So much of what I learned at the Produced By Conference (presented by the Producers Guild of America) is extremely useful to producers and filmmakers at every level. Over two days, numerous panels featured seasoned producers, celebrities, CEOs, and industry professionals discussing the latest trends and offering advice for navigating film, television, and web production.
On any level of production, producers deal with similar issues, have a lot of the same questions, and each has their own style for problem solving. With new technologies and ever-changing film production resources, a conference like this is beyond valuable for staying on top.
Here were the top 15 takeaways:
15. ARM YOURSELF WITH INFORMATION
As a producer you need to be able to speak to people. You need to establish trust, be kind, be central in the process so your crew will respect and listen to you. A key part of producing is diplomacy. In many ways, producers have to be politicians. I personally like to think of the director as the General and the producer as the President and we’re at war to make this movie! Choose your battles and learn as much as you can. Make sure to learn from other producer’s experiences and always trust your gut.
Also, when arming yourself with information, stay on top of what’s happening in all aspects of the production world. The latest in film financing incentives, film legislation, new technologies, trends, similar movies (past and present) to what you’re working on now, cultural relevance…absorb as much as possible. When you want to keep learning, that’s also when you know you’re doing you truly love.
This is from a panel that included Ian Bryce, producer of Transformers and World War Z; Tracey Edmonds, producer of Jumping The Broom and “With This Ring”; John Heinsen, CEO of Bunnygraph Entertainment; Stu Levy, producer of Priest and Pray for Japan; Gary Lucchesi, President of PGA and producer of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Age of Adaline; and Lori McCreary producer of Invictus and “Madam Secretary.”
14. INCENTIVES ARE KEY FOR FINANCING
When financing and packaging a film, it’s critical to have some sort of incentive offered by a state or country to attract production and boost a local economy. Creative is the most important when dictating where to shoot the film or series but having some sort of tax incentive is a must. The balance is backing creative into the tax incentive options. Deborah Wettstein of Indian Paintbrush tells the story about how because of the German tax incentives, Wes Anderson explored a region he wasn’t thinking about and found the abandoned department store that became The Grand Budapest Hotel.
However, there are problems with shooting in a tax incentive state or country when there is no production support or crew. David Glasser of Weinstein Company spoke in great detail about how Malaysia offered an amazing incentive but there was no support. Since the shoot was big enough, they worked with the government to beef up the incentive in order to build studios and infrastructure for production support. They trained local crew and transformed the region.
When exploring tax incentives and how they will affect production, create a budget that explores the local resources and then factors in freight shipment of equipment needed and traveling crew. Then, see if the incentives are worth the additional costs.
Big things to look for in terms of production incentives:
- Are there any funding caps or ceilings?
- Factor in the losses because of exchange rates.
- What are the production services available in the area?
- When is the upcoming legislative session and will that have an effect on your upcoming shoot?
- Incentives need to be a two-way street. Moviemakers get an incentive but what does the region get in return?
On the incentives panel: Debra Bergman, Senior VP of Scripted Production for Fremantle Media; Shirley Davis, VP Physical Production for Alcon Entertainment; David Glasser, COO and President of The Weinstein Company; and Deborah Wettstein, CFO of Indian Paintbrush Productions. Moderating was Joe Chianese, EVP of EP Financing Solutions.
13. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY SHOULD BE MULTI-PLATFORM
Content now exists across multiple platforms. What’s important is the Intellectual Property behind the content. Don’t call your pitch a “movie” or a “TV series” or “web video,” call it your IP that can exist in many formats. Sure it can start as a movie, but think about how pieces can exist on YouTube or Vine for either ancillary content or for marketing purposes.
One particular panel was all about social media and new technology challenging traditional media. Walter Newman at Adult Swim talks about how social media is a great incubator for talent and ideas. If a concept or character works in a six-second Vine video, maybe it can become a series of videos that develops a fan base.
In the world of social media, comedy works the best, especially in the shorter format platforms. The celebrity Viners on the panel talk about how hard it is to tell a story in six seconds. They do, however, still adhere to the three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end.
On this panel: Brandon Calvillo and Greg ‘Klarity’ Davis Jr., two celebrity Viners; Jason Mante, the head of user experience at Vine; and Walter Newman, the Director of Comedy Development for Adult Swim. Sanjay Sharma of All Def Digital moderated.
