The Essential Guide to Kit Fees
Camera assistants need talent marks, ditty bags, and camera carts. Makeup artists need brushes and spirit gum. Production assistants need Advil and thick skin.
No matter what title they give you on the call sheet, every role in film production comes with its own set of tools needed to get the job done. And if you’re bringing your own equipment, you should charge a kit fee.
Today, we’re talking about what kit fees are, how much you should charge, and if kit fees are taxable.
Let’s dive in.
- What Are Kit Fees?
- Are Kit Fees Part of Your Standard Rate?
- How Do Producers Use Kit Fees?
- Are Kit Fees Taxed?
- What Should I Charge for a Kit Fee?
What Are Kit Fees?
In simple terms, a kit fee (also frequently referred to as a kit rental fee, box fee, or box rental fee) is just a form of additional compensation that a production pays a crew member for using their own equipment or resources on a show.
The theory underlying the kit fee’s structure is that it should cover the normal wear and tear that a production inflicts on your personal equipment, as well as, the more straightforward usage of any resources you maintain as part of your personal kit (i.e. tape, make-up products, WD-40, etc.).
Conventionally, on longer productions, kit fees are paid out on a weekly basis, but it’s not unusual that they be paid out as a daily rate or flat fee instead, particularly on productions of shorter lengths or with lower budgets.
The price of your kit fee will almost always be included as part of your regular paycheck, provided, of course, that the kit fee was invoiced at the same time as your standard rate.
However, it’s important to note that, even though they’re generally paid within the same check, your kit fee is technically separate from your standard rate. They are not the same thing, and you should not treat them the same way.
Are Kit Fees Part of Your Standard Rate?
Kit fees are not, in any way, tied to a crew members hourly or day rate.
In essence, your kit fee’s structured as a flat fee, varying only if a shoot’s length retracts or extends by some number of days or weeks, depending on what you’ve negotiated.
The independence provided by a kit fee’s structure allows a production to provide a given crew member a higher dollar amount of overall compensation without raising their actual day rate a single cent.
This probably seems like a no-brainer by now, but consider the second and third-degree implications. If your standard day rate is based on a guaranteed twelve-hour day plus lunch, what happens when your shoot day extends to fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen hours?
That’s right. You get paid for that magic word that makes the film industry tick: overtime.
Overtime means you receive a greater amount of compensation because you spent a greater amount of time working on set, and you receive it at a greater per-hour rate than normal.
But you know what overtime does not mean? A bigger kit fee.
How Do Producers Use Kit Fees?
As mentioned, kit fees compensate the crew for the use of their equipment. And because they’re flat fees, they aren’t subject to overtime.
However, from a producer’s perspective, kit fees can also be a production tool as well.
1. Kit Fees Can Act as a “Bonus”
A production will commonly use an attractive kit fee to sweeten a crew member’s overall deal without putting their payroll budget in peril, which can be a win-win for employee and employer alike.
However, if a particular combination of kit fee and standard rate strike you as odd, you’d be wise to practice caution.
A job offering a below-average rate combined with an above-average kit fee might seem like a lucrative prospect at first, but it’ll likely lose its luster after you’ve put in your fourth sixteen-hour day in a row.
2. Kit Fees Can Save on Renting Equipment
If kit fees are designed to compensate crew members for use of their personal equipment, then we could also infer that kit fees are designed to grant a production access to a wider range of equipment without renting or purchasing each individual item directly.
In this way, kit fees simplify and streamline the material needs of professional filmmaking.
That said, it’s important to note that receiving a kit fee as part of your paycheck is not technically the same thing as renting out your gear to a production. Given the terminology, this may seem confusing, but it’s an important distinction, primarily for matters of production insurance–specifically, liability
When you receive a kit fee, that compensation is being paid directly to you, as an independent contractor, for loaning out your kit.
In other words, even though the production is paying you for your gear, you, as an individual, are still responsible for it during the shoot. You are liable, and the production is not.
When a production makes an official rental, by contrast, they accept full responsibility, providing a certificate of insurance and, generally, a deposit before any equipment is ever picked up.
This may be well and fine if your kit fee covers your personal camera cart. However, it can be a risky proposition if we’re talking about a full camera kit rental.
If a production is asking to include the use of a high-value item as part of your kit fee, exercise caution. Your safest bet is to handle it separately, just like you would with any rental made to a production on which you’re not working. Get a certificate of insurance, create a contract, and make sure there’s a paper trail.
