Bogging Down on Blogging

I finally have to admit that between teaching, consulting and trying to write and produce multiple projects it is almost impossible to keep up with the requirements of a blog.

I can report that my projects are moving forward and I am doing more teaching than ever. As a result I will continue to use this website as a teaching aid. Whenever possible, I will update the course work and offer some new online classes.

In the meantime, I hope the current information is helpful.

Thanks!

 

 

Quick Catch Up

Learning is something that goes on throughout one’s life. For me, one thing I’ve learned about this space is how difficult it is to maintain any type of blog and to get a site like this going. Nonetheless, after two years of being up and running but also being less than “current” I am going to re-dedicate myself to bringing the entire site up to date. That means more posts and it means a further expansion of course materials.

So far, the site has served as a compliment to my live course work. I use many of the short video lessons with classes that I have taught at Columbia University, City College of New York and even for a guest appearance at Brooklyn College last week.

The new year will bring new teaching challenges and I will be expanding on a lot of the curriculum I have created. This site will be the partial beneficiary of that expansion. So look for more “stuff”.

Included in the “stuff” category will be an e-book I hope to complete called Money4Movies that outlines the basics of all of the various ways money is raised to make films, television shows and really any form of audio visual work. (Note the avoidance of the word “content” – which I find objectionable and will write about in a separate post.)

I also have the great fortune to have raised a bit of money for a documentary on jazz tenor sax legend Gato Barbieri. The working title is “El Gato”. I will, from time to time, write about what I am learning in the doc world as I learn it. That’s one area that has been lacking both on the site and in my own career. It’s very exciting to be taking on a whole new type of project after 36 years in the business and I am taking careful notes.

More to come…

 

 

 

Introducing the Interview Page

I’m exciting to announce that I’ve finally gotten it together to begin a new feature – interviews about producing. I will be sitting down for conversations with producers and with the people they interact with on a daily basis – cast and crew members – to bring what I hope will be some insights into this under appreciated skill. Along the way, I hope to provide some role models for those of you out there just getting started. In each interview we’ll talk about how the subject got started and then go into detail about a specific aspect of producing.

I’ve chosen to do these as audio interviews largely because, as a producer, I’m not a big fan of being in front of the camera and worrying about how I look. From a production standpoint I am also not a big fan of having to lug around a lot of equipment and people to get things done. So give a listen. I promise it will be worthwhile.

The first one out of the gate is with my dear friend, mentor and outstanding producer, Maggie Renzi. Maggie has produced iconic independent American films like LONESTAR, MATEWAN, THE SECRET OF ROAN IINISH and, a personal favorite, BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. In the interview Maggie tells us how she got started and then talks about her approach to producing movies in different cultures – everywhere from The Philippines to Ireland to Alaska and America’s Deep South.

Let me know what you think and let me know if you have any suggestions for future interview topics.

Check out the interview here.

Getting 2014 Started

Happy New Year to all! I’m excited to get 2014 up and running. I’ve got lots of new projects and new ventures beginning in the coming months. I’ll be starting the year with an evening at The Film Interchange on January 15th where I will be talking about a topic that is the inspiration for my first E-book that will be coming out in February.  The book is called “Money for Movies” and the topic is pretty self-evident: Financing.

It’s what occupies most of a producer’s day – whether you’re looking for it, trying to figure out how much of it you need or managing it during the course of a production – every day, financing is on your mind. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all developed our methods of budgeting and managing the money required for making a project. It’s the first piece, “finding it” that presents the biggest challenge.

I still struggle with this one every day. How can I know who’s got money and what they are looking for? What do I need to present that will get them excited about my project? What are the things that I can DO?

The idea of “activities” is really important when you are sitting around waiting for that phone to ring. (By the way, it never rings all by itself unless you get to work!) It’s crucial that you have something to DO both to move your project forward and to maintain your sanity.

