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How to get it. What to do with it.

Imagine this:

It’s the Producer’s Invitational Pancake Breakfast. Large hotel ballroom: happy grips, electricians and DPs are pouring batter and flipping pancakes for their guests. Directors, camera assistants and editors are distributing steaming paper plates and coffee. Just as the producers are cutting into short stacks with their plastic forks, all of the doors are locked.

The room settles into a nervous silence: all of the below-the-line people are standing. “Thank you for coming,” one of them says. “There are a few things that you need to know.”

The budget. I occasionally work as a producer for things that I direct. I’ve only done this six times for mostly corporate clients (not counting about a dozen of my own non-commercial films). As my professional producer friends correctly point out, I’m a babe-in-the-woods as a producer: relatively inexperienced and blissfully ignorant of the wolves that stalk me.

However, I’ve been on both sides of the phone call, the producer with a budget trying to procure crew and the crew guy trying to preserve my rate. As a Director of Photography and Director, I’ve worked on many well-produced movies and many badly-produced ones. I have a lot of experience making lousy budgets and schedules work. I have also had success as a producer negotiating better budgets from clients.

Here’s what I’d say to producers at the pancake breakfast:

Just get the money. Let us help you use it well. Make the movie that works with the money.

It’s not easy getting green

Let’s acknowledge that producing movies is tough. The best producers make mistakes. I certainly have. It’s heroic work, under-appreciated and, at best, invisible.

A producer’s job is obvious, if not simple:

  1. Get everyone and everything needed for a production to the right place at the right time.
  2. Create a successful movie.
  3. Don’t lose money.

Each movie has its own yardstick for success, such as being funny, motivational or selling something, but being good is usually a basic requirement.

Fear, subterfuge, delusion, denial, deceit: these are okay in the plot of a movie, but are terrible in the production of one. When I’ve found myself working on one of these train wrecks, I’ve wondered: how has it come to this? What causes otherwise decent people to lose their minds and behave badly because they are making a movie?

There’s something about money, either a stack of money or a deficit of it, that can make you lose touch with reality. Apply money to a medium that diverts people with illusion and there is dangerous potential for fantasy or at least cognitive dissonance. It’s sometimes hard to get the necessary money from the client. It’s especially hard now that equipment salespeople have convinced everyone that, if they’d only buy their stuff, they can make a movie for almost nothing.

Money, or its lack can make you:

  • feel embattled, adversarial and defensive
  • lie to your client (and yourself) about the costs of things
  • subscribe to half-baked schemes to save money
  • and worse

The next thing you know, you’re quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and shooting without liability insurance.

The problem with all of this drama is that it severely decreases the chances of making a good movie. Plus, it’s unnecessarily hard work.

It seems much better to just get the money to make the movie. But how is this possible?

Stop competing. Cooperate.

Two keys to producing well are to

  • adjust the money and the movie so that they match
  • get the money

The problem, of course, is that the clients normally aren’t filmmakers (that’s why they hire you). They may know what the purpose of the movie is, but they usually have no idea what a movie costs, how to tell a story, and how money, story and the purpose of the movie relate.

You want to tell them. You want to convince them that you are the person to produce this movie instead of the many others who would like to get the job. You want them to trust you, to give you the money and to leave you alone to make the movie.

Where do you start? With a budget? With descriptions of cool shots? With your résumé? With the cryptic names of the cool gear that you’ll use?

What has worked well for me is to ask them what they are trying to achieve with the movie and why they are making it, trying to discern (and perhaps unearth) the passion that they have for the project. This should be as personal as possible. This passion could be “I want to get my boss off of my back” or “I want people to see how cool this technology is” or “I want people to understand my experience as a cancer survivor.” Extracting this could take some skill with particularly buttoned-down corporate types. Listening helps.

It is important to share this passion with them, authentically. You then become partners in something that is important to them.