After all, kit fees exist primarily to protect crew members. It’s important to calculate the costs associated with your resources and ensure that you’re striking a deal that accounts for those costs.
Are Kit Fees Taxed?
Financial compensation in the wild west that is freelance filmmaking nearly always brings up curveball questions about federal taxation guidelines. Kit fees are no exception.
Can freelancer kit fees get taxed? The short answer is yes.
Regardless of what you call it, by federal guidelines, income is income, and the U.S. government wants its slice of any you make.
Kit fees are classified separately from your actual wage, and any 1099-MISC or W2 that you receive at year’s end should reflect that. Unlike wages, income accrued from renting out personal property is not classified as “earned income”. It’s also not classified as “investment income”, as would be money made via stocks, bonds, or other investment vehicles. Instead, a kit rental fee is classified as “passive income”.
According to the IRS, passive income is strictly defined as either “income from a business in which the taxpayer does not materially participate” or, more to our interests, “net rental income”. It’s a loose term over which there has been some argument even in professional circles, but it carries one massive detail important to our purposes.
Some payroll taxes, specifically those associated with FICA, do not apply to passive income. Given that FICA taxes are namely for Medicare and social security, this means that your passive income is also exempt from (freelancers, hold your applause) the dreaded self-employment tax.
Entertainment payroll companies, like Wrapbook automatically spin up 1099-MISC forms when your crew invoices their kit fees.
Kit Fees vs. Reimbursements
An important side note to make here is that kit fees should not be confused with reimbursements for tax purposes.
Reimbursements occur when a production pays a crew member to reimburse them for a business expense that they first paid out of pocket. The concepts are similar in abstract terms, but they’re not the same on a practical level.
Think of purchases that are eligible for reimbursement as purchases you’ve made on behalf of the production itself. If you buy tape, for instance, and are reimbursed for it, the production technically owns the tape. Kit fees, on the other hand, cover purchases originally made by yourself for yourself that the production then pays you to use for their purposes.
In other words, reimbursements relate to the production’s business expenses, whereas kit fees relate to yours as an individual contractor. For that reason, reimbursements are not taxable, whereas kit fees are.
The question of whether a kit fee’s structure makes it taxable is certainly common, but it’s not the only relevant point to discuss. Another significant impact that kit fees may have on your taxes is in how they relate to your annual business expenses.
The money you paid for the equipment and supplies in your kit should all count as tax deductible business expenses. Therefore, if you’re deriving the price of your kit fees according to the depreciation of those items over time, in theory, the expenses related to your kit should directly off-set any income that you’re earning for kit fees in a given year, bringing your taxable income from kit fees down to zero.
Of course, the practical necessities of building kits and charging kit fees often prevent the equation from working out perfectly, but the ratio is worth keeping mind as tax season approaches.
It’s also worth noting that there are multiple options for exactly how you deduct your business expenses from taxable income from year to year, particularly when it comes to more expensive items whose value depreciates over much longer periods of time.
Always seek the advice of a tax professional before making any major decisions about how you approach your taxes.
What Should I Charge for a Kit Fee?
If you ask around in your professional circles or nose around the internet long enough, you’ll likely discover that there are many, many different methods by which people determine what to charge for a kit fee.
Some professionals carefully divide the value of their kit by a percentage of wear and tear that they believe a given production represents.
Some keep a detailed, item-by-item price inventory. Others just go by what they consider “normal” among their peers, and at least a few simply wait to see what the production department offers them.
The stone-cold truth is that the value of kit fees is highly variable, depending on the items in the crew member’s kit and also on the size, budget, and duration of the production itself.
The only commonality is that kit fees must often be negotiated, so it pays to know your worth.
With that in mind, let’s run down some of the broad strokes of what you might expect kits and kit fees to look like from various departments.
The Camera Department
Camera assistant kit fees are some of the most encountered in the industry.
1st AC kit fees and 2nd AC kit fees are great examples of why kit fees are necessary. The tools inside their kits may be minor as individual items, but they’re fundamental to basic set operations.
Camera marks, lens cleaner, laser measures, dry erase markers, and much more are all part of a typical camera department kit.
The downside is that a great deal of their gear is often treated as “tools of the trade” and, therefore, don’t necessarily receive their fair share of kit fee compensation.
