Having a Business Plan

Is it necessary or even a good idea to create a Business Plan for your independent feature film?

The short answer is no, it isn’t necessary and yes, it is a good idea.

It isn’t a necessity because I have very rarely in my 35 year career had to deliver a full-fledged Business Plan to an investor in order to get a deal done. I’ve sent different parts of such a plan to various parties – the financial projections for example being requested by an investor’s accountant or the budget sent to a Completion Bond company where a bond is an investor requirement– but never the entire B-plan.

Getting an investor in the gate has to do more with the level of trust they have for you individually and with the personnel involved in the project. You’ll need a team to get a film made, whether that team is a dozen people or 10 dozen people depending on the size and scope of your production. Filmmaking is not really a “go it alone” kind of deal.

So if no one will ever ask for it, why should you do it?

For me, the main reason is how the process of putting together this document will make you a better fund raiser.

You need to fully think through all of the steps in your production from determining the right amount of money, getting that money, spending that money most effectively and getting that money back to your investors.

Filmmaking is a process, often a long and complicated process, and those of you who embrace that and take all of the right steps are better positioned to succeed. You need a roadmap to get through, to anchor you, and the Business Plan along with its offshoots- Look Books, Schedules, Budgets, etc. – will set the guideposts you will follow on your journey. You may, from time to time, need to update things as new information comes in or as circumstances change but revising an existing plan is much easier than creating one from scratch.

The critical component in creating a Business Plan is in fact, the act of creating it. Going through that process will force you to clearly articulate what your project is about, substantiate the value of your project and create a detailed plan for completion and exploitation of your project. You will become more knowledgeable about your project anyhow it is positioned in the marketplace. Just as important, you will have the confidence that comes from being on solid ground when discussing it.

Should I buy an off-the-shelf business plan? We’ll take a look at that question next time.

Shooting at Home

Location shooting is always, by definition, shooting at home – someone’s home.

A friend recently called to say a film location scout had been in contact with her about using her house for a shoot. She was told that they “just wanted to use the exterior” and offered a nominal fee. She thought it might be fun but asked me to tell her what might be involved. I sat down and wrote a short list of things that she needed to keep in mind and that she needed ask from the production company. It was interesting to think from the point of view of a property owner in this situation as opposed to the company trying to secure a location. There’s always value in looking at things from the “other side” so here’s my list with some commentary for the production alongside it.

A short list of “things to know about productions shooting in your house”…

1. Access for pre-production, shooting and wrapping up (clean up) – these are really the really important issues – where do they need to go, for how long and when. Some questions to ask:

o   How many days and how many hours each day? It’s important to get down to the actual times of day here or you may find yourself with a crew in your living room at 3am!

o   What changes do they need to make to your property?

o   What parts of your property, specifically, do they need access to? (If there’s an actor opening your front door then they will need access to the interior of the house even if the camera is outside.)

o   Do they need to use your bathroom for cast or crew?

o   Do they need to use any space for make-up/ hair/ wardrobe?

o   Are they using your power or do they have their own generator for lights?

o   What about any re-shoots or other work beyond the original production period?

o   Access needs to be very specific and fees for additional access need to be stated in the agreement.

2. Insurance – the company must have General Liability and Third Party Property Damage and you must be named as “Additional Insured” on their policy. They need to provide a Certificate of Insurance that shows this coverage and indicates that you are named as “Additional Insured”. The significance of this is that if you are an Additional Insured the production insurance will fully protect you. Otherwise, your insurance company will be brought into any potential claim and your insurance rates may go up.

3. From a personal point of view- you need to have someone there, on premises, at all times that the company is present. Who is that person and are they prepared for the time commitment as laid out in Item #1 above?