12. THINK OUTSIDE THE TRADITIONAL MODELS FOR FINANCING
The most inspirational voice I’ve heard in a long time was that of Sophie Watts, President of STX Entertainment. She talked about taking risks and thinking outside the traditional financing structures and industry rules. She explained how she didn’t understand where money came from and how projects get theatrical releases so she started calling the exhibitors and theater owners directly. She started striking her own deals that allowed for more variety in theaters and smaller films to have a voice. In a world of digital distribution, why isn’t this happening more often? Audiences want the theater experience and also want variety. Why can’t we have more content to choose from in theaters?
What she did is extremely difficult and time consuming, but the message is clear: carve the path for your project.
Sophie is inspiring because she’s passionate and states that there is a lot of money out there for films with a decent script, name actors, and a somewhat recognizable (or at least competent) director attached. If you have that, you’ll get financed.
There are so many outlets for film other than theatrical or DVD. Netflix, iTunes, VOD, and other online platforms are allowing for more opportunities to reach and audience and to make a sale. And don’t forget that Netflix and iTunes exist in multiple countries and those are separate deals.
Crowdfunding can be helpful, but it can also be a total pain. It’s great for docs and could be a strategy for matching funds with an investor. Some films use crowd funding lately as a marketing tool, but keep in mind that there is strategy and a particular type of content that does the best in crowd funding.
In addition to Sophie Watts on the panel was Johanthan Decker, President and COO of Voltage Pictures; Elsa Ramo, Founding Partner of Ramo Law; Hal Sadoff, Producer; and Adrian Ward, Division Manager of Pacific Mercantile Bank. Moderating was producer and Producer’s Guild President Gary Lucchesi.
11. SELL DOMESTIC FIRST, THEN SELL FOREIGN
Right now, foreign sales for your project will vary depending on what the US domestic distribution is. If you have a large theatrical release, you have a better chance at an overseas domestic release. A small theatrical release may sometimes help or hurt foreign sales depending on what type of content you have. However, a small theatrical release can help for marketing VOD and broadcast sales domestically but not for foreign. If it’s content that will mainly live on television, sometimes it’s best to go after broadcast sales directly. Arm yourself with as much information as possible about similar types of productions and how they preformed. But keep in mind as global markets are changing, our North American domestic territory may not influence foreign territories as much.
10. THINK GLOBAL
Where is the future of film financing? China and Norway. Seriously, those two countries are becoming heavy hitters in the film production world. We’re going to see a lot more content coming from them in the near future.
China is building theaters faster than any country in the world. Their box office ticket sales are rising as the US audience dwindles.
Think global for sales and also for production. Take advantage of production incentives in other countries but as listed above, be aware of limitations and resources an incentive country has to offer.
9. BUILD YOUR AUDIENCE
Whether it starts online or it’s through a book, start building an audience as early as possible because it will only help bring your project to life faster. As discussed in the social media panel, new technology platforms are a great way to generate an audience but there are limits. Although social media influencers appeal to a younger demographic, this audience is very relatable and obtainable. The key with this audience in particular is honesty and authenticity.
On the Social Media panel, the celebrity Viners were asked how they built the audience they both shrugged and genuinely had no idea. They just kept posting what felt honest to them and the fan count continued to grow.
8. PARTNERSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT
Partner with other producers who have the connections or experience you don’t have. Join forces. Don’t be afraid to cold call or email, just don’t always expect a return call. The best is to get recommendations to companies or contacts through referrals.
Partnerships with companies are important, as well. Find companies which seem to be natural fits for the types of projects you’re making. Don’t approach a reality TV production company with an idea for an indie drama, unless of course you hear that they are specifically looking for material like that.
Variations on this theme resonated in many of the panels.
7. TALENT ATTACHMENTS ARE IMPORTANT: ACTORS AND DIRECTOR
This is a very important one because the biggest questions distributors, investors, festival programmers, advertisers, brands, audience members, EVERYONE asks is: “what is your movie about?” and “who is in it?”
Who is in you film or series will help the project stand out. For financing, a recognizable cast will attract pre-sales. Audiences also want to see their favorite actors on screen. That isn’t going away.
One panel that gave advice to producers based on a question from the audience talked about dealing with difficult talent. Ian Bryce, producer of Transformers, talked about how important reputation is. Listen to the experiences other producers have had with cast and directors. If talent has a bad reputation, get ready for trouble on set that you’ll have to deal with. It’s better to avoid problematic talent.
A producer’s job is to moderate the creative appetites and make a happy set. Easier said than done sometimes!
Bryce is very much the mellow diplomatic producer and says he “treats artists like a son or daughter and walks them through the process. ‘Over-communicating’ goes a long way. “
When trying to find these talent attachments, partnerships with other producers will help but consider a good casting director. They will get your script to talent agents especially if you don’t have representation.
There is also mention of YouTube, Vine, and social media talent that have large followers. But keep in mind their limitations as performers.
