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…




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.

When Not to D-I-Y…

I love the Do-It-Yourself world and do, indeed, do many more things than I ever imagined possible. Being able to do some rudimentary things like download and organize footage that’s been shot allows me to get things done cheaper and on my own timetable. Being able to create basic websites and instructional videos and webinars has allowed me to reach a lot of people with really good information. On my last film, I did all of the accounting including payroll and handled most of the legal work. Having technology help me get routine tasks done myself saved money and helped make the movie a reality. When I think back on it, I even became a screenwriter many years ago just so that I would have something to produce!

But there are situations when D-I-Y should be handled with caution.

I met recently with a young person who had worked in the film industry for a number of years and was quite successful in her niche but, like many of us, had grown restless. She initiated the meeting because she wanted to talk about “moving into producing.” Her reputation and her skill set seemed to lend itself to that goal. But as we talked she expressed the desire to tell stories and to control those stories as much as possible; in essence to be a writer-director-producer.

I met another young man who was about to direct his first feature. He was also producing it   alone, by necessity, and was planning on shooting and editing it as well. His script was quite good and he had some resources but was making the decision up front to “save money” by being a multi-hyphenate; doing the work of four people to conserve his cash.

My advice to both of these people was essentially the same: try to keep the number of hyphens in your title down to ONE as you start out.  Some jobs naturally lend themselves to working together like Writer-Director. There are certainly a few successful filmmakers who have other hyphenates like Director-Cinematographer. There are even some exceptional people with two hyphenates. But I think there is something very important about collaboration and about doing what one does best. Consider what you really, really want to be and what you excel at, then find good people to handle the other jobs.

My theory here is that even exceptional people are probably exceptional in only one area. Let’s say, as in the case above that you plan on being a Director-Producer-Cinematographer-Editor. Let’s say you are an exceptional Director (if you’re going to excel, I’d say THAT would be the area that will get your career the farthest!). So you are a great Director that is now working with an average Cinematographer and Editor and, possibly a not very good Producer. The question is, would the movie be better served with a great Cinematographer, a really talented Editor and a better Producer? I’d say yes to all three. Having skilled people in all of those areas will easily make up for the sacrifices you’ll make to have the money to hire them.

One word about the Producing credit – this is one where there are so many kinds of producers and contributions that can come from them that a lot of Directors do indeed function as producers in the early stages of getting their projects off the ground. Having a credit that acknowledges that is okay with me but I think it’s important to hand the actual job of producing off to someone who is capable as the production becomes real. I have had the Producer-Writer credit on several occasions and I have to literally take the Writer Hat off and put the Producer Hat on at a certain point if I am to be most effective.

The Editor hyphenate is especially tricky but is also more open than the others. It is possible to assemble a cut of your film yourself and then bring in an Editor or even a consulting editor down the road. It’s not my favorite scenario because the function of the editor is to be as objective as possible about the footage that was shot and it’s tough to be objective when you planned every setup and lived through the 18 hour day that it took to shoot. At the very least, if you’re going down this road you need to screen the film extensively and take careful notes of audience reactions. Try to take off the Director or Producer or Cinematographer hat when you are in the editing room and focus on making the best film possible from the available footage.

Generally, filmmaking is and should be collaborative. That can be scary and result in a feeling of “losing control” for filmmakers. But listening to other people’s ideas doesn’t mean you’ve lost control. Find people who share your vision and who can add to it, then hear their ideas and accept the ones that make sense for your movie. Don’t cut this process short by deciding to Do-It-All-Yourself!

What’s your personal experience with “doing everything” or “doing too much”? And how has it impacted the end result?

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.

Notes for Next Time

Over the years I’ve kept a document on my computer that I would update now and again whenever a good idea struck me while I was in some phase of production – or post-production, pre-production or even development. Keep in mind that I have always been in some phase of production for the past 34 years, so the document has become like an old friend to me. I call that document “Notes for Next Time.” Sadly, through a couple dozen computer crashes and the inexpert use of backup devices, I don’t have the original document that goes all the way back to the beginning so I can’t find every one of my notes, but it’s still fun to read back even 10 years ago.

