This post was originally published on Medium.
A friend of mine — an extremely talented and skilled photographer, musician, getting into more cinematography — recently mentioned to me he wants to be a producer.
Given what I know about him, and alternatively what I know about what it’s like to produce, this came as a surprise. He’s young, and trying to diversify. But he’s got so much going for him creatively. I wanted to support and encourage that. I asked him to meet at my office and hear what he was thinking, and why he was thinking it.
While glad to offer my advice, my first impulse was to encourage him to stick to the creative side of things. Producing is invoices and schedules and, well, not “creative.” His website is this beautiful display of his creative mind and intentions and goals.
When he asked me about what it was like to be a “producer,” I fear he’d become disappointed, frustrated, and bitter. And most dangerously, that feeling will define the culture of the set.
I’ve worked with some producers on the agency side who have come to feel this way. They got into broadcast production because of the promise to be on film sets, with a promise of a salary, a stability and security freelance producing doesn’t offer.
Some of these people went to film school and loved film, and recognized that their skill set was logistically oriented, and in the absence of people willing to work as a producer (everyone wants to be a director or a DP), they saw the opportunity and found themselves there.
But the bitterness over time develops, watching a director, or a DP, or even an editor, composer, sound designer, thrive in their creative role. As a producer you and the director are intimately connected with these roles, but the director/producer focus must diverge at this point, for the good of the project.
The director is freed, by you, the Producer, to make his or her creative decisions. You must then empathize with him or her creatively, and take the step to pass those through a logistical and practical lens, in an effort to quietly meet the demands of the budget and timing constraints, as well as the type of deliverable that needs to be in the hands of the client at a certain time. If you don’t accomplish all that (essentially stewarding the entire process), no one knows why you were hired, and everyone resents you.
While there is a creative side to producing and your thoughts are typically welcomed, as you have insight into creative problem solving as it resides in the constraints, over time, producing can make you feel like a robot if your heart isn’t in it. And cliché acknowledged, heart really is the key.
Regardless of how good you are as a producer, and how successful you’ve been, your main passion must be developing a culture. And developing a culture requires a type of eldership, one that often exceeds the creative desires of the director and the agency.
In this, you must ask “what is wise” more often than the director, the agency, the client.
Your role begins to move into a moment of focusing the “what” into the “how.” This applies to the budget, the schedule; it means negotiating crew rates and roles, and understanding which personalities could serve the end goal best.
The “how” could manifest itself in a million different ways (even on a $1000 shoot), and you alone must have the foresight, wisdom, and social acumen to explain a complexity of thoughts to a number of different people, with different expectations, life experiences, and goals, for the good of the project.
The director will call you that night and ask how it’s going.
In an effort to de-romanticize my thoughts about this, but also drive the point home of why I think this type of thinking is extremely important (at the risk of shoots bombing and it being on your shoulders), I’ve put together some thoughts below on how this works out, practically.
Empower your crew, and trust them
Many of these people may have been working longer than you, seen more difficulties, experienced more types of challenges in film than you have. Learn from them. Ask them what they would do in a production situation. Ask them for an anecdote about how this may have been successful for them in the past.
Know every role (what does the 2AC do?), and anticipate every expectation of every crew member (are they used to Union-type gigs), based on what you know about their focus area, and gauge their experience and talent level to assess what they’re used to on set
Take the first AC for example. On smaller sets, many find this role to be akin to the production assistant. On larger sets, this person is an indispensable, incredibly talented and logistically-minded person who understands more of the cinematographer’s needs than anyone else. And can provide solutions before the cinematographer even knows he/she needs one.
Some questions to consider about this role, and, as an example, roles like it:
- Is this person an AC who wants to be a DP?
- Have they AC’ed on Epic, Amira, F5, Varicam? i.e. what is their resumé?
- Do they have experience building a Movi M15?
- Have they set up a large video village and do they have the social skills to address complaints from the client in a sensitive way in lieu of the Director, Producer or DP?
- Are they an experienced Focus Puller, experienced operating off the side of the camera or wirelessly via monitor?
- What is their knowledge and social acumen re: mentioning to the Director/DP about actors’ marks and continuity as it relates to the goals of camera operating and blocking?
This applies to any role. Where are they? What can we expect from them skills-wise? Where do gaps need to be filled in communication with the DP and Director?
