Corporate documentaries are an avenue for creation and income that many beginning film makers overlook or ignore. Some don’t feel comfortable with the genre, others actively dislike the whole idea. Yet these films have the potential to offer far more challenges and rewards than, say, your average wedding video – as long as you are comfortable within the genre.
It needs to be said: for many purists “corporate documentaries” aren’t really documentaries at all – that is, they are not films/videos designed to document or express the film maker’s view of reality or point of view. Corporate docos are, to be frank, paid propaganda. The film maker is hired to present a version of reality that suits their employer (those that pay the piper call the tune). If this fact bothers you (and it seems to bother a surprising number of people I meet), then perhaps corporate docos are not for you.
But don’t dismiss them too readily. If the thought of “selling out” (whatever the heck that means) distresses you, yet you want to try this form of film making, you could confine yourself to making videos for firms that practice business in a way that you find morally acceptable. Depending on your scruples, this may drastically cut down your list of potential clients, but if it helps you sleep at night then it might be the way to go. For the rest of us, the main criteria when choosing a client is “will they pay on time?”
What they all have in common is that an organization (private business, government department, or even a charity) decides that they have something to say, and that video (or even film) is the best way to say it. The audience could be the organization’s own members/employees, existing customers, potential customers, seminar attendees, or even the general public. Corporate docos can take many forms, including:
– The simplest type (and the most boring to make and watch), it is simply a filmed speech by a manager to their “troops”. Sometimes organizations are spread out across various states or countries, and rather than travel around the place giving the same speech over and over, the manager decides to make a video of themselves giving the speech, and just send copies around to each office. This might seem like a good idea, but apart from being a boring waste of the medium, this can backfire, as the “troops” are more likely to chat (or boo!) during a speech on a TV than one delivered live. If you’re offered the chance to make one of these, suggest that they just send a fax around, or (if you’re desperate for the money), suggest they add some other images over the manager’s voice.
– This is quite common, and can be an effective way of training staff. These videos are only as interesting to make as the subject matter, and can be simple or incredibly complex. Make sure you work closely with the training staff, as no matter how good your production, it’s worthless if it doesn’t cover the right topics in the right way (ie – the client’s way).
– Sometimes a company just wants a video to show at exhibitions and seminars to give people something to watch that defines the company’s corporate ethos and role. This type of video is also good as a form of damage control if a company has been getting some bad publicity. These videos are usually a montage of images to music, with a simple voice-over. Be warned – it’s hard to make an effective image video on the cheap.
Other uses for corporate videos include employee motivation, seminar introductions, and recruitment.
Like most clients, firms paying for a corporate video want maximum bang for their buck. This often means very little or no creative freedom for the film maker, as the keen clients will minutely inspect each and every stage of the production – and it’s hard to blame them for this, after all it’s their money. The client rarely wants the things you think are important (a clear thrust of argument, a simple voice-over, impressive effects and graphics), and will instead demand the things important to them (e.g. plenty of footage of the Managing Director, or every word of their annual report read out as the narrative, etc).
Some clients will be great – they’ll make a simple request for a simple video, and when you deliver what they asked for, they’ll be happy with it and pay you. Others can be a nightmare, expecting results that are way beyond the budget they are willing to pay, and making extra demands not in the original script. This can cause you a lot of heartache unless you follow these two simple rules:
Get it in writing.
Put it in writing.
Everything. All of it. In writing before you shoot a frame. Signed and dated on printed letterhead. Every suggestion and requirement for the film. If they seem reluctant to put their ideas in writing, then write them down for them and send it to them for their confirmation (in writing!). If they won’t confirm the script and budget in writing, then don’t shoot. Better to walk away from a deal than get involved with a firm too disorganized (or crooked) to put their word down in print.
This way, any last minute changes they pull out of their hat during filming or editing can be identified as just that – last minute changes. If you have it all in writing then you can politely point out that the helicopter shot they just asked for wasn’t in the approved script, and thus it will cost extra. Decent clients will either back down or cough up the extra money.
Of course, putting everything in writing protects the client as well – if you say you’re going to film three interviews and include a shot of their main office – then you better do just that or they’ll quite rightly take you to task.
So how do you make your first corporate video? Most clients will want to see a body of work before they pay you to make their video. The the most common way you can build up a portfolio is to do a couple of videos for free. Approach some firms (perhaps via connections with family and friends) and ask them if they would like a promotional video for free. Many will say yes, though some of the smarter ones might realize that a “free” video will still consume a lot of their time and cause a little inconvenience in the workplace. The irony is, even those that say yes to getting your services for free won’t necessarily go out of their way to help get it done, since it’s hard to value something that is being given away.
Once you’ve made a couple of corporate videos for free then (assuming they are any good) you can use them to convince firms to hire you to make theirs. Corporate videos may not have the glamour or “cred” associated with drama projects or even music videos (neither of which really have that much glamour or credibility really!), but they can offer you a source of income and, perhaps more importantly, experience in dealing with people and getting good results on time and on budget.
Originally written for About.com’s Filmmaking page.