HOW TO MAKE MONEY FROM MOVING IMAGE: PRODUCING & OTHERS
Producers stand to make the real big bucks
If you’re serious about making money from moving image then producing is where you need to be. The rewards can be enormous, but you can end up carrying all the risk too. Ask most people outside production what a producer does and they’ll probably get all confused with directing and a bunch of other crap. In my world the producer makes shit happen. The how of that is a dance with the director but underneath it all, the motor driving a production through pre into post is the producer. And what a job it is.
I have a feeling good producers would do very well on The Apprentice. It’s that kind of job, bottom line, sales, deals, bargaining and keeping the money happy. There’s this happy line about how producers can have lots of creative input into a project. That has never ever happened to me. I don’t let producers anywhere near the creative aspects of the work I’m directing. But that’s just the world I work in. In drama, in particular TV drama, the producer has an enormous amount of creative influence. Speak to screenwriters about the dreaded notes they receive from producers and you’ll soon see the idiotic amount of influence producers can hold over the creative aspects.
Producing is a skill
Producing is a skill all of its own and should not be considered the default fall-back for those who weren’t really good enough to direct. I’m really not very good at it, I’m way too nice to people and don’t negotiate prices properly. In fact I suck at producing. Which is bad really since about 90% of the work I do carries a producer/director credit. What I like is putting projects together, pulling all the elements into place so that it can happen. The budget and the operational side I’m just not interested in, which is why I prefer to hire a production manager to take care of all of that. Really, the key skills of producing are understanding which projects to back, making deals, giving the creative team the tools they need to do their jobs and keeping a firm grip on the budget (make friends with Movie Magic). Sound like fun?
The way in
There’s a good apprenticeship route for aspiring producers. There’s lots of production companies and I can’t think of a single one that couldn’t use an extra pair of hands most of the time. Start out running, in television if you can. The pace and variety of TV production is a great grounding for other production work. Music videos are a great place to gain some experience of insane production environments. You’ll see the divine alchemy of base budgets being turned into gold time and again and, believe me, it really is a miracle what people are turning out these days. Ultimately it’s best to get a broad range of experience then specialise in the world you wish to work in. It’ll take a long time to be given lone producing responsibilities in television but in music videos you could be producing within four years. In feature films you could start producing right now. You might not get anywhere but there’s no reason why you couldn’t start building relationships with directors, do some shorts, then develop a feature script. I wouldn’t recommend it though as experience of production is hard earned and mistakes tend to be expensive. Work your way up from runner to production manager, to assistant producing and get really familiar with the peculiar dynamics of creative talent and the distinctly blue-collar world of actual production.
As I’ve said before, there’s more and more content being produced, with magazines creating their own channels creating content in-house, brands opening up to video more than ever and the opportunities for enterprising producers to make a buck are pretty interesting. Freelance producing is a tricky old road. I know lots of people who dislike getting bogged down in one production company and like to move from job to job. That’s fine but it’s really really tough in between jobs. One of the reasons I’m not where I would like to be yet is the lack of focus that being a multi-hyphenate brings with it. However, that quiver of skills has a sharp and pointy edge, namely being able to work pretty much all the time. Producing involves these intense bursts of activity then nothing. Directing similarly. It’s just that directing pays more!
Going rates for producers tend to vary hugely. You won’t find a union rate card for producers as they negotiate their own fee, the way directors do. On a music video the rule used to be 10% of budget for the director, 5% to the producer and a further 10% for the production company. Not anymore. If a producer gets £500 for a £10k music video they’ve done really really really well. The job I’m doing at the moment has me in the budget at £1k a day for directing and £600 for producing. Sounds good doesn’t it. But wait. There’s a catch. This is just per shoot day. We’re shooting two days, that’s it. But we’ll probably be working on this thing for two weeks. Still pretty healthy but not quite the same as two weeks at that rate.
Set up a production company
I didn’t go down the apprenticeship route and set up my own production company instead. I figured I was smart enough and talented enough that I could bypass the normal avenues and I would be very successful. In the eight years I ran the company I worked harder than I ever thought it was possible to work, taking myself to extremes of sleep deprivation and exhaustion that simply aren’t healthy. Existing on four hours sleep and working the other twenty for four months straight is unsustainable. Beyond all that though I got opportunities I would never have had otherwise. I worked on so many different types of production, enjoying a level of responsibility far beyond my experience. We had to grow up fast and we earned nothing for a long time. But once we’d got it up and running properly there was a huge buzz to winning work, our first steps in TV, winning a massive commission, our first live broadcast. All this stuff. Just crazy. We produced extreme sports films, had our first film premiere at the Warner Bros in Leicester Square when we were 23, turned out 50 odd music videos, hours and hours of broadcast, corporate, commercials and a bunch of other stuff besides. Good times.