4. You need to make sure the agreement states the following:

o   You, as property owner, should be “held harmless” from any claims arising out of their work. (You are not responsible, for example, if their truck knocks over your neighbor’s fence or if using your location leads to any other type of claim. )

o   That the property will be restored to the same condition or better that it is now. (For example, what happens if they screw up your lawn? Also, if they are coming inside they should pay for cleaning of the interior because it will get messy.)

o   It is the production’s responsibility to get all necessary permits from the Village or Town to allow for parking and traffic issues. Also, the production needs to obtain any required permissions from you neighbors in addition to notifying them about their presence on the block. No one likes to come home from a long day of work to find trucks and people blocking their driveway or street.

Once you’ve considered all of the above you should decide whether the fee offered is adequate compensation, keeping in mind that it is taxable income (Yes, the production will be asking for your social security number, by having you fill out an IRS Form W-9 and you will receive a Form 1099 at the end of the year that will show the amount of additional income you must report.)

The above is all standard procedure and normal business practice. If any part of this freaks out the production company, then you know they are not the types you would want to allow access to your home!

As a postscript I should say that writing all of this makes me quite wary of having a film crew in my house or apartment. It’s important from the production side that all of these points are thought through before getting caught up in the “wouldn’t it be exciting to have a film shot in your house!” feeling.

As a producer, you should want to be sure all of these things are handled correctly and discussed openly. If they aren’t handled in advance and covered in your location agreement they could arise while you’re shooting and be very costly. Doing things correctly will also help to avoid bad feelings from your location owner which helps to spread positive “word-of-mouth” about you and future productions.

Tell us your worst location nightmare… and how could it have been prevented.


A Slow Film Movement?

The desire for speed in our lives is everywhere. Faster internet connections, faster communication methods and faster package delivery are just a few places where we seem to be reaching a fever pitch. When ordering online I often feel as though the delivery truck is downstairs waiting for me to choose my item so the driver can run it upstairs before I have a chance to log off the site – that is, if I have time to be bothered logging off.

More and more I encounter the “need for speed” demon in teaching film production. It permeates everything from budgeting where I can find sites advertising “a professional and accurate budget in 60 seconds” to programs that have students write, shoot and edit a movie in a matter of a few days. I am especially suspicious of programs where a script is written in a day or two, shot in a day and then edited in a day. The art and craft of filmmaking is, thus, reduced to some sort of race or competition against the clock. Regardless of the skill of the people involved the end result will not be nearly as good as it could have been had they taken more time. That’s the one resource that every stage of filmmaking requires. Since everyone knows that “time is money” we understand the need to cut time significantly in order to reduce budgets. But is that the way to teach film or anything?

Technology is partly to blame here. Equipment has become lighter and cheaper, making high quality product possible with minimal investment. The lighter gear and the digital editing systems have allowed filmmakers to do more with much less. Time that was once spent lighting, for example, has been reduced to allow more time for shooting. But does Technology equal Time? Should it?

I am all in favor of technology because it has made many of the films I produced a reality. Without technology my last film, UNION SQUARE, would not have been possible. And part of the production plan for that film was a terribly fast shooting schedule for a feature film – 12 days. In fact, the plan was for a 10 day shoot but we extended it because it simply wasn’t practical. Let’s examine my journey into the world of ‘flash filmmaking’…

UNION SQUARE was conceived of as a feature film to be largely shot in one specific location – my producing partner’s loft. It was to have as few characters as possible and we were only to venture outside if we stayed close by since we had only one production vehicle, a mini-van. It was to be shot on the Canon 5d, the fashionable camera at that moment, with as little equipment as possible since space was very limited. The crew was also to be kept to a minimum, anywhere from 12 to 15 people depending on the day. The catch in all of this is that a group of 20-somethings was not executing this plan but rather a group of 40 and 50-somethings. In fact, the combined professional experience of the producers and director was well over 100 years. We had accomplished actors – Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino, Emmy winner Tammy Blanchard and Tony winner Patti LuPone. To complicate matters a dog and a very young child were added to the story.

