For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching a two-day film production course for the FAS Film Screen Training program in Ireland. This is an abbreviated version of the week long course I teach at the Maine Media Workshops. The students (all ages) are looking to take a career path to media. Some of them have remained friends. One student, now studying film at St. John’s College in the beautiful city of Cork, Ireland, reached out, via email, with a series of questions on the role of the producer in the United States. I thought I would share her questions and my answers here in case others were interested. Thanks Yvonne.
- When did you decide that you wanted to be a producer?
Like many filmmakers when I started, I wanted to direct. I still do. However, as I built up my resume and work experience, I started to understand the difference of a poorly produced production and a good one. I worked for years as an Assistant Director, which in this country is not a step toward directing, but more of the step toward producing. You get a real understanding of all facets of a production. How to accomplish the creative within the limitations of the budget. I started working with directors I respected and they asked me to produce their projects. I wanted to be part of the project. I don’t think I ever decided I wanted to be a producer, I just kept getting asked to produce.
- Can you tell me about your first producing job?
Well, when you’re an independent filmmaker, you have to do at least some producing, so even when I was 10 years old making Super 8 movies, I had to figure out how much of my paper route money was going to go to buying film, who of my friends I was going to cast, how was I going to create the set. In college to get a BFA in Film from Emerson College, I had to make a half hour movie. I had a producer, but I still needed to bring many of the elements together myself. I guess my first truly paid producing job was working for Ted Turner in Atlanta, Georgia. He had just started CNN, TBS and Turner Networks. I had a fair amount of experience as a rental manager and accountant for a company called Blake Films, so I got hired for some Turner jobs because I was willing to work cheap.
- Was the process of becoming a producer a difficult one after you finished your education?
Blake Films was my first job out of college and both my roommates had worked there. I started in the accounting office which for me was as far as you could get from making films, but on reflection, this is where I learned to create budgets, pay invoices, cost analyze. I was promoted to Rental Manager for a division of the company in Atlanta, Georgia. This gave me the knowledge of booking crews and equipment. However, at the time I still really wanted to direct, so I applied for grants and got the funding to make a short film, “Travelin’ Trains.” The film did very well at film festivals so I quit my job at Blake Films. I worked all different freelance jobs, but the only jobs I got as a director were unpaid. I did get some production manager and producing jobs. Most of the paying jobs were through connections and people I had worked with in the past. That’s so important in this business. It’s how I got my first job at Blake Films and how I continue to get work today.
- What advice would you have for someone looking to develop their producing skills?
Learn from other producers. Watch how they work. Being a production assistant or coordinator for a producer is the best opportunity to watch and learn. Hopefully, it’ll be a producer that is willing to share some of their knowledge. Then offer to help produce some of your director friends projects. Make mistakes. Get better. Develop a reputation as a good producer. Don’t oversell your skills. Be honest.
- Do you find it hard when you’re directing, to be less hands on with producing duties?
Yes, I’ve been accused of this. But in defense, when directing, I can make some cost saving decisions because of my producing and assistant directing background. I’ve also been accused of being fairly hands on with the directing when I’m producing. The reason being is that many of the projects I’ve produced have required me to wear both hats. We really need to build a trust as a team before I can comfortably step away from taking on both roles. On the other hand, I’m not as interested in producing a project if I don’t have some creative stakes in the final result.
- How would you describe the film industry from a producer’s point of view?
Well, it certainly is getting harder to make money on a project and therefore investors are taking less risks. This flows down to everyone taking less risks on everything from ideas to hiring. It’s hard to find many new original independent films or television shows. That’s why I loved “Beasts of a Southern Wild” so much. (BTW, Fantastic article on the 10 lessons on Filmmaking from Director Benh Zeitlin in Filmmaker Magazine.)