Only then should you discuss the movie and its budget. All considerations about the story, how to treat the story, the length of the movie, etc., should be rigorously framed in the context of the purpose of the movie and the passion behind it. This makes the project stronger.

Tell them what it costs

Tell them what it actually costs. They probably don’t know what their idea will cost to accomplish; you must tell them. They may have sticker shock. They may claim to know for a fact that it can be done for less by other producers. You may see the warmth begin to cool and the partnership start to go south.

This is what your set looks like without money.

Here’s the thing: you share their passion for the project (right?). Focus on that. For the movie to work, they have to spend what it costs; anything less decreases the chance that it will work. At a certain point, the chances of success are too low for professionals (and other reasonable people) to proceed.

Here’s the other thing: if it costs too much, you can adjust the movie idea to match the money that they have to spend. Why? Because you know not only the purpose of the film but what the clients’ passion is, you can (with your superior filmmaking skills) design a film that accomplishes these goals in a way that works with the budget.

Let’s say that you come up with another idea that achieves the clients’ goals, but they really prefer the original, over-budget idea. If you can show the clients that the only way to achieve their passion with that idea is to spend more money, you may be able to get more money out of them.

If, after all of this, you cannot convince the client to trust you to make their movie at the actual cost, there is only one thing to do: sincerely wish them well and walk away. The chances of you making a good movie with them is pretty low: there is no opportunity there.

You may be tempted to ignore my advice, to take the under-funded job and try to make it work. I certainly have. You could get lucky and succeed. However, you probably won’t. Here’s why:

Saving money costs so much that you can’t afford it

There’s an old industry joke: the only gear that will help you save money on a movie is a red pencil. (Hint: it’s used to cross scenes out of the script.) Despite the wisdom of this, there are lots of ways to save money on a movie, things that only experienced crew people and producers know how to do.

For example, I once shot a commercial that had 5 very different interior locations in the script. This could easily take 3 to 5 days to shoot. We shot it in one 11 hour day. How? The commercial had very little synch sound. We had 5 different sets on the same location (four were in the same large room). While we were shooting on one set, the crew was preparing the next. A few sets did double duty by changing lenses, a few props and a bit of lighting. The finished spot looked great, worked perfectly and was widely praised.

All of the people on this spot were seasoned professionals. It took everyone’s considerable skill to pull this off: each crew member made many autonomous creative decisions, guided by set protocol and a firm understanding of the commercial. We saved the production a lot of money. With a cheaper, less experienced crew, I can pretty much guarantee that the spot would have either turned out badly (and failed in its purpose) or cost more.

OK, you may ask, what about paying an experienced crew less money? If they are hungry, they’ll take the job. How about paying them a half day rate?

They may take a low paying job; I’ve certainly taken them. The problem is this: they make movies for a living. If they get a call for a job that pays their rates, they will cancel on you. Would you turn down a good paying job to take a low paying job? Do you really save money if you have to scramble at the last minute to find potentially inadequate replacements? Another reason to pay people their rates, by the way, is so that they can stay in the movie business and be available to you the next time that you call them.

C stands mangled in what was undoubtably a foolish attempt to save money. Non-pro crew– cheaper, right? I don’t think so: in the last two months, I’ve taken two jobs reshooting footage that was badly shot by inexperienced or hobbyist crews. Plus, I got a call last month: “can you come down right now and shoot our documentary interview for us? The (inexperienced) crew that we hired didn’t show up!”

Um, how about long hours? That will save money! Um, not really. In addition to being very dangerous (because tired people sometimes drop gear or drive into trees), productivity plummets in the last few hours of a very long day. The quality of the filmmaking tends to adjust accordingly and the chances of success decrease.

Let the experienced crew help you make your schedule and budget. Pepper them with questions in pre-production: if it will make their work day go better, they will be glad to help. Collectively, they probably have more experience than you do. Let them make you look like a genius.

If you can’t get the money from your client to hire a good crew, I’d look into the red pencil as your only hope of success.

