What to Discuss with a Client Before Production Starts

[Updated Feb. 21, 2022, with comments from John Forrest.]

This is an article I need your help with. While every project is different, most of us work in corporate or client-based video. As you start a new project, what topics are key to discuss with a client before pre-production starts?

I’m compiling this to share with students and folks new to the industry to help them understand the client planning needed at the start of a project.

Since all we have to sell is our skills and time, it’s good to get these resolved at the start.

NOTE: Clearly there are more tasks than this associated with any production. My goal here is to list those that affect the working relationship between client and production agency. This is not to say that changes are not permitted. Rather, this explains who needs to approve them and any budget impact they may cause. 

Please add your thoughts in the comments and I’ll update this article as we go.






Let me know what I forgot in the comments section.

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31 Responses to What to Discuss with a Client Before Production Starts

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  1. Mark Suszko says:

    Delivery vs. payment: is this client trustworthy enough, or just big enough that you’re going to have to be okay with handing them a finished clean copy and wait an indeterminate time for the final payment, or, (and this is important for car dealerships and political campaign spots)

    …do you handle the handoff like a hostage or spy exchange in the movies, i.e.; they only get watermarked copies for review and approvals, and no clean airable copy until the final check clears or money is in hand, and deadlines be damned.

    Alarm bells should go off in your head if they demand a clean copy “for final review, because the watermark is too distracting” and you don’t have their money in hand.

    Your only real leverage in any deal is that final delivery, especially when the client has already bought airtime. When that client’s own delivery date looms large, suddenly the money magically appears. If your business relies on “whales” that are very large and dictate terms to you like “net 100 days and then we’ll -think- about cutting you a final check”, well, you had better have a line of credit established to cover your day to day business… or a raft of smaller clients that pay on reasonable schedules.

    My other comment was on something already touched on earlier, but I think it needs emphasis: are you actually dealing with the final decision maker, or some intermediary with their own agenda? This used to happen to me more in the early part of my career: I’d jump thru hoops to please my day-to-day contact for the project, only to find the GTSTC (Guy/Gal That Signs The Check) hated the final product and wanted changes.

    Some of this, you can’t control when you’re outside the client organization. The client contact might not have the same ability to “sell” the idea up the chain as you do. They may not have the motivation to do so, for a number of reasons. But you can protect yourself by asking the client who approves *their* approvals. There’s psychology involved because the GTSTC might not understand the creative approach or strategy unless it’s been explained to them first. I had numerous discussions with the GTSTC early on, because they weren’t the target market or demographic for a spot, and conforming a spot to fit what appeals to the GTSTC may be completely wrong for the goals of the project. You have to sometimes very carefully explain this to higher-ups that are disconnected from the front line, when they start suggesting changes that neuter the effectiveness of the project, or want to keep adding to the scope of the project, diluting the message or making it lose focus.

    Conversely, your initial meeting was with the GTSTC, but the lower level person they assigned to work with you has their own ideas for changes that diverge from the initial brief. If those changes are bad for the project, you may have to go over their head for a ruling from the GTSTC. That’s not pleasant or fun to do, but might be necessary to fulfill your promise to the GTSTC.

    Regarding the number of paid changes you’ll do: when you’re young and less experienced, you might have to give a few extra rounds of revisions on the house to satisfy a client. Where I got to eventually, myself was: Any errors on my part, like spelling a graphic wrong, were on me, if the client gave me correct stuff to work from initially. And that’s spelled out in the deal memo and email chain in advance. If the client messed up a title or a name spelling, and I was just copying their error, fixing that was billable.

    With me I think a reasonable number of revisions is two: once at the mid-point of the project, (or somewhere in the thing where the general shape of it is obvious), and a minor one at the final sign-off. But that’s because I tend to send a lot of little sample stills or clips during the edit process as I’m working. I don’t want to have to do something super-elaborate and time-consuming, only to have to throw it away later, so I communicate with visual aids during the process to make sure the client “gets” what’s going on and still likes the look.

  2. Greg Ball says:

    Hi Larry, he are a few others:

    Are you a work for hire or independent contractor. With work for hire, the client owns the raw footage. As an independent contractor, YOU own the footage.

    For What’s the budget, clients never seem to know, or if they do they are not saying. We help them narrow it down by asking “if I told you the rane is between $XXX to $XXXX would that fit within your budget?

  3. Stacey Sanner says:

    Hi Larry! My work involves interviewing subjects for recruiting and training videos. There are no scripts, but I work with the client on desired messaging.

    I have a whole section in my agreement letter on who chooses the subject (could be me, could be the client); what to do if the subject is withdrawn from the project after shooting begins. I offer reviews and edits to the client, but only reviews to the subject for accuracy, not edits for content. I can share more detail on this with you by email if you are interested.

    I offer/ask for an opportunity to scout the location in advance.

    I have language that states no one can edit my work without my written permission. I do not provide raw, unedited content.

    I ask for written permission to share the final product on my website and social media pages — if appropriate.

    One painful lesson: in future letters of agreement, I will specify that an end date by which the project must be completed or re-negotiated. In two cases, the hiring agent for the client left the company. This caused a delay in both cases of more than a year (COVID also played a part) before we got back into production to complete the projects. I literally ended up finishing work over the summer that I was paid to do three years ago.

  4. Geoff says:

    Hi Larry, similar to the lady above my videos are not that complex and focus on academic and construction related but I will add my thoughts….Your list is very comprehensive and excellent for planning and certainly includes a majority of the issues and risks likely to be found. My worries would be how would you enforce a breach of these conditions and what would be the impact on your budget? If the client or his/her representative interferes on set what would you do? You can’t really walk off set but you may be able to quantify that risk and build it into your price.

