My wife and I recently saw the film Stan & Ollie which covers the old comedy duo Laurel and Hardy during their final years. Here’s the trailer for the film:
What can this film teach photographers like us?
I think there are a few things we can learn from Laurel and Hardy around business and pricing.
Don’t price yourself too low
Here’s a scene from the film, and to give it some context it’s set in the year 1953, many years after their peak. Stan and Ollie are touring England, performing in front of mediocre audiences and struggling financially. They have an argument over a situation many years earlier where Stan Laurel was pushing for a higher fee from the film producer Hal Roach but Oliver Hardy didn’t turn up for the meeting because he was doing another film apart from Stan:
LAUREL: Well, if we’re puttin’ our cards on the table, the only reason we’re in this situation is because when I was trying to get a better deal with Hal you were nowhere to be seen.
HARDY: I had no choice and you know it. I was broke.
LAUREL: You did have a choice. You chose to spend your time at the country club or the race track.
HARDY: We had a good thing going with Hal but you had a big chip on your shoulder because you weren’t being treated like Chaplin.
LAUREL: You’re damn right. And you didn’t have the guts to ask for what we deserved. I’m getting a drink.
It was quite a fall for the once mega successful duo who had won an Academy Award for The Music Box in 1932, created 107 films together and influenced actors such as Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, John Cleese and Jerry Lewis.
After their popularity waned Stan Laurel took the view that this was because his partner Oliver Hardy wasn’t brave enough to push for the higher fees that other successful actors were achieving in the 1930s. One of the reasons for their failed negotiation was producer Hal Roach who refused to give Laurel and Hardy any kind of ownership rights to the films, which is something contemporary Charlie Chaplin used to achieve great financial gain.
As photographers we need to make sure we charge appropriately for our time, and retain ownership and control the distribution of our images.
Laurel and Hardy were paid an annual wage for their work, and in 1937 they were amongst the top earners in Hollywood. However, because they were paid a wage rather than the lucrative stream of global residuals, they didn’t reach the financial heights of others in the film industry at that time, even though the studio would require them to release dozens of films.
The studio was also able to force Laurel and Hardy to do their scenes in multiple languages, allowing them to release the films in popular international markets such as Spain and France. Again, the comedians were not paid extra for this.
As a photographer you must make sure your fee is high enough to cover all the work you need to do, with conditions in place stipulating the manner in which your fee will change if circumstances change.
Does the client need extra images beyond what you first quoted them? Charge more.
Does the shoot take longer than expected? Charge more.
Is the shoot a commercial project for a builder rather than a real estate agent? Charge a lot more.
Is the location outside of your standard area? Add a travel charge, factoring in costs for gas and time.
If you have a flat rate for your photography then, like Laurel and Hardy, you are limiting your own ability to be financially independent. You want to make sure your rate can change for the client, and for changes in circumstance. If not then you’re like Laurel and Hardy, charging a flat rate rather than a more appropriate rate for the work involved.
For example, one thing that made negotiating of their fee difficult is that producer Hal Roach signed Laurel and Hardy on contracts that ended six months apart. This meant that they were weakened during negotiations because one party could not leave as the other party was still under contract for another six months.
What they ought to have done was to renew their contracts so that they ended at the same time, and then they would have greater power to negotiate a more favorable fee, or leave to partner with another film studio.
As a photographer you don’t have to accept whatever a client or prospect puts to you. You have the option to require a higher fee for your photography, or deliver fewer images, or make some other change to what they are asking from you. And if you feel that you have to accept a low-quality offer during your first year or two as you establish your business then make sure you don’t lock yourself in and that you can (and will) renegotiate terms year by year.
Retain ownership of your images:
Unlike Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy did not own their own production studio and so as employees they were never able to negotiate ownership of their films. This was one of the main reasons why they were never independently wealthy.
The issue of image ownership is a big one within real estate and architectural photography. When it comes to your images you don’t want to give full rights to your clients to do whatever they want with the photos.
For example, make sure you stipulate that the images can only be used by that particular client, and that all other uses by other parties will require additional fees and terms.
