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.