is included at the same time. Like how buying an assembled car is cheaper than buying the individual parts to make a car.
The dynamic changes once the budget is signed off. It’s now accepted that change orders from the client will be billed separately and at full rate. So when your client requests the exploding Lamborghini after the Honda budget was approved, they’re less likely to question an overage invoice for the price difference.
Step 3: Dailies
Your treatment’s locked, your budget’s locked, your prep’s done, and you’re on your shoot. Exciting times.
Now you need to decide just how much of your dailies you’ll show to the client. This used to happen immediately after shooting wraps, but with newer tools like Frame.io Camera to Cloud (C2C) this decision happens on set.
C2C is wonderful for its ability to get edit-ready dailies into the post suite as quickly as possible. But they can also (if you choose to enable it) offer your client near-real time access to the dailies. You can even combine this with a livestream, keeping your client heavily involved while you shoot.
Power is nothing without control
If you’re nervous about this process because it’s giving too much power to distant clients who might not understand precisely what is going on, you might be justified. We’ll all have had clients who aren’t that savvy about how things come together in post and will sometimes fixate on things that you know won’t be a problem.
“We’ll all have had clients who aren’t that savvy about how things come together in post and will sometimes fixate on things that you know won’t be a problem.”
But, especially if you are already using C2C to get your footage to post, it can be powerful to share dailies with the client team on the jobs where it makes sense. Just like your boards back in treatment, this will give you an extra layer of protection that could save you (and your client) frustration down the line.
Nothing is more frustrating than a client saying near the end of post “I really wanted a close-up of the actress scratching her ear. Didn’t you shoot one?” By setting up a livestream and then sharing access to C2C dailies, they get to see everything as it’s shot.
If there’s something they want, they can ask for it before you wrap, or at least understand that the opportunity has passed.
Most clients won’t actually take the time to watch through all the dailies. That’s for your editorial team to dig through. But having almost immediate access to all your dailies will change the dynamic for the rest of the post process—especially now that you’ll be able to push back on late stage requests for things that weren’t gotten on the day.
Step 4: Editorial approval
Next comes editorial approval, a stage that many think of as the most client-intensive process.
This will generally go better when there’s more client education early on. For instance, even at the deal memo stage, it’s important to start laying out for the client how many rounds of editorial revision they should expect to get within the budget before you start charging an overage.
It can be helpful to walk newer clients through the details on a call, or in the contract itself. For instance, spelling out how long clients have to give notes is essential; it’s painful to turn in a cut on an agreed delivery date and not get notes for weeks, or even months.
You might have other things to work on in the meantime, but have to “fire the project back up” when these late notes come rolling in. So lay out clear delivery dates for revisions, and specify the window that clients will get for notes—say, 48 hours on a short project, or 72 for a feature.
Beyond that, you should guide the client towards coherent, consolidated notes ahead of time. A client that gets everyone on the team to chime in without offering context can be very hard to manage. At best, these can be confusing, at worst they can be contradictory.
In instances like these, work with your closest contact to organize those notes into a coherent, actionable list. It’ll take some coordination between both sides to unpack the feedback and make it useful.
Once again, laying out the terms for revision rounds in the original deal memo will set you up well for further overages if work starts to sprawl. When the client is hard to satisfy and pixel-picks the project over and over, it’s fair to charge more when the project goes beyond the original (and agreed) plan.
“When the client is hard to satisfy and pixel-picks the project over and over, it’s fair to charge more.”
Remember that chain of command assessment you made earlier? It comes into play here. You don’t want a junior to be giving all the notes when the real power holder isn’t looking. This is a setup for disaster. A gentle prod like “Do we want to wait for [senior] to see this before we do another round of edits?” can really help ensure you’re heading the right direction.
This is one of the many areas where an experienced post supervisor can be tremendously helpful in navigating a project. Supes aren’t just about managing the post team, they’re an interface between the post team and outside stakeholders. It’s a skillset that can take years to develop.
Step 5: Color approval
When you get to color approval, time speeds up. The delivery date is getting close and the clock is ticking.
We tend to divide color approvals between “look” approval and then “final grade” approval. At the start of the color grading process, you pick a few key shots and explore grading them as far as possible, then send them through for look approval. The director, DP, and colorist usually set these looks, then they’re sent to the client.
Go big or go home
My advice is to go as heavy as you want, here. If you’re thinking of a big look, a heavy Instagram news, or a 90s music video vibe, go for it. Maybe even just slightly more than you think you’ll land in the final grade. It’s better to get your client used to a heavy grade early so that there’s room to negotiate later.
The purpose of this step is buy-in. You don’t want to regrade an entire film, and your client won’t want to pay you to. So the more you can involve stakeholders in this, the better.
“You don’t want to regrade an entire film, and your client won’t want to pay you to.”
It’s especially important if things have drifted a bit from the original lookbook. Your client signed off on the lookbook, so keep it with you as a guide in the color suite. But be sensitive to the moment when you decide the look is no longer the right one.