Without realizing it, I started organizing myself around certain types of tasks and out of that was borne what I call the “Five P’s of Financing” – the Package, the Plan, the Pitch, the Prospects and the Partners. It seems like all of my activities for every type of project (I know, I know… enough with the “Ps”!) fall under one of these headings.   The headings seem self-evident but in summary, here’s what I am talking about:

Package: this includes your script, your cast and your director

Plan: includes things like your schedule and your budget

Pitch: how you sell your project and, by the way, it’s much, much more than what is referred to as the “elevator pitch”.

Prospects: the places – the companies, the individuals – that might bring full or partial funding to your project.

Partners: the people and/or companies who can help you along the way.

I also try to take something that I learned about filmmaking in general and apply it to the mystery of finding money. Research is your friend. It’s what we used to call “a trip to the library” except now the library is at your fingertips; on your laptop or smart phone or tablet. To paraphrase Robert McKee, research is good because it will either point out something that you didn’t know or confirm something you did know. Research is a key tool for the writer, the director and the actors but it is also something done by every department head on a film. And it can be fun.

What kind of research does a producer do? Well, that depends on which of the Five Ps you are working on. It might be finding out the latest about tax incentives if you’re working on your budget. It might involve researching visual effects, locations, comparable films… a whole array of areas that will help you learn more about the market and about your project specifically.

I’ll be getting into much greater detail about all this at the January 15th evening at Film Interchange so be sure to join us if you can.

In the meantime, I wanted to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday and a prosperous new year.

Producing Basics: Live & In Person

I’m delighted to announce that I am teaching a course this fall being offered through Film Interchange. The course, PRODUCING BASICS: PRE-PRODUCTION will take participants through some essential producing functions from early pre-production all the way up to the first day on set. It’s geared to small feature films but can apply to any short film or web project you have in mind. The nice thing about producing skills are that they are both teachable and scalable – applicable to any size project or budget. No matter what the project is, the core skills remain the same.

Who’s a good candidate to take this course? For starters, anyone who wants to produce a feature, a short or a web series.

A common issue with new producers is that they are either one of two extremes: a micro-manager or a macro-manager. Some producers dig deep into every minute detail of production – almost getting lost in them and making decisions based on moment to moment conditions and circumstances. These are often the classic “over-thinkers” who don’t see the big picture. Other producers will stay so far away from the details that they make broad decisions without ever considering their practical implications. The courses on this site and the Film Interchange course, in particular, will help strike a balance between those two extremes. A producer needs to know enough about the details to make good decisions while keeping the big picture in the forefront.

But this course isn’t just for producers. It’s really for anyone who wants to understand the filmmaking process from both the organizational and creative side. I think it’s a must for anyone who is a creative or financial stakeholder in the making of a film. Directors and Actors will find it helpful to understand where and how decisions are being made that will affect their work. It can also help them judge the qualities they should look for when they engage a Producer and a clear understanding of that person’s role. Financiers will learn how a project is organized and executed, providing insight into how their resources are being used. Other crew members will learn the thought process a producer goes through and how decisions are made that affect their contribution to a film.

For those of you new to this site, the philosophy is to provide information about an array of producing topics and focus on the things you may not know you need to know. Producing is something that is best learned through experience but that shouldn’t mean you have to make every single “rookie producer mistake” in order to learn the job.  Experience is a great teacher but the information on this site and in the Film Interchange course provides every producer with a head start.

I hope you can join us for the live course and I hope you find the site useful in preparing for that course and for the job of producing.

Get more information about the Course and sign up HERE!

If you’ve already signed up here are some things you can do to prepare:

 1. Check out the Resource Page and read some of the books suggested on the Reading List.

2. Watch some of the recommended movies about filmmaking (I’ll be adding more in the coming days and weeks.

3. And explore the FREE COURSES on this site.

To help out with that last item I’ll be starting a new “Featured Lesson” series of posts that point to specific lessons in the courses already available. I know that you don’t have hours to learn a lot of things, but you may have ten minutes to learn a very specific thing that will improve your skills.

If you don’t already know about Film Interchange you should. It’s a great networking group centered around film that meets every month. Look for their exciting lineup of events this fall.

