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With a shortage of available editors and production managers, coupled with indies’ burden of allocating coronavirus-related compliance costs, understanding market forces on rates is more crucial than ever for freelancers.

The Talent Manager launched anonymous reporting tool Rate Checker last month to help all members negotiate better rates and to chart the impact of Covid on production budgets and freelancer pay.

In just three weeks, members have already added 4,200 rates to the database.

Rates holding steady

Anecdotally, the good news is that with some productions resuming on their pre-lockdown agreed tariffs, and programme budgets returning close to normal, freelancers are largely continuing to command standard fees from indies.

But broadcasters vary in how much they are topping up budgets to make them compliant with covid-19 restrictions and several indies spoke of the logistical challenges the changing advice from UK and other governments present to pre-production.

Laura Mansfield, managing director of Outline Productions, says the indie depends on freelancers to run many of its productions, due to the small number of core staff.

“Tariffs are not necessarily changing but costs and logistics, plus thinking and senior executives’ time, have all gone up,” she says. “It’s all taking much more energy and effort - and that’s not being paid for.

“What you don’t do is cut freelancer rates and we don’t intend to. We’re looking very carefully at schedules and job roles, edit and transport - one of the big advantages of remote working is that we can use people who live closer to filming locations.”

Mansfield is adamant Outline will continue to hold rates steady for next year but with budgets unlikely to rise by much, “all of us in the squeezed middle are going to have to think very carefully. We want to spend on people and keep the money on screen so we're looking at savings around hotels, transport and where people are based.”

Retraining

With some roles more in demand than others, she raises the prospect of some freelancers retraining to stay in the market.

“Look at where there are skills gaps. There aren’t enough editors available at the moment, so their rates at a premium, unlike where there is an oversupply, such as DV directors.”

Emma Curtis, head of production at Glasgow’s Firecrest Films, says freelance editors in Scotland are “booked up until March”.

She also identified the challenge of remote working on time and energy levels. “There’s extra pressure around not being in a team and covid protocols a whole extra layer to think about without any extra time to think about it. We’re all trying to do more in less time,” she says.

Keen to fill their gap-laden schedules, broadcasters are demanding fast workers too. This week, it emerged that Channel 4 is looking to the nations for a string of fast-turnarounds. “They’re tough in terms of getting contracts in place and cashflow going and there’s a dearth of journalistic editorial freelancers in Scotland,” says Curtis.

Reduced orders

Firecrest is one of several indies that have had to renegotiate broadcaster tariffs after losing an episode of their series order due to the challenges of finishing them in and after lockdown.

Curtis attributes this to the difficulty of securing access and establishing filming protocols with the institutions with whom the indie is filming.

This has happened to Icon Films too, which has the added headache of many international shoots on its adventure series. 

There is as yet no consensus of the obligations towards freelancers quarantining upon their return from abroad, thus delaying their next job. Bectu has said crews on films and high-end TV productions should be fully paid and those on lower-tariff shows should be on half-pay, while Pact says it varies from case to case. 

“We have been using more local crews abroad, rather than taking APs with us and paying for their travel and hotel,” says director of production Andie Clare. “We only have four freelancers working for us at the moment, mostly edit producers. Usually, we’d have more of a mix, which is healthy as you can all learn from each other.”

Conversely, Brown Bob Productions’ roster of high volume fixed-rig shows is as dependent on freelancers as much as ever. Managing director Nicki Gottlieb says the indie has hired 45 people in last two weeks, all at standard rates, while asking her development team to work part-time.

“It’s difficult to run development from home,” she says. “We’ll put them up to full-time when we need to and we will ask them to work in production as well.”

Senior roles

She sees two clear differences in production right now. One is that CVs are flying in from around the country from people eager and willing to work remotely; a Brighton-based production secretary was recently hired.

The second is in the make-up of production teams.

“We work in quite small teams anyway, so we haven’t been able to throw in more people,” Gottlieb says. “But we’re making sure we have more senior people out on location rather than lots of juniors. You can’t throw people in the car now for a road trip – we have to be mindful of having a small team working efficiently.”

All the indies TM spoke to agreed that maintaining freelancer relationships, when so many of them suffered without work in lockdown, is vital to growing their business – and that means fair and transparent employment.

As Mansfield puts it: “It’s very short-termist to sweat freelancers on a tight schedule – you are dependent on them always wanting to come back.”

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