By the time you get to the end of post, your opinions might have evolved and the footage is calling for something different. You’ve got to trust your gut to push it that way, but also sell it to the client. And the best way is to get in early, when they still feel like they’re part of the process.
Once you have look sign-off, you can roll it out to the rest of the project and submit for approval. Brace yourself for nit-picking. If all you get are comments like “the shot at 38 seconds is too dark” or “I can’t read our brand label clearly at the end,” you’ve done a good job.
A suite deal
A major issue with modern client approval is managing the client’s viewing experience. This used to happen with everybody in the same room, all looking at the same monitor, making discussions easy. But things have changed, and it can be harder to trust that the client is seeing the same thing you are.
But even if you can’t get them into a calibrated color suite with you—or rent somewhere remote with the right equipment—you still have options.
I’d recommend using Frame.io on an iPad Pro, as it offers the most consistency from site to site. Vimeo, YouTube, Safari, Chrome, etc., all show video differently and it’s exhausting. Getting everyone on the same app, designed by filmmakers, is your safest bet.
The iPad Pro has very good color accuracy, and is a common tool that for many clients already have alongside the computers in their office. Even if they don’t have one, it’s not impractical to ship them one while you all work to get that grade finalized.
Step 6: Sound approval
While color is happening, you’re usually navigating the sound edit and mix as well. And this has the same issues that are happening over in color. You want to get client buy-in on anything heavy or intense early on, and get to fine revisions quickly.
Sound has an additional issue in that the best tool we have for remote approvals (high quality studio monitor headphones) is the least reflective of how most work is consumed (either with TV speakers or Earbud headphones).
Sound mixers know that the final result might not be showing up on the finest playback systems. So the key is to keep asking questions of the client, over and over again, about where they’re listening, and to encourage other options. If the client only ever listens to every round of review on their Earbuds, then does their final approval on their TV with their full soundbar, it’s going to be a jarring experience that’s likely to involve more work for you.
Step 7: Beauty approval
Not every project has this step, but when a performer has approval over their appearance, any work that affects it—from retouching to even basic color correction—has to be approved by the artist. You may even come across performers who have their own beauty team specified in their contract, leaving you with a new team member to collaborate with during the latter stages.
This can be problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the sorts of artists who have this approval are busy people who aren’t glued to their inbox. They’ll take longer to reply, and the replies are routed via an assistant or manager who might not have typed up their thoughts that well.
“The sorts of artists who have this approval are busy people who aren’t glued to their inbox.”
Secondly, these same assistants or managers might go through several rounds of notes before showing it to the performer for a final say. This is a danger throughout the process, but is especially frustrating when you’re several rounds deep and the direction changes without warning.
And if that wasn’t enough, beauty usually starts after color grading, when your delivery deadline is looming and your team is pulling hard to get the project out the door with everyone happy.
So find out if beauty time needs to be built into the schedule. Ask about beauty requirements for major talent, and put all your client management skills into play so that it doesn’t cause wrinkles this late in the game.
Step 8: Outlet approval
Outlet approvals are generally a relatively simple process, but there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. For instance, some music video platforms have specific rules about how dancing can be covered to avoid exploitation of the dancers/choreographers.
So it’s likely you’ll be doing two cuts of some music videos; one for general audiences and another for specific platforms. This might require submitting a cut to the platform for specific notes on just their standards.
Step 9: Legal approval
Legal approval might come into play with larger projects with massive audiences. Here, clients tend to protect themselves by getting evaluations from legal advisors.
“You see background, legal sees a potential trademark violation.”
There are numerous issues that legal might flag at this step. A simple example might be logos in the background of a shot. You see background, legal sees a potential trademark violation. This can lead to last minute digital fixes, like sign removals and paint-outs, to clear this step.
Step 10: Technical/quality control
Now you’re on the home stretch. It’s time for quality control (QC). QC is officially a technical approval, but there can be some creativity involved.
If you’re delivering to a broadcast network or a larger streaming platform, they’ll require a formal QC process at an external QC house. And you can’t do this yourself; the project always needs to be checked by a formal QC auditor.
After QC you’ll get back a technical report with a (potentially) long list of areas where the project has failed QC. These can be out of gamut errors, framing errors, low quality footage, and issues like moire.
Most of these are technical fixes, but it’s important to read through the list with your team and decide whether it’s worth a conversation.
“QC might flag those shots, but that doesn’t mean that the distributor won’t accept them.”
For instance, if you’re working on a documentary with a lot of archival footage, you’ll likely see a lot of QC notes for every time you cut to a low-quality archival shot. This is par for the course, and something you can discuss with the client and distribution platform as an essential or unavoidable element. QC might flag those shots, but that doesn’t mean that the distributor won’t accept them.
If that seems like a lot of time communicating with your client, it is. But it’s for the best. If you keep your level of communication high, the odds of producing something that you and your client are excited about. Which is practically a guarantee of repeat business.