Wednesday, August 31, 2005
What A Producer Does...
Friends and family constantly ask me, "What exactly do you do for a living?" When I answer, "producer," they wait a beat, then ask, "What does a producer do?"
If I had to sum it up in one sentence I would have say, "I put out fires."
Before I explain, let me back track a few years...
Right out of college, I worked in television in New York for 10 years. I consider that time my graduate school. It was invaluable. I learned how to make television - and not make television like some college proffessor taught you...
Lesson #1 - anyone teaching: television, film, screenwriting, art, photography, acting or creative writing WOULD MUCH RATHER BE OUT THERE ACTUALLY DOING IT. Most are bitter, jealous of your potential and drive - oh, and they drink. A lot.
To learn you have to do it. And do everything. I am a firm believer that if you want to be the factory manager you should know how to do all the other jobs in the factory. You don't have to master each one, but physically do it so you get a sense of it's challenges and how it fits into the factory as a whole.
I lugged props and catering. Thought I "made it" when I was allowed to hold a cue card. Screen tapes, pitch ideas, write copy, PA in the field, assist in an edit bay, work your way up to producing small segments and pieces of larger stories etc. learn how to shoot a camera, how to edit, how to script longer segments - quickly. Produce shows, produce bigger shows, and bigger etc.
Eventually you become competent (and lucky) enough at all of the above that you get promoted to a level where...you actually do very little of that.
Now, I am a fireman. I put out fires.
If New York was my graduate school, then Hollywood has been a Political/Psychology class with a little bit of Driver's Ed. It's like a video game. My job is to drive the production from start to finish and swerve around all the political bullshit and mindgames that are ready to shove you right off the road.
As an Executive Producer, a very small fraction of my day is spent "producing." The rest is trying to keep the show on the road.
I am currently producing a prime time reality show with a big final live episode. All of my attention is on the live finale. Easy, right? I know how to produce a show like this. I have the skills, I have done it before. So I should just be able to go and make the show, right? Oh no no no.
I am producing this show for an independent production company. That production company was hired by a network to produce the show. In turn that network sold the show to air on ANOTHER network. So basically, there are more cooks in the kitchen than an episode of "Iron Chef."
Oh, and did I mention they all hate each other? Before I came on board some bad blood was created by alleged broken promises, unrealistic expectations, major budget issues and the difficult management team behind the talent starring in the show. Oh that's right - I forgot to mention the difficult talent. Another cook has just entered the kitchen.
And I walked into this warzone like a newbie Charlie Sheen getting off that helicopter for the first time in Platoon. Except I don't have one those cool black bandanas.
Being the new guy, and being in charge of the final episode - the episode the entire series has been building to - each faction has declared me "their boy." I am the guy who is on "their side," looking out for their well being and can "see right through these other asshole's bullshit." I have had that exact conversation with each cook in the kitchen.
So I am in a bit of a tight spot. Really, all I care about is putting on a good show because in the end that is what I will be judged on. All my potential future employers are out there. If the show is good, I get more work. If it sucks, I may not. So how do I make sure I can put on a good show?
Here are my personal rules:
- DON'T BECOME ONE OF THEM. Don't ever bad mouth anyone, don't even nod as someone else is bad mouthing someone. This will come back to bite you in the ass.
- BE STRAIGHT FORWARD. Not rude, or pushy, but straight forward. In a room full of bullshitters, a person who speaks clearly and with confidence stands out. All the people in the room are paid to make high powered positions but NO ONE WANTS TO MAKE A DECISION. If they actually make a decision about something, they run the risk of it being the wrong decision and that doesn't make them look good. Tell them how YOU want to do things and 9 out of 10 times they will nod and say, "Good idea." If I had a dime for everytime an L.A. executive referred to my, "Go get 'em NY attitude..."
- BE RESPECTFUL AND HONEST. Without playing their games, each faction feels you are doing right by them - and hopefully you are. Don't make promises you can't keep, don't be negative - be realistic.
- COVER YOUR ASS - Hasn't Survivor taught you anything? Alliances are made to be broken. Follow up all conversations with an e-mail. "As per our discussion, I will be..." and save that e-mail. In fact, save EVERY E-MAIL. I have saved my own ass more times than I can count because I was able to resend an e-mail from 6 weeks ago where everyone stated we would take "Course A." Course A has gone down the shitter and they are looking for someone (you) to take the fall. Don't rub it their face. Just remind them (with proof) of the ideas we all signed off on.
- FLOOD THEM WITH INFORMATION AND PRESENTATION. Executives want to know you are on top of everything but don't want to actually have to check up on you. And they shouldn't have to. If you show a hint that you don't know what you are doing they will be on your ass like white on rice. Assuming you know your shit, that is half the battle. Bang them over the head with the fact that you know your shit.
