Picking a producer is like hiring your own boss. Indie veteran Gill Holland offers some words of advice to novice directors looking for that special someone to produce their films
There have been many stereotypes of movie producers over the years, but the quintessential one has to be the fat cat smoking cigars with a platinum blonde at his side. Other variations that come to mind are Gene Hackman in Get Shorty, Zero Mostel in The Producers, and even the funny Shakespearean theater producer parodied by Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love. But for those of us in the independent film industry, where budgets are tight and hours are long, other stereotypes apply. Indie producers are usually broke and sleep-deprived, smoke cheap cigarettes, and are lucky if they have time to go on dates. But without one of these sorry excuses for a human being, a director may never realize his or her vision. Which means that directors either have to get a producer or be able to think like one.
There is a certain irony in the fact that a filmmaker essentially has to hire someone who in many ways will end up functioning as a boss. For a first-time writer/director, it is hard to know who will make a good producer. What are the qualifications? For that matter, what is the job description? Producer Scott Macaulay (Joe the King; What Happened Was…) calls the producer the "most elastic job title in the world." Jamin O’Brien, a veteran first assistant director who recently produced his first feature, Pure, says a producer is someone who instinctively recognizes a good story and then takes nothing and turns it into a million dollars. Some say that a producer is nothing but a dog with a script in his mouth; others that a producer is the mayonnaise in the sandwich. You may never really know exactly what producers do, but the sandwich just doesn’t taste right without the mayo.
So what qualities should one look for? In New York you cannot throw a rock without hitting a film producer. How do you pick one out of the crowd? We asked a number of producers and directors to share their views on how to distinguish the wannabes from the doers.
Gordon Eriksen has directed four features (three in tandem with his wife, Heather Johnston) over the last 10 years, including Lena’s Dreams and The Love Machine; all are highly independent. (This is a code word for quality films with no stars and miniscule budgets.) "Producing independent films is insane," Eriksen notes, "and too many people want to do it because they think they are going to have lunch with beautiful actors and make lots of dough. You need someone with a solid track record who has been through the proverbial mill. In low-budget films you also need someone who is going to be a friend, someone you like working with, because you are going to have to be in bed with them for years, suffering and celebrating together." Eriksen also wryly notes that it is helpful to have a producer who is "not an idiot" when it comes to taste, and who appreciates good actors and not just the pretty ones. "First-time filmmakers should beware of producers who are frustrated directors, because they can become too meddlesome in the creative process," he adds. "A good producer believes first and foremost in the director’s artistic vision. There is a big difference between constructive creative input and meddling."
Alison Swan, director of the award-winning Mixing Nia, says, "Indie film producing is a selfless act. You really have to wade through the muck to find out who is serious and as committed to the project as you are. You want to end up with someone who actually is getting movies made, not someone who is doing it for their egos or so they have something to talk about at cocktail parties."
Those who do it for the money are in for a rude awakening. "Especially in low-budget filmmaking, the first four or five projects you work on are probably not going to have enough money in the production budget to afford giving the producer a salary," says O’Brien. And the producer has to be able to stretch this slim budget. O’Brien suggests making the potential producer do a budget as a litmus test to see if they know what they’re doing. If the director doesn’t have the experience to judge, then it’s a good idea to show it to some experienced people to see if it looks right. Otherwise "you might end up with your right hand not having any fingers." O’Brien cannot count the number of budgets he has seen that don’t include basic costs like negative cutting.
Another qualification is mentioned by Jodie Markell, Obie-winning actress and writer/director/star of Why I Live at the P.O. In her view, a great producer has to be a "Renaissance Man who can respond artistically, but also has good business sense and who understands people to such an extent that he can talk to actors, crew members, as well as investors." It’s true that filmmaking requires dealing with right-brainers and left-brainers who process information differently and want to hear completely different things about the same project. The actors want to talk on an emotional level about performance and character development, while the investors want to know when and how they are going to make money. Since the director focuses on the actors, the producer is often in this demilitarized zone dodging bullets, solving problems, and strategizing.
Bennett Miller, director of the feature documentary The Cruise, says succinctly that all you need in a producer is experience, honesty, and commitment. "Your producer should probably be someone who doesn’t lie a lot."
Sometimes experience is the least important of these three qualities. Macaulay actually thinks that the less experienced producer might be better for the job, at least in low-budget filmmaking, because that lack of knowledge can lead to blind faith, which gets the film done. "The more films you do," he says, "the more you think, ‘I cannot do this film without this specific crew person or this certain piece of equipment.’ " However, a first-time producer is well advised to get an experienced person to serve as an executive producer and mentor the project. This was the case with my first film as a producer, Hurricane Streets. My first day on set, I kept wondering who Dolly was, why people called her "the Dolly," and why I hadn’t met her yet! Thankfully, I brought LM Kit Carson on as executive producer, and he was invaluable in the development and production phases of the film.
It’s interesting to note how often honesty is mentioned as a key trait. One can infer from this that there are a lot of dishonest people running around saying they are producers and misrepresenting reality. The horror stories abound. Columbia film school graduate Fredrik Sundwall says that the production of his first feature Crazy (a.k.a. Hostage) was a classic nightmare situation. One of the Swedish producers lied about his experience, but Sundwall initially trusted him and did not check his references. They are now in court, with Sundwall accusing the producer of embezzling around $80,000 from the production budget. "Investigate their track record and find out what that person did on each film," he recommends. Since credits are often given in exchange for investments, you may find out that your "producer" has never set foot on a film set before.