Quaint notes like, “Be sure to obtain an archive of all documents on diskette” put a smile on my face. The truth is that many of my notes – along with tips and tricks – have become obsolete due to technology. Some of the things I wanted budgeting and scheduling software to do back in the 90s have actually come to pass and more improvements were made to software than I could have imagined. Then there’s a whole category of notes that involve “good ideas” that still haven’t been implemented or are just on the cusp of coming to fruition. Among those are the ability to drill into a an actual Budge from the Estimate to Complete in a Cost Report, as well as Electronic time cards, start forms and purchase orders. I’ve looked for these for well over a decade and some are just now starting to be introduced.

There are also cautionary notes and comments that could be easily incorporated into posts for this blog and into specific classes on this site. Things like, “Provide an excel spreadsheet to department heads for budgeting to ensure they include proper fringes in labor calculations.” Or, “Talk to the Director about what kind of rehearsals they want to have to be sure they’re covered in the prep schedule and budget.” The overall concept is to track those “genius” and “not-so-genius” ideas you have while standing on a freezing street corner at 3am doing take 18 of what looked like a simple “walk and talk” on paper. I highly recommend the Voice Notes feature on your phone when brilliance strikes in this type of situation! (Just be sure to set a phone reminder that says, “Listen to Voice Notes!”)

Sometimes great ideas are borne out of the horrible moments and often they aren’t recorded for posterity. And trust me, young guns out there, it’s pretty easy to remember the great idea when you had it last week but decades of wear and tear often erase it. Part of the challenge of remembering is that the “genius” idea may relate to a situation that you won’t face again for years. I can testify to the fact that whenever I go back to my little document, I always read through the ideas and find at least one that makes me nod and say, “Yes, gotta remember that one,” whether or not I’ve ever again encountered the problem that caused it. So I highly advise some kind of device like “Notes for Next Time.” No I still haven’t put together that “Ideal Producer’s Location Kit” (that idea from 2003) but you may be reading about it down the road in this blog!

What this is really about is that every single time you go out to shoot – and I mean whether it’s a feature film or a simple sit down interview for a documentary – you will learn something. It may not be earth shattering and it may not change the way you do your job, but you will learn something. Most of the time, unless it’s a huge lesson we won’t remember it. But, you should always be aware of how you are doing your job and look for ways to improve your skills – technical and personal. I look back and nod when I read notes like, “Don’t wear a watch,” and the sound advice, “If you need to give someone a taking to, take them aside and do it quietly.” Those are the kind of notes I value the most – the ones that will make me just a little bit better next time.

Five Things A Producer Should Never Say

1. “I can’t speak to you because I am mixing my movie.” (worst when said to the Director of your next project)

Producers do this all the time. They take advantage of whatever stage their movie is at to avoid talking to someone or dealing with something. Let’s get this straight. A producer may be “in a mix” and may even be involved in a creative discussion – I am not belittling that at all – but a producer is not sitting there riding those faders mixing the film. Now, a mix can have some very intense moments with a lot of back and forth, but by and large they are miserably boring places where I am usually engaged in other work until that moment where I am called on to listen, usually to a bird tweeting or some effect, and express my learned opinion. A producer doesn’t mix a movie, or color correct one for that matter. In general, don’t overstate the importance of what you are doing, especially to people who understand the process. Also, and this is just as important, don’t say something like that to a director on another project. You can’t leave a director hanging on any issue with the reason being you are too busy working on some other movie. To the director on the phone there is no other movie. Theirs is the only movie on the planet and you should always take their call.

2. “How’s the food?” (when referring to meals served on set)

 The food on the set is always just okay, unless it’s horrible. Part of the reason for this has nothing to do with the skill of the chef.  It’s important to understand that you are dealing with a caterer and they are doing your whole show which means they are making breakfast and lunch for 100 people every day for weeks on end. Even when the chefs are spectacular, they can’t vary the food enough to please all of those mouths. It’s the reason we don’t eat at the same restaurant every time we go out, even if we have restaurants that we love. It’s the same reason that, in my house, we split the cooking between myself, my wife and my daughter-in-law and son. And that’s only when cooking for 5 people. When you have a hundred or more there will always be someone who isn’t satisfied. When you walk around with a sign on your back that reads “complaint bureau” (at least it feels that way sometimes) then you might do well to just keep your opinions and your questions to yourself. In short, listen for grumblings and try to head them off but don’t “look for trouble” (as my mother used to say) by asking questions.