When to get the money

When you hire a crew, you agree to pay them. Up front costs of producing a movie include food, props, etc. You aren’t a bank, you’re a movie producer: get the money for production up front. There is a graveyard of production companies that all have the same headstone: “Stiffed by their client.” Lawsuits. Bankruptcy. Forget about it: just get the money. If your client can’t agree to and meet a payment schedule, then the chances of making a good movie with them are pretty low. There is no opportunity there: walk away.

Most production companies do a variation on a staged payment schedule. Here’s mine:

5% prior to preproduction
60% prior to production
30% prior to post production
5% upon delivery

This sort of agreement enables the client to fund one piece of the production at a time; if they don’t like the way things are going, they can cut their losses and cancel the project. It also adequately funds each stage of the production, so that the show has a chance to be successful. The last bit of money, due upon delivery, is usually expected to be the production company’s profit from the project.

It is very important to limit what work is specified by the agreement, what additional work will cost and when additional work will be funded. My agreement briefly explains how its provisions help to ensure the success of the project.

Paying your crew quickly shows that you are an experienced producer who gets the money up front. They retain this fact at a cellular level; it puts you in their highest esteem. The next time you call them, they’ll probably leap at the chance to work with you.

The Passion Principal: an example

I produced (and directed) a web commercial for NASA’s SmartSkies air traffic controller game. The people who created and managed the program, Gregory Condon and Miriam Landesman, had a problem to solve: the game, which teaches kids about math and aeronautics, is a lot more fun to play than it looks at first glance. How could we communicate the excitement of the game in a short commercial?

NASA "SmartSkies" Talking with Greg and Miriam, I found that they are passionate about teaching young people and the instructional power of play. Executive Producer Jesse Carpenter and I came up with several ideas: some cost more, some cost less. We slashed the budgets to the bone, relying on skilled crews and clever production techniques to make them work.

The idea that Greg and Miriam liked best, a fanciful story at a science fair, cost more than they were able to fund. However, we all agreed that the science fair script best achieved what Greg and Miriam were passionate about: it conveyed both the excitement of the game and the instructional power of play. They went back to the office and, through great effort, came up with the necessary money to fund the “science fair” spot. Everyone was happy with the successful result.

But don’t take my word for it

Of course, I mostly work as a DP and Director; I humbly bow to the skill, wisdom and experience of professional producers. Perhaps some of you will comment on this article and school me on things I haven’t considered. I certainly have little authority to tell other people how to make money, given that I don’t have a lot of it.

One thing’s for sure, though: I’d charge $5 for coffee at the Invitational Pancake Breakfast.

Don Starnes directs and photographs movies of all kinds and is based in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. He produces projects occasionally through his production company Lightly Held Films.



Also by Don Starnes:

Monitors icon Monitors and filmmaking
The difference between a movie and a video is that a movie is created in the filmmakers’ minds and a video is created on a monitor.

Blocking icon Blocking before coffee
Feature film: first day. The first-time director is 45 minutes late. Finally, he shows up: harried, stubbly, preoccupied and exhausted…

Interviewing icon Ask me no questions and I’ll speak in no fragments
A sign taped to the door says “Quiet– filming.” This only makes you more nervous.

Training icon How to get trained
Hint: it isn’t by reading this.

Mini XTC 9250 XL icon Preview: the Mini XTC 9250-XL
Just in time for NAB, the 9250-XL is everything that a producer could want in a camera. The revolution has begun…

How to make your own digital theatrical ‘print’ using Final Cut Pro, After Effects, guerrilla DCP software, pluck and maybe a little help from your friends.

Starnes Nuke icon Keying and compositing in NukeX
Skitch a ride up its steep learning curve using my template and tutorial.


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Don Starnes is an award winning Director and Director of Photography with thirty years of experience shooting in amazing places with fascinating people. He has photographed a dozen features, innumerable documentaries lots of commercials, web…