With regard to photo shoots for builders or architects, you may find yourself in a situation where you have multiple parties all wanting images. For example, the builder might be your client but they might talk about passing the images on to the flooring company, the roofer, the electrician, and the landscape designer. You should be charging more for each extra client (adding a surcharge of approximately 30% per client is fairly typical), and make sure your client is aware of their limitations regarding image use.
You will also want to make sure you don’t pass full copyright to the client, such that you aren’t able to use the images in your own portfolio, or potentially to sell later on. However, if the client insists on being granted full ownership of the images then make sure you’re charging them significantly more for what they are being given.
Laurel and Hardy started performing together in the 1920s when all films were silent, but unlike other actors such as the great Buster Keaton the duo were able to successfully transition from silent films to ‘talkies’. The significance of this cannot be underestimated, as others tried but most failed.
For photographers the ability to adapt to a changing world is absolutely critical. When I started doing real estate photography in the 1990s we were still using film, delivering prints and CDs (with scans of the film) to clients.
When DSLR cameras arrived in the early 2000s I made the switch from film to digital and figured out quite early that editing of the images in post could be used to my advantage by providing the kinds of shots that just weren’t possible with film.
Today your adaptability might involve learning new skills around video, Matterport cameras, virtual furniture or social media.
For example, how quickly can you bring a new service to the market? This might involve learning new skills, having new gear, and creating new marketing tools, but if the demand is there then the work is worthwhile.
Are you ready to jump into a new social media platform that’s popular with your target audience? You might be well-established on Facebook, but what if there’s a large audience on Vero or Tik-Tok? Be alert to new marketing opportunities, and be quick to transition if the numbers are good.
Can you purchase more advanced gear, positioning your business ahead of your competitors by offering something they can’t? For example, if other photographers in your market are offering standard virtual tours, then maybe you need to invest in a motorized 4-axis gimbal and start showing clients in your town what you can do with full walk-through video.
So I’d encourage you to be like Laurel and Hardy and be adaptable and alert to changes in technology, marketing, and new business opportunities. The truly great businesses are the ones that can move quickly, so make sure you have the awareness, the resources and the willingness to adapt in a rapidly changing world.
Stay professional at all times
Oliver Hardy liked to bet on the horses, and there’s a scene where he tries to buy a new bracelet for his wife but it’s more than he can afford. He places a bet on a particular horse race, hoping to have a win so he can afford to purchase the gift. Here’s how the film script describes what happened:
“EXT. STRAND TUBE STATION – DAY 51
HARDY – In coat and beret, cigarette hanging from his lips – hurries out of the tube station and makes for a newspaper vendor who is opening some bales of freshly-arrived evening papers. He pays for one, feverishly turns to the racing pages and scans the ‘Stop Press’. He finds his race, and… he’s lost. We see his bitter disappointment. He screws the paper up and is about to angrily hurl it into a litter bin when he sees some SCHOOL KIDS, in uniform, staring at him shyly. A beat, then he forces a smile, calmly drops the paper in the bin and flutters his tie at them.”
So there’s Hardy, out on the street and bitterly disappointed that he has lost another $60 and about to show his frustration when he notices that he is being watched. His response is utterly professional.
As a photographer I know how easy it can be to get frustrated with camera gear, clients, other photographers, the weather, the lighting and just about anything else. And sure, if you’re at home and there are no clients around then feel free to shout and scream.
But if you’ve got a client there then you’d better stay calm and keep that professional level of decorum at all times.
And I’m not just talking about when you are in the same room as them either. You’ve got to be professional when responding to an email, when answering the phone, when sending a text message, or even when you’re driving (especially if you have signage on your car!). Keep control of your emotions and what you say because you just don’t know who might be watching, and where that outburst might come back to bite you.
About Darryl Stringer:
Darryl Stringer is a business growth specialist who transformed his own photography business from nothing to one that turned over $2.7 million in sales, and he now assists architectural and real estate photographers around the world with their marketing, photography, and pricing. A lot of photographers struggle with the business side of photography, and Darryl’s program fills that gap and pushes photographers on to greater things. As one of his photography clients put it:
“After joining [Darryl’s program] and receiving all the information needed to really lift the business I was able to turn it into a successful business in what I would consider a short amount of time.”
To find out more visit: www.buildaphotographybusiness.com