As a professional photographer headquartered in Seattle, I always enjoy learning the locations from where new customers and potential clients contact TIA, and which images they are interested in licensing. For example, I am currently dealing with (or patiently waiting for, rather) an architecture firm in London for its final decision on which TIA aerial images of San Francisco it would like to license for an upcoming proposal it wishes to draft regarding a new skyscraper it plans to build in the City by the Bay.
A few years earlier, when I was exploring Paris and capturing urban landscape images for my portfolio, I enjoyed negotiating a mutually agreeable license fee with a Houston law firm (via a long email correspondence conducted over three days from my laptop in my tiny and charming hotel room near Le Gare de l’Est) for two aerial images of Houston it wanted to feature on its internal website.
One fellow from a British television studio had contacted me in Seattle for a night cityscape of New York to use as a backdrop for an evening talk show. That particular deal did not work out because the studio scrapped the project a few days later, which is not unusual as this is fairly commonplace in the entertainment industry. I suppose the same could be expected in any industry, to be fair.
This last example actually relates to one of the latest encounters I experienced with a customer. It’s an interesting story, so I will change names to protect identities and to make this anecdote more entertaining. However, I will keep the name of the city as it is, since the location is significant.
That city would be the City of Angels, a.k.a. Los Angeles – dear, dear, sweet Los Angeles.
I speak for myself as an individual, but I opine that there are certain names of cities that evoke specific emotions based on their utterance. These emotions could be based on one’s own experience in those cities, or people one has met from such cities, or from the knowledge one has collected about them over time. Alternatively, one’s thoughts could be based purely on personal bias based on any number of reasons, rational or irrational. If a topic of discussion, for example, is based on an event happening in Paris, your emotions and thoughts are unlikely to be the same if the same event in question was taking place in Santiago, Singapore, or Salt Lake City.
Of course, perception is not always reality, and in that respect, cities are very much like people. Regardless of how much or how little you know about the city, it can still take you by surprise upon a first, second, or third encounter, for good or for ill. In any case, Los Angeles was the scene for this story – Hollywood to be exact. I have had a lot of experiences in LA, and to date, my emotions are across the board with both positive and negative insights. My urban Geiger counter still teeters between the extremes.
Alright, given this context, here’s what happened.
A representative from a production studio in Hollywood contacted me. We’ll call it “DOH Studios”. This particular studio recently closed a deal with a long-running, primetime television drama for broadcasting two additional seasons. In the upcoming 2014-2015 season, an episode was scripted to be based in Seattle, or have a storyline concerning Seattle. Given that TIA was headquartered in Seattle, I was very happy that DOH Studios thought to contact me for photographs. How DOH actually came to know about TIA was another detail that brought about the unraveling of this collaboration.
The representative was a very humorous, upbeat, and enthusiastic woman who we’ll call “Miss Communication.” (At this point, I think we need a name for the television series, too. We’ll call it “Presumptuous Pussycats”, or “PP” for short). Basically, she said the producers of PP needed an intriguing image of Seattle to use on the show.
Wow! Cool! I thought. A Hollywood studio has contacted me directly for an image of a subject matter in which I specialize. What a boon!
During our first discussion over the phone, I directed Miss Communication to my website featuring all the Seattle images fitting her description. She called me back half an hour later with not just ONE image for licensing, but ELEVEN images!!! I was incredibly stoked! Miss Communication told me that I would need to review and agree to their terms listed on a one-page clearance form before I submit an invoice for the requested images. She said she was on a very tight schedule and inquired if I could make a special gallery so she and the producers could review and download low-resolution images just to ensure they were the ones they wanted to use for the program. I told her it was not a problem and I’d do it in a jiffy. Miss Communication was so delightful and very funny over the phone. We were even cracking a few lighthearted jokes about the entertainment industry before the discussion ended. She had a personable personality, so intuitively, I liked her.
After the conversation concluded, with the excitement of the prospect of having my images appear on a primetime television show, I prepared a customized gallery of the eleven images for DOH Studios, equipped with a special access password and downloading options to boot.
