Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Time + Money + People = Producing College Film

I know I'm not the only one that has really started to reflect on the crazy realization that this will be the last film that I make while at Ithaca College.  There have been some stellar ones, some average ones and some projects that we just don't talk about. I'm probably not the only one who didn't wind up doing what they thought they would be doing at the tail end of four years.  As a freshman, I thought it was going to be directing.  I'm not the type of person who likes getting caught up in the hands-on details of things.  Rather, I prefer to think as big picture as possible.  Somewhere between sophomore and senior year, directing became producing because I fell in love with it in a way I never did with directing.  Before I get stuck in nostalgia, or something far worse, I'll cut to the chase about what I've figured out about producing thus far...

Producing film (and TV), at least in college, can be boiled down to the management of three resources. These three resources will always be in significantly shorter supply than you'd like AND, as the producer, you will be the one held responsible if any of them are mismanaged. 

Time is one of the three things that is mine to handle.  This one is arguably the most difficult to get a hold of at the college level, and I'll venture a guess that the real world isn't all that different.  Long before I was at Ithaca College, I stage managed a number of theatrical productions back home.  Somewhere along the line there, time management became a part of my brain that doesn't shut off, ever.  When I am asked to produce a film, the first thing I do is read the script, duh. The main two time factors that I am crunching in my head as I read are: "How long is it going to take to shoot this?" and "How many weeks of preproduction do we need to get it ready to shoot?" (the third is post-production, but this usually doesn't take long to calculate).  To be honest, I'd say that the first question is usually much easier to answer for me.  If I get a good enough sense from the director as to the vision, I can usually ballpark a good schedule based on a few things: "Day/Night Shooting", "Elaborate Set Ups/Stunts", "Script Length", "Number of Characters", "Complexity of Action/Background Action".  
Right off the bat, some of these are going to be much easier to understand than others.  When the directors come to you with a script for a musical with five different dance numbers, you know those are going to each take at least two, if not three hours to shoot based on complexity. If the directors want to shoot on Cayuga Lake, you know that too will take some extra time. If there is a need for day4night or night4day, then your set ups will take significantly longer. Now the tricky thing about the way to schedule these is that while there are guidelines, there is no true right answer, and that is frustrating as all get out. My solution is that I take my time, and never go it alone. Any time I schedule a film shoot, it is with the AD, Line Producer and Director (and often DP). There is no sense  making a schedule that your crew will kill you over. More on people later! As for trying to assess the amount of preproduction needed, at the college level this is tricky.  It is tricky because of schedules.  We aren't professionals yet, and unfortunately we aren't paid to exclusively do this.  This means that when I plan preproduction I need to look at the schedules of the Director, Producers, Director of Photography and the Production Designer more than anyone else.  What other films are they making? How many classes are they in? Are they working part time jobs? Any other extra curriculars? Once you take all of their commitments into account, you then need to see where priorities lie.  Unlike scheduling shoots, planning preproduction has a much, much looser formula; this is not something I have ever been thrilled about.  I used to believe that it was always best to throw time at preproduction, but my opinion on this has changed.  If your team has all the team in the world, they lose their sense of urgency.  Well that certainly won't be a worry on this one. Five weeks until production!
Money is usually the next biggest hurdle to have to jump through.  Much like time, this management is also broken in to two main parts: budgeting and fundraising.  Not only am I the final say on how we spend our money, but I am also responsible for getting us the money to spend.  This may be one of of my favorite parts of the job.  Managing a budget starts with reading the script, marking it up and assessing what the needs will be from each department.  The highest costs are always going to be production design and camera department, at least on student film.  Ideally you would want to use as much of PPECS's equipment as possible, but there are some things they just don't have; this is where rentals come in, and they ain't cheap.  Creating the world for the film to take place in is not a time for short changing, and production design should never be underestimated.  Once the DP and Production Designer are hired, I then compare my notes with theirs to verify that my estimates are fairly on track.  The same can be said of every other department and its keys.  It is especially easy when I am the key to parts of the budget, like PR. Once the estimates are pretty locked in, I input them into a Google Sheet, which tracks our departments' estimated budgets in comparison to their actual expenditures.  As preproduction continues, it is important to keep each department in the black, as there will be unexpected costs in production (which I try to build contingency for). 
Fundraising is the other side to the coin.  Indiegogo is not a perfect platform but it does manage to get the job done! If you want a fast way to get in touch with friends, family, family friends, to communicate your need for their support, then it is perfect.  There are some serious limitations to it though.  The platform was initially created for film fundraising but it is actually the most difficult type of fundraising to do on Indiegogo.  Tech fundraisers can promise prototypes or other fancy forms of swag that filmmakers just can't.  At the end of the day, this leaves film Indiegogo pages (those of the non-famous variety, for an example of the successful ones check out Con Man) struggling to break what I like to call the "middle class ceiling".  If you are coming from a middle class background, your ability to fundraise on Indiegogo is going to tap out somewhere just above $5000, in all likelihood (that's a team of roughly three students and this is just my observation).  This leaves you looking for slightly deeper pockets.  This can be other connections such as alumni, businesses or grant applications.  I am currently in the process of designing some literature which I hope to turn in to a few thousand dollars, fingers crossed.  Really it comes down to getting the money, however you can, even if that means taking a water balloon full of hot sauce to the face. 

People wind up being the resource that is the easiest to find at the college level, and it doesn't take a lot of brains to see why.  This school is full of some of the most intelligent and gifted people I have ever met.  The tricky thing that I am starting to realize as a senior is that I no longer have anyone older than me to recruit for films.  For the first time, I have to hire on people in to major roles that are one or two years younger than me.  Admittedly this took a little getting used to, but age really is just a number, and not always an indicator of skill level.  
Some positions will always be more difficult to fill than others.  Finding good production designers, gaffers and producers is always the most difficult thing to manage, for a variety of reasons.  Production design is one of those jobs that takes a hell of a lot of effort, but arguably the least glamorous of the most difficult jobs; it also takes someone who is both detail oriented and able to see the big picture.  Gaffers just seem to not exist all that much from a "I can create a beautiful look" for this scene level.  Honestly I think this has more to do with our education than anything.  Cinema majors get a decent grounding in this, while TV/R majors can expect very little in lighting aesthetics (not to say that we don't make good grips, we kill that game).  

As for producers, well we have the job that almost nobody wants.  We have to be able to constantly ask for things to get done, without being a nag. We have to deliver bad news in the best way. We have to be able to stay friends with our peers, while also having to supervise their work. We are the organizers, the brainstormers, the hand holders, the blame takers, the huggers and the ones who get to lose sleep over it all; we are the crazy ones. We have the job that most people find either too boring or too much work. I have heard a number of times from others that we don't make art, because we don't touch cameras, write scripts, use paint, or call action. It took a long time to realize this isn't true.  True, there really isn't much art in the excessive amount of paperwork I have to do.  You have to look broader, from development to distribution, we connect everyone and everything. If you look for our art in the film you won't find it, because you aren't looking in the right place. Our art is in the film production itself. We line it all up. I don't play an instrument...

1 comment:

Meghan Malone said...

That last paragraph though. Well done!