Monday, December 28, 2015

Hollywood 101

Hey everyone. So I thought about this for some time, and I've spent a good amount of time compiling this list. My goal has been to formulate essentially an extensive list of things I want to remember about becoming a producer. Not the BS lists you see, but something that is culled from real experience. Most information I've read and or heard about producing has been so surface level that it's basically public knowledge. "real" producers don't share their knowledge too deeply or share anecdotes - it gives away too much about the inner workings of Hollywood. From time to time, I'll write about things that have happened in my journey, good bad or otherwise and really - I hope it illuminates things for someone. If you find this following list or anything I say on this blog useful, please message me and let me know!

So without further adieu, here it is - the most "un-Hollywood" reality check list of what a producer needs to know. Notice that 95% of it is relationally based. there is a reason for that. More discussion about that in future posts. This list is 'in progress' and may be added to from time to time.

  1. Desperation Kills
  2. Networking is king. You will succeed or fail based on your networking skills.
  3. You don’t know everything. Get help.
  4. The greatest story in the world does you no good unless you can sell it..
  5. Call/email your contact list regularly. Even if you feel like you're being a pest.
  6. make back ups of your phone book. multiples in different formats.
  7. Know where your project is going before you shoot it
  8. Don’t ever make a film with unknown actors. Have at least one well recognized name.
  9. Technicality is not everything, but professional sound is a must.
  10. Everyone thinks they have good projects. Everyone thinks they’re a genius. Not true.
  11. Avoid politics. Avoid pride. Both of these will kill your career.
  12. Strive to be underestimated.
  13. everyone does things for their own reasons, not someone elses.
  14. unfortunately, people are selfish. Appeal to their selfishness and you’ll get what you need. And related -
  15. do your best to be as unselfish as you can by helping other people. The people you help succeed will remember and by and large help you when they get there.
  16. Network with “the old dogs” in the business who have been cast aside because of changes in the industry. They are invaluable assets.
  17. Take everyone who shows some smarts and determination seriously. You never know.
  18. If you want to succeed, get into distribution.
  19. always return phone calls and emails. I hate it when people don't respond.
  20. this is a business first,- not an art form That is the sad truth. it costs too much money to do to 'risk it all' on anything less than brilliance. the only way Forrest Gump got made was because some enormous figures in Hollywood were willing to stake thier reputations on the art. Terry Gilliam, Marty Scorcese, and George Clooney are slight exceptions. But then again, they are uber famous and carry a lot of wieght.
  21. be willing to "risk it all" for the art. If you have something that is brilliant - be a bulldog about it and learn how to mitigate the risk. It can be done.
  22. Surround yourself with critical people you can trust who are willing to tell you the truth. Even the Bible says “the wounds of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful”
  23. Never ever ever be arrogant.
  24. There is always someone bigger.
  25. a producer is someone who knows how to hire better people than him/herself. A director is just a person who knows what he/she wants.
  26. Be friendly to people.
  27. never ever be a screamer or throw around attitude. It just makes you look like an ass and people will dislike you and talk about you behind thier backs.
  28. don't use people.
  29. Pay attention for good opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t be so hung up on your own thing that you can’t see it. Don’t be too proud to work on other people’s stuff.
  30. learn about acting, gripping, set dressing and all of the trades you can. Gain an appreciation and understanding of their needs.
  31. read “Hello, He Lied” by Lynda Obst. Classic.
  32. Today’s PA is tommorow’s producer. They will remember. (including me)
  33. crews will work long and hard for someone they feel respects them and has a vision.
  34. the more money you have, the more security you can buy
  35. Producer teams work the best. One is good at the business stuff, one is good with the creative stuff.
  36. Be prepared for the 3 – 5 year turnaround it takes to make a film. If you have something that could become a classic, be prepared to wait longer.
  37. Carefully choose your battles.
  38. Know your limits.
  39. drivers and PA’s are your friends.
  40. Compare your project to classic films you love. Does it measure up? If not, kill it.
  41. Hire well known crew people when possible.
  42. Learn about ancillary markets and multiple revenue streams.
  43. Make friends in the music industry.
  44. Don’t ever quit or you will never make it.
  45. a great soundtrack can save an otherwise bland project.