Despite the unusually short shooting schedule the timeline of the project was actually well over a year. Here’s how it went: The idea was hatched in March with the stated goal of a November 1st shoot. The writers went to work on the script and delivered a draft in mid-August that was sent out for casting. Light pre-production began in September by which time we had our key creative crew signed on. Casting was resolved in this period and scouting for the handful of additional locations began. October was the start of formal prep, rounding out the crew, deciding on locations, shot listing and finalizing equipment. There was a two week rehearsal period scheduled that led right into the first day of shooting on November 1st. As I said before the 10-day shoot had to expand to 12 to accommodate the pacing and style that developed. Post-production didn’t formally begin until mid-January. It lasted until mid-April in order to lock picture. We then waited for the right sound editorial team and colorist to be available as well as the right artist to record an end credit song as we geared up for a September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. All in all, from conception to premiere it was an 18-month process. That’s probably the fastest project timetable that I will ever see.

Why so much time and was all of it necessary? Interestingly, the lack of money gave us more freedom to spend Time because it was largely our own time that we were investing. The writing period allowed enough time for the writers to get a very solid ‘cast-able’ draft – one that appealed to quality actors. The rehearsal period was really important to the success of the actors and their performances. The decisions to wait for the right artist to record that song, the right sound design team and the right colorist were absolutely the correct ones. Each person contributed a great deal to the overall production value and quality of the end product. The Time – essentially the breathing room – that we had was even more important to the process than the limited amount of money we spent.

But how does that apply to teaching filmmaking? I’ve often heard film students dismiss professional protocols, saying, “I know that’s what they do in real films but that doesn’t work in a student film.” Why not? Why would a student intending to work in the real industry not employ professional practices? Why wouldn’t teachers want to model professional behavior? I believe timelines and deadlines are an essential part of filmmaking but they shouldn’t be used as gimmicks. There’s no award category for the fastest written screenplay or the shortest shooting schedule. An audience, sitting down to watch a film, will judge it on its merits and not on how quickly the author came up with the story.

Saying to a filmmaker – any filmmaker at any stage in their career – that, “We’ve taken away the majority of your funding resources, now we’re going to see just how fast you can work,” is a cruel trick. And I really don’t see how much can be learned in the process. Writing, especially, is a craft that requires time and room to research and think about story first. A gifted screenwriter may come up with a worthy short film script in a day or two but no one should be forced into such a timeline. It removes the actual creative process from the creation and presents a really artificial environment. And even that “worthy” screenplay will only get better upon rewriting and editing.

Editing the project is another place where there is really no substitute for Time. Taking hours and of hours of footage and first assembling it, then rough cutting it, screening it and working it down to a coherent story takes time. And only once you’ve arrived at a coherent fine cut can you begin the process of really improving elements like visuals and performance before locking your picture edit. And that step, in turn, is where enhancements like sound design and music come into play. Editing is very much a process of discovery just like writing and requires it’s due. That’s why, the move from clunky film editing equipment like upright moviolas to automated editing systems haven’t really reduced the number of weeks in the average post-production schedule. Editing remains a process.

Let’s use technology to lower costs and increase quality – thus making filmmaking more democratic – but let’s avoid the ‘faster is better’ approach. A Slow Film Movement treats Time as a precious resource, more valuable than money. Taking Time in the creative process makes a better film and a better filmmaker.

What do you think? Have you been put under unrealistic deadline pressure and what kind of work resulted?


Last week was a very busy one – the start of Sundance and the Oscar nominations coming on the same day, followed by my own personal last day as an employee at Entertainment Partners. And this week brings the start of some new and exciting ventures. Here’s a quick review of what’s been on my mind…

I was truly saddened to see that the best film I saw this year – WAJDJA – didn’t get a nomination for anything. It was a very, very tough field this year but this was a big omission. Please go out of your way to see this movie. Here’s the official site and here’s the trailer. Set in Saudi Arabia, this film tells the story of a young girl who wants to ride a bicycle but is prohibited from doing so by religious law because she is a girl. The film is flawlessly written and directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman director.

Another film that didn’t get a nomination in the documentary category but will remain one of my personal favorites was TIM’S VERMEER. This is a wonderfully quirky odyssey about a man who sets out to prove that the way Vermeer was able to create paintings that look like photographs was to use technology. He tests his theory and then sets out to re-create one of the master’s famous works. Another film that’s a must see.

