LA based media lawyer Schuyler M. Moore offers his top ten tips for newbie producers.
Having witnessed way too many doe-eyed producