How to Select a Production Service Company to Shoot TV Commercials Overseas


Around the World there are hundreds of companies that offer production services to shoot TV spots. Some don’t have in-house directors and therefore they just work for foreign production companies. Others, on the contrary, have a roster of directors and produce commercials for the local agencies while they offer production services to companies based elsewhere. Our offices in Miami, Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina belong to the second category therefore we know the business from both angles: on one hand we have shot commercials in over 30 countries of all Continents using local production services and, on the other, we acted as production services ourselves. As we learned over the years, there are three major problems that very often surface when working with production services.

First of all they don’t have any emotional connection with the project: they are hired to organize the shoot and their creative involvement is almost zero. The director doesn’t belong to their organization, the finished spot will not go into their reel, and they will not win any awards with the commercial they helped produce. The spot is just a business.

Secondly many production service companies tend to give low bids at the beginning of the process in order to get the job and then they charge for everything claiming that it was not included in the original bid ครีมหมอกุ้ง.

Some years ago, for example, I was shooting a spot overseas for a cosmetic product. The day before the shooting the director asked for the “book” of the make up artist. The local producer told me “If you want to see a book, it means that you want a top make up artist. In the bid we estimated a “regular one”. Top make up artists are way more expensive”. “Of course we want a top make up artist!” I said. And of course we had to pay more. In another occasion I was going to shoot in Morocco so we worked with a service company based in Casablanca to bid the job that required some set construction. We sent them blueprints of the sets, dimensions to proper bid the job. After the bid was approved, we sent them some additional specs including the color of the set. The Moroccan producer faxed back saying that they expected (and estimated) the set to be brown not blue as the new specs were establishing, that the blue paint was more expensive than the brown one and therefore the cost was going to be higher. These extreme situations are rare but they happen: all measures have to be taken to avoid them.

Thirdly, in some cases, service companies try to apply to foreign clients rates that are higher that the real ones. If, for instance, a gaffer in their country get paid $125 dollar per day, they charge $200. It is still less than half the cost of a gaffer in the US or Europe but the service company is making, in addition to the declared 15% mark up, another 60%. It is true that in every country the best crewmembers charge a little more than the others because they are in high demand, but even in this case, the real rates are not always reflected in the bids presented to American or European companies shooting overseas. Production services know the rates applied in the US, the UK, Italy or Germany and realize that everything will look cheap. Knowing the marketplace is fundamental for any production company willing to shoot overseas and spend wisely the client’s money. In 70 or 80% of the occasions I shoot in countries where my company has offices therefore I am using my own structure to manage the production maximizing the efficiency and minimizing costs. When I need to shoot in the jungle in Central America, for instance, I don’t need a production service in Costa Rica because I have my own office there that can take care of shooting not only in that country but also in Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and so on. But when I have to go to a country where I never shot before, I do a lot of homework. For this task a comprehensive network of contacts plays a major role because it is not enough to call friends who have shot in that country: they can tell you about the efficiency or the reliability of the production service they used there but they cannot say anything about the honesty of that company. They can very well have been heavily overcharged without knowing it.

You need to get not only contacts of reliable and honest production services but also lists of crewmembers. If you know somebody who shot successfully in India, Rumania or Malta for instance, you should ask him the full call sheet with the names of all the crewmembers they used. Some comments from people who already shot in that country will help: “the camera crew was excellent, but the art department was very slow”, “the wardrobe stylists did a good job, but the make up artist didn’t.”

But in addition to that you should investigate a little bit more about normal rates in that country. DP’s, art directors, cameramen, special effect technicians are good sources of information: if they shot there they probably spoke with camera assistants, carpenters, drivers, PA’s about their rates and about the cost of renting equipments. Crewmembers don’t usually talk about money with the producers but the do talk with other crewmembers even if they are from another country.

With a list of experienced and professional people and a clear idea of the rates, a producer who is going to bid a job in Romania, for example, should call two production services based in Bucharest and have a chat with their executive producers. A 15-minutes long conversation with a producer based several thousand miles away gives a lot of information. Asking a few key questions, you can immediately detect if the guy has experience or not and if he understands your standards of quality. Every specific job is a different story from the production perspective and you want to know if the producer on the other end of the line knows how to handle it. In some cases there is a major logistic issue: hundred of extras, complex permitting, special effects. In some other cases the key issues are the technology, the equipments, the art direction, the locations and so forth.
In this phase, it is time to find out what the labor regulations are in the country where the shoot is going to happen, if there are unions there and how they operate, what the requirements are in terms of immigrations and customs and so on.

Getting two bids from two different production services will give the opportunity of comparing not only rates bat also procedures and systems. In some countries, for instance, crews are normally much bigger in number than in others. When you receive a bid from some countries you will see many more crewmembers than you would expect in the US, the UK, Holland or France. But it is how it works there: you cannot reduce the number of people without compromising the efficiency of the shoot. In some countries the equipment rental companies require some crewmembers to be in charge of their stuff, you cannot avoid having them, and therefore the size of the crew grows significantly.

I always recommend you send the production service company a very detailed, precise and elaborate list of requirements in addition to the board and, if it is possible, the director’s treatment and reel. Don’t make the service company do your job and guessing what the specs of the project are: you are the producer, you know the director, the agency and the client and you have a clear understanding of what the project needs.

The bids have to be carefully revised to make sure that everything has been properly included and that unpleasant surprises are not going to happen later. Sometimes the revision of a foreign bid is very time consuming because the breakdown is very different from the AICP one and items are located in different lines or differently defined. But it is worth investing some time making sure that everything the director needs has been included in the bid and accurately estimated.

When shooting overseas you need to be extremely flexible: sometimes in remote countries they use different methods but they still achieve excellent results. It is important to do a very careful research before awarding the job to a production service but, after that, it is of paramount importance to understand how they work and try not to impose the processes we use at home unless it is absolutely necessary. During many years I have seen production teams making miracles in places with limited production industries and deliver what we needed. Some trust, good communications skills and a good deal of humility will let you achieve your goals and have a good time in the process.

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