Monday, December 23, 2013

The Moving Target - A Line Producer Looks Back at 2013

I have decided I am no longer going to produce films for my living.  To do so requires me to deliver quantity over quality. Or to not contribute as fully as I like since I won’t be fairly compensated.  Or to make something that is virtually guaranteed to not have the cultural impact it warrants.  Those are three things that I am refusing to be part of.
-Ted Hope, Truly Free Film

Last year at this time, as my birthday approached, I offered this somber look back through the words of Neil Young. This year, I reflect back through the words of Ted Hope above, and also my own experience this last year.

Much as I lamented last year, the business is still changing; more specifically here, I am referring to the business side of our business, the side of raising money and selling movies. My own small part in this process over the years has been as a line producer helping folks to raise money for a film.

This process is confusing to many people. The answer to "how much will it cost to make my movie" is not a simple or straight-forward one.

My first response is always, "How much can you realistically raise?" Without that answer, the rest of the work I do is meaningless.

On the indie scale, most scripts presented could be done on any one of a number of levels. There is the bare-bones level, the full-blown budget (if you had everything on your wish list), and any series of numbers in between. The answer usually lies in the middle somewhere, and I often discuss it in terms of the different levels of the different unions, if one is to even use union workers.

The union that is relevant to most projects is SAG, which has modifications of it's guidelines for New Media (web series and such), Ultra Low, Modified Low, and Low. A quick check of the SAG INDIE site will explain all this in more detail; suffice to say here that you can still work with union actors for less than general scale, depending on your budget.

The important numbers for this year to me are as follows: 34 budgets prepared, none has yet to raise the money. The other important number is 1: one feature that I actually shot this year, which I refer to here as The Unattainable, raised it's money from a budget prepared by the producer on the Modified Low Contract.

I know how people used to sell films on the indie level: regular investors, pre-sales, direct-to-video, etc. I don't know how they do it today, with distributors seemingly only being interested in no-budget projects they can pay insultingly-low fees to acquire, or larger budget films. One of the producers on this movie assures me there is a path in between, and I hope she is right, as she has done it before.

What all of this means is that work for folks like me is scarce, at least as it comes to actually line producing a film. I have no interest in line producing a film on a budget that requires me to bring on mostly film students and get almost everything for free. Additionally, one of my maxim's is that the work is just as hard on a bad movie as a good movie, so you might as well make a good movie. Too many of the extremely-low budget projects are just not very interesting projects, and at my age, if I'm going to put the effort into it, I want it to count.

On many of the budgets I prepared this past year, the numbers kept moving; hence, the moving target above. People would hire me to prepare a budget on one level, then get investors who swore they were ready to invest if they budget were either higher, or lower. For some people, they experienced both.  In almost all these cases, after chasing this moving target, the so-called investors did not come through.

As Ted Hope regularly points out, this is no way to sustain either an investor class for film, nor encourage experienced producers to make their living producing features. Almost all have the need to create some other form of "content" to keep afloat.

Two of the young people on my feature have approached me on learning line producing. Sad that they are afflicted with this dreaded disease to actually do this for a living, I will help them anyway.

Most crew seems to thinks producers make lots of money for less work than they do; on this level, in fact, the exact opposite is true. The producers on this film would have made more money and worked significantly less days and hours if they had worked crew. Money cannot possibly be the motivation for them; it is that determination and possibly-naive belief that this may be "the one," as a love-lorn friend of mine used to describe almost every boyfriend she dated for more than a few weeks.

In this atmosphere, I feel lucky to look back at my 55th year to have worked on one great feature where I worked with a great team, read some incredible scripts (which I still hope get produced), had the opportunity to work with some great actors and actresses and directed my first project, a short. My producers and director on the last project proved they valued experience that comes with age, and that was a nice thing to see.

This, for me, is what qualifies as glass-half-full. If it sounds less than optimistic to you, then you don't know me very well. The folks from my last film characterized me and my production coordinator with this picture below, from Despicable Me 2.

My coordinator was a cheery redhead. You can imagine which one I am.

Cheery is not the description of a person whose role is to very often say, "no," as is the case with a line producer. Crew thinks you give them too little; producers think you give crew too much.  Making people happy? Not as often as you like.

Every year, I wonder, as Danny Glover's character used to say in the Lethal Weapon series, if I'm getting too old for all of this. Every year, I find myself like Michael Jordan, threatening to quit more many times before it actually happens.

As Michael Corleone once famously said, "Just when I thought I was out, they PULL me back in." I expect I will be pulled in a few more times next year.

NB: Yes, I will still finish the Series "The Unattainable." I am trying to put a little distance between the end of the project and when I look back at it in order to have perspective, and with the added difficulty that as a line producer, NDA or not, so much of what I do is proprietary and I feel it is a breach to share, even if I don't mention the film or people specifically. Still, there are stories I can share, and I will in the days and weeks to come.

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