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.


I’m very excited to be launching a series of webinar events tonight with a FREE session called “Protecting Your Material”. We will discuss issues of copyright and the protection of intellectual property with attorney and filmmaker Marc Simon. The webinar is full but for anyone not attending I will make a recording available for free on this site shortly.

This experience has required me to learn a lot and I can only hope all of the bases are covered. It’s a lot like production!

Check out the list of Webinars planned. Hope you’ll join us for some!


Webinars Launching

Organizing a Meet Up Group has led me to begin formulating a series of webinars – both free and paid ones. It’s all very exciting but hasn’t left a great deal of time to update my posts. I should be able to stay more on top of the blogging part now that the Meet Ups are well under way. If you are in the New York area I encourage you to join the group and get involved. My goal is to help people new to the business to become producers and to help more seasoned producers to create better content.

If you visit the Group site you’ll see a dynamite FREE webinar on “Protecting your Material” scheduled for May 12th. Entertainment attorney Marc Simon will be my guest and we’ll spend some time talking about this very important topic. Don’t sweat it if you can’t make it at that time – a recording of the webinar will be available on this site shortly after it ends.

If you have topics you’d like to discuss or explore in a Meet Up or webinar format please let me know. Meanwhile look for a series of workshops and webinars being scheduled.


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

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!


Producing Meetup Group

A short post today to let everyone know that I have formed the first ProducingforFilm Meetup Group in New York. The idea is to create a group that will foster conversation and education about my personal passion – producing. I hope to have regularly scheduled Meet Ups that will be a combination of networking and learning. I’ll do free presentations about topics of interest to the group and offer discounted workshops and webinars along the way.

Producing content is a combination of business and creative knowledge. While it’s true that the best way to learn is by doing, there are many basics that are teachable and can put you in a better place to aid in the creative process. I’ll be scheduling Meeting very soon. I hope you’ll join the Group and look forward to meeting.



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?

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.