Wednesday, February 10, 2010

There ain't money till there's money

One of my favorite possessions is Robert Bateman's Snow Leopard above. That poor guy standing out on the ledge in a raging snowstorm inspires me everytime I look at it. Because I am like him, alone and on a ledge with nobody to help. Okay, it's not that bad, but when you're trying to make a movie, it's sure close to it.

First lesson about producing is producer does not get money until they get money. Second lesson about producing is that nobody wants to see the producer on set and coincidentally same as the writer. Why? Because in their mind, the writer and the producer's work has already been done. One wrote the script and the other found the money. So why would they want to hang around.

My answer is simple; without me none of them would have a job. And there is much work to do, as a writer script changes and as a producer, making sure the movie runs smoothly and within the budget.

So how do you survive in the meantime? I'm talking bills; food, gas, phone bills, wine, beer, printing costs, travel, all that stuff. Remember one thing; I am not getting paid for one damn thing in my search for money. It all comes from my bank account.

And remember, some producers take years (yes, years) to get their movie going. And they must support themselves by whatever means they can. Sure, the big guys like Scott Rudin and Todd Black and others manage; they're the ones that get offices and staff on the studio lots, all covered by the studios. Of course when they make their movies, and they can do several a year, the studio gets back the rent and staff salaries from the budget.

Then there's the indie producers who, if they've had a reasonably successful film, have managed to save some bucks to carry them over until they get another film.

So how do producers make money?

Your average producer can start off by taking a salary which often is nothing until the budget is raised. Or they can get "seed money" which is basically development money. This can come from a studio or investor to allow the producer to begin setting up the potential movie. The costs covered would be for budgets, artwork, casting director, contacting potential crew, maybe some money for the director to get on board, production offices, secretary, lunch money and a modest sum for the producer to exist on. 

So where do I fall in? 

At the bottom. No seed money, no "housekeeping deal", a term that refers to producers who are given an office on the studio lot and for which they will pay from the budget when they get the budget.

If you're wondering how a studio can loan an office to a producer and then charge it off on the budget, it is a somewhat complicated thing since the studio usually gives the producer the money. So aren't they just charging themselves? 

Yes they are. It's just another way for the studio to make money from themselves and has to do with write-offs and accounting.

I started this project with Shirley last June and still haven't earned a penny from anything on this. You might ask; "how long can Jim do this?"

Simple. Until I get the money.

In the meantime I pay the bills on the homefront and any other expenses that come with developing Travel Day. I manage with a small home office which is comfortable and from where I plan the day. This mostly includes printing, although email has made sending proposals out a lot easier. Then there's lunches with Shirley and other people who might provide needed information and leads to other money.

And as I've said in a past blog, Travel Day is not my only project. The person who works on only one project at a time is steering towards a disaster if the project goes down.

And most indie films go down.

The odds against Travel Day getting made are too big to even mention, not that I'm superstitious. It's just the reality of this  business.

So why do I think we can make it?

Because I've done it before, and I have enough contacts to keep going, and I have a talented director and at least two Academy nominated actors and still the potential of getting Canadian tax shelters from people who also want to make it.

Combine that with a stubbornness to prove detractors wrong (and some of my best friends are) and a shake of the fist at that great God of Film whose job it is to constantly throw obstacles in my way.

Sort of like the Greek gods, they loved to mess up guys like Ulysses.

And again, rewarding myself is vital, it helps to make me feel like I deserve success in spite of what my id thinks, what does it know, it surrenders to any passing hypnotist. One such reward was having my friend Nicole visit and show her southern California in a way few people get to see.

Rewarding is a basic law of writers, you work in a lonely room by yourself for weeks sometime with little human contact except your close family and a friend or two. After a day or two of writing I am ready to get rewarded, even if it's myself who determines that.

It keeps us going.

Producing, like writing, is a lonely job in that you have to do it before anyone else is attached, when the movie is still 100 pages of paper and when nobody gives a damn if you get to make your movie or not.

