Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sometimes, you have to travel 4,000 miles to get the best dirt from your back yard.

If you're in the film business in Nova Scotia, you either are now or will be soon drinking at the Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax. As I was. Repeatedly. A couple of days last week.

I ran into a bunch of film people I've either worked with, heard of, or vaguely know, and was told more or less the same story by five of them:

Apparently, a huge American client (name withheld) was convinced by its huge American ad agency (name withheld) to pony up for what's technically known as a boondoggle –– wasting a bunch of a client's money in order to indulge your own personal desire. In this case, a business class ticket and five-star accommodations in exotic locations around the world, hobnobbing with famous people, in order to "supervise" a production.

You noticed the quotes, right? I'll get to those in a minute.

One stop on this whirlwind world tour was Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where an Academy Award-nominated movie star (name withheld) was to be filmed entering a class room. Thirty or so local kids were hired as extras for the shot, for which they were meant to be paid $200.

The director decided to tell the kids what to do when said movie star walked into the room. This is called "directing" and union rules are pretty clear that directors can't do that. If directors direct extras, those extras become principals, which means they get paid as principals. But I suppose the production team figured that since these kids were just local Nova Scotia yokels, not seasoned Hollywood actor kids, who would know, right?

(For the record, the movie star appearing in the commercial is a Nova Scotia yokel herself, which was probably one of the arguments the agency mounted to convince the client they needed to take an all-expenses paid trip there, but isn't it funny how the dots aren't connected when it's not convenient to do so?)

Where was I? Oh yeah. Union rules.

These union rules, by the way, are not obscure or particularly arcane. They're almost as basic as "light goes into the front part of the camera." You can't be a working producer or director –– much less a producer or director worthy of flying around the world, spending hundreds of thousands of your client's dollars, and working with an Academy Award-nominated actor –– without knowing them.

Still, nobody "supervising" the production flagged the take as unusable, so the editor cut it into the spot. Which got presented all the way up the corporate ladder and approved and eventually ran globally.

Union rules are pretty clear about this, too. Each time a principal appears in a spot on air, he or she is entitled to collect residuals. But I suppose Nova Scotia is considered such a backwater of civilization by the sophisticated ad guys in LA that they figured nobody there has television.

Imagine their surprise when somebody noticed.

A fan got hit with shit, as they say, and negotiations were suddenly entered into in earnest. The upshot? Each of the extras got a nice little surprise bonus –– a check for $10,000, courtesy of the client. I don't know the media schedule, but I'd be willing to bet that the union was extremely generous in the compromise it reached on behalf of the performers.

Which brings me to the quotes.

Here you have a copywriter, art director, producer, account executive, and probably a couple associate creative directors, account directors, creative directors, and agency heads of production –– because this is, after all, a critical project for this very important client and somebody must be on hand in each of these exotic locations that coincidentally we've always wanted to visit at someone else's expense –– "supervising" this shoot and yet not a single one of them did anything to prevent a $300,000 overage.

The bottom line: Lots of people got really nice vacations, the director (if he's not totally inept) shot enough footage even if the concepts were totally lame to cobble something impressive together to go on his reel, and 30 kids in Nova Scotia are well on their way to having college paid for. The client ought to be furious because the agency didn't just drop the ball, they ran into their own end zone and then stomped on it, but they're so huge and profitable that $300,000 is probably less than their catering bill at the annual shareholders' meeting, so maybe they don't really care.

I think we can take away two lessons here:

1) Just because you convinced somebody to fork over a shit load of money doesn't mean you still don't have to do your job; and

2) Those dumb hicks you're hiring for pennies on the dollar aren't necessarily dumb hicks.

What's cool, though? It sure is easy to find people willing to work as extras in Nova Scotia these days.