Of the crowded award season films, there’s no doubt that HER was my favorite. A film that was at the same time a bit sad and spiritually uplifting. And I will never understand the system of voting that says a film is nominated for best screenplay and best film, but ignores the writer-director. And ignores the star in what is by and large a one man show.

I’m at Sundance this year to announce the launch of Passion First Funding Portal – a new mechanism for filmmakers to connect with accredited investors. This is made possible by the JOBS Act, a piece of federal legislation that seeks to take crowd funding to a new level. Under this Act and through this new portal, money raised via crowd funding is not a donation, but rather a real investment that is regulated by the SEC. At this time Proposed Regulations have been issued and we are in the “comment phase” of the process. Shortly after final regulations are issued Passion First will go online. More on this as it develops…

Finally, my transition out of full-time employment and into the world of freelance producer and entrepreneur is very exciting to me. Thanks to everyone at Entertainment Partners who helped me along the way. I learned a great deal in nearly six years there that will make me a much more effective producer.

As far as producing goes, I’ll have more information coming on the slate of my own passion projects including The Secret Magdalene and Guided Tours of Hell up on this site fairly soon.

I’ll also have more time to work on this site – rounding out the courses and resources, as well as starting podcasts and other special projects. The teaching continues so stay tuned for the latest in-person classes. The next one is coming up at Film Interchange on Saturday January 25th (contact me for more information).

I’m looking forward to all of the challenges and successes these changes will bring!

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.

Development Heaven…

Most people involved in the film business have heard of “Development Hell” but is there a “Development Heaven” and, if so, how do you get there?

“Research and Development” is part of every industry. The building you’re sitting in, the computer you are reading this post on and even the pen you might use to jot down some notes – all of those products had an R&D phase. An architect can draw detailed plans, do sketches and even build models like the one pictured below created by my talented nephew Danny Savoca. Anyone can see from this model what the final product will look like. Naturally, there will be a lot of additional documentation to bring the project to life – budgets, schedules, environmental assessments, etc. But the overall look and feel of the building is pretty clear from this model.

Building Structure Render

That’s just not the case for a movie.

While it is true that filmmaking is a manufacturing process, it is also true that each outcome or product is wholly unique. Despite the best efforts of our industry to clone successful films, no two movies are ever alike. There really are no prototypes. We can’t build a sample and then manufacture a movie just like it. Television tries to do this but if “pilots” were accurate predictors of success there wouldn’t be so many cancelled series. That’s because filmmakers can’t show you the end result until they’ve created it. All of which makes the development process especially challenging but also essential.

Remember that every movie you’ve seen has had a significant investment in its development. Whether that means a studio was spending a lot of money or one passionate filmmaker devoted years of their life to it, the project was being “developed.” By selecting the material, researching it from a million angles, working on draft after draft after draft of the screenplay, ironing out the legal wrinkles, sorting out the details – the where, when and how of making the picture – we are laying the foundation for what an audience will see on screen.

So who’s involved in development? First there’s the person with the vision – the filmmaker. Who that is depends on what medium we are working in. For feature films it is the director who is the storyteller. In television we look to the writer who will ultimately become the show’s creator.  In either case, a good producer is usually part of the mix to help shape the project and guide it along to fruition. The initial process can start with one or two people but it will invariably expand and might ultimately include a good development executive – hopefully from the company that will finance the project.

Development usually begins with a clear purpose, in much the same way that I sat down with the clear idea to write a blog post about development. Invariably, that idea gets muddled with all of the various permutations and possible ways of expressing it. I wrote about 3,000 words in order to get this 800-word post to where I felt that it was ready to publish. Ultimately, the story is crafted from this larger “ball of clay” then shaped – edited, re-edited and edited once again. The idea takes full shape only as people and resources come on board.