2nd AC kit fees are virtually non-existent on low budget productions, unfortunately, but it never hurts to ask, particularly for an amount as low $25/week.
On higher budget productions, it’s generally advisable to coordinate with the rest of the camera department. The same more or less goes for 1st AC kit fees, except that they’re much more common on lower budget shoots. $50/week is not uncommon, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for $100 or more, especially if you’re providing larger items like the cart to a camera kit rental.
If there seems to be much friction over camera assistant kit fees on low budget projects, I’ve found that the DP is often a reliable ally in negotiations. No one knows better than them the true value that camera assistant kit fees bring to the table.
The Art Department
The art department is perhaps the most variable and most abused department in terms of kit fees.
Despite the frequent inclusion of high-price items (like multiple, specialized power tools), crew members in the art department often face wildly varying kit fees on low budget, non-union shoots.
Expendable resources can and often should be purchased directly by production within their budget or the art department’s, but in the case of an outright denial of kit fees, the best course of action is to make a clear case for the necessity of items included in your kit. The camera and G&E departments often get the fanciest toys, but a good producer knows they’ll never have anything worth shooting if they don’t make sure the art department has the resources it needs.
The Wardrobe Department
Kit fees within the wardrobe department can be tricky in that it can either cover a mountain of gear (racks, irons, steamers, sewing supplies, etc.) or a very small kit of essential tools.
On larger, union productions, wardrobe department kit fees are often baulked at because they’ve already paid to set up a physical wardrobe department with assets that belong to production. Similarly, on lower budget shoots, many production managers increasingly prefer to rent basic wardrobe supplies alongside their other production supplies. Still, kit fees are regularly deployed as an extra incentive for locking in desired costumers and stylists for your crew. It’s not uncommon to see wardrobe kit fees ranging from $100 to $150/day on sizable commercial shoots.
The Hair and Make-Up Departments
There’s a solid argument to be made that hair and make-up kit fees are the most essential kit fees that are paid on a given production. Hair and make-up kit fees enable the artists to keep a versatile stock of beauty supplies on hand at all times.
Many of these products will not be used on your production, but that’s not the point. When your lead actor shows up to set with a black eye in the middle of a shooting week, you have no idea how happy you’ll be to have a competent make-up artist waiting in the wings with exactly the right product. Hair and make-up kit fees should be carefully negotiated with production, and supplies should be monitored over the course of a given shoot.
On low budget productions, I’ve seen many artists accept kit fees as low as $25/week, but modern beauty products can be costly, and the hair and make-up kit fees that help pay for them should not be underestimated.
The Grip & Electric Departments
Electric and grip kit fees tend to be paid for specialized items and are, thus, wildly variable. On low budget productions, it’s relatively rare that these kit fees are paid at all.
However, when a production of any size requires specialized rigging equipment, they often source it directly from members of the grip team, resulting in kit fees. Grip kit fees are often paid for items like harnesses and pulley systems; items that are frequently needed, but not so much that they’re likely to appear on a standard rental list.
The Sound Department
Kit fees paid to members of the sound department are often the closest that kit fees come to a standard equipment rental. Sound recordists generally prefer the familiarity and versatility of their own kits and will often rent it out under the price of their kit fee at heavily discounted prices, in order to encourage production to rent directly from them.
As you can imagine, this is almost always a mutually beneficial arrangement, but, as a result, there’s nothing like a standard kit fee when it comes to the sound department. For price comparisons, it’s best to check out the rental prices of specific or similar pieces of equipment at your local rental houses.
The Production Department
Finally, members of the production department generally enjoy the most straightforward experience of kit fees in the filmmaking industry.
On average or higher budgeted productions, a standard kit fee of $50/week often covers the basic use of a laptop and cell phone. On lower budgeted productions, it’s a pretty safe bet that you won’t receive a kit fee at all, though, as always, it never hurts to ask.
If you’re working in film production, you’re going to have to deal with kit fees eventually.
Remember that kit fees are designed to protect you, the individual crew member. There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for what you should ask for, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, compare rates, and, above all, to know your worth.
At the end of the day, the supplies in your kit are resources you need to do your job well, and you should be compensated fairly for their use.
This informational post should not be misconstrued as legal advice. Wrapbook and its authors are not responsible for decisions made based on the information covered in this article. For legal advice, please hire a insurance professional, like Wrapbook, who can help figure out your specific situation.