What to do when a client can’t afford you?

Mike Collins, Story & Heart filmmaker, lover of impractical analog things, digital nomad, and Director / Cinematographer at Cinema Mercantile.

Mike CollinsStory & Heart filmmaker, lover of impractical analog things, digital nomad, and Director / Cinematographer at Cinema Mercantile.

As storytellers, what we do matters—a lot. Well-told stories have tremendous value that extends beyond the dollars a client pays for our services. But what do you do when a client inevitably can’t afford you, when they have a small budget or no budget at all, but have a great story? Before you say no and walk away, there are some creative alternatives you may want to consider. 

To help us get a grasp on the currency of film, we turn to Story & Heart filmmaker Mike Collins. Mike has over two decades of experience in the industry and currently works as a director and cinematographer at a large nonprofit. But, more than anything else, it’s his side project, Cinema Mercantile, which has given him real world experience into this topic.

Cinema Mercantile began with a creative itch and a few burning questions: What if we could tell some of the stories we wanted to tell? What if we told them the way we wanted to? What if it wasn’t about money, but about telling good stories? Mike asked himself these questions and then started working on stories he loved with people he liked working with. 

Along his journey, finding people willing to publish his films hasn’t been the problem—which he’ll be sharing more about in an upcoming post. But, finding funding for some of his projects hasn't been so easy and he's had to get creative to make his projects work.

We chatted with Mike about his experiences with what you do when a client can’t afford him and how you can follow excellent stories when money isn’t on the table.

Here are 4 points for you to consider when a story doesn’t have an obvious monetary return.  


1. Ask yourself: Do you really want to tell this story?

Before you consider any alternative method of compensation for a job, the biggest and most important question you must ask yourself is this: How badly do you want to tell this story? That’s because the risk, as Mike points out below, is real if you’re not getting paid. You have to be incredibly passionate about the story before you consider any other options for compensation.

Stillmotion, when faced with the tough reality of a great story with no budget, chose to seek outside funding for their BioBeats film. More on sponsored videos in an upcoming post.

If you want this story to be all that it can be, you're going to be pouring your blood, sweat and tears into it. The story has to be worth this kind of investment. Time is non-renewable energy, and you could, depending on the scope of the project, end up dedicating days, weeks or months of your life to such a story, so you must be honest with yourself: is it worth it?

“For me, it all comes down to one thing: If I feel like I won’t be able to sleep because I passed up on the project, then I know it’s something I will make happen,” Mike continues, “In addition to amazing stories that we made work with little budget like the one above, there have been some stories we’ve considered doing, but—at the end of the day—we declined." Why? He says that if you don’t care enough about the story then it’s not worth the time to commit. 

While the risk for getting creative with funding projects is large—as we'll share below—the reward for telling a great story can be just as substantial. Make sure it's actually a story you really care about. If you’re passionate about it, as we see below, there are a number of ways you can make it work.

2. There’s value in trading, so think beyond the cash.

If the story moves you so much that you just have to bring it to light, it may be time to get creative with your definition of compensation. 

Think of it like this: You are great at telling stories. Your potential client is probably great at something else, and these skills might prove to be really valuable for you. You could trade your services for what they have to offer—it might be more valuable to you than cash. 

Meet lifelong friends Damien Pileggi and Jonathan Adams. As Rival Bros Coffee they are returning small batch artisanal coffee roasting to Philadelphia. From their beginnings on a renovated DHL delivery truck to their recently opened coffee bar this is their story.

Mike gives us a great example of a trade, “We are currently in discussion with an amazing branding/design firm in Philadelphia,” he says, “and we are talking about doing a short case study film for them in return for professional branding services.” Cinema Mercantile couldn’t afford professional branding services out of pocket, nor could the agency afford video production. “We both have a need and we both have a skill to trade,” Mike says. “How is that not every bit as valuable as if they had paid us?” 

When thinking about a trade, don’t just be limited to thinking about services that are valuable to you. A client may want to trade a service or product that you don’t need, but your other clients might find this service to be valuable, and you might be able to charge them for it.

Found an incredible story of a local musician you just need to tell, but there's no budget to bring it to life? Perhaps there's potential in a trade for licensing rights for your other paying projects.

The conclusion to be drawn from this point is that value extends beyond cold, hard cash. If you expand your understanding of compensation, you can find value in truly unexpected places. And by trading services for something else, you might find some incredible value there—plus, you get to tell an incredible story! But what if a trade isn’t an option? Read on for another interesting alternative.