As a producer, your role in development is both creative and business oriented. The script is crucial so helping the writer and director (whether that’s a one person ‘hyphenate’ or multiple people collaborating) to stay on track is a must. You’re also doing research on the kinds of companies that would be interested in your particular type of project, whether it’s a low budget genre film or a high concept studio one. You’re working on a budget. You’re putting together an “Idea List” for casting, hopefully in conjunction with a casting director.  You’re searching for the right location to shoot the film and that requires you to research the latest tax incentive news.  You’re also finding ways to get each of these development steps accomplished. Mostly you’re asking a lot of questions and, depending on the answers, coming up with a whole new list of questions.

If it sounds like “lots of work” – it is. That’s why you had best love your project before you embark on it. While all stories struggle to get financial support, the only ones that are ever abandoned are the ones that weren’t truly loved from the beginning.

So, how does one get to ‘Development Heaven’? Love your story. Enjoy your time with it. Examine it. Question it. Think about it. Connect with it in every way you can. Stay open-minded and ready to learn from it. In short, work it!

What do you think? Do you have a “Development Heaven” or “Hell” story?

Films to Watch: Casting By

There are so many things to love about the new HBO documentary “Casting By” by Tom Donahue.

 First, it opens as a slice of New York history looking at the cities “Golden Age” of television – live television, that is – where the pressures of putting on a live show each week or, in some cases each day, required an influx of new talent and provided a certain freedom to that talent. It was in this environment that my mentor Kenny Utt flourished, just across town from a young gal hired away from her job of dressing store windows to help find actors for a new television show – the fabulous Marion Dougherty.

If the name isn’t familiar there’s a good reason why but we’ll get to that in a bit. Marion Dougherty invented the job of casting director. Period. As a young woman hired to fill the roles of a live show for Kraft she did what a responsible, creative and organized person would do. She realized that she needed to examine the pool of talent available to her and to create an inventory of them to go to when she was under deadline. Fortunately for her she was in New York, where there was no shortage of new young talent flooding in to look for work on Broadway and in that new medium of television.

Fortunately for her producers, directors, the audiences of those shows and for us, Marion had an innate sense of acting talent. As John Voight explains in the documentary, “She saw things that no one else saw.” That keen eye coupled with a deep understanding of the dramatic material she was casting led to the discovery of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors. The list includes, Al Pacino, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Diane Lane, Glenn Close… and it just goes on from there. Marion was the first person to receive a Casting credit on a film or television show. Her office in New York was a buzz of activity in the 60s and early 70s. It was the place where many of the directors and actors who would become household names would connect. She cast iconic films like Midnight Cowboy, Lenny and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid among her nearly 100 credits and many more that she received no credit for.

On a personal note, I got the chance to watch Marion work in 1991 when Nancy and I did the film Dogfight for Warner Bros. The role of “Rose” was really tough to cast in that film and Marion did a search for unknowns, and also brought in a handful of what would become the top female talent of the 90s. But that’s just what Marion did. She brought in a short list of top choices for each part – every single speaking role – and each one was right, but for a different reason. As Nancy says, “I was like a kid in a candy store. Marion’s first choice for each part was the one we went with.” Among her “finds” in that film was a handsome young kid named Brendan Fraser getting his first line on camera. Watching the documentary, I understood what Woody Allen and others meant when they said Marion made you “feel safe”. Inside her office, you were protected from the craziness of the filmmaking process. You were guaranteed to be concerned only about the material and finding the absolute best actors for each and every spoken line in your movie.

The documentary also includes the legendary Lynn Stalmaster, Marion’s counterpart in Los Angeles, who sensing the need for a different kind of acting talent in Hollywood, blazed the trail for casting directors out there. I never met Lynn but I’d sure like to. His enthusiasm and sheer joy for his work jumped right off the screen when he talked about finding that perfect match of actor to role.

