Real-World Project Killers

Posted on by Larry

You are filled with boundless creativity, with a toolkit filled with the latest software to create movie magic. Then, the real world intervenes.

Clayton Moore and I were chatting via email this week about client problems that can kill a project and stifle a business.

Here are three traps that can destroy a project (and a business) if you don’t plan for them. (There are more, I’m sure – feel free to add your own stories in the Comments below.)

TRAP 1: The Hidden Client

The first critical trap is not understanding who the actual client is or, more importantly, the ultimate decision maker on the project. This needs to be clearly understood at the beginning, or, as you’ll see, a lot of frustration and lost time will result.

Clayton illustrated this point well:

We got a job for a non profit. Three videos to help them reach the community with an important message. Funded by a grant from the county.

Clients are in studio at time of shooting to make sure they get the answers on camera to the questions they ask. Our producer (who is as good as they get) helped to make people feel at ease and draw out their emotions. Even the representative from the county was there sitting quietly in the background.

After the third and final rough cut, I got an email from the client saying: “Loved it, made me cry.” Next day, I got another email from the client saying: “We’re sorry this is not working out. Please stop all work, forward all the footage back to us and refund 75% of what we paid you”

How did we go from “Made me cry,” to “This is not working?”

We finally found out what was going on. The person at the county who provided the grant money was injecting her own wishes behind the scenes and the non-profit client, for whom this project was intended and with whom we had the contract, did not have the courage to own the project enough to stand up to her.

We were in effect trying to build a project to multiple expectations and it was going nowhere. Even though the non-profit was finally becoming happy with it, the person at the county who paid for the project and who the non-profit allowed to drive the bus, had not been happy with it since the beginning.

Establishing who is REALLY behind a project and who needs to approve it can often be surprisingly difficult. So can discovering all the hidden agendas that lurk under the surface of even the simplest video. But, the more you understand the forces behind a video, the more likely you are to be allowed to successfully create it.

TRAP 2: Budgeting with No Script

This is a common trap. Writing a script, like editing a video, is a special skill. Not everyone can do it. We can all type, but that doesn’t make the results worth reading. Worse, until you have an agreed upon script, it is impossible to create any realistic budget.

Clients do not understand how video is produced, budgeted or created. They don’t understand where the costs are. For example, a simple line in a script, such as: “The two travelers chatted as the bus drove through the countryside.” costs FAR more than “The two friends chatted over coffee in the kitchen.” Same dialog, perhaps, but vastly different budgets to produce.

Clayton highlighted this one, too, when he wrote:

I have learned that unless I want to get into writing for clients as part of my gig, I try to stay away from taking jobs with clients who want a promo video or any kind of message video but have no script

Client: “Writing a script, how hard could that be?”

If you want to lose money on a job, the fastest way is hook up with a client who has a dollar figure in mind that clearly reflects an already written message, but oops, they were kinda sorta hoping you would help them craft their message. “Can’t you just shoot a bunch of B-roll and some interviews and help us figure that out?”

Unless I’m embarking on a project like a documentary or a cooking show – “sarcastic look on face” – I need a script. If you want me to take on the role ad man or copywriter, the fee will have to be renegotiated and, by the way, that’s not my deal.

Breath…. Breath….

The human brain is amazingly flexible, it will create a story out of any series of disjointed shots. But, your story will be much more powerful – and less expensive – if you take the time to write it BEFORE you start budgeting and shooting.

In fact, I generally divide projects like this in two stages: write the script, then budget and shoot the script. By stressing to the client that these are two separate events, it makes clear the role the script has in creating a video.

And, as with all projects, putting everything in writing prevents problems down the line when actual money is getting spent and memories get “faulty.”

TRAP 3: Endless Changes

We all know this one, but it is worth mentioning here. The client doesn’t really know what they want, so, each iteration of the project results in more and more changes. At the script level, this isn’t too bad, but once you get into production, it can bankrupt a producer if you aren’t careful.

The best way to fix this is to spend time up-front setting goals and expectations with the client. Then, when you have agreement, put them in writing and get all parties to sign off.

I had this experience myself early on in my free-lance career. A client asked me to put together a DVD with a montage of footage for a book he was writing. I was looking for work and was happy to do it. We agreed on a price and I went to work.

BUT, what I failed to do was clearly understand what the client wanted. I assumed (yeah, there’s that word again) that he wanted a polished video to accompany his professionally-published book. But the footage he handed me was, even for a client, awful. Shaky, hand-held shots, poor framing, poor focus, no continuity. Awful.

So I spent a lot of time cleaning it up, stabilizing it, add creative still frames to make it worth watching. You know, converting the pig’s ear into a silk purse, as we used to say. Took me a couple of weeks.

Showed it to the client, who HATED it. Come to find out, the sole reason for the DVD was to show videos of the client walking and talking with the famous person who was the subject of the book. Oh…!

So, I took out all the art and cut together all the shots of the two of them walking and talking together. Took, maybe, 20 minutes. Burned it to a DVD master and delivered it to the client.

He loved it and happily included it in his book.

I learned my lesson – ALWAYS spend time up front with the client determining the REAL reasons for a project and what they feel we need to do to create a successful project.

When you are working for yourself, you can take the time to make it “perfect.” When you are working for a client, you need to meet their expectations, not yours. The key is to understand what those expectations are before you start.

ALWAYS make clear what constitutes a change, when extra revisions will cost money, and who is allowed to make and approve revisions. This doesn’t need to be a detailed legal contract, but it does need to be written and agreed to before you start work.


Technology is important in our business. Story-telling is even more important. But, at the top of the list is knowing how to work with a client. Determine their goals, manage their expectations, and don’t expect them to know as much about media as you do.

The best way to succeed over the long-term is to make sure you and your clients are on the same page, with key points agreed and in writing. This results in happy clients, creating good word of mouth and generating lots of repeat business.

2 Responses to Real-World Project Killers

  1. Eric says:

    This was so perfectly said to my observations. Thank you Larry for your ongoing awareness’s and Clayton for your contributions to us video people

    • Larry says:


      Thanks for your kind words. Sometimes, we get so buried in tech and story that we forget it’s how we related to people that makes the magic happen.


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