3. If you’re working with a startup, equity is risky but could pay off big. 

It’s likely that one of your clients might not be able to afford your services because they are a budding business without much of a budget for marketing. It’s clear that startups and other new business ventures are quickly discovering the power of video production in helping their businesses succeed. But even if they can’t afford to pay you right now, working with them might pay off big if you strongly believe in what they’re doing.

You might consider equity—providing your services in return for shares in the company. The risk here can be big, but the payoff can be equally rewarding. One good example of this that comes to our mind is David Choe, a graffiti artist who painted Facebook’s offices in return for stock in the company. After the social media service went public, the artist ended up being a millionaire—all for his time and the price of paint.

The same principle can apply to filmmakers, but you have to understand the risks involved. If equity is an option, you’ll want to make sure of exactly what you’d be getting. Class of shares, investment rounds, votes, etc., can all be confusing and ultimately lead to shares worth virtually nothing. If you're considering the equity route, make sure you bring in a lawyer who has your best interest at heart to review any documents before you sign them.

Just like the example of the graffiti artist above, great risk brings the potential for great reward. One filmmaking example is Sandwich Video. Sandwich has become the go-to film company for many tech startups, working for clients such as coin, 1password, Warby Parker and airbnb. These clients have found that well-told stories can help make or break them when it comes to launch day, and better stories have a big impact in attracting investors and customers of all kinds. 

The point here is that your skills can have serious value, and you might consider investing them in a company you believe in. In some cases, this could pay off really well. But the risk is great, so consider your options carefully. 

4. Don’t expect nonpaying work to lead to paying clients (but it often can).

Now if neither option above works for this amazing story, you’ll likely think about taking on the project anyway since you believe so much in it. And while you should certainly follow stories you’re passionate about, you also need to understand the risks. 

“To be quite clear, it is a big risk to take on a project for free with the hopes it will one day pay off,” Mike says, "but if you feel in your heart that it will, maybe you should just do it.”

As a filmmaker, you need to be honest with yourself about the reality of nonpaying clients: They won’t always lead to paying work. It’s easy to move forward with the romantic notion that helping a client means they will come to you the next time they actually have room in their budget. But the reality is that it doesn’t always work out this way.

With over 30k views on Vimeo, and many features across the web, Mike's film of JANE Motorcycles has not only lead to future work with JANE, but also many other potential jobs.

Still, if you believe there is a good possibility that a project could turn into future paying work, then it’s worth exploring further. For example, Mike was once working with Whiskey Grade on an editorial short film about JANE, a coffee shop and custom motorcycle builder in Brooklyn. “There wasn't much budget on either end. We both wanted content, and they had a great story and location to film in,” Mike says. He explains how JANE has always wanted to create short films to support their brand, but the option had never been on the table. Due to the editorial film he completed, they’ve now decided to work together on a project that has a good budget. “Sometimes, it’s worth playing the long game,” Mike adds.

Sometimes taking on a project with limited compensation will pay off in the long run. But you have to move forward with the understanding that it might not. As with any other project, Mike reminds us that you need to follow the stories that you’re passionate about. “If it makes you happy, that’s a type of reward that can be hard to find,” he concludes. “That’s why you became a filmmaker in the first place, right?”

The Bottom Line: Get creative. Great stories will find a way to be told.

Ultimately you have to decide what will work for you and get a little creative when a client can’t afford you. It could be a trade. It could be equity. And it might be something entirely different. You just have to be aware of the risks and the potential rewards.

Make sure you have your back covered in special situations like equity or a trade. And remember that there could be financial concerns or tax implications, so be sure to talk to the right people when it comes to trading or equity (e.g. your accountant and lawyer for starters).

But even when a client can’t afford you, great stories are still worth telling. When monetary return isn’t possible, there may be other ways to make it work. It's really all up to your creativity and how hard you and your client want to work together. 

At the end of the day, you’ll find a way to tell the stories that matter, whether there’s money on the table or not.

Mike Collins is director and cinematographer at Cinema Mercantile. You can follow Mike on Twitter here @Mikespins and Cinema Mercantile here: @CineMercantile.

Have you ever worked with a client who couldn’t afford to pay you up front? Tell us in the comments below how you made it work.