The old producers from the beginning of movies until the late 70's were marvelous characters who would essentially beat up the studio heads, demand that their movies be made and often lie through their teeth to get a movie set up.

Of course they didn't have market testing and consultants and more co-executives than you can shake a stick at. They went by gut instincts. Put Bogart in a good script and it'll make a few bucks.

Last year, James Cameron showed the movie theater convention in Las Vegas a short 3D version of Avatar. The theater owners smiled and said it was nice, but nobody cares about 3D.

Today they're rushing as fast as they can to build and/or adapt theaters to house 3D equipment.

Once again, screenwriter William Goldman's quote comes up; "nobody knows anything".

Another note; producers don't have a union like writers, directors and actors. If you're in any of the their guilds, WGA, DGA, SAG, then you can't work for free. Producers have an organization but it's not a union. And that means you work for free until such time that you get money for the production and then you take your fee.


I have seen producers lose some if not all their pay due to cost overruns. After spending months or years trying to raise the funds, a producer can get a bite taken from his or her fee if the production goes overbudget. This happens... I have seen two producers walk away at the end of production without a dime.

It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. And it won't happen to me, because I am getting paid for the screeenplay as per WGA rules. And I'm not taking a producer fee at this level of budget, rather a "deferred" fee which means I get paid some of the profit.

It's known as "monkey points". Translated, it means you have a snowball's chance of surviving hell in getting even one dollar from the distributor or studio. Big stars get gross points and everyone else gets monkey points.

And what if the studio or investor stiffs the producer? He has recourse in court but that can cost money, lots of it if it's a big studio. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Writers, directors and actors have their guilds (really unions but they like the softer term) wherein the guild goes after the money. And they really go after it with their own lawyers, all of whom are paid by guild dues.

One WGA contract specialist I talked to said they go after producers or studios with a vengeance to which he added "like it was my own money". They are so powerful that they can virtually shut down a company if it has to lead to that.

I know what you're thinking.

Why the hell would I want this job, if you even want to call it a job. It sounds more like punishment.

It's kind of like why I once witnessed a man have a seizure while a handful of people either walked away or just stared and I raced to him, called 911 and followed instructions as to how to keep him from choking until the paramedics arrived.

Somebody's gotta do it.

(Coming next: A new direction)


  1. Thanks for a great blog and talking about the things I seldom see covered at all.

    I heard a podcast with Page Ostrow ( about what a producer's rep does. What do you know about producer's reps and have you ever worked with a producer's rep?

  2. Producer's Representative (Reps) are a newer addition to the business. Basically they're agents for producers who don't have the luxury of writers, directors and actors, all of whom have agents.

    Basically they rep the producer's products, either in development, shooting or finished and in exchange get commissions or fees "plus expenses" (and you know what that means). They can be compared to sales agents and in what they do, are essentially the same. See my blog on sales agents.

    Are they needed? In my view, no. All they're doing is what the producer should be doing in the first place, trying to sell the film. What they are is a middleman for some producers who don't have the contacts, domestic or foreign and you have to realize they rep maybe a dozen or more films and don't really have a care as to which one sells.

    Of course there are the honest ones, but remember most reps are either agents or lawyers. Or both. And you would be counting on them being liked by foreign buyers, or even domestic ones.

    Some agencies like WMA and CAA and others offer to be producer's reps for companies in Canada and other countries, it doesn't cost them anything and they stand to make commissions or fees on whatever they can push on the studios or networks for foreign buyers.

    So you have your choice of being screwed by sales agents or producer's reps. But if you don't know who the local film buyer is in Montenegro or Shanghai or London, then you probably need one.

    In the 50's to 80's producers knew all the countries that bought movies and knew the buyers personally but now there are too many and film markets like AFM serve the purpose.

    It's a tough conundrum, but go by my own experience with sales agents; don't find one who'll screw you, find one who'll screw you the least.