Monday, June 29, 2015

When It's Not About the Money - Part 2 - For The Love of the Game

[T]he job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's reexamine it.
-David Mamet in a Salon Interview

There is a common truth about the producer in theater and in film. They are salesmen. They are salesmen that sell art, but they are still salesmen.*

Mamet knows art, and he knows salesmen. He writes great characters who are obsessed with money, and in interview after interview, he distances artists from salesmen and talks disparagingly about producers and the film and theater business and how it's all about the money.

His film producer in State and Main, Marty Rossen (played by the wonderful David Paymer) is a petty little man who cajoles when he can, and threatens when that doesn't work. Or as his producer says in Speed the Plow

"Life in the movie business is like a new love affair; it's full of surprises and you're constantly getting fucked."

The Coen Brothers give us Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, who alternately woos the titled writer when he thinks that will work, but offers him this when it doesn't:

"I run this dump and I don't know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? Because I got horse-sense, Goddammit. Showmanship!"
And that may be what separates producers in film and theater from other salesmen. Deep down, they are showmen.

The Producer's Max Bialystock uges his new partner, "When you got it, flaunt it!"

But he knows there is no art without commerce.

"Don't forget the check-y," Max tells one of his elderly suitors. "Can't make plays without the check-y."

For some of us, it makes us feel cheap. I have never been good about having my hand out for the check, which is why, in Part 1, I talked about how I never liked that part of producing. This, even though I often describe being a line producer as being a glorified accountant. I'm okay with counting and watching the money, but not collecting it.

Someone has to do it.

The previous post - When It's Not About the Money - was going to be a one-off. However, as often happens after I publish, I woke the next morning to the realization that there was an entire side to the story I had not told. It was not a part of that article, so I didn't edit it. It was a follow-up.

What I have seen in my new-found position of working with people who are good at raising money is that there is a side of the salesman many don't see, and that's the love of the product.

In the past few weeks I have seen producers as salesmen at work, and what I walked away with was how seamlessly they blended art and commerce.

Doug is a theater producer, and if you looked up a theatrical producer in a dictionary, his picture would be there (maybe without the big cigar).

When I first met him for coffee in a hotel bar, he immediately broke into his spiel about his current musical, complete with flyers and cards and props from the show that he carried in his bag, a bag that was seemingly as bottomless as a magician's hat and had whatever it needed.

Then, he played his favorite song from his the new musical he is raising money for on his phone for us. A few seconds in, his face lit up, and it lit up for real. The snake-charmer charmed by his own tune.

When he talks about his current comedy - a hilarious piece he was kind enough to take some of us to - he beams. "I've seen it a number of times now," he says. "A day in the theater never fails to cheer me up."  He offers a satisfied sigh, and you know he truly loves it.

When I sat with Marc, the director and producer for a film we may be able to help get funded, he, too, had all the marketing and social media angles covered, as well as potential tie-ins to his very clever movie about the lottery. Once he talked about the scenes from the script, though, he lit up. He could see the scenes right before him, and that was not about box office or grosses, but seeing a dream come to life.

My producer friend Trevite says of herself, "I'm a closer." She is good at making deals and not shy about making sure investors deposit the checks. While she says she doesn't like being on set (she has the LP and PM and AD for that) the truth is that she has a hand in every side of the creative process, and not afraid to get her hands dirty to make things get done. I got to see the rough cut of her latest feature, and it looks great - not great for the small budget they had - but great like I would have enjoyed it if I had paid $15 in a theater for it.

Maybe that's the difference between producers in theater and film and other salesmen. The dream came before the money, and the dream was not about money but the work. "Whereas money is a means to an end for the filmmaker, to the corporate mind money is the end," says Robert Redford.

This is what separates them from the Willy Lomans, whose boss tells him, "The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell."

A few years ago, I was line producer on a true art film, so much so that I can't give you a simple description of the movie. The screenplay was based on an existential novela and was, if possible, even less commercial than the book. The producer and I had lots of issues with how each of us work, but I never stopped admiring her for raising over $600K for a film I could not describe by a first-time feature filmmaker.

That is certainly talent.

Sometimes I wonder if those of us in the arts embrace the fact that "artist" is the word that most comes to people's minds after the word "struggling" is not just a way of us justifying our lack of financial acumen. The work should be the badge of honor, not the poverty.

Later this week, I will learn if my marriage of these two worlds lands a script and two filmmaker friends that I very much admire their funding. If so, we will be shooting in the Fall. That will make it all worth it.


Many people know one of my favorite "poor artist" speeches is by Bill Murray in "Tootsie." Here is a little bit of it.

*As with the term "actor," I use it for both genders.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When It's Not About the Money....

"When they say it's not about the money, it's about the money."
H.L. Mencken
Recently, I watched what may be the worst film I have ever seen. Ever. And I've seen some very bad movies, some of which, I'm afraid to say, were films where I was on the production side.