    I’m going slightly off piste now but I think it may be relevant. The three tenets of construction are TIME, COST & QUALITY and in my view are equally applicable to the film business. Time; when do they want the finished project, commencing date, end date etc. Cost; budget and how much will it cost us to do and make a profit. Quality; Red or GoPro?. For big productions I would advise a written legally binding contract which will set out those tenets and other conditions. These can only be done by qualified lawyers. Damages for breaches are then much more easily identified and enforced. (no guarantee you would ever see the money though!). I think you list is excellent for planning as intended and in making sure we have considered everything. To work out a price for doing the job we need to consider Labour (film crew, audio, editor’s), Equipment (all the gear and transport), Materials (consumables etc). Add in your overheads, travel costs and a profit and you have an initial estimate. For the unknowns (which will occur) a simple risk analysis may help. Risk exposure(£/$) = Probability of occurrence(%) x Impact (if that risk occurs what will it cost me?). For example the clients representative holding up shooting for half a day? We’re all in business large or small and planning lists like yours are essential but we also need to cost our work and associated risks and make a profit. Good working arrangements are often a by-product of a good legal contract which clearly shows where the balance of risks lay.


  5. Mark M. says:

    Constance raises an excellent point regarding client logos/formats, etc. Depending on the company, they may have a full brand/style guide, provided by the marketing department/agency. This would encompass everything from logo use, fonts, colors, etc. for all mediums, including video. Note that for larger companies, the client you may be working directly with may NOT be aware that something like this exists. So be sure to have them check with their marketing team. I’ve seen projects encounter major revisions, or be totally scrapped over lack of compliance to these guidelines.

  6. Tom Cherry says:

    What consequences are there for not meeting deadlines?
    – do I reschedule other productions because the script was late? How long does one party wait on the other? Does missing a deadline equal breach of contract?

    I also use the production triangle: Good/Fast/Cheap – pick any 2.

    Not as big a concern, but in the day, distribution of the final project, especially physical media. But, be sure to confirm formats and other specs as well as who is posting, etc. prior to shooting.

  7. Thanks for this topic, Larry. I primary do videos un-scripted videos for non-profits. We start with just an outline, and messaging points. Then move to shooting, and I do scripting of sound bites and image as I edit.

    I would add: Who is my primary contact person? (And have their team give their input to that person, and primary contact weighs what changes to make, not make, and then tells me. So I have only one “boss.”) What is the review process? (I ask that anyone who has input sees the first edit. I run into the primary contact making changes before showing the big boss, who makes even more changes. To partly solve this I clarify that I charge for two different levels: two revisions, or three. And if they pick three, I clarify any changes beyond that is $80/hour. My clients are nonprofits and that motivates them to consolidate all change requests.) I set the payment terms vs let them decide. (So 1/3 upfront before we start anything, 1/3 a mid-point such as after shoot and when submit first edit, final 1/3 after final approval.) Ask them to state message of video in one sentence. Ask them what is the worst possible video we could make. (This helps them realize talking head videos are boring. And I find it’s easier to bring up early on the worst types of videos vs. to have them realize at mid-point the video is going to be boring.) Ask what are major hurdles to getting the message across to the audience. (This included whether audience disagrees with message…partially agrees…or is maybe apathetic. Each requires a different approach.) Could also ask primary contact their preferred method of contact: email, phone, text. Another trip I heard: When client asks for changes beyond the budget, always say, “Yes, and I’ll get you a revised budget for doing that.” Always say yes. Always build a positive working relationship.

  8. Mary again with a P.S. If it feels awkward to charge 1/3 before you start, realize that both sides are taking a risk. You might not get paid promptly as start, and for the client they worry you might skip out and not finish the project. So splitting charges 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 is a solution. If they balk at all about paying you before you start, take that as a big red flag. Explain that you are taking a risk, and acknowledge that they are too. Also realize you might not actually be paid for the starting invoice until maybe four weeks later as it can legitimately take that long for a business to process your invoice.

  9. nicky says:

    thanks for this

  10. Greg Ball says:

    Another important issue is who writes the agreement/contract. I’ve had a few clients who want you to sign THEIR agreement.

    Often their agreement is written by their legal team and includes verbiage that is beyond normal language and only protects the clients interest. I would need to pay my attorney to review it.

    I have lost 3 projects because the client insisted we use their contract. I’ll never do that.

    I usually suggest that the next time they lease or purchase a vehicle, they bring their own agreement, with their own terms and have the dealer sign it. It will never happen.

    • Larry says:


      I like your analogy of the contract with the car dealer. It seems there needs to be a middle ground, because you are doing to the client what you don’t like them doing to you – asking them to use your contract. I am NOT saying this is wrong, but it is an interesting perspective.


    • Alternatively, request additions and subtractions to their existing contract. I recently signed the client’s contract but only after they agreed to add all the caveats that I found missing. Since these were primarily related to the creative process, I’m guessing their legal people could care less. Finally, as a one-person shop I find that, at the end of the day, the contract is more about establishing a mutual understanding of the job so there are minimal hiccups going forward, and less about the actual threat of legal action. If I feel that a projects or a potential client is iffy, I’m not likely to sign on. I can’t afford the time and money to fight anyone in court.

      • Larry Jordan says:


        I agree – none of us have the resources for an extended court battle. What the contract does is set expectations, responsibilities and deadlines BEFORE any arguments start.


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