3. “We’ve gotta be done with this scene in 5 minutes!”  (worst done while charging onto set in the midst of a very difficult scene)

If you’re thinking this and feel absolutely compelled to say it, STOP. Take a deep breath. Go for a short walk while you  consider a couple of things: what kind of a jam are you really in? In other words, how serious is this situation? Now, ask yourself, “What’s the best possible outcome, both for the moment and for the long term?” It is probably not as bad as you think it is. We tend to get so wrapped up in the drama – not only in front of the camera but often behind it as well, that we can’t make rational decisions. And by the way, in 33 years of doing this, I’ve never seen a producer say that line and have it work. No one ever says, “Okay!” and moves on to the next scene. But if you try and understand why it never works I think you might find a better way to move that set along.

First, know that there isn’t a Director, Actor, DP or Assistant Director that willingly gets stuck in a quagmire of a scene. No one is starting the day saying, “Let’s spend 7 or 8 hours on that little 2/8th page scene.” Struggling with your work, especially in front of an entire crew, is no fun. It’s not unlike forgetting your lines take after take or screwing up a lighting cue over and over. It sucks. Everyone knows how much it costs or at least they know it costs a lot more than they can afford. Plus it’s demonized as unprofessional. Add to that the fact that crews are generally tired and they want to move through the work as fast as possible. Knowing all this should help you to understand that no one is trying to ruin your life or your career or even your precious budget. Alright, so we’ve established that this situation isn’t about you personally and that panicking never works. Now what?

Solving any problem requires that you have some knowledge and information at your disposal. Don’t wait until you need to “finish in five minutes.” When things start to slow down you should find your way to the camera and observe. That way, if things continue to slog along, you can make an informed judgment and offer the best advice. By the way, this is why I don’ spend all day sitting by the monitor and involve myself in every discussion about the shooting – that makes you part of the problem. Spending time away from camera not only lets you do other facets of your job but allows you to provide those “fresh eyes” at key moments.

So you’ve observed what’s going on – now what? You probably don’t need to point out the fact that the shoot is falling behind – everyone can feel that. You don’t even have to look at your watch. And this type of situation is the exact reason that I haven’t worn a watch in 20 years – too much anxiety for me and anyone who sees me staring at it. Once you have a feel for the source of the trouble, explore your options – either in your head or with someone else, usually the AD, but you can talk to anyone you trust. Then bring everyone together to discuss those options. Whatever you do, don’t panic. It’s not going to solve anything. Sadly, I know that from experience. If panic solved problems on a set I would have been singlehandedly responsible for saving a whole lot of shooting days and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4 & 5. “Yes” and “No” ( As a knee-jerk reaction when a brilliant idea or unexpected problem occurs)

These last two may seem “cute” but they are really about keeping your options open until you really have to make that decision.  In short, it’s irresponsible to make a hasty judgment about any significant expenditure on a film until you are certain that it’s necessary. A producer’s job is to find that balance among three central questions: Does the Director feel that this is really important for the story? What do I need to know to make this decision unequivocally? And when does this decision need to be made?  Those three questions need to be answered every time a “surprise” presents itself.  One word answers aren’t enough.  A “Yes” may commit you to something you really can’t afford or don’t need. A “No” can stir resentment if the creatives feel you’re just trying to make your job easier and you only care about money.

You’ll have some time in prep and post to research things and make good decisions but the timeline is still short. When things come up during shooting, there is obviously more immediacy. Decisions here have a much shorter timeline.  And don’t forget, every decision has consequences across multiple departments. My suggestion? Ask a lot of questions. Always be positive but never making promises you can’t keep. Gather as much information as possible, especially from your key crew people. Finally, make the decision when you are comfortable that you’ve gathered all the facts and don’t second guess yourself or anyone else if it turns out not to be the right decision.

That’s my short list of “what not to say”. Do you have anything you’ve ever said as a producer or on a set that you wish you hadn’t?  Let me know!