The film turns from an amazing New York and Hollywood history with great stories of talent discovered and talent flourishing, into a search for justice and a fight against Hollywood pettiness. You see, thanks to Marion, most people have a sense of what a casting director does in some fashion but they probably couldn’t name one of them.  The reason these dedicated professionals are not as well known as people in other key film positions is simple – they are not fully recognized even in their own industry. Casting Directors are the only people who receive those single card, main title credits – the big important ones at the beginning of a film or immediately following the end of a film – who do not receive Oscar nominations. There’s no category for it, unlike, Editor, Production Designer, Cinematographer, etc, etc. I won’t go into the details of why here – the film speaks to the topic very eloquently – but this is a situation that must be corrected. One day soon it will be. And Marion Dougherty will receive that Special Oscar for dramatically changing the face of movies.

If you haven’t seen the film, please find it as soon as you can. It’s really required viewing as part of the history of film in the second half of the twentieth century. I am starting a page in the Resource area called “Films on Filmmaking” and making this one – “Casting By” – the first. Let me know what you think of the film and please recommend others you’ve encountered.

Weekend Reading: The Internship Debate

A recent ruling has dealt what most consider a death knell to the idea of film internships. I have to admit that I am torn by this decision. On one hand I totally agree that work should be paid for and should be paid in accordance with the various Federal and State labor laws. I am the first one, politically, to rail against unfair labor practices by huge corporations who routinely skirt the law or look for ways to save money on the backs of people desperate to earn a decent living.

On the other hand is my own story. My career began as a result of an internship – not even my internship, but my wife’s. Fresh from film school she worked on a super low budget independent movie as an intern – being reimbursed her subway fare each day (that was $10 per week at the time). I was working in accounting earning my CPA and would hang around the production office after my day’s work. The first thing I learned is that the average CPA, depending on the time of year, works far fewer hours than the average production worker. I didn’t let that stop me because I was passionate about learning more.

I wound up volunteering to do the movie’s accounting work for free on weekends and evenings – what a professional might call “pro bono.” But my experience was not just a one-sided giving away of my services for a good cause. I can’t overstate how much we both learned – my wife working in the office and I working at home keeping a set of books – during this six week period. Coming from a working class Bronx neighborhood with absolutely no connection to the film world we soaked up enormous amounts of information and the two producers and the director were extremely generous in sharing their knowledge.

The movie ended but that’s not where the story ends. My wife and I were aspiring filmmakers: she a writer-director and I a writer-producer. The filmmaking team  we worked for was also a couple – he the writer- director along with she his producer.  When the movie wrapped we sheepishly asked the producer if she would read our screenplay and she did. So did her partner. Together they spent hours giving us excellent notes and ideas, teaching us really about filmmaking. We learned more from those conversations than we ever learned in school (to paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen lyric from “No Surrender”). The pair ultimately became critical to our getting that first movie made and their counsel over the years has been invaluable. That one little six week unpaid internship, doing a job that could have been filled by a paid worker, changed our lives.

Since then, as I became a producer in my own right, I’ve always engaged unpaid interns. The best of them became paid workers on my shows and were recommended for other jobs. Many of them have had successful careers as a result. That’s not true of every single intern, of course. Some didn’t have the right skill set or mind set for the industry. Others, who decided that the freelance lifestyle and long hours were not for them, left the business or took corporate jobs.

My evidence for the quality of internship programs is purely anecdotal. I have no statistical proof, only my own recollections. I do wish there was a way to make such programs successful. Perhaps there should be a time frame for each intern during which they would work for free; maybe a 30 or 60 day probationary period. At the end of that time the intern or the employer could opt out of the relationship with no further consequence. To continue working together, the employer would have to offer a paid position to the intern. That would allow the intern to get a sense of the job and the environment and provide the employer with a sense of the intern’s suitability for paid work.

I also think there should be some sort of education involved, something that the employer would do that was uniquely designed for the benefit of the intern. This presents a problem because filmmakers are not necessarily educators and they are under a great deal of pressure to make their films so time is precious. This would have to be viewed by the filmmaker as both a cost of gaining interns and as a way to ‘give back’ to the industry.