If you are aware an area is lacking in resource for a crew member, always speak up about this beforehand, and offer, in some way, to make it better for them and think of ways where they lack, to make the set itself better.
Navigate each conversation as a confidant. Instill trust in your clients and crew. Keep your word. If you can’t for some reason outside of your control, explain to the best of your ability and offer not only your intentions, but also your goals for making this a better experience despite the expectation gap.
Show everyone you care. Ask them about their family, their history, and their desires before you get on set. Learn about what makes them tick. It could be a commercial for soap, so know where everyone’s headed in their career and find ways to encourage that. You are a person and a friend first, and a producer second.
Serve your client or agency with tenacity. Prove that you are the gatekeeper of this project won’t stop at less than perfection. Strive for this, and in the process, treat everyone with the utmost respect and gratitude.
An infinite number of possibilities for challenges are possible, but anticipate the best you can based on the world you’re in, the budget and timing constraints you have, and the social dynamics of the client, agency, and crew. Your job is to meet each of these groups in the middle, and have an answer for each of them based on the expectations of the others.
Everything is fluid. “Above the line” (Director, Actors, Producer) budget is not. Find ways to “treat” people if you can. If the guiding value of your producing efforts on the budget side is the promise of a percentage of the surplus, you will harm the culture. Think about how to strategically do this, but it can never be at the cost of someone who made you look good.
Face Unforeseen Difficulties With Integrity
Never aloof, your job is to face everything that happens on set with a plan, or with a toolset to address where the plan has failed.
If you have a crew member who is incorrigible or so bitter about their job that they end up making not only the client experience but the shoot itself negative, find ways to have a discussion with the client and agency about it, and take the fall for them. It is YOUR crew. If possible, and not more harmful, have a careful conversation with that crew member about how culturally that type of behavior doesn’t work for your set, but that you can understand where they’re coming from. Share personal anecdotes about how you have felt the same way, and what the breaking point was for you to start differently, at the risk of your career.
Show everyone love and appreciation. Make gratitude central, because you’re often asking everyone to work their asses off for long periods of time. Find specific ways (by knowing about their roles and responsbilities) to call out these successes, and offer it as a bonus. If they tell you “I’m just doing my job,” follow up with, “I understand that, just wanted to make it known” in a public way.
Pay People On Time Or Rather, Ahead of Time
Use deal memos. Ask for advance invoices. Show your crew you understand they have a business to run as well.
If the invoice comes back and includes all sorts of receipts and expenses not approved by production, have a phone call to ask about their legitimacy. They may not be trying to gouge you, but you may have, in the heat of the moment, asked them to do a few things and they were doing their best to problem solve in a timely fashion.
In this way, they have taken on some of your responsibilities and actually made you look better to the director and to the client/agency.
Find ways to be surprisingly generous. In your conversation with director, agency, talent, and crew, and in your discussions of timeline, and in your discussions of budget. If you have to ask someone for a smaller rate than they’re accustomed to, and you end up with a surplus, find ways to rectify that with your resources.
When possible (force this to be possible culturally), pay your crew on the day of the shoot. If a crew member ends up taking on more responsibility than they expected, and they bring this up to you, offer a resolution.
If there is no option for a resolution from the client or agency side, offer something from your back pocket that you prepared because you have anticipated this challenge.
Hire Your People Again
The biggest thing you can offer a crew member is not the promise or the offhand comment that you’ll hire them again, but it is actually to hire them again.
Know that they’ll remember more of your words on set than you’ll remember of theirs. Make every word count. If they killed it, hire them again. Mention that you will. And then do it.
Producing is creating and managing a culture. If you are a drill sergeant, your set will reflect the military. This works for some, but burns most. There are other ways to accomplish the same structure, but it requires much more social intelligence, understanding, and empathy.
Find ways to create an environment that empowers people to think and act creatively. Don’t settle for giving people orders and pointing out wrongs. Hire an AD who also thinks this way, but also let them be the bad guy, as long as it’s rooted in meeting schedule and nothing more.
You are the elder of the set. Only you have eyes on the desires of the agency, client, and director.
How can you do this in a way that serves each of these parties well, is done with consistent integrity and commitment to communication, while also showing your crew your appreciation, an understanding of the dedication to their craft, their current and lasting desires, while, at the end of the day, empowering everyone to thrive creatively so that the end deliverable, again, on your shoulders, is excellently done, on time (or ahead of schedule), and under budget?