Sundwall warns directors not to rush into anything unless the producer has a very logical explanation for the hurry. The director should always make sure there is a separate corporate entity and bank account for the film where the director and producer have to co-sign checks. Also, make sure that you assign the script to the company. [See "Chain of Title: How Not to Get Shackled," The Independent, August/ September 1998.] Sundwall is now in the unfortunate position where this producer owns the copyright to his movie.
Another cautionary tale about picking the wrong producer is recounted by a director who prefers to remain anonymous: "I was a classic film school grad with an award-winning short who goes to Hollywood and jumps at the first guys with money who came along," he recalls. The director had a smooth six-week shoot, then, after another six weeks in of editing, had a 140-minute rough assemblage. But at that point, "the producer decided to take over the editing." As a result, the hired editor quit "and the producer locked me out of the edit room and cut the film himself — even cutting the negative, creating a print, and spending a gross amount of money in the process. Supposedly, his version is dreadful. I broke into the edit room one night and downloaded some old cuts, since I couldn’t get the masters, and ended up escaping into the sunrise with about five hours of footage." The director cut a version off the VHS, and the film’s stars paid to make 100 dubs, which according to the director, "look like mud and sound incomprehensible." Nonetheless, after showing the tape around and collecting 50 letters of support, the director prevailed upon the film’s investors (who happened to be the producer’s family members) to implore him to release the negative, which he ultimately did. "So now, two years later, I’m finishing the film on my credit cards," says the director. Not to mention working around missing frames from an already-cut negative.
Director Jodie Markell also had her share of producer nightmares. She tells the story of a producer who kept saying he had the money, but who disappeared the week everyone was supposed to go to location. The shoot obviously had to be cancelled. When they finally found the alleged producer and asked why he hadn’t called, he said that he had been having dental work and his jaw had been wired shut. Markell says they still don’t know if he was telling the truth, but notes that there are other forms of communication in today’s society.
This tale brings up another point: You should very clearly determine the producer’s commitment level in terms of how much time they really have to devote to the project and what else they have on their plate. On Joe the King, Macaulay’s producing partners had to drop off the project three days before shooting and took half the financing with them (which demonstrates that producers as well as directors can be the victims of cold feet).
When entering into discussions with potential producers, it would be helpful if there were a kind of codification of producer credits. Executive Producers have something to do with money. Producers (maybe they should be called "full" producers) nurture the film from script to screen. Line and associate producers deal with the physical production and postproduction or are actors who attach themselves to a project and enable the project to get made. (It is unfortunate that so much of film financing comes down to the talent attached, and many actors want producer credits. This is fine if they are serious about producing and are not just doing it for vanity’s sake.) Coproducers could be the term used for line producers who are so experienced that they bring the equivalent of equity investment to the table in the form of free goods and services or people who bring money, connections, and experience.
If you know what to expect out of a producer, you will have fewer problems. It is often said that the best producer is the guy who gives you a bag of cash and says, "Go make your movie and invite me to the premiere." But if you need something more, it’s best to know that early on. When looking for a producer, think long and hard about what you have and what you realistically can do. Then determine what you are missing and where you need complementing. That’s where the producer’s skills come in. And don’t underestimate the gift they bring. Peter Glatzer, producer of Shepherd, believes producing is the hardest job in the world, especially with first-time directors. "You are guiding them through every facet of production, thinking like a director yourself — about coverage and ‘making your days.’ Even if the filmmaker went to film school, they never had to make thirty days in a row. Then the director gets all the glory, gets flown around the world to film festivals, gets another picture because the industry is all about building them up. The producer is often left starting from scratch again." Finding the right producer can be a matter of trial and error. John-Luke Montias, who wrote, directed, and starred in Bobby G. Can’t Swim, knew virtually no one in the industry when he decided to make his film, so he took out an ad in Backstage looking for producers. He met some people, decided to go with one man who said he had the contacts and the production team, but after six weeks the alleged producer had arranged only one meeting for Montias with a director of photography. "You gotta have somebody who actually produces something, gets results, and follows through," Montias says. "I ended up firing the guy and going with a producer who was a first timer but who was hungry and I knew I could trust him to watch my back. He is Dutch, so I do wish he spoke a little better English, though!"
What to Look For in a Producer
1. Honesty: You should check references, but a lot of times it comes down to going with your gut instinct.
2. Enthusiasm: Not delusional enthusiasm and not enthusiasm for a perceived financial gain, but heartfelt excitement about the project and knowledge that producing it will be a selfless act. As a matter of fact, if they think they will make any money in independent film, they probably do not know what they’re talking about.
3. Artistic Harmony: If they think Baywatch is better than Casablanca, you probably should, too.
4. Track record: This can refer to previous films the producer has worked on, but it can also mean that you should look at what they have done in their life and assess whether they "put it all together and make it happen." Remember, size does matter: Do they have a big Rolodex?
1. Lunch: In indie film, watch out for anybody eating pricey lunches and "expensing them."
2. References: If more than three people say they would never work with that person again, it’s probably a bad sign.
3. Do they snore? You’re going to be in bed with them for a long time.
4. Past Performance: Do you see more than 12 boom-in-shots in their previous features? Was there any coverage? Was there a clear marketing concept behind the film? Did people see it and respond? (This does not mean the film had to make money!)
While you’re at it, ask a few questions of yourself, like, What do you really know about how to direct a movie? Use common sense and assess where your strengths are, what you need, and what you’re expecting.