Perhaps there should also be a re-branding of this type of program. Instead of the negative connotations of “internship” maybe we should view this as an “Apprenticeship”. If done correctly, that’s exactly what this relationship can become. I am rooting for it to continue and to flourish.

Weekend Reading: Greed and the Movies

Interesting juxtaposition of movie related articles in The New York Times this weekend.

Saturday, there was a business article about looming flops this summer. There are 19 mega-budget or tent pole releases coming from the studio from May through August (there’s only 18 weekends in that time span- I counted).

Then today came an article about a disgruntled Sony shareholder who is proposing widespread organizational changes because the profit margins were ‘only 6.5%’. Never mind that Sony is one of the most stable and successful studios in Hollywood. The sin is that the profit margin was not as high as other studios despite Sony’s lead at the box office.

These articles reminded me that on Thursday, A.O. Scott wrote a think piece about how many of the recent movies released were about our lust for money and material acquisitions. (“Gatsby and Other Luxury Consumers” by A.O. Scott May 16, 2013). Reading these articles got me thinking about the subject of greed and the appeal it might have to those people deciding what we get to see on screen.

 In other words, how subliminally connected is this theme of greed in the current crop of films to the companies that finance them?  And by this I don’t include the filmmakers who, no matter how successful, can only make those films that excite their investors.

What else but greed could be fueling the current “shrink to profit” studio approach of reducing the overall number of movies made, but continuing only with the super expensive ones?  These companies are sticking to the idea that the only thing they can do consistently well is to spend $150+ million on making a film and another $200 million on marketing that film. All of which pretty much requires the film to earn $700 million in order to recoup. In reality, only a handful of films ever hit that high a number so the risk seems quite substantial. I know we are talking about the “world market” and all of the ancillaries like streaming and what’s left of DVD, but still- that’s an awful lot of money for a two hour movie to make.

There’s really no other case I can think of where all of the leading manufacturers in an industry decide to make only the highest cost products and dump all of their more reasonably priced ones. (If anyone can think of one it’d be interesting to compare). And in Sunday’s business article, the one movie studio that continues to make a larger more diverse slate of films is being challenged by a minority stockholder!

 Imagine if every major automaker of the world dumped their entire product line except for their most expensive luxury cars. Imagine any producer of any product saying they only know how to make money by taking the biggest risks possible. How can this be sound business? Yet, the mavens of Wall Street would seem to agree with the new Hollywood game plan. And we know why. The strategy of taking extremely high risks in an effort to score the biggest returns conceivable was what put the world economy into a tailspin in 2008. I believe the technical term for this type of behavior is “greed.” And I’ve got to admit, many of the folks on Wall Street have gotten richer from this.

 Tragically, much of the world population has suffered as a result.

 Like the world economy’s middle class struggle to survive, mid-level film budgets are becoming rare.  The gluttony of big profits diminishes the number of films being made also diminishing the ranks of creative talent and give us fewer choices in the quality and variety of the films we see. Is this what we, as audiences, really want of our films today?   The overly simplistic answer is that the box office speaks for itself – hundreds of millions of dollars will be earned this summer from these 19 blockbuster releases. But are the audiences deciding this is the kind of movie they want? Or are they merely selecting from a narrowing menu of choices stuffed down their throats by billions of advertising dollars?

If everyone is trying to seize the advantage by creating the same product and distributing it in the same way, will the industry as a whole suffer? The Stewart article predicts that with everyone employing the same strategy, the odds are strong that we will see at least a couple of spectacular box office failures this summer. Simply put, the article indicates that when everyone uses the same strategy someone is going to lose. Common sense would indicate that this blockbuster strategy is probably not going to succeed in the long run as the cost of the “misses” outruns the profits of the successes.

And what of the outcome for the materially obsessed characters in this summer’s films? Well, generally things don’t turn out well for them as noted in A.O. Scott’s article.  We know that, on screen, Gatsby is ultimately undone by his greed.

 The question remains as to whether the financiers of these films will be too. Or is it possible for them to “live with” reasonable profit margins and allow that there is value in telling a range of diverse stories?