Hollywood 102

What I've found is that most people have these hackneyed ideas of what it take to make a successful movie - including people who have been in the industry for awhile. They think they are going to "make it" by "beating the odds" and "staying true to their vision" when the reality is they are too ignorant or lazy to learn the business side of the business. It's unfortunately a very money oriented business, but in some ways, I feel better about that. To explain: I am a songwriter, and to me, songwriting is a very personal expression of who I am and how God made me. until very recently, the idea of selling a song simply for commercial purposes was anathema to me. But in the movie business, art and commerce aren't separated at all - they are one and the same. It costs an enormous amount of money to properly make a film - even on the very low end - and practical business considerations happen right away. The entire point of making a movie is that people will spend money to watch it, recognize you for your artistic merits, and make you rich, right? So how do you expect to receive allof these glorious benefits without doing the job right? Sure, some miracles squeak through the cracks in the door - Clerks, The Brothers McMullin, Memento, Pieces of Amy, Army of Darkness Blair Witch, etc - but those are absolute anomalies. Even the very experienced in the business will be at a loss to explain why those projects were successful. They struck a nerve with the public and became popular. Other projects, on the other hand, are really well thought out calculated risks with serious artistic merits - such as Eternal Sunshine, the aforementioned Forrest Gump, Fight Club, name any Terry Gilliam or Coen Brothers film and on the smaller end of the spectrum The Second Chance (an excellent first film by Christian music maverick Steve Taylor), Saved!, Big Fat greek Wedding (special circumstances did apply however) and others. The thing all of these movies had in common was that they were all really artistic or social statements that would have probably never been made unless there was some element to them that made either a studio or a bunch of investors get together and fund them. Let's face reality, The Matrix, which was a brilliant concept, would have never seen the light of day without the aid of an already established famous person to step in and get the ball rolling. They had a bunch of very large name actors in the film - thats what I mean by mitigating the risk - no matter what the final film turned out like, they knew a certian number of people were going to watch a film with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in it and backed by a major studio. Put Tom Cruise in any movie - any movie - and the projected return will be 300%. No movie he has ever been associated with has lost money. Not even Stephen Spielberg can say that! My point here is that when you make a film, you are creating a piece of commerce and you have to treat it that way. Here are ways to mitigate risk that I've found - these are pretty specific to low budget independent pics, but most of the rules apply to any budget picture. Remember - the more money you have, the more security you can buy.

  1. The Letter of Intent, or LOI, is your friend. it allows you to get a good faith agreement with people (producer/director/actor) that will satisfy most investor types and it proves you know what you're doing. it's one of the major tools in an indie producers toolbox for mitigating risk.
  2. have a big name person attached. No matter how small the project - find one big name - the producer, the director, an actor - anyone. This will help you sell it and get it distributed. it will also ease the pressure on you artistically.
  3. get an LOI distribution deal in place - again - these are deals that may go away in the end, and they should be an non-exclusive agreement and usually will be. If the distributor is not putting up any cash, it should be non-exclusive. This will allow you to say to investors that the film will be distributed no matter what. that is a major selling point.
  4. package the film with great music. Do not underestimate the power of a good soundtrack. even unsigned unknown bands can be helpful. This is why relationships in the music industry are so helpful - even major labels want to promote their new up-n-coming bands - there are windows of opportunities for both parties.
  5. raise some first-in money - it hardly matters how much - just so you can say the first-in has been raised. This helps investors feel like they aren't the only ones taking the risk.
  6. make friends in the festival circuit. create buzz for your project while you are shooting.
  7. if you can find even one or two theaters to screen your film then arrange it. This is another way to make potential investors feel safe.
  8. as a long term strategy - only do projects that you are reasonably sure will make their money back. break even is fine - you get to fight another day.
  9. Don't go out to make your epic right away - even if you succeed, you may never raise that much money again if the film fails to generate income.
  10. read rule #2
So that gives you some general idea of how it is an indie producer can lower the risk factor.
Instead of focusing single-mindedly on what you think is a great project that everyone will want to see because it's such a compelling story it doesn't matter if you have any distribution or well known actors in it - learn the reality of the business. You might get a project or two made, but you'll eventually hit the wall unless you get lucky or have an "in".

Of course, every rule or list I come up with is trumped by Hollywood Rule 1 - "it's not what you know, but who you know" Thats how some no name 'never done anything' loser like myself will come screaming down the highway in a career on fire someday - because rather than focus on just making a bunch of crap projects, I took the time to learn what makes project good first, both artistically and business-wise, and I networked my rear end off. that, at the end of the day, is what will make my (and your) career happen.