Fiscally responsible production & studio quality content
1. Fiscally Responsible Production in the independent movie industry:
i. It starts with the analysis of the script itself:
Fiscally Responsible Production is essentially making films for a budget. With a proper amount of experience, you know how expensive things are going to be i.e. if you have 100 extras marching over a hill with helicopters and gunships behind them you know that this one line on the script is gonna take many many dollars and so much time to shoot.
Even a smaller issue like for example, if you have a dining room scene and let’s say you have 10 people sitting around a dining room table and that the 10 of them are speaking, you know that you're gonna have multiple angles of coverage in order to edit that scene. It’s then gonna take you a while to get it. So you have to immediately understand that if that’s the case, maybe you can have the dining room scene with only two people speaking so you only have to cover those two and your foley artist gives you the whole dining room. A lot of people would say it’s just a Thanksgiving dining room scene, but it can actually be a nightmare to shoot because you have to get the coverage that you need to cut it together and to paste it and cut afterwards parts you’ll ultimately decide that you don’t need in the final movie.
It requires a lot of experience, when you read a script, to identify what it may or may not cost, a lot of inexperienced producers tend to underestimate what things will cost because they don’t realize things like the amount of materials and preparation to shoot certain scenes. You can’t just go on page count, which is what a lot of people do and I certainly have… You essentially need to understand that for example, shooting like 5 pages a day is a total hurdle on a movie - on a TV show it’s a little bit different -. Shooting a 100 pages film in 20 days may or may not be possible… you can have a day with a major action scene with a car crash or anything, you know it’s gonna be a 2,5 pages day. You have to balance your analysis and your budget constraints by understanding the elements within the script that give you an indication of how much it may cost.
ii. Then of course, the exercise becomes about what the settings are:
In other words, how many locations are there. So, if there are multiple locations you gotta assume you’ll have to move around a lot. Everytime you make a move, especially during a shooting day, you lose around four hours to move the whole crew and you definitely can’t just ride off half your shooting day ! Many times, it makes more sense, even though it might not be the ideal location, to adapt the script to a particular location that is very near another one and minimize the amount of moves that the crew needs to make. The point is always to save a maximum of shooting time - while moving, you’re not shooting-. Traveling from locations in cars and trucks without a camera shooting is not a good recipe for using your time wisely because everybody gets paid no matter whether you’re shooting or not and when you’re not shooting, you’re not getting footage for your movie. My mantra is “I wanna be shooting all the time and everyday”. A film is basically pieces of film that you need to cut together. You can make you move overnight, but moving during the day is a very dangerous thing to try to do.
I usually try to cluster my locations, it is wise to have two or three clusters of locations. You know, low-budget movies are going to shoot for 20 to 24 days, if you’re lucky you’ll get to 27 days and never go further than 30 days of shooting… you just can’t afford it.
iii. The third aspect of budgeting is to make sure that you’re using local resources:
I'm really keen on hiring local people. Wherever you are ! Whether you shoot in Cincinnati, in Rome, in Paris or in Morocco, I love to use local line producers and production managers because they know the crew base, they know the vendors, they know what we can get away with and what we can’t with the permitting etc. But you have to have enough experience, I will grant you that, as a credit producer, to have the confidence that what you sign with the local line producers are good numbers. You need to have in your mind an idea of what things cost - sure they cost different in different locations i.e. Ireland is different from Italy or from NYC-. I’m pretty convinced that bringing in a lot of crew on a low-budget movie is suicide… Cause you have to fly them in, to house them, to feed them, pay them…
Even if you bring in key crew members, for instance if you bring your production designer, at least you want to hire local art department people who know where the best empty fields are, the cheapest locations and any kind of things that anyone outside a local person wouldn’t be aware of and it becomes a critical factor when you move forward.
You obviously, in most cases, make the exception of the DOP, cause you want a person that recognizes, understands and shoots in a way you want the film to look like. Beneath that, it is very important that you try - you might not be able to - to hire anyone but a local person. That is a critical area for low-budget movies and most of the time these people bring value and help you understand what can or can’t be done in a certain area and it is a very important thing to consider when you do your budgets.
iv. You really wanna have a good accountant. Accountancy is critical:
That’s something you really really want to focus on. It’s definitely something you don’t want to do with someone local. You wanna make sure you work with people who know what they’re doing. You need a solid reporting structure. This would be my major point about shooting on a budget.
2. Budgeting is a thing, financing is another:
Financing is very tricky for indie films and particularly more so today as the pre-sale market has shrunk as well as distributors all over the world have been challenged or gone out of business. The theatrical experience, meaning one element of the chain of revenue that a movie can achieve, has been diminished significantly. Outside of going directly to a full service financier like a streamer or something like that, what happens now in the independent film market is that you have to rely more on equity. Your equity pieces are gonna be higher and higher because the presales are gonna be lower. Achieving the traditional 20% in presale allowing you to go to your bank for your financing has become extremely rare now, you’re even lucky to get 10-12%. That means you need to have a bigger equity slug in order to round out your financing and to even get to that point, you have to package, that means for example a director who hopefully can achieve the level of casting that you need to finance the movie.
