One of the most common and most challenging questions every video producer gets is, “How much does a video cost?”

It’s a reasonable question. The head of marketing or sales or product promotion or safety enforcement has decided that a video will improve her ability to market or sell or promote or enforce. So, she has a departmental budget, and needs to know how much it will cost.

She calls the in-house video department or the person who did that great video at the company’s annual conference and asks, “How much will it cost to do a video for my new safety campaign?”

There are many ways to answer this question. Early on in my career, I developed my answer, which I always give. I state it matter-of-factly, without drama or any excitement:

“A million dollars.”

This elicits a variety of reactions, but I’m able to make my point that without some more specifics, I have to cover all possible contingencies. Then we get down to the definition of the project.

It’s a familiar procedure, getting the client  to describe the audience, learning objectives, measurable outcomes… in other words, the nuts and bolts of what actually go into determining cost, quality, and the matters we SHOULD begin with.

Because my outrageous initial cost estimate typically does get us to the true starting point, I intend to keep answering, “A million dollars” until someone — just once — says “yes.” I only need one to make my career complete.

A notion that used to widespread but, fortunately, seems to be receding, is that there is some magic cost-per-minute of a finished video. The number used to be $1,000. LOTS of people would talk to me about a project, and say that they understood the “industry rate” was a thousand dollars per finished minute of program. So, a ten-minute program? Ten thousand bucks. I would tell them, yes, we could do a video for that flat rate. In fact, I said, if you want an hour-long video, I’ll get your rate per minute down to, oh, $850: $51,000 instead of $60,000. And then I’d describe what they’d get onscreen. They always seemed unhappy with that part about no special graphics or nifty editing or spiffy sound track: just a person talking to the camera and pointing at flip charts. Somewhere, in the mists of time, I know that there was a producer who established that thousand-dollar-a-minute “standard.” They did everyone a disservice.

There is another answer to that question about cost that stands out as both productive and artful. It resembles a koan, the Zen practice of using a word or phrase or question to provoke the “great doubt”, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.

Hence, to the question, “How much does a video cost?”

The accomplished media practitioner responds thus:

“How long is a piece of string?”

The answer is at once simple and profound. One might say, “It depends on what you’re going to do with it,” or, “Depends on where you cut it.” Those are excellent responses, but, of course, they only continue to beg the important further questions which the media Zen master must then pursue, such as, “How soon do you need it, who are you showing it to,” and the all-important, “Do you want someone like Brad Pitt or Sigourney Weaver to be the narrator?”

All my colleagues from my earliest days in corporate media recall hearing this question from our own departmental guru, our boss. It’s an effective way to frame a discussion about the combination of production qualities, scheduling, talents and skills and hardware that have to be considered.

It’s our observation that many clients now assume NOT that videos cost “$1,000 per minute” but that they cost, essentially, nothing: that a moderately bright staffer or intern with a home camcorder or a smartphone can grab the VP of Sales, record a short message to the troops, and post it on the company intranet. Yes, they can. They certainly can do that. Some rushed circumstances requiring immediate communication call for a run-and-gun tactic like that, and even may appeal to the audience in terms of immediacy and connectedness. But that approach won’t work for most professional engagements.

Now, before you ask your production resource what your video is going to cost, you can consider that “piece of string” question in advance.


There’s a payoff to the “piece of string” gag. Decades before I began working for that long-ago boss, he used the services of one of the foremost production houses for industrial films (it was all film in those days). The Calvin Company, based in Kansas City, turned out thousands of films for motivation, training, product information and education. There was in our department a former Calvin employee, a brilliant producer. Now I will direct you to a link on which I encourage you to watch the highly entertaining film from 1963, “How Much?” It’s based on the piece of string analogy, and I’m confident you’ll enjoy this piece from Calvin. Click the URL or paste it into your browser.