Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stay out of the middle.

There are two extremes when it comes to producing. At one end, you have the no-budget projects. The ones you do with friends and favors, guerilla-style, not paying location fees or getting permits and just hoping you'll be done before somebody kicks you out.

On the other extreme are the multi-million dollar extravaganzas. On these, everything is done by the book and everybody is on the clock.

At both extremes, life is difficult. On the no-budget end, if you need your actor to wear a blue shirt, you either break out the credit card to buy one or you borrow one from someone who happens to be the right size. On the huge-budget end, you're working with stars earning more than $10 million just to be there. Those stars have people –– people who often have people of their own –– who do nothing but make sure the stars are 'taken care of'. Someone recently told me that on the film 'Falling Down' (a film about a middle class guy having a really bad day) Michael Douglas wore one of eight identical shirts the wardrobe stylist was required to buy, full retail, from Barney's.

You know that Kiswahili saying, "When the elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers?" On a big show, your production is the grass. Your only hope of protecting the grass is to be an elephant yourself, which you're not, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog. But even if you were, you'd have to be a pretty huge elephant not to get drawn into stupid fights over who doesn't show up on set until everybody else is there and ready to shoot or what color out-of-season flowers have to be in whose trailer.

But as hard as it is to do no-budget productions –– and as hard as it is to do huge-budget productions –– it's hardest of all to do the middle-budget productions. The ones where you have enough money to rent a stage, but not enough to build a decent set. Where you get the cast you want, but you only have one 14-hour day to shoot three-days' worth of footage. Where everybody gets paid, but not enough to make their rate.

On these jobs, you can't ask for favors. And there isn't any extra money to throw around.

You want my advice? Of course you do. Don't aim for the middle. Make everything you can for nothing until something hits so big that Hollywood comes knocking.

And pay attention. I guarantee you, your first time at bat, Hollywood isn't going to back up the truck and unload stacks of money. So unless you know not only why it takes four gaffers two hours to light a bathroom, but how much those gaffers, the lights, and the bathroom cost, the first time you find yourself on a job with a real budget your ass is going to be, well, grass.


  1. I'm a little puzzled about the position of this post.

    You say "Don't aim for the middle"

    And you say "Unless you know [...] how much gaffers, lights and bathroom cost, the first time you find yourself on a job with a real budget your ass is going to be, well, grass"

    But how are you supposed to learn all that on no-budget productions? You advocate people passing on great learning opportunities in order to take the BIG job when it comes, and then you say that they'll almost certainly be unprepared for it.

    Good post, great to read and lots to think about, but the whole idea of avoiding the middle just to stay out of the odd on-set scrap seems problematic. I must be missing something.

  2. With the exception that the rest of the world's film industries - the ones that aren't hollywood - are the middle ground between no budget and big budget.

  3. Thanks for making a great point. I should probably have spent a little more time writing this one.

    I have two answers. The first is that as an aspiring director, you should take any job on any set, not just to see how other directors work, but to understand how sets function in general. This is going to be its own post at some point, but obviously I haven't put it out there yet.

    The second has to do with paying attention. Just because you're spending as little as possible for the bathroom, the lights, and the gaffers doesn't mean you can't –– or shouldn't –– get a sense of what those elements legitimately require, in terms of money, time, food, support, and other ancillary stuff.

    And obviously, I'd be a hypocrite if I told people to turn down any job because it has a budget but is not The Big Time. But I see a lot of aspiring directors try to cobble inadequate funding together and then flame out because they're trapped in a situation where they have no access to either money or favors. That's what I was trying to address.

  4. To Stu's point, you're right. The rest of the world doesn't operate like Hollywood. Yet.

    Clearly, this post reveals not only my own cultural bias, but my experiential bias as well.

  5. I think what I walk away with from this is to avoid those who steal from peter the vfx guy to pay paul the actor who had a bit part in a reality tv series.

    I have worked with and have several friends who work with the indie producers who are trying to squeeze out "hollywood quality" by short-cutting the important stuff like paying people what they are worth. I have a very good friend who has a project resume that reads like the hollywood blockbusters of the 90s and I am ashamed that that indie people try to get him to do them favors all the time while they spend large amounts of money on waste pretending to be big time.

    So, yes, the point is I suppose to avoid the wrong projects but how do you know what the wrong projects are? A good way to smell them out is to look at the above-the-line track records and the budget.

  6. I actually got a lot out of Mr. Loch's last paragraph--comment above me, I think. Very useful tip-to look at the above-the-line talent when considering a project.

  7. All great comments, however, show me someone who says they never made a mistake and I will show you someone with no experience. It's that trail and error period when you get in the business that sharpens you sense of a projects stench.

    As a producer I have boxes of scripts that people want me to produce. Maybe 1 in ten is produceable, written well and would attract the attention of a top flight director/actor or studio.

    The best way to describe hollywood in the indie, middle and big budget genres is to say, you do the good script indie for love and possible kudos (Sling Blade is a good example) you do the middle of the road budget for decent pay and possible networking and or award exposure (In America), and you do the big budget films to because if done right not only do you get paid well but you get more projects to work on.

    Like winning the lottery but much more fun!

  8. For what it's worth, this reality applies to many segments, not just filmed entertainment. As an 8X entrepreneur, I can tell you that when the definition of the situation changes from "we have no money" to "we have a little money" the choices made about who gets what, have a tendency to get polarizing (with some).



  9. I don't really get this post.

    First of all, how exactly are you supposed to make a living (let alone actually learn how to work with a real crew and equipment) waiting for hollywood to knock on the door?

    Secondly, hopefully you would learn (before getting to Hollywood) that you wouldn't have 4 gaffers on a set any more than you'd have 4 directors. (One of the things you would hopefully learn during your years working in the middle is who does what job on a film set.)

  10. I've worked on film sets, have made short, no budget films, and have made a feature film with a budget of around $10,000. While the feature is by no means a middle project, I believe i've run into some similar problems Brian Belefant raises.

    We had actors with real resumes. Resumes that showed they were serious actors going somewhere. I would read some of these and wonder why did they agree to do my film? It was a little intimidating being a first time director.

    The problem with this type of situation was these actors always had a higher paying gig they were also involved with. This led to nightmarish scheduling problems, massive headaches, and lower level actors deriding the others as divas.

    Also, we had several actual locations lined up for the film. The owners of these businesses all thought it would be great to have a film company come in and shoot there. The problem we ran into at a couple of locations occured when 20 people showed up the morning of the shoot. A couple of business owners freaked out and refused to let us shoot there. Even if we had a larger budget, they would not have taken a few bucks to allow us to remain. It would have taken a significant amount to quell any protests. Most people really have no concept of how the filmmaking process works and how many people are involved.

    I'm in agreement with Mr. Belefant. If you want to make movies, go small. Work on the writing. Make it tight and simple enough for no budget. If the writings great and the acting is good, it will get noticed at film festivals. The biggest problem with no budget films is the writing. If the story and characters are not well developed and interesting enough to hold an audiences attention, then it doesn't matter how pretty the images look or how cool the soundtrack is.

  11. This is brilliant information which applies to almost any type of production (not just movies). Your writing is very clear and to the point. Thanks.

  12. On the surface it seems like an easy straightforward question to answer. Naively, when I became interested in movies, I was hoping to learn everything about being a real movie producer.
    Theatre and Stageplay

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