TIA International Photography’s “Hollywoodworld”
The following morning, further supporting the rush she had espoused during our first conversation, Miss Communication called and said the producers were happy with all the images and DOH Studios were ready to proceed. She said, “Please submit your invoice. I’ll be expecting it!” I told her that I still hadn’t received the clearance form. She was surprised and told me that she would instruct the studio’s legal department to send the contract to me immediately. One of the attorneys emailed the form to me less than 15 minutes afterwards. How efficient! Hollywood meant business (figuratively and literally)!
Alas, I began to think, if this deal goes through, it would be quite a grandiose accomplishment for TIA in so many categories. Aaaaah, Hollywood! Sounds so wonderful, right? Sounds too good to be true, right?
“Too right!” as one of my buddies in England would say in this kind of situation.
As most of us know, if it’s too good to be true, chances are. . .you know the rest.
Naturally, this is where things changed. Surprised?
I prepared the invoice for the license fee of the 11 selected images and emailed it to Miss Communication. For a split second, my intuition was wracking my brain, telling me that this situation was going too well without a snag to disrupt it. Another second afterwards, I dismissed my intuition, snapped out of it, and told myself to stop being pessimistic. The reality was that I’m completely unaccustomed to projects going so smoothly. I expect snags. I always expect snags.
And the snag came 30 minutes later.
“Oh dear! Tosin, we’ve got a problem, baby!” Miss Communication exclaimed over the phone in an odd combination of aghast distress and bona fide worry.
“What could possibly be wrong?” I asked happily, already knowing what the issue was. It’s always the same issue. (Isn’t that right, fellow photogs?)
“Baby, you billed me for $________!” she cried.
“Yes?” I said calmly, feigning complete ignorance of her explicit clamor.
Miss Communication paused, realizing her voice was a few octaves too high, and continued, though in a somewhat frenzied manner. “I was not expecting this, baby. The bill goes completely over our budget! There’s no way. Oh goodness. I’m going to have to find another photographer and we have no time. The producers are already getting things prepared around the images we selected from your collection.”
I went on to say how I charged her the market rate for the images she wanted to use for one episode of a primetime television show for broadcast in the United States. I was completely calm and collected about it, which was easy to do over the phone.
Having been through sessions with clients that balk at their invoices a few times before was advantageous at this time as well. I wasn’t irritated (yet), but what she said next took me aback.
“I was expecting this to be 40 bucks per image!” she exclaimed from her office in Hollywood.
On my side of the phone, at my home in Seattle, my eyes were about to launch from their sockets in a dumbfounded stupor that I hadn’t expected to experience with this type of client.
“40 bucks?” I asked, my tone still friendly and unassuming, but my mind seething at the insult. “You know, we never talked about price in advance. Please know, without a doubt, had that been the price you were expecting and had mentioned during our first conversation, I wouldn’t even have wasted your time. There’s NO WAY any of my images are worth 40 dollars for how you intend to use them.”
There was a brief pause, and Miss Communication seemed to be sputtering her words. I believe she was beyond flabbergasted. However, what she said next explained her assumption and, sure enough, very shameful miscommunication.
“Well, this is not good. The producers are going to kill me. We cannot afford this, and we really love your photographs. I will have to go back to Etsy.com and find the photographers who were selling their images at 40 bucks a pop,” she explained.
“Wait,” I said. “Etsy.com?”
“Yeah, we were rummaging through the images there and we liked a few of the Seattle pictures we saw, but they were nothing like what we saw on your site, but. . .oh sh#t!” She seemed to remember an important detail. “You aren’t on Etsy, are you?”
“No,” I replied. “How did you find me, out of curiosity?”
“Oh damn!” she exclaimed. I could hear something that sounded very much liked a slap against a human forehead. “One of my associates told me to also research the Seattle Chamber of Commerce online, and you were one of the first names to pop up when we searched for photographers. However, I completely forgot, when we spoke, that you were with the Chamber and not with Etsy.com! Oh wow. I am so sorry, Tosin, but I’m still in quite a bind here! We can’t pay your fee, and my team is expecting your photos in high-resolution format in a few minutes.”