By the time we were in our mid twenties we had a proper, fully-fledged production company going and were on the brink of big things. But then it all went wrong, our major commissioner was bought and stopped commissioning. The bottom fell out and we never really recovered. Shame. If you’re entrepreneurial and enjoy a challenge, then I’d say go for it. It taught me so much, gave me such a headstart over my peers and those experiences inform so much of what I do now. Start with a telephone and some insurance then graft, graft and graft. Identify a niche that can sustain you till you’re ready to invest in more staff and more equipment and bootstrap as much as possible, only buying what you absolutely have to have, keeping your overheads to the absolute minimum . Then invest in people, those who are better than you, more focussed. It takes time but it’s incredibly rewarding.
Exploitation and Entrepreneurialism
The real money for producers lies in the exploitation of talent and intellectual property. Develop an original concept then flip it for a price. Just like flipping houses. That’s what gets me excited about producing. The opportunity to be entrepreneurial. Setting up a production company is really about having a vehicle for talent. Talent earns you money and how you exploit it is the difference between success and failure. A script, a director, a documentary subject, or a group of young filmmakers. Producing really is about exploitation, but in the best possible way.
Let’s look at an example. After leaving Chrome Productions I went freelance and couldn’t believe how much money I was suddenly able to earn. All the skills I’d had to learn at the company to keep it afloat were suddenly exploitable assets. For two years I was quite happy freelancing, selling those skills to anyone who’d pay and that was just fine. I did voiceovers (£200 an hour), after effects (£400 a day), camerawork (£250 a day), directing (music videos, about £1,250-£1,500 a job), and editing (£250 a day). All nice ways of earning a living. But, with the exception of directing, each of them had a ceiling. A maximum value of what I could earn. After eight years running a production company and a CV as long as your arm I started to feel a monstrous sense of entitlement about what I was worth. And I wasn’t earning it.
Worse, I saw the success of bloggers whose most saleable skill seemed to be talking about stuff. I saw Freddie Wong climbing rapidly through 2million youtube subscribers and I realised that I really wasn’t making best use of what I’m good at. An opportunity came up to meet a Mauritian luxury resort company who were looking to start developing a consumer brand reaching out directly to the end user through social media. They wondered how much it would cost to make a film. On the flight home I started thinking about how I’d blog for these guys, what stories I could tell, and what films I could spin out of their operations. As it turned out, a lot. I wrote them a long proposal for a social media strategy, specifically a publishing one, combining journalism and film, enough for a year’s worth of work. They loved it. Such an approach is nothing new, it’s called content marketing and it’s the reason behind Phil Bloom’s incredible success. Here I saw an opportunity that no other resort company appeared to be exploiting and for the last six months I’ve been shooting and building content for this new brand that launched on the 3rd of December. I now get paid as a consultant, as well as a filmmaker, helping the company translate what they do into stories. Now that’s a fun job. This is why I now earn six figures. You have to work a lot of £250 a day jobs to get even close and it’s a big old graft.
Now, I’ll be honest, my background is in marketing originally so I do have a head start, and I do have a lot of experience now, but these kinds of opportunities are coming up more and more. As a consultant I’m free to charge for my thinking as well as charging for the service that come attached. Music video directors don’t get paid for their ideas, they just get paid for making them. Ad agencies get paid huge sums for coming up with ads, so why don’t those music video directors? I hate that which is one of the big reasons why I don’t work in that industry anymore. Everything has a value, in some cases that value is decreasing rapidly (namely camerawork and production services in general) but if you think hard about how to exploit your own talents, and look hard at where the opportunities are, then there’s still a ton of money to be made.
There are plenty of other ways to earn money in production but I haven’t done any of them so it would be wrong to talk about them.
I hope this series on camerawork, directing, editing and producing for money has been useful. This is a career that can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating. The two worst mistakes you can make are as follows:
1. Over-estimate your own value.
2. Under-estimate your own value.
It hacks me off no end when people with mediocre skills try to pull a fast one. On the other hand I hate seeing people get ripped off by producers. Knowing how much to charge is a dark art. Sometimes it’s right to bail on a job if it’s just too stinky, but if you need the cash, then you need the cash. If you’re worried that it’s going to set a precedent then be strong, say the rate is a one-off and if the client wants you to work for them in the future then it’s going to be the normal rate. Too many people are working for free when they needn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with helping out and gaining experience but try not to get exploited too badly.
So that’s it. Best of luck…
Fire me questions anytime @aka_skid