A Guide to Media Production Costs and Budgets

Approaching a media production company with a project and asking for an estimate can feel like getting a bill from the mechanic. You have no idea if you’re getting a fair deal or not, and you don’t know where to turn to find out. In this article, we’ll take an insider's look at what’s under the hood of a media production budget and give you several tools and strategies about pricing and scoping out a project so you look like a pro going into these conversations.

So, you’ve decided that you need to produce some videos for your brand or organization. Your project might be as simple as a single talking head promo with some b-roll, or it might be a full on campaign with elaborate scripts, animations and a marketing plan. Whatever the size and scope, you’ll need to bring in an outside media production company, and cost will certainly be part of the conversation with them. When you visit their website, you’ll probably find an explanation of their process, case studies and examples of work, but no real concrete figures or price lists. How will you know you’re not getting fleeced? In an episode of the Comedy Central show Nathan for You, a car mechanic is hooked up to a polygraph machine to make customers feel confident his bill is honest. We’ll discuss some approaches here to hook your media production up to a metaphorical polygraph machine and make sure you’re getting an honest estimate.

Why don’t media production companies list their prices on their website? 

As a production company works with you in the early stages of discovery, they’ll be listening to what you're trying to accomplish and translating this into a line item budget of all of the resources they’ll need to plan, produce and do post production on your project. Understanding objectives and the resources that will need to be marshaled for a successful production is a practice in inquiry, active listening and requires nuanced understanding of media production roles, efforts and workflows. The reason media production companies don’t list prices for production on their websites is because each production is a unique and special unicorn. This shouldn’t be seen as precious, but rather indicative of the values you’re getting. This unique and custom nature of each individual production and the variable nature of the resources required for each bespoke production is part of a collaborative and creative process and reflective of the very special product and deliverable you should be getting. And it requires a process that can’t be easily put into discrete pricing packages. Media production shouldn’t be confused with videography, which is paying a person with a camera to film in a location for a certain number of hours and then deliver that footage. If a company is listing prices on their site, their work is likely more aligned with a videography approach, which you might take if you’re looking to film an event. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation of costs

While you may not be able to calculate a budget by visiting a website and picking items from a price menu, a good agency should be open and eager to helping you understand pricing. Discussing money can be awkward, but in business it shouldn’t be. Professionals should be able to have conversations about their pricing approaches with transparency and explain their pricing models without getting weird. If these conversations don’t feel right to you as you’re approaching a media production company, that might be an indication the partnership would not be a good fit for you. At Flywheel we hire creative professionals all the time, and we’ve had every type of conversation and have seen every type of approach to pricing there is out there. Here are some suggestions as you embark on finding the right Media Production company for your video project:

  • Look at reviews on sites like Clutch or the Manifest
  • Have an initial conversations with a few different agencies
  • Get referrals from other creatives in your network
  • Identify video content you like and reach out to the producing media production company

Deciphering the Estimate

When you receive an estimate from a media production company, they will compile a line item budget that lists the effort and expenses to execute the production. The budget will generally be broken down into 3 sections: pre production, production and post production. Each section will include numbers for expenses (things like a studio rental, equipment rental, and transportation costs), as well as rates for individual roles (people like camera operators, directors, a producer and an editor). These figures should be in the range of industry standard day rates, but there may be a good deal of variability depending on your location, the expertise and experience of the crew, and the number of expenses. Additionally, the budget should be accompanied by a scope of work (SoW) that details what the deliverables of the project will include.

A sample budget detailing line items of a video production project

Pro tips 

We’ve found that by and large, creative agencies including media production companies are making good faith efforts to deliver quality content at a fair price for their partners. They are in a creative field because they enjoy the work and find value in the partnerships. That being said, finding the right fit for your project and organization is probably the most relevant concern you should be thinking about as you begin a search for a partner. We have worked with some creative agencies where we haven't been satisfied with their work, but looking back it was because we either didn't vet them thoroughly enough, or we didn’t spend enough determining the fit to the project. Below are some final tips to help you as you reach out to media production companies:

  • Come to conversations prepared with a sample video and ask how much similar production values might cost for your project.
  • Ask the production company to provide a high and a low budget so that you can see what you get at two different price points.
  • Start with a creative brief and a offer up a top number that you’re willing to spend on the project.