What I find frustrating about the film industry in Los Angeles is that there is very little opportunity to move from one kind of job to another. I did this all the time in Atlanta – directed, produced, location manager, documentaries, feature films, directing theater. In Los Angeles, when searching for a job, I have to define my role as an absolute. Am I a documentary producer, reality television producer, indie film producer, televsion assistant director, indie film director, theater director? I’m all of the above and will do whatever it takes to get the job done to make the best project we can make.
As a producer, I want the best crew person that can do the job for the budget. If they have more experience then me, that’s even better. Too many egos in this town. That’s why I think more and more people are going elsewhere to create their projects, that and tax incentives. I’m hoping to do all my future projects in Ireland.
- What qualities/skills/personal traits do you think a producer needs to survive in the film industry?
When I teach classes or meet a new student for my OneonOne Film Training, I always write down the traits they’ll need to “make it” in the film business. I believe that if you don’t have these qualities you won’t survive and may want to save yourself the heartache and think about going into a different business. Those traits (in no particular order) are: Good Organization Skills, Good Communication Skills, Good Problem Solving Skills, Creative, Great Attitude, Competitive, Abundance of Determination and Sense of Confidence, Hard work and Energy, Dashes of Passion and Excitement, a Sense of Humor, a large Network of Contacts and Lots and Lots of Luck.
- For projects such as ‘We’ll Always Have Dingle‘ which you were Production Manager and Assistant Director, how hard is it to get funding?
It’s always hard to get funding. It certainly is not my strong point. I’m much better at making sure the money that is available is spent wisely. I can’t tell you how many great projects that I’m attached to as either a producer or director or both that I’ve spent years trying to raise money. Examples like my feature film “Press>Play” and my documentary “Witness Trees” will have a few months of interest from an investor, but then the deal will fall apart. Year after year. Recently, I was contracted to produce and direct a documentary and after working for three months on the project, I was told “the creative had gotten a head of the capital.” This after I was guarenteed payment and turned down other exciting producing projects. A few years back, I had a feature film with a full cast and a production start date and then the financing fell through. It can be so frustrating. You spend so much time trying to appeal to the money source and it ends up going nowhere. There are lots of people (especially in Los Angeles) that like to pretend they’re in the financing movies business, but they’re really just seeking attention. I’m sorry do I sound jaded here.
One of the things we did with “We’ll Always Have Dingle” was proceed to go into production before all the financing was secure. You see this done with many “Crowdfunding” projects. I don’t recommend this method, but sometimes, like in the case of “Dingle”, you have no other choice because so many elements were in place just for that short period of time. Cast, Director, Director of Photography, Location. It can be a bunch of elements. The hope is that by having a trailer or long form presentation you can raise the remaining budget or interest a distributor for finishing funds. I’ve seen this done many times, successfully, when pitching television networks, not as successfully with feature films.
- From your own experiences, what would be the main differences in the role of producer when making a television show such as ‘The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman‘, a documentary like ‘Houston, We Have A Problem‘, a reality show such as ‘Kids 2 Kids‘, or a film like ‘Finding Hope’?
Every job for a Producer is different with a different set of challenges and variables. That’s why you can’t use the budget of one project and expect it to suffice for another project. You’ve got to do the work and research to create an accurate budget and pre-production plan for that specific project. Television series usually have union rules and network standards that need to be addressed. Documentaries usually have smaller crews, but bigger needs in post production, etc.
Let me answer your question on the role of a good Producer (in my opinion) for any production. A Producer brings new investors into the film business and they look out for the investors’ needs because they think long term and know they need that private equity to continue for future projects. A Producer gets the script and pre-production right before moving forward. They inspire and develop talent because they embrace the project with their own love. Producers keep budgets at levels that make sense for the project, innovate, by making it a better project while controlling costs. Producers keep in touch with the audience, weighing what their tastes are, but also taking chances on emerging artists. This helps show the business and culture where it might aspire to be going. Finally, good Producers help bring content, creative talent, technology, audiences and investors together.
Once I understood the elements of good producing is when I knew I wanted to be a producer.