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in Filmmaking
on Sep 17, 2010

I produced my last short, which, with a cast/crew of 20, paying almost everyone, camera package out of L.A., film from NYC, housing and feeding everyone for five days, etc… — nearly killed me. So I’m clear on the fact that while I’ll likely take (and earn) a producer credit on my first feature, I desperately want someone who is going to take over the management of the project and someone who is going to nurture me. The biggest problem I found with self-producing is that I couldn’t take the time for myself as an artist to regroup and center (on set) because, well, the catering was late in arriving to the set and the grips were grumbling and camera said we might run out of stock by tomorrow so I needed to call Kodak …

When I interned for Christine Vachon ages and ages ago, it always stuck out for me that she was fiercely protective of the directors I saw her work with (Tom Kalin and Steve McLean.) As a director, I feel fiercely protective of my actors and consider it my duty to create a safe place for them to explore and take risks … but without a producer, I didn’t really have that safety myself. (I know, waah, waah. :)

So the first thing I’m looking for is a producer who is going to protect me and take care of me — not bring me coffee, of course, but recognize that on set, I’m an artist, and may need to go inside my head (and heart) a bit to find what’s right, and that he/she will take care of lunch and stock, etc.

The second thing, from the perspective of having self-financed a few shorts but looking to bump up to a feature with a real budget, is that I want someone who knows what she’s doing, knows more than me, is patient with bringing me along into the process, who is as dedicated and committed to my project as I am. It’s hard to imagine that someone else is going to fall in love with my script and my vision and be willing to go to war to get it done, but hey, that’s what I want.

Third, I want someone who is a creative artist. Again remembering Christine (and having read her books), I think of how creative and troubleshooting and out-of-the-box a good producer — a “creative producer” — needs to be. If I’m desperate for a crane, and there’s no budget and no time, I guess I’ll have to hear that; but I also want the producer who will say “what about handheld from the roof of a car …” I know producers have to bring directors down to reality, but I want the one who does it gently and with a solution in hand.

Fourth, I need a producer who understands and knows distribution. So much ink has been spilled recently about distribution, and understandably, a lot of responsibility falls on the director to have a vision of how he or she is going to market and distribute his/her work. But having a producer who also has a deep knowledge of distro companies, self-distro, VOD, etc., etc., is going to be vital. As a first time feature filmmaker, I’ll be learning by the seat of my pants and from blogs and Filmmaker magazine. I want a producer who can say, “I sold this at Sundance, four-walled that, sent that straight-to-video, and am doing guerrilla marketing on this other one over here …”

Also, let’s face it. I know nothing about managing a budget with anything more than five figures. If I’m going to do something in the hundreds of thousands or millions, I’m going to need to know, early in meetings — before even committing to a producer or getting a producer to commit to me — how much money I’m going to see, if I can afford to quit my day job, what the reality of finding a budget and what Plans B and C, are, etc. The finances of anything done bigger than a shoestring/no-budget are a brave new world for those of us coming from shorts, and ESPECIALLY for the filmmaker with a family and a mortgage, being clear about how I’m going to pay my bills for the next two years is something that needs to be discussed early and honestly. And I say that knowing that many (most? all?) independent producers are not rich, nor getting rich off of producing indie films. They’re cutting their fees and their percentages … I know it’s hard all around.

Finally, I just have a lot of questions about making that commitment to a producer and saying “let’s go out and do this together”… how would the producer herself get paid? Out of the budget, or is she looking for me to hire her out of my pocket to go try to raise a budget? Do we sign a contract? What if I find another producer who promises SHE can find me a budget, or has a line on some money … how do I bring them together?

This last paragraph contains a lot of the questions I’m asking myself as I prep for Independent Film Week, and that I’ll hopefully hear answered while sitting down with producers as part of my Emerging Narrative meetings. Maybe all of this is covered at Columbia film school, but I don’t know much of it!

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