O Buffalo!

On location producing an indie feature called Clover and learning many things on the journey. Many ideas flowing for new course work and teaching approaches but won’t have time to implement them until the new year when I head to The Republic of Georgia to give a 7 day workshop.

In the meantime I will wrap this out while trying to stay warm.

More on Clover 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.

Our First Meetup Group

Last week I announced that I was starting a Meetup Group for aspiring and emerging producers. Well, today I just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve scheduled the first actual in person Meet Up. It’s a free event on April 16th in Manhattan.

My goal for these Meet Ups is to help anyone interested in pursuing a career as a producer to do their job a little better. The method will be a series of free lectures and an offering of some affordable courses and webinars.

Stay tuned for more information in this space and join the ProducingforFilm Meetup group at Meetup.com

Here’s the text of the Invitation:

First Meet Up

We’ll talk about the role of the producer and what a producer does at each of the various stages in the life of a production – trying to break it down as much as possible. It’s a big topic that we will be returning to a lot as we build our knowledge and skill set for creating better content.

The plan for the evening is as follows:

– A meet & greet as everyone arrives, gets their drinks and settles in.

– A brief intro and the obligatory “going around the room”

– A discussion about producing that should last about 30 minutes

– A discussion about upcoming meet ups including topics and types of venues

It should be a great opportunity to build your professional network by meeting like minded people. We’re starting in Manhattan but I hope to be doing these at various locations in Brooklyn and Queens as well.

The venue is a casual place where you can get a bite to eat or a drink, meet other people interested in filmmaking and, hopefully, learn a few things. It’s a nice big space but we need your RSVP to make sure they are ready.

Hope you’ll join us!


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?

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.

Back from the Road

It’s been a good long while since my last post – over two months! – but there’s an excellent reason. I’ve been in an extended teaching mode that began with a terrific workshop for Film Interchange. We had a good time and covered a lot of ground, as always. I’ll be doing more workshops for these folks in 2014 and you’ll be hearing more about them in future posts.

But for the past three and a half weeks I’ve been on the road at two of the Caribbean’s top film schools. The first and the granddaddy of Latin American film schools is La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV) in San Antonio de Los Banos, Cuba. The school was founded in 1986 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fernando Birri. The second was at Universidad Veritas’s Nueva Escuela de Cine y TV in San Jose, Costa Rica where there is an exciting new program in place for undergraduate film students that is the foundation for the burgeoning Costa Rican film industry.  I’ll be talking more about the individual schools in the next few weeks when I launch a new video series on film schools around the world starting with these two.

The experience of meeting new filmmakers – both the veteran filmmakers who teach at these schools as well as the energetic students in each place – is always invigorating. Everyone has stories to tell and the advanced technology of digital filmmaking is making it easier and easier for people to tell them. I feel very lucky to have come across some really cool finished films as well as some very exciting proposals that I hope will get made into feature length documentaries and fiction films.

The other wonderful thing about teaching is that it allows you to learn more about the subject you are teaching. Having to explain filmmaking, especially to a culture different from your own always makes you reflect on the good (and bad) sides of what you do every day. The last two months have been that way for me.

So we won’t be winding down over the next six weeks, but rather gathering steam for a new year with new projects and adventures. Stay tuned.