OUR VALIANT LIGHTING DESIGNER:
“Hey, how are you?”
Friendly Lighting Vendor: “Fine…what now?”
OVLD: “Um, we need to add some gear.”
OVLD: “You got a pen?”
FLV: “You got any more money?”
OVLD: “Come on, man, I thought we had a deal.”
FLV: “We had a deal, dated the first of last month. Try sticking to it! Would I be going out on a limb to suggest that the gear you are going to add was not on the original list?”
How many times have you had this conversation with your favorite lighting vendor? We've all been in this situation where you're on site at the tail end of what has been a long and arduous pre-production process, and you realize that something is missing. You've already promised your home, your first-born, and all future work to the lowest bidder, and now you need something else from that increasingly unfriendly lighting vendor. Maybe you need a row of cyc lights. Maybe it's a backup console. Maybe all you want is a comfortable chair on which to put your LD bottom. In any case, you've made a deal, told the producer how much everything is going to cost, and now you're stuck.
You could go back to the producer and ask for more money, but apart from going down like a cup of vomit, you'll never work for that producer again, and you know you'll just get laughed at. After all, you made a deal! Actually, to be fair most producers will understand additional costs if specific requests exceed the original specs. But any delay “throwing up the flag” will only increase the pain later. If you messed up, however, the producer will expect the solution to be seamless. The devil is, of course, in the area in-between. So, you take the least unpleasant option and turn the screws on the lighting vendor because they are your friends.
Look around any summer barbeque and chances are you'll see clients, competitors, and the staff of multiple lighting shops — friends in other words. Our industry, because of its size, is a close-knit community. Things that excite and inspire awe in the general public, like actors, tend to bore or provoke minimal response in the people who actually have to work with them. While at the same time we can be driven into a giddy frenzy by tight cueing and a great ballyhoo, things that the general public is, at best, subliminally aware of.
The relationships that exist in any production, whether it is corporate, theatrical, or rock ‘n’ roll, are multi-level and complex. We work for a producer one week and we help out a vendor the next. We run a competitive bid process one week, and then we recommend a vendor because there just isn't time for anything else the next.
What we all have in common, as in all businesses, is money. We all want to get paid. And contrary to popular belief, we all do expect to make a profit on what we do. Art is all very well and good, but it doesn't buy dog food! A large part of our job is figuring out how much we are going to charge for something and how much we are going to pay for something.
In a competitive bid process, the order goes to the shop that bids lowest. We want all the possible fat trimmed out of a quote, so that our client gets the best possible value for their money. That being said, when the show actually rolls around and we need some “extras” like the proverbial row of cyc lights, backup console, or comfy chair, we are naturally assuming that there was still some fat in that lowest-of-the-low quotes.
Those of us who work as designers can walk around saying, “I don't rent gear; I just recommend sources to my clients.” But in reality, no one can be that aloof. I would suggest that there isn't an LD out there who couldn't tell a producer how much to spend for a Martin Professional MAC 2000 in Las Vegas. No designer exists in a vacuum and, as much as we may hate to admit it, as LDs we spend a lot more time as managers than we do as artists. We are often the only reality check between the lighting shop and the producer. It's a door that swings both ways: reigning in a shop that thinks it can charge the earth and letting the producer know that it really does cost that much.
That being said, lighting shops are our partners, not the enemy. They allow us to do our jobs and bend their arms when times are tough. Problems arise, however, because of the fast and fluid nature of what we do. When everything is done fast over the phone, at the last minute and without a scrap of paper, rarely do we think about where this could land us. When you're begging for a better price, you rarely think about the row of cyc lights/backup console/comfy chair that is going to turn a marginally profitable job into a charity case for the lighting shop.
Are we really doing a shop any favors by giving them that last minute gig, with a minimal budget, without going through a competitive bid? Should they be thanking us or cursing our names? More to the point, when is a show worth burning your bridges with a shop? There is a saying known by lighting people the world over, “A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
We want service, and we should be happy to pay for it. At the same time, we need good prices and we should get them. What's called for is balance and an understanding of the realities of our vendor's business. Any lighting shop worth their salt is going to expect the odd change in equipment and last-minute freebie requests, but at the same time we cannot use this against them. To put a vendor under so much pressure that they feel they can no longer profit from working with you benefits nobody, but especially not you.
The budget push-and-pull should be just that — push and pull, give and take. There are only so many lighting shops in any one town, and sometimes the choices are less than stellar. Reaching the point with a vendor where you can't have a conversation with them on the phone without resorting to a shouting match is no way to run a business and neither is allowing a client to do the same to you. This, of course, goes for producers too, but good luck trying to get that to work!
Everything is connected. Friendly relations with your vendors, translates into your future success as a designer and profitable future ventures for you both. However, you both have to earn a living, and to some extent, you rely on each other to do this. You might work with the same producer two or three times a year, but chances are you will work with the same lighting shop two or three times a month.
As a lighting designer, it is your job to get the best deal for your client, a show's producer. Burning bridges, both in front and behind, is not the best way to go about this.
Gregory Cohen is a founding partner of Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design.