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How To: Write an Estimate


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BY Jeff Siti December 01, 2009 · Published by Resource Magazine

Estimating the cost of a shoot for clients is a vital first step in producing it. Learn how to come up with workable, realistic figures in this article from Resource Magazine.

This article has been contributed from the Summer 2009 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.

The Earth’s belly is littered with the brittle bones of those guilty of underestimation. Yes, the act of underestimation always precedes the loss of life, employment, and the manifestation of every fear you’ve ever known to become reality. Take Custer for example. He underestimated how fiercely opposed Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were to being penned into reservations, and lost both his life and his job—a situation he no doubt feared. A stirring and historic victory to be sure, and the lesson today echoes the ancient but simple Lakota proverb: avoid underestimation. You won’t die bleeding in a field in the Dakota Territory, but you’ll be out of a job, which is the modern day equivalent of dying in a field in the Dakota Territory. Hokahe.

When making an estimate, being brutally realistic is key. Like guessing the number of jelly beans in the jar at the town festival, no one expects you to nail the exact number. But giving people a workable, sensible figure makes everyone’s life that much more enjoyable. And that’s just what we want: happy people.

Get all the following info from the client (art buyer, art director, photographer, etc.):

  1. Secure a shot list so you can see what you are dealing with.
  2. Define the number of shoot days. In the real world people do things almost every day. Even on Tuesday. They’re busy. A finite and blessed schedule always does the trick.
  3. If it’s a studio shoot, figure out what type of studio (daylight, cyc, how large, etc. . . .).
  4. If it’s a location shoot, find out what type and how many locations will be needed. Do you stay in the US or do you have to travel? If traveling, how many people will need flights and lodging? Is the client providing the location(s)? Are you shooting at their office/facility? It helps to specify whether you’ll being shooting in a heavily sought-after spot or a barn in northern Pennsylvania.
  5. Get casting specs and usage to define talent costs. Call a minimum of three talent agencies to get an idea of the budget. Clearly state if talent fees are to be included in your estimate. Ask if the client is providing the talent, i.e., are you shooting their employees?
  6. Ask the photographer for the number of photo assistants needed and to give you an equipment list. Get quotes from a few equipment rental places.
  7. Define the type of wardrobe and props needed.
  8. Check if the photographer wants to work with specific stylists/crew. If so, contact them to get quotes for their fees and expenses.

General Advice:

  1. Estimating is the first part of producing a job: treat it as such. The estimate is like the blueprint of any shoot. Know anybody who ever propped up a tent in the middle of bear country without a blueprint? No, you don’t.
  2. The best scenario is to get the client’s budget so you know what you are working with. The client will always have an amount they’re shooting for. It helps considerably to stay under or near that number.
  3. Think of everything that needs to be there in order to make the job happen. Map out every detail so nothing gets overlooked.
  4. Round up people’s numbers to be covered in case of last minute changes and extra requests. Keep some space for error.
  5. Always start the estimate from a "best case scenario" place, i.e., reflecting a reasonable budget and good shooting conditions. You can always go back and trim expenses and fees if needed.
  6. Do the research to get accurate numbers: guesstimates are potentially dangerous. If you think eight hundred Native Americans are going to show up for the fight and then two thousand appear just over the ridge, you’ve gone and treaded where you shouldn’t have treaded. This also applies to the topic at hand.
  7. Have a template with every line item imaginable: you can then just go down the list and fill in or cross off where needed.
  8. Check all the math. Don’t just rely on Excel and assistants to count for you, although arithmetic is far more rewarding and accurate when computers or other people do it.
  9. Spell out your payment requirements: how much you want for cash advance, terms information, etc. . . . Specify cancellation and weather day policies.
  10. Build a schedule and calculate the days needed for shoot and prep. This will ensure that everyone on the crew, agency, and client are clear of timeline and expectations. Humans must know what is expected of them, or else they don’t know what they are expected to do.
  11. Clearly define what you are providing in terms of days worked, services, online postings, etc. . . .
  12. Take your time. Breathe. Stay hydrated. Water.

Small Details That End Up Costly:

  1. Food. People love it. They crave it. They need it to maintain energy and stay alive. This makes them more productive and fun to be around. Don’t forget food.
  2. All location shoots require transportation to and from for crew, talent, and potentially clients. This means vans, drivers, tolls, gas, hang gliders, carabiners, and sled dog whips.
  3. Some location shoots require portable bathrooms and parking/traffic management.
  4. Trash needs to be disposed of. Plan for a dumping fee if it’s a large job. Carbon footprint and all that jazz.

Business Forms and Correspondence

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