Casting is 80 to 90 percent of the success of your shoot. If you cast the wrong person, you’re screwed.
6. BE CLEAR AND CONCISE
This really is advice for a lot of areas of producing, and life in general. When pitching, when coming up with the financing deals, when developing partnerships, be as clear and simple with your message so it’s easy for you and others to communicate.
Have a clear road map with smaller, attainable goals that will lead to the ultimate goal of finished content.
There were two panels about pitching for television and pitching for film. These panels were set up like an episode of Shark Tank and moderated by producer and amateur stand-up comedian Mark Gordon. Mark hilarious put people on the spot as they pitched to a panel of seasoned production veterans.
In the pitching panels, a big piece of advice is to be clear about the story and what the pitch is about. What is the arc? Who is the character? Is there a good role to attract an actor to this project? It seems like a simple concept but so many pitches easily became meandering and go on tangents that confuse and muddy the ideas.
5. ONE, THREE, AND TEN
In the panel on Pitching For Film, producer Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai,“Thirtysomething”) gave the best and most concrete advice for pitching I’ve ever heard. This is from his experience of pitching and then listening to pitches.
First, tell your idea in ONE sentence. The logline.
Then tell the idea in THREE sentences. Elaborate on the logline.
Then tell the idea in TEN sentences. Here is where you go through Act 1, 2, and 3.
He developed this format because he was just as anxious listening to a pitch as the person pitching. What this format does is force you to really understand what you’re pitching so then it’s clear when you pitch it. It is the road map for you and the executive hearing the pitch. Then, if the executive is engaged, they’ll start discussing the project and character even before the pitch is over.
4. BE FLEXIBLE AND TENACIOUS
This advice comes from multiple panels talking about many areas of producing. Producing requires a mindset that adapts to change. If you can’t handle quick problem solving and change, maybe this job isn’t for you. The industry is constantly changing and producers need to be flexible about the types of projects they work on and where those projects can live in order to survive. Consider multi-platforms. Don’t be afraid to work on big projects as well as small projects. Each project will be its own learning experience. *Just don’t do a project you don’t like creatively.
Every producer on every panel clearly has tenacity. The reason they get things done and projects made is because they don’t wait around for other people to open doors. They open the doors themselves. Even with an agent or representation, there’s still a lot of hustle to this job.
3. MAKE YOUR FILM RELEVANT
That was actually written in upper case in my notes: MAKE YOUR FILM RELEVANT. This was stated at the financing panel, the pitching panel, and the advice for producers panel.
Have an understanding of who your audience is and why this film matters. Why is this film relevant? If it is something that speaks to our culture, our time, political climate, important themes, etc, then you’re allowing for a more meaningful connection with your audience and increasing the chances of better word of mouth.
Then based on how your film or series is relevant, use that to help finance the film in reverse. When you know where the film will best live because of the content, audience, and social relevance, then you can construct the road map of what companies to target to help finance and distribute this content.
2. BE HONEST AND PASSIONATE ABOUT YOUR WORK
This is advice that appeared in almost every panel. Being honest about your work and what you want to create affects every aspect of the producing process. As a producer, you need to know what kind of content you want to make and then go after that. It’s fine to be flexible and like a lot of different types of projects and genres, but when you’re honest about what you like and don’t like, you’ll start to see what your style is. Hone your taste and be proud of what you’re trying to make because you have to live with these projects for a very long time.
The producers on the panel giving general advice all agreed that schlock will come back to haunt you. Never produce a project you don’t feel good about. Trust your gut.
This advice helps a lot with pitching. When pitching for film and television, convey what is exciting, what you love, what is your personal connection to the story, and why the story is important to you. Excitement is infectious and we’re in the business of entertainment. Audiences want to feel something from content so that feeling needs to be conveyed during the development process.
Honesty and passion will help with confidence and that’s important for any pitch or meeting with anyone about a project.
1. CONTENT IS KING
The one thing that was said in ALL panels regardless of the topic. CONTENT IS KING!! At the end of the day, all that matters is what’s on screen or going to be on screen.
In the panel on pitching for film, producer Graham King (Argo, The Departed) talked about how there is a lack of ideas and original stories in the industry right now. If you have an interesting story that you’re passionate to tell that could find an audience, you have something of value.
Content is king across all platforms and higher quality and well-crafted material will stand the test of time. A great script is the foundation for any project, and if the producer is passionate, tenacious and fearless enough to fight for it, it will get made. Don’t give up!
The seventh annual Produced By Conference was held May 30-31, 2015 on the historic studio lot at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
This article originally appeared in MovieMaker Magazine.