Hearing her quavering voice, and the sheer worry that was coming through the speakers of my cell phone, empathy overwhelmed my mind and I instantly felt terribly for her. Miss Communication had admitted her error, and had apologized for it. Nevertheless, it did not change the fact that her contribution to the project was still incomplete, and it sounded like she would be severely reprimanded if she failed. (Of course, I assumed all of this, but I didn’t believe her tone of voice, at this particular moment in time, could have been coerced under false pretenses). Without my images, she would have to search for the other photographers on Etsy.com or wherever she could muster at the last minute.
“Well, let’s take a second to think things out. I think we can still reach a resolution,” I said.
What followed was another quick round of negotiations over the license fees, for which Miss Communication’s job would remain secure for DOH Studios, and TIA ended up earning only a fifth of what I had originally invoiced. The deal for the 11 images had still gone through, but at the disgustingly gross undercharge of my own hard work, which was not achieved under any degree of simplicity. I no longer felt that elation I had originally enjoyed when Miss Communication first called.
The thought then occurred to me: If a major Hollywood studio cannot afford photography licensing fees, what could they really afford? It seemed absurd. Granted, I did not know their budget for photography, but $40 per photo? I could understand if such an offer came from a first-year college student needing images for a research project, but not a Hollywood studio. There was something wrong with this scenario, but ultimately, I only decided to work and renegotiate with Miss Communication because my concern for her folly and the implications they could have on her triggered my heartstrings.
I suppose there are two schools of thought in this scenario. The first school involves all the businessmen and businesswomen who are currently shaking their heads and wondering what kind of dunce would do what I did in the end. Clearly, from a business perspective, the photographer should have left Miss Communication to her own devices to sink or swim without compromise. After all, it was her own ignorance, lack of proper planning, and last-minute rushing that brought about this error, none of which was TIA’s problem. Why should TIA lose to benefit DOH?
The second school of thought consists of the people who could empathize with Miss Communication’s mistake and would probably take pity on her distress, as I had. Whether this group would have renegotiated is unknown to me, but this school of thought involves compromise so the client would not be left to sink at all, but some burden would be placed on TIA for the mutually agreed upon depreciation in the value of my images.
In conclusion, both schools are correct in their perspectives. I chose to be in the second school instead of the first.
Let’s say TIA had initially declined and left the deal altogether without renegotiation. With such a tight deadline, how would one know if Miss Communication and her team would have completely caved, reconsidered, and decided to pay the original license fees, maybe even out of desperation? There is no way of knowing this after the fact.
Hollywood disappointed me gravely for my first transaction with it, but I am optimistic that I will never allow this scenario to repeat itself.
Alas, running this small business continues to be an ongoing learning experience, and I learn more and more from every exchange and transaction. I look forward to better and more straightforward, forthright exchanges! Maybe an Italian travel agency will inquire for some TIA aerial images of Miami? Or an East Asian airline magazine will request to license some cityscape images of Vancouver? We’ll see.
I try to conclude these articles with some lessons I have learned and like to share:
1) NEVER ASSUME. That really is the main point. I assumed that a Hollywood studio would have the proper means to compensate a photographer for specific images. I also assumed the client knew what she was doing from the beginning, which did not turn out to be the case. In the future, it will be important, for the sake of clarity, to raise the issue of price promptly so I don’t waste my own time.
2) TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. If your intuition is beckoning you about a situation, and it appears to be warning you, don’t ignore it. When I look back at many professional and personal experiences, I find my intuition has rarely, if ever, failed me. If something doesn’t seem right, you owe it to yourself to investigate, resolve, and reconcile before moving forward.
3) PROTECT YOUR BUSINESS. If your small business is your sole source of income, it’s paramount to protect your interests. One must not devalue his or her own product and/or services unless the circumstances are so extraordinary. There is certainly a fine line in this particular matter, but if I were to feel sorry for every client who made a mistake like Miss Communication, I would inevitably be broke, and who would care? I would be known as the photographer who catered to please everyone – a folly that guaranteed his own demise.