What Do I Bill For?
It’s a common question, maybe the most common, right after ‘How Much Should I Charge?’ While there is no firm consensus on exactly what video freelancers and production companies should bill for, there are generally accepted practices.
Initial Consultation- No
If you know a freelancer who charges for initial consultations, you probably know a freelancer who has no clients. It’s a nearly universal practice to give a free consultation to clients, because it acts almost as an interview. Clients can size up freelancers to see if they would be a good fit, while freelancers learn more about the project so they can decide if it interests them.
Location Scouting- Yes
If you’re location scouting- actually traveling to locations to check aesthetic and shooting feasibility, as well as approaching the appropriate people to negotiate use of the space- you’re doing the work of a producer and should bill for your time. If you’re just doing a quick google to suggest a few possibilities, not only does it not really constitute location scouting, it likely would not take enough time to be worth billing for.
Contracting and Negotiations- No
It would be an extremely weird price negotiation if a client knew they were being billed for it. The same goes for the creation, negotiation, and signing of contracts. These are part of those ‘must-do’ things for which you can’t bill.
Casting- Most of the Time
When I say ‘casting’, you probably think of a full casting call and listening to endless monologues. This type of casting definitely falls under billable time. However, many producers and production companies have actors and models that they’ve worked with before and like well enough to call again- sometimes casting is just a quick phone call, which is not a billable form of casting. There is a third type, which just involves searching through online reels and portfolios. This can be billed for, but often doesn’t amount to much time.
Pre-production Meetings- Sometimes
On smaller projects, pre-production meetings and phone calls are often short and straightforward. They can essentially be grouped into the category of ‘initial consultation.’ On larger projects, however, pre-production meetings can easily last hours or days. This is part of the project preparation and should be considered billable time.
Equipment Rental- Yes
For personal gear, some crew chooses to build it into their hourly or daily price, while some chooses to separate their time from equipment costs. There is no ‘best’ method for personal gear. But for equipment that needs to be rented from an outside source, the cost should passed on to the client. The accepted rule is to pass on the cost exactly, with no markup.
Travel can be divided into 3 categories-
- Under ~30 minutes of travel time is just a commute, and is not billable
- Over ~30 minutes of travel time to a location that is still drivable in a day (usually ~3 hours or under) can be billed for, but many crew choose to eat the time so they can compete better on price with crew more local to the location. Here in southern California, many production folks will travel between San Diego and LA at no cost to expand their client base. A good compromise is to not charge for the travel time, but to request a hotel room for multiple day projects.
- For projects that are not drivable in a day, travel should be billed for. Expenses, like airline tickets and lodging should be billed at cost, and a per diem for food is fairly common- usually between $50 and $70. Mid range hotels are the norm and crew traveling together are typically not expected to bunk together. Most crew bills their time at 50% for travel days.
Footage Processing- No
In situations where there is no on-set DIT and the shooter isn’t doing the editing, camera ops will often process their footage before giving it to the editor. While editors usually appreciate this, it doesn’t typically count as billable time. If this strikes you as unfair as a shooter but you don’t want to go against the grain and charge for processing footage, you can provide raw camera files to editors instead of processing them, bring a laptop to set to do your own DIT, or tell your clients that you knock off a little early to process footage.
Rendering/Exporting- Most of the Time
It has gotten better in recent years, but editors still spend a fair deal of time waiting for renders to complete. In general this time should be billed. However, for things like overnight renders, great for batch exports and those 12 After Effects comps that need to be updated, you do not bill the time. If you’re not sure which category your render falls under, use the on-site test. If you were editing on-site on a client’s machine, would you need to wait for this render to finish to keep working? If the answer is yes, bill for it. If you’d be able to set it and leave the office for the day, don’t bill for it. Regardless, in all cases it is the editor’s obligation to the client to minimize billable rendering time to the best of their ability.
External Drives and Delivery- Yes
When a client needs a drive with a project on it, usually because they need more than just the final cut, it’s common to offer them the choice of paying full retail for an external drive and they keep it, or not paying for the drive and returning it. In the former instance, the client pays for delivery and in the latter, the client pays for delivery and return.
In the end, it comes down to the individual to decide how they want to bill clients, but there is one guideline that everyone should follow across the board: no surprises. It matters far less what you choose to bill for than that your client is aware how they will be billed. However you choose to go about it, make sure that you include your costs- all of your costs- in your estimate.