Thursday, May 28, 2015

What to look for in a line producer (part 2)

You know what sucks about working as a director? You really don’t get to see how other people do what you do. 

I figured out a way around that. What I did was sign up with an extra casting service. I’d get booked as an extra on other people's sets and get to see how different directors work. 

Remember that movie ‘The Wild, Wild West’? I was in that.

Don’t bother looking for my name in the credits. They hired hundreds of us, put us in genuine wool Confederate army uniforms, had makeup people apply facial hair, and then told us to sit in a non-air-conditioned soundstage all day in sweltering Burbank, waiting to be called to the set. 

Fun.

I had been booked for four days. When I got home at the end of the third day I got a phone call. A directing job I'd been hoping to get had come through. 

Of course I came in for the fourth day –– I’d put off starting the directing job because I’d committed to the extra work –– but since the scenes I was supposed to be in hadn’t been finished, the Assistant Director made an announcement to the bunch of us that they’d be needing us to come back for a few more days. 

I took the AD aside and told him that I was sorry, but that I couldn’t make it back. And this guy? He tried everything. He appealed to my greed. (“I’ll see if I can swing you more money.”) He appealed to my sense of duty. (“You committed to this project. You can’t just leave us in the lurch like this.”) He even tried to threaten me. (“With an attitude like that, you’re not going to go very far in this business.”)

Finally, out of ammo, he asked. “What could you possibly be doing that’s more important than helping make this film come together?” 

I didn’t want to do it, but I had to tell him. “I booked a job directing a commercial for American Express.”

“Oh.” 

There are two points to this story and they both aim square at the second most important thing you need to look for in a producer: 

The second most important thing to look for in a line producer is someone who’s committed to seeing your project through.

Point one was that I was not that. Not to Barry Sonnenfeld, anyway, or the rest of the people on ‘The Wild, Wild West’ and maybe that’s why the movie turned out to be such a turd. Point two was that the AD was. He did his very best to get me to come back, but no matter how hard he tried I gave him something he simply couldn’t trump. 

Granted, I wasn’t the producer and neither was he. But here’s the thing. There will always be reasons. People get sick. People’s kids get sick. Relatives die. Those and many more are legitimate reasons to not come into work and if you don’t understand those you shouldn’t be in a position of authority.

It’s the illegitimate reasons that can never ever ever get in the way. Like the producer who disappeared on me because the surf was really good. Or the one who went incommunicado for hours at a time as soon as the bars opened. 

When you hire a producer, make sure you hire one who wants not only to be a producer, but wants to be your producer. As uncool as it is, people will ditch one job for a better one and let’s be honest, your masterpiece might not be the best job a producer is in contention for.

Remember the first most important thing to look for in a producer? Ethics? This is a another reason that’s Thing Number One. An ethical producer will finish out his or her commitment to you and if Spielberg calls, he or she will ask him to wait until this project is finished. 

I don’t know Steven Spielberg, but I’d be willing to bet you he’d respect that. After all, he’s not looking for someone who’s going to disappear in the middle of his production, either. 

As for Barry Sonnenfeld, if you’re reading this? Dude, I’m sorry.

Brian Belefant is a copywriter turned director still finishing up post production on a corporate video that you'll never get to see because of all the non-disclosure agreements and stuff. But hey, if you're looking to put together your next project, maybe he'll be done by the time you pull the trigger. Call (503) 715 2852 or email belefant@me.com.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What to look for in a line producer (part 1)

I recently heard from an aspiring filmmaker. He managed to put the money together for a short he wants to shoot (hooray!) and he asked me to help him find a line producer to make it. 

Seems simple enough. But you know me. Rather than simply giving him a couple of names, I sat down and thought about what I look for in a producer. Then I wrote all those things down in a list and put them in order of priority. 

And then, rather than actually getting back to the aspiring filmmaker, I decided to put it all together and post each characteristic, one blog post at a time. 

Kidding. 

Here's what I told him: 
  1. The most important quality to look for in a line producer: Someone who’s ethical.
The single most important quality to look for in a line producer is someone who not only knows the difference between right and wrong, but who always, always does what’s right. 

Right for the production, for the crew, for the actors, for the community, and for you.

I’m going to get into budgeting basics in another blog post, but for now take me at my word when I say that budgets are fuzzy things in that there are thousands of places to bury a body. What’s the rate for a gaffer? Well, there’s a range, but on each and every production it’s up to the producer to negotiate the rate with the gaffer. 

You don’t want a gaffer who resents being paid less than what he or she feels is fair, but at the same time, you don’t want to just throw money at the gaffer, either. 

An ethical producer takes all the relevant factors into consideration: The size of your budget, the number of days you’ll be shooting, the circumstances  (it’s a lot easier to ask for flexibility when you’re shooting on a tropical beach than when you’re shooting in a garbage dump), the team being put together, the kind of piece you’re working on, the number of favors you’ve already asked from the gaffer, and perhaps most important, your reputation. Yours. 

I’ve had crews drop everything for a chance to get paid half their normal rate when they heard it was a chance to work with me and oh by the way, we were going to be shooting at night. In winter. Outside. Why? Because from the day I started directing almost 20 years ago I’ve made it a point not to be an asshole. I take care of my crews, I treat my actors with respect, and I bust my own butt. 

(To be fair, I've had crews drop everything for a chance to get paid half their normal rate when they heard it was a spot for a Swiss bank and there'd be a topless girl in it, but that's another story.)

If you’re a newcomer, you don’t have a reputation yet and frankly, that can work against you. First timers are often indecisive, which ends up wasting a lot of time. Or they can try to overcompensate for their lack of experience by being too decisive, which ends up pissing off a lot of people who really are just trying to make things go better.

If you’re a newcomer, go ahead and try to assuage your producer. If he or she is any good, it won’t make a difference because, well, you’re a newcomer and there’s no value in making promises to a crew about what you’re going to be like to work with that he or she can’t keep. 

But let’s go back to that gaffer. The one whose rate was being negotiated. I’ve heard of producers negotiating one rate with the gaffer, but then putting another number into the budget. One that's a touch higher. What happens to the difference? Well, producers need to drive nice cars, right?

At this point you've been reading along, hoping I would get around to answering that question: “But, Brian, where can I actually find an ethical producer?” Here comes. 

Let's go back to what I said before, about how you want to find someone who always does what's right for the production, for the crew, for the actors, for the community, and for you. The thing about ethical people is that they'll have a reputation. And people with reputations are pretty easy to find. 

All you have to do is do what that aspiring filmmaker did: Ask. Not me, obviously, because I'll probably just turn it into a blog post instead of giving you an answer. 

Okay, ask me. But also ask anybody who might have crossed paths with a line producer they'd recommend. Ask actors, directors, crew members, people who let some aspiring filmmaker shoot in their barn. Ask specifically for people who are ethical.

See? Pretty easy. 

But there's more. And I'll get to each and every one of those in future blog posts, which if you want to make sure you don't miss, why don't you sign up for my email list? The only spam you'll get is from me, and it's only spam if you're not interested in what I have to say. Which you are. 

Brian Belefant is a copywriter turned director currently finishing up post production on a corporate video that you'll never get to see because of all the non-disclosure agreements and stuff. But hey, if you're looking to put together your next project, please call (503) 715 2852 or email belefant@me.com.