Friday, April 26, 2013

Plaster - Part 6 - Show Me the Money

"Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It's time to start thinking."
-Sir Ernest Rutherford, Noble Prize Winner, Physics

Here's a lesson in line producing you won't learn in any film school, and, hopefully, one you never have to put into practice. Call it "How To Responsibly Shut Down A Film."

It is unique to independently-financed projects. As I've repeatedly said, when Studio Films go over budget, they just do so on paper. When Indies go over budget, checks bounce, Literally.

It's the line producer's job to see that does not happen, and it starts with cash flow.

Before you, the line producer, ever started, you prepared a budget. In a perfect case, you prepared a budget based on the script, and then the producers went out and raised that amount of money.

In some cases, they have raised all the money that they could, and now want to know if they can make the movie. It's backwards, but it happens more often than you might think.

The challenge, then, is to give them a hard budget, along with hard decisions that need to be made. You'd like to shoot for 30 days? Sorry, budget says you can do 24. You want a helicopter shot? Sorry, you can't afford it.

You want to pay one actor $10K for one day's work? It's not in the budget.

As you have already seen, on Plaster, that last one got ignored. So did the one about making the schedule work, as our director wasted a good deal of time insisting that we try shots that either didn't work or took too much time. In fact, Jean-Baptiste, the director, claimed that the problem wasn't his lack of preparation, but rather, that two people experienced at doing schedules, myself and my First AD Susan, were wrong about how long it should take. This is not to mention the time lost while he tried to figure out scenes on set that he should have had prepared.

Add it all up, and it was clear to me that we did not have enough money to finish the film. Keeping close track of cash flow and reconciliation are important on movies of any size, but especially so on indies.

Even well-financed indies have accounting departments, but Stan Bickman, my mentor, had taught me how to work with a coordinator and an assistant to do most of the same work during production on projects under $1M.

Cash flow indicates how much you will be spending, by line item, per week. You project this from the very beginning so that you know where you are at any given point.

Reconciliation is a comparison of how much you budgeted, again by line item. versus how much has been spent.

No film comes in exactly on budget by line item, which is where moving money around comes to pass. However, you can easily see where there is no money to move.

On Plaster, we had borrowed all we could from post-production. The producer and director already knew they would, at best, have to raise more money once we got the film "in the can." Now, we were talking about how much of the film we could finish - it would not be the entire film.

The line producer, at this point, has a number of responsibilities.

He has a responsibility to the producers to not leave them with debt. That means you pay off all vendor and crew with the money you have left.

It is okay to put off some vendor payments for a short time, say, until the SAG Bond is reimbursed, or art department returns are done and deposits returned. It is not okay to put them off indefinitely with money that the producers hope will come in.

By nature, producers are optimists. That's all well and good, but reality must kick in. As line producer, I have a responsibility to my vendors. If they are not insisting on C.O.D., then it is because they trust me. That relationship also allows me to get the best deals for filmmakers. Once I burn that, I ruin my reputation, and I hurt the next filmmaker who is looking for a break.

You say, "hey, it was the producers who ddin't pay, not you." Uh, Uh.  The deal happened on my word; my reputation, not the first-time producers'. That makes it my responsibility.

There is also the responsibility to the crew.  On low-budget projects, crews are working for below their regular day rates, sometimes way below. They do that for me because they know I will take care of them, that they will get paid, and on time.

On low-budget projects, I pay crew by having them submit invoices the next-to-last day of the shooting week, and hand out checks on the last day of that week. Sure, on jobs using a payroll company for crew, pay is a week behind, and that's fine, but they are getting paid a good deal more. The trade off with me is that they leave that week's work with a  check for that week, they are never behind.

This is a policy I started when I took over that project where the director had stiffed crew. The previous production manager on that project had trusted the producer/director, and that crew paid for that trust. I swore that would never happen to me - and it never has.

Anyone who has worked low-budget knows of folks who have waited some time after a production closed to get their last checks - or had their checks bounce. Not on my watch.

Filmmakers will beg you for more time. I know, in reading the work of both Christine Vachon and Ted Hope, that many of the great indies of the 90s got finished even after the original money had run out, that the producers were raising the last of the cash even as they were approaching the last dollar. That works if you have a solid fund-raising history -my first-time producers do not.

Further, the picture at the top of this post is too true on some productions. Anyone who has checked their ATM balance, thought they were fine, only to be over-drawn when an un-cashed check came due, knows how that works. To paraphrase the saying on checks - just because you have money left in your balance doesn't mean you have money to spend.

Vendors sometimes take a while to cash checks. I always have crew people who don't make it to the bank. One of my favorite crew folks - an assistant on more than one project, tended to deposit her checks at irregular intervals. That means, at any given time, she might have up to five, un-cashed checks. That money is  still in the bank, but it isn't ours to spend.

This is obvious, you say, Home Ec. 101. No one would be stupid enough to spend that money, you say?

You have never dealt with a desperate filmmaker.

So, it was, that I had to tell Joey, the producer, that we needed to shut down. He had begged and borrowed  what he could, and none of his sources were coming through. I pointed out that if we wrapped with no debt, he could take the footage we had to date and try to cut a fund-raising trailer. If he were mired in debt, that would be hard to do, as any potential investor would be scared off by a project with pending debt and possible civil action.

These discussions were all with Joey, the producer, as Jean-Baptiste, the director, would hear none of it. Of course, he was still collecting his check. By this point, there was a serious rift between the two partners, and disagreement as to exactly who had control of the project.

That was for them to figure out later. My job was to wrap us neatly, and wrap us neatly I did.

Oddly, months later, Jean-Baptiste contacted me, as if he and I had never had those conflicts over his work ethic. He blamed everything on Joey, and asked, if I would work with him to get the project off the ground. At that point, Joey was off the project.

This is a guy I had screaming arguments with on the street! It is amazing how folks are willing to put pride aside to get what they want, and he conveniently forgot all of our disagreements, hoping I could put aside the problems in our relationship and use my connections to finish the film.

When your potential girlfriend tells you that all of her previous boyfriends were jerks, you start to wonder how long it will be before you become the jerk. (Are you listening, potential boyfriends of Taylor Swift?)

The same goes with filmmakers who tell you that the previous people they worked with were the problem, and  especially in this case, since I was there to see with my own eyes how Jean-Baptiste had carried himself.

No, by the end I had enough of Jean-Baptiste and his way of working.

The other movie that goes into the category of unfinished films we will call Double, The circumstances could not have been more different, but the (unhappy) ending was the same.

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