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11.06.2017

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: When you form a production company, FOCUS on what matters!




A decade or so ago, two of my filmmaker friends and I formed a production company.

The goal of the company was to produce two feature films back-to-back; one written and directed by one of my two friends, and one written and directed by me. The third friend had a line on $10,000 seed money and wanted to produce his first feature, after producing several short films and being involved in the Sundance community for several years.

We kept it simple, at first. We met at a Denny’s and set up an office in my 2-bedroom Los Feliz apartment with the main goal of getting name talent attached to our two scripts.

We decided to work on two films at once to put us ahead of the game in two key ways:

1) If we were known to be setting up a slate of films and a production company, rather than just setting up a single film, we'd be able to differentiate our company and our films from the scores of other filmmakers out there hoofing it to raise money for their single film.

and 2) two films would allow us to manage risk of loss and leverage our positions with potential cast and investors. That is, if we were trying to get two films going, and if name talent jumped aboard at least one of them, we'd be automatically in a good position to make the second one, as we would have gained significant "heat" by attaching a name actor to one of our films.

But despite our grand strategy, and despite being able to ultimately attach several smaller name actors to one of our films, we wasted a lot of time and energy doing a lot of pointless, business-y things that we thought were important at the time, but turned out not only to be not important, but incredibly wasteful of our precious time and scant financial and human resources.

A typical day at the Los Feliz office was:  We'd meet, agree on what we were pursuing for the day, as far as a single "action item," such as "Contact Steve Zahn's manager and see if you can get the script to him," then I would track down Steve Zahn's contact information, and then our lead phone guy, Roger, would be the guy who picked up the phone and called him.

That's pretty simplified, but you get the idea.

But another key ingredient in the mix:  we committed to the idea that if we didn't get name actors and raise the budgets within 3 months, we'd shoot both the films ourselves with skeleton crews and cheaper gear, splitting the rental costs and other costs between
the two films, getting the most bang for our buck.

And by giving ourselves that ultimatum, we had to pair the name-talent outreach campaign with a simultaneous "we're shooting in X months" preproduction campaign.  Which meant we had to start finding locations, securing rental deals for cameras and gear, casting actors, and everything else that goes into preproduction on a film. Two films, actually.

And this is where it began to go wrong.

Because we were overloaded, we brought in a couple of interns to help us with that day-to-day grunt work.

And it wasn't apparent at first, but because we'd brought in those two interns, who weren't exactly strangers, but weren't exactly close pals, we all felt like we had to "step up" and act more like a real business—a real production company.

Which meant whenever there was any downtime, we had to come up with busy work.

And soon, that busy work became the end-all-be-all of what we were doing.

We started having meetings to keep us on track and set goals, and because we wanted to make the interns feel like part of the team, we brought them into the meetings.

But even worse, in those meetings, we started talking about things like business card design and who should run the video camera at auditions.

As we descended into this busy-work death spiral, we said to ourselves "This is too much for just us three producers. We need to bring in someone to help with this stuff."

So we added a fourth producer to our production company.

Despite it all, this fourth producer was a valuable asset to have on the team.  He had a knack for quickly building his social circle, so we knew he'd be able to help bring aboard people that could help.  But the only problem was that, now, the topic had shifted even further away from the "get a name actor on our film" to "getting our production company name out there" and "designing our logo."

And then it got worse.

Because then we dived down a two-month rabbit hole as we planned a big launch party for our production company, deciding it was time to make a splash and let the film industry know we meant business.

Facepalm.

Instead of calling actors and preparing for the possibility of shooting the 2 films with a microbudget, we were now worried about arbitrary things like:

-       How can we merge our personal emails lists onto one main Brooklyn Reptyle email list so we can invite everybody to the Launch Party? Should we use Excel? Will our internet provider allow us to send all these emails at once?

-       What should go on each of our business cards? ("Should I be 'Creative Director' or does that sound too pompous?" "How about I'm 'Executive VP In Charge of Production' and you're 'Executive VP In Charge of Finance'?")

-       What's the MP3 playlist for the party? Should it be contemporary? Classic? A mixture?

-       Should the party be invite-only?  Or open to friends of invitees?

The net result:  By July, we had ended up being miles away from that three-person "name-talent strike force" we started out as in February.

And because we had so many sundry mindless little "busywork" things to focus on, nobody was able to focus on anything.

And as a result, morale plummeted.

And when morale plummeted, the interns left. 

And when the interns left, we were overwhelmed with so much busy work left undone, we panicked and brought in a paid office assistant, despite the fact that none of us had any money.

She lasted a month and had to quit.

And it was at this point we lost Roger, our producer who was the main liaison to the name-talent we were pursuing, when he took on a film festival job.

So the name talent campaign was effectively over, and our two-film production slate was teetering on the edge of failure.  It was at that point we hit rock bottom, and had to "sober up," so to speak.

After a few weeks of reorganization and refocusing, we got back on the horse, deciding to make one of the films, Boppin' At The Glue Factory, come hell or high water, and name talent be damned.

We stuck to the basics and scrounged up a microbudget, threw together a cast and crew, and started rolling cameras within a few months.  Three basic business actions we took that led to success:

1) We divided up the work.  Put simply, everybody's jobs were overlapping.  As a result, a team member would do a lot of work (e.g. getting a printer script to a certain manager, or pricing out a location).  Once we divided up the work, we could assign specific tasks to each other, and the list of tasks would keep us on track and accountable to our teammates.

2) We stopped having daily meetings and moved to a weekly meeting.  In addition, the structure of the weekly meeting became tighter and more focused.  We set an agenda for each time we got together, and attacked each bullet point individually, minimizing chat and distraction, and stayed focused on end results.  We checked to see if each teammate achieved the tasks assigned to them on their task list. We brainstormed new ideas and new tasks within a set period of time, and if we went over, that was it.  We called the meetings "Tactical Strike Meetings," instead of the long, drawn-out "campaign" meetings we'd grown accustomed to, and the new urgency really helped. 

In one meeting, for example, we did a timed "angel investor brainstorm," where we each had two minutes to throw out the names of as many connected, or wealthy, or otherwise viable potential angel investors as we could, and the person who threw out the least amount of names had to buy lunch.

As a result of that meeting, we stumbled upon one name that we hadn't thought of before. That person ended up becoming our first angel investor, and "made it safe" for other investors to come aboard later, because they perceived our film as a viable, project due to that first investor.  It was now more than just a script and an idea. It was a moving train.

3) We got real about our chances of landing name talent, and refocused on actors that weren't necessarily on the "A List," but had large enough names to get people interested in the film, and to set our film apart from others. This refocusing let us see our casting in a new light, which opened the door for our first few great actors, such as Rance Howard, Conrad Roberts, and Mews Small, who not only fit the parts, but actually caused us to realize how small our thinking was when it came to each of the characters they played, as each of them brought in a whole new dimension of life and magic to their parts, which expanded our film's potential and entertainment value in a huge way. 

That film, Boppin' At The Glue Factory, is actually still making money on Amazon right now.

And, thankfully, our business cards are lost to history.





IMDB page of Boppin at the Glue Factory http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0382579/


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