And check out my latest Producing Resource Offer here.

As always, let me know if you have specific questions about producing and let me know what you think of the courses and the site.

Set Safety Course

Today, the third of the three initial course offerings: Set Safety. If you’ve visited before, you know the classes are free and that to take the class you can go to Course page from here where you can read all about it and register in no time at all. So why “Safety” as the third course?

Accidents happen all the time in all work environments. Film sets can be dangerous places with lots of trucks and equipment including extremely hot lights requiring a lot of electrical power. This course is intended to supplement specific safety courses and instruction from technical experts. Check out the resource links to find more information about safety on set.

For a long time the training for film students involved how to work with and protect the expensive equipment. Rudimentary safety practices from other industries were not really taught to film students as the passion of filmmaking was being stoked. All of that changed because of accidents and serious injuries over the years. Safety is now a hot button issue at many film schools. What’s interesting to note is that it’s not always the stunt car shattering a plate glass window and landing in a parking lot four stories below that requires safety training. Those huge stunts are extremely well planned and well executed (and not part of student film productions). Most set injuries that cost money, time and a good bit of human pain are from routine activities and they can be avoided. This course is designed for anyone who doesn’t realize that the movie making process is really a manufacturing process and that there are inherent dangers that should be addressed.

Through a series of short videos you will get a look at some of the routine safety issues that you can guard against. You’ll also get some solid tips for keeping your crew and cast safe when working in difficult conditions. Remember, the care and safety of a crew are ultimately in the hands of the producer so take that responsibility seriously. I hope you enjoy the course and look forward to your comments. And most importantly, I hope you take set safety very seriously.

 

 

 

Budgeting Line-by-Line: The Basics

Today brings a new class the second of three “starter classes”. This one is called Budgeting Line by Line: The Basics. If you’ve visited before, you know the classes are free and you’ll read the Disclaimer on the Course page.  You also know that to take the class you can go to that Course page from here. Now, a little background on this Course…

Over the years I’ve been invited to film programs all over the world, along with my wife and partner, Writer-Director Nancy Savoca, to teach a wide array of courses. They’ve ranged from full semester graduate level ones to one day Master Classes on a narrowly focused topic. Culling all of those choices down and selecting a handful to get started with was not an easy task. The natural place to start was a variation on a course that began my teaching career. It’s designed to be a general filmmaking primer centered around one of the things I know best – the budget.

Back in 1991, after wrapping my second feature film, Dogfight, I sat down with a budget for that show and a host of original documents, including Call Sheets, Shot Lists, Set Designs and more. I then took the actual budget – hiding what was confidential information (more on that in a later post) and making notes on the rest, creating a massive tome of a book – a couple of hundred pages in all. That was the core curriculum of my first all day Master Class which I would give at least once a year at NYU or for organizations like New York Women in Film. I would go line by line through a budget discussing the filmmaking process via this one document that holds every element used in the making of a movie.

I would use the other source documents to illustrate points and to demonstrate how those budget lines manifested themselves. The budget for “Rehearsal Expenses” would launch me into a discussion of the rehearsal process and how the actors were prepared for their roles and I’d use rehearsal schedules to demonstrate how that was worked out. The course evolved and I have been pleased over the years to meet some of my students who took it and were still holding on to that huge book. As I went from film to film, I updated the book with more current documents until finally, somewhere in the 90s I learned how to use Power Point and got myself a projector for my laptop. As I looked over all of the various curricula I had designed since then, I found that this was still a terrific way to look at a production – through the budget where it all comes together.

The reality of reducing these lessons to ten minute long video topics has forced some adjustments in that original design. Budgeting Line-by-Line is now a three part course with The Basics being the initial one. The series will sweep through a fictional budget multiple times, each course digging a bit deeper. The Basics is the starting point so it necessarily is the longest of the courses – 28 lessons in all – as we pretty much take the budget department by department. This initial course is meant as a high level overview of the process through the eyes of the budget, looking at each line and understanding what it means. Once the format and the “language of the budget” is established we’ll drill down into specifics. The thing I love about looking at a production from a budgeting point of view is that everything has to go through that document in one way or another. The problem of teaching that budget is that“everything” has to be covered in a budget!