Launching a pre-emptive strike will ensure you can operate without interference.
Ex: Your very first meeting with the high powered executives. You have your game plan, and it fits neatly on one type written sheet you plan to walk in with to read of off. STOP! They are spending millions of dollars and you walk in with Cliff Notes? No, no, no. Intimidate them with paper. Create a binder with the show logo and each executive's name on their own personalized copy. Your one sheet of information should be the first sheet in the binder. Than fill the rest with valuable info that you probably wouldn't have bothered them with. WARNING - this is not filler. This has to be real info, but it might be irrelevant to this meeting. Make a staff section with every resume of your hires, put a copy of the budget even if they already have copies, write a page describing what the set will look like, a rough production schedule, a contact sheet etc.
You walk in that first meeting with a put together presentation and they go, "Holy shit. This person really is on the ball. Look at this. It looks important and official and oh look - my name is on it!" Everytime I do that I am instantly branded the "thorough" guy and my rep is established.
-BE THE DEALER, NOT A PLAYER. Don't be the schmuck at the black jack table hoping to hit a 6 on a 15. Be the dealer. You are in the game, but you are hovering above it, controlling it. You are effecting the outcome but have very little personal stake in it.
If you can take it all with a grain of salt it can actually be fun. In more situations than not, you come out looking like the hero.
Still with me? Here was my day yesterday...
- Started to work on the show format - the order the elements will go in etc. This is actually producing. Interrupted by phone call.
- Bad management company. Have we booked flights for the talent's hair, make-up and wardrobe people. I tell them I will check.
- Call set designer. I presented drawings on Monday and they went over well. I have another meeting today and want to show progress. Can he add color? I don't need a new design, just make it prettier and that will show them "progress has been made." I would have my 2 year old fucking color them in herself but she doesn't stay in the lines.
- Go back to working on format. Phone rings...
- Network #1. We are way over budget. They want to bring in sponsors to make some cash and offset their losses (and save their jobs). Can I fit tampons (no joke) into the creative of the show. Tampon company will give us product placement $. Of course, the answer is no, but I tell them I will think about it and call them back.
- I confirm hair, make-up and wardrobe for talent. They call and now they want pyrotechnics. We have no money for pyro, but if I say that it will start an arguement based around the budget "not being their problem." Fine. I will look into it.
- Try to work on the format. Check with my immediate superiors at the Production Company (really good guys) and confirm - there is no way we are incorporating tampons into this show right? Good. I tell Network #1 it won't work. How about pizza? Ok, I'll see.
- I check into the rules of the theater we have leased. THANK GOD! Pyro is not allowed. Call back management company. "Man, I am so sorry. We can't do pyro - the theater won't allow it." Money saved, problem solved and I didn't have to say no which I wanted to do right off the bat - and I didn't lie or bullshit anyone.
- Try to work on format. Get a call from Network #2. Our choice of host has passed. Do I have any ideas? I refer them to the fancy personalized binder I gave them with a whole section on talent suggestions. "Oh, ok, thanks." Flood them with info.
- Review three tape pieces for the show. Get sign off from Prod. Co. to distribute them for network approval. Make TWENTY copies for all the cooks that have to sign off. Legal, VP's, Senior VP's, Right & Clearences, Janitors, everyone.
- Try to work on format. Get a call for management company. They fear that all this talk of budget problems is going to make them look bad on stage. I tell them, "My job is to make your act look good (true). This show isn't just a tv production, it is a coming out party for your act, a live concert event as big as anything they have ever done (kinda true)." They love it. I'm "their boy."
- Get notes back on tape pieces from Network #2. The note is this, "Make it fancier." Not something concrete like, the narrative isn't strong enough, I didn't get the point of the piece...no. "Fancier." I tell the editor to push the "fancy" button on the keyboard and try to talk the producer responsible for the piece off the roof.
- Eat an apple.
- Talk with Management about performances. These songs are supposedly not cleared. How are they performing them. Management assures me they spoke with Network #1 and it has all been taken care of. Great, I say.
- Immediately call Network #1. "Just confirming this songs are cleared. Oh, they are not? Ok, would you mind calling management and seeing where the miscommunication came from so we are not in a tight spot later? Thanks. Oh and shoot me an e-mail to tell me how it got resolved." Crisis diverted as covered.
I could go on, but it is more of the same, a bathroom break and I did in fact finish the format. It took 10 hours, and should have taken 2, but as you can see, I got a little distracted.
So I guess, that is Producing.
at 5:08 PM