Now, if it’s an ultra low budget movie, then the cast doesn’t matter and it becomes pretty much pure equity play where someone just puts up all the money. For, let’s say a 3 million-dollars-film, you obviously facturing the incentives (tax credits, rebates or whatever you can get, wherever you’re shooting, foreign or domestic you then try and put together all the subsidies you can, for shooting, for post-production for all those various things i.e. In Belgium there’s a big incentive, but you gotta manage it, it’s difficult, the same applies for Ireland. In the US, we have a distinction between tax credits and tax rebates which are both very different animals. Tax credit needs to be transferable in order to be financeable when a rebate is immediately financeable which is better if you need the money upfront. All of these require a huge amount of time to close alone and you need to be very careful of all the pitfalls that might lay down the road.
3. Making it right day to day:
In my particular case, and because I’ve had so much physical production experience, I don’t need to staff someone. First of all because I can’t afford it and secondly because I don’t have a volume that justifies a “Head of physical production”. I mean, you’d need to make 3-4 films a year to hire such a profile. If you’re only making one or two films a year you just more or less gonna have to do it for yourself. At Rumble we have a Head of development - Stephanie Wilcox - who’s also a producer alongside me, she has been with us for 12 years now, she has come up through the ranks with me, she understands development very well and has a lot of experience in that area especially in script development which is needed before your start all the process of packaging in anyway. She’s a critical piece of my staff, we have an assistant for both of us. We have a CFO, Jon Shiffman, who manages the business affairs and financing of each movie once we get to the point where it’s ready to go to the market.
I outsource production a lot, based on where we’re going to shoot: LA, Vancouver, Paris, NYC or whatever. I use locals and I’m the one who analyzes and approves budgets. I don’t need to be larger than that because the whole point of independent producers like myself is to try and own your IP. Owning your IP is the ultimate goal. The only way for me to attract an investor to pay for my overhead is because I can say “Hey ! There’s upside !”. When you license it, you make money. So what you wanna be is license store and not a fee-for-service, because when you go to a streamer or a studio, they put up all the money, they’ll pay your fee, but you don’t own anything else, you don’t own the movie, you don’t own the backend, you don’t own anything. It’s not really a business model if all you are is a producer for hire, what I’m not. I’ve always financed my own movies one way or another. I own my movies whether they make money or not and that’s the idea: controlling your own IP. When you’re in a licensing situation you deliver value for a period of time and it means that you get it back and you can resell it. This is how you create value for an investor that you might wanna seek for your company.
4. Relationships with the platforms and the studios:
My relationship to the studios is pretty much arm's-length, as it is with the streamers because I don’t wanna be working for them as an employee or as a work for hire. So I package and then present to specific platforms, streamers and studios a specific project. But not every time, it’s not my first instinct, my first instinct is to get the movie made and then try and sell it out for licensing. In some cases you realize the budget is going to be too great for you to support the financing yourself. You might then go to an Apple or a Netflix and say “I think this would fit in what I know you’re looking for” and there’s a lot of intelligence there because you have to maintain at least a relationship that allows you to count on them to consider your project when you submit it. I have sold two or three movies to Netflix but I licensed them so there’s a point where you get them back and relicense them over again so that you’re building a library.
The problem we face in the independent sector is that the competition for talent is so enormous because streamers can offer more than I can offer… They have such a voracious need for content they’re able to and willing to pay over scale for not only the acting talents but also for the DOP, costumers and everyone. So part of what happens is that as an independent film, you are chasing talents all the way up and down the ladder because of the tremendous amount of content that is needed to support what is essentially a subscription based model. They have recurring revenue that they can count on so they’re able to spend a billion dollars on programming because we know we’re getting 10 dollars a head upon 200 million people every month. They precisely know what their budget is gonna be. That’s very different from what historically has been the metric for a movie: How successful was it ? In their case, it doesn’t necessarily need to be successful at the box office or with critics, it just needs to hit an algorithm that ensures that people will watch it and won’t cancel their subscription. So they need to fill it up with as much new content as they possibly can and then need to keep the level of production very high. As an independent, our job has become much more difficult.
5. What would I say to a young indie producer ?
I love what I do and I always loved it. You need to have an entrepreneurial spirit and to be willing to live by the seat of your pants and have an exciting life plus you have what I’d call “two brains”: a creative brain and a structural brain. When you have both these things inside of you, you’re good at making money and you’re good at telling stories or at least you think you’re good at telling stories. You have to love to work with artists and you appreciate what an artist has to do in order to create something. There’s always room for creative people that can put all the pieces together. I would only say that you should be creative about how you appear to creative people, make good partnerships and show your passion which is the most important thing to have, especially in the independent space. You need the passion to tell a story and it has to become like you couldn’t do anything else. You kind of need to know who you are and to be a person who likes to start new businesses, because each movie is a new business you start from scratch, it takes 3 years to build, you put it all together and then you shut it all down and it then becomes an asset and that's all you got.
That would be my advice to a young producer.