This Basics class will walk through the format and the content of each account. The next class “Line by Line: Intermediate” will take selected groups of accounts and cover them in more depth. Finally, the Advanced class will pull the whole thing together providing a good illustration of budgeting techniques and an explanation of the “filmmaking reasons” that money is spent the way it is.

As with most of my courses you can jump around the Lessons if there’s one area that interests you more than others, however, I strongly recommend that you start with Lesson 1 – The Budget Organization. Also, there are certain aspects of budgeting that are repetitive so I will generally cover them in the early going, then move quickly through the same things in the later lessons.

I view these courses as evolving over time so please come back and comment on them so I can make needed adjustments and improvements.

Business Basics Course

It’s time for our first class: Business Basics. Before we begin, a word about the general approach and technical aspects of classes on this site. First, this information is provided free as a supplement to what you are already learning through personal experience and, if you’re in film school, your course work. A lot of the information, especially surrounding taxes and rates is time specific. As much as I will endeavor to keep things current, always check sources and don’t rely on these classes for accurate, up to the minute prices and rates.

Second, I am not a lawyer, nor am I a practicing tax professional (although I received my CPA in 1983 I have not practiced since 1985), nor am I an expert in any field other than the one you’ve come here to learn about: producing. But remember, every single producer operates under a set of rules but with their own style and philosophy. Much of what we do is based on judgment. With respect to legal and tax matters, always rely on the advice of your legal and accounting team first and foremost- that’s what you pay them for.

As for the courses, individual classes consist of a series of video lessons, each around 10 minutes in length. Class descriptions will be posted as blog entries and, at the end you’ll find a free link to a short video introduction posted on YouTube (my on-camera debut!). You’ll also see a link at the end of this post to register for the full set of lessons. The links will have a two-week time limit so it’s important to get right to the class. After registering you’ll have access to a PDF of all of the course documentation – Powerpoints, Transcripts and any other material used.

There’s lots of information to convey in these courses and the video format only allows for one-way communication but always feel free to use the Just Ask page to submit questions along the way. I do believe that repetition is helpful in teaching, so you will hear similar themes coming through many of the courses and I’ll always summarize the key things to take away from each lesson. Now, about this course…

No discussion of producing is possible without an understanding of some basic business principles. This course provides a foundation for understanding the essential structural components of a film. It will also explain the whys and wherefores of working on an artistic endeavor in a business environment. A producer often finds him or herself in the position of “interpreter” for the creative folks on a production because business concerns are always a factor in creative decisions. I often thank my own business school education and CPA when confronting a gnarly problem. As I began producing my first film, I was already familiar with the kinds of legal entities required and their tax reporting obligations. I had some experience with contracts and with maintaining adequate books and records. This knowledge alone didn’t make me a great producer but it did put me on solid ground with my investors who appreciated my business background. Having knowledge of some business concepts will hopefully put you in the same place.

The course starts by examining the types of legal structures used, the way in which money flows back to participants in an equity deal and the types of insurance coverages common in the industry. Additionally there’s an overall union and guild primer including a simple example of interpreting a union agreement – translating words in a written agreement into numbers in a budget. The course raps up with basic accounting and tax concepts so you can understand your cost report and communicate with your accountant.

It’s important for a producer to have basic knowledge in all of these areas in order to conduct the business of the production. This course will be a good place to begin and allow you enough knowledge to have informed conversations with your attorney, accountant and insurance broker. Again, I am not advocating a DIY approach to this area of filmmaking. Take this course for an overview. It’s not a bad idea to also take some business courses in college. But really choose your business advisors wisely and learn from them. My hope with this Course is to give you an idea of the types of things you need to know. That way, those calls to the expensive lawyers and other professionals can be shorter and more productive.

As always, let me know what you think!

Go to the course.