Characters didn't talk to each other, and they certainly didn't listen. Every scene involved one character sharing a heart-rending story from their past for a few minutes, followed by the other character doing the same. Might have made for a good monologue class, except the writing was predictable at best, and unbelievable at worst.

For years, I have said that the reason I was a line producer and not a producer is that I hated raising money. When people ask "why," I, like the people in the movie, share a story. Unlike the movie, I'll keep the monologue short - for once.

This goes back to my years as close friend of Eran, the director of The Rook*. He commissioned me to co-write an erotic romance story, and I did. It was the type of story that was inspired by Red Shoe Diaries, in fact, we were hoping to attach Joan Severance in the lead. There's little else to say about the story other than Eran and I probably made it much more complicated and multi-layered than it needed to be, as was our wont.

We started with a budget of under $1M. After months of trying to raise the funds, we thought we had hit pay-dirt with a production company of an old friend of mine. There was just one catch. First, we had to make sure they made money. Then, we needed to attach better talent to attract their investors. Then, the investors wanted more for themselves. More months and many budget revisions later, we were at $3M.

All of that work was worth it, we thought, when a company agreed to put up the money. On a Friday, they asked for our bank routing information, the deal was signed, and our bank confirmed that they had, indeed, authorized a transfer. It would take the weekend to go through, but should post the next business day, Monday.

Eran and I did what any normal, struggling artists (a bit of an oxymoron, that - normal struggling artist) would do - we celebrated. In fact, we celebrated pretty hard and spent a good deal of money celebrating. What did it matter? We were in the money!

You can see where this is going.

On Monday morning, no money had been transferred. Over the weekend, the Korean markets had crashed, and the entire deal was contingent on Korean money and pre-sales.

We were devastated. We asked the production company if there was anything we could do? They told us that the money folks said they would have done it for less, but that there was no way at $3M. Why they asked, was the budget so high anyway?

This experience soured me on the art of raising money for film, much as chasing "angels" and grants had in theater. I pretty much walked away from that world.

Until now.

In my new job, I am working with two guys who have connections in the finance world and experience putting deals together. Furthermore, they enjoy it. It's a good combination, as I look after the production side and need to do only minimal glad-handing.

The two worlds met recently when I showed them a script I had budgeted for the past three years. Both the script and the budget had gone through many revision,  but we were now at $1M. Both the guys loved the script, and also loved the directors and writer of the script, two other guys who have become like old friends to me.

I'll share more about the script at the appropriate time, but we brought the package to a finance contact of my partners, and they like it enough to have set up a meeting.

We aren't there yet, but if all goes as we hope, it will mean that I will have helped two old pros who I truly like very much bring their script to the screen.

I won't say it's not about the money - we know what that means - but this would give me some special satisfaction. To see my new partners and two old friends all benefit from a script that is screaming to get done would make me very happy.

At least on this one, it's also about more than just the money.

*For those newer to the blog, there was a long series on The Rook that probably could be a book by itself. My experiences there shaped much of my line producing later, and, especially for those who enjoy the production lessons (or the stranger, funnier war stories, it's one of the best series you can follow. Check it out if you have not done so.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Absence of Chaos

"Chaos was the order of nature; Order was the dream of man."
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Be careful not only of what you wish for, but what you dream for.

For some time now, I have felt dissatisfaction with the nature of the indie film business in general, and the production side - especially line producing - specifically. It seemed like an insane way to go through life, and has made more than one good man or woman at least a little bit insane.

With budgets rushing to the bottom, the process has become endlessly trying to stuff 10 pounds of - well, stuff - into a 5 pound bag. After my last feature last summer, where we completed the project on-time and on-budget in 12 days and under $100K, but at the cost of my emotional well-being, I started looking at other work.

Let's be serious. I've been a freelance production person in film, and before that theater, and before that radio and the music business, my whole life. Yes, there were brief periods of "real jobs" such as being Director of Operations at a political research firm, and my time at Gun for Hire, but for the most part, it has been a life of making impossible dreams come true, bringing the imagined to reality and getting various creatives to work together with always a little less money than was really needed.

In other words, a life of herding cats.

It gets to a point where it becomes part of your nature, and you expect it. Well, at 57, I decided that it was time to make other things a priority and started looking for work where I could apply my administrative skills in a creative environment.

The problem was, theater and film are the only creative environments I truly know in and out. A few interviews for non-industry jobs scared me straight. I was never going to fit into that world; not even the tangential worlds of things such as event planning. I have no experience in the creative worlds of graphics or art direction.

This is where I was when I answered an ad for a production manager full-time at a media company. It looked like a glorified office manager job, but I was willing to talk.

I met with two guys, John and James, from Liverpool and Ireland, respectively. They were my age, and we talked about a show with a classic rocker cooking and sharing stories, and a few other shows they were developing. They had some false starts getting these projects going, but a lot of smarts, desire and serious contacts in the business world, finance world, and international broadcasting.

They were low-keyed and open in the interview, and I really felt a connection to them. The similarity in age had something to do with it - more on that in a subsequent post - but more than that, they seemed to really be enjoying their lives, and intended to continue doing so.

Hadn't someone told them how hard this world is? Hadn't someone mentioned there were more times that things didn't get done than did? Hadn't someone told them that even when you did succeed, it was at the cost of your sense of joy?

Evidently, not.

I see this often in younger people new to the game, which is why I think it's always important to mix youth and optimism with age and, if not pessimism, too heavy a dose of realism.

I wanted to say "yes" right away, even though the money up front was not very good. They were funding everything out of their pocket, out of other successful ventures. I made it clear that developing these projects could take some time and more money, and that I was intent on doing it right. They were game, and willing to bet the money they had made in other fields.

I asked for two days, and then went on to meet with a guy who had some commercials coming up, and then hoped to do some branding work for non-profits I believed in. The former was tempting from a financial standpoint; the latter from a sense of reward and doing something important.

By contrast with John and James, this guy was hyper as they come. Again, talented and experienced, but a guy who fed on adrenaline. I was ready to go with John and James anyway, and about an hour after I said "yes" to the guys, he called and said the sponsor for the commercial wanted someone they had worked with before on-board as PM.

So it was that I began working on the projects, and John and James immediately made me feel at home as a creative equal. They weren't afraid to speak up when they disagreed or just wanted something another way, but that is part of the process, but it was working. The job combines what I know and what I love, and the title now is "Producer/Production Supervisor."

I now found myself going into an office every day, with the prospect of doing that indefinitely, the same office. That office was in Midtown Manhattan, and I hate the rush hour crowds of people trudging to and from jobs they hate. Together with the fact I'm an awful sleeper and accustomed to getting up early from years of dawn shoots, I tend to get to work at 7AM or so. I love the peace and quiet of the building in general, and my office specifically, at that time. I can hear myself think.  The guys are very reasonable, and never expected me to put in massive hours.

I was working a normal day, one that often was half of what I knew on set. There was no one screaming, no impossible hurdles thrown in front of me. There was no angst or search for blame. As a matter of fact, they love to do meetings at the Irish pub next door, which I have dubbed "Conference Room B."

It isn't for the drinks, though there are often a few of those. They like meeting people in a more informal atmosphere to put them at ease, and it works with many of the people in the industry they know.

For once, I was home at a normal time, having relaxing meetings where we moved forward without a lot of grief.

I was talking with one of my teachers one day, and was surprised at what I told her. I missed the chaos.

How could I miss the chaos? Who misses chaos? It seemed, I did.

A lover of quantum physics, it does not surprise me. The history of the universe, as the quote above suggests, is creation coming from chaos. Artists from all fields, from the fine arts to music to dance to theater to film, will talk about the chaos. The lives of so many writers are filled with chaos.

The brilliant author Ray Bradbury described that part so well:

"Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together."

As I searched for images for chaos, all of them had one thing in common. They looked like something being created.

I came across a quote which I saw attributed to different people in different forms, but it is the essence that stuck with me.

"Peace is not the absence of chaos."

What follows varies in the different quotes, and it is used by various people to make different points.

For me, what it reminded me was that, while the chaos is necessary for creation, we need to remember to love the creation - which we need to make work -  and not the chaos. We may need the chaos to get the creation started, but creation needs us to make something of it and find our peace in the middle of it to make it work.

Before I start too much down a shiny New Age-y path of joy and light and good coming from everything, life, and creating, is a messy business. I have found myself more than a few times in the past weeks frustrated with the process, or the guys, or myself, and that will continue.

I do need the occasional jolt, so I was really happy a few weeks back when one of the bright, young producers I know offered me the chance to AD a one-day commercial on a weekend, with the holiday the day before for prep. All the production juices flowed, and with a great crew. Yes, part of the day was me complaining about the focus - or lack thereof - of my director. As I do most days when I AD, I spent the entire day, right up until the Abby, as if we were not going to make it.

It was a bit exhausting - and I loved every friggin' second of it.

As I move forward, I will try to keep that touch of chaos in my life. It won't be hard. We're trying to get funding for a feature I believe in, and while I would hire a line producer, I know I will fret making the day and find myself pacing on set.

Be the chaos. Own the chaos. Even enjoy the chaos a little bit. It's okay.

Just make sure you get around to picking up the pieces.

NB - Adjusting to the new work schedule, as well as still taking some budgeting jobs and a busier social life - talented friends having their movies screened, for example - have made me a bad blogger. It's been too many weeks since I've posted.

Worry not. I've slapped my own wrist, to spare you the trouble. This time has not been barren, and getting this post out of the way will help me shape and give birth to the orphan posts that have been sitting in drafts while I figured out how to share this new experience.

I suspect the next few will come quickly.

For those trying to follow what happened on The Girl in the Holograph  - patience. I will get back to it, and a lot of things that came after it. I just need to sort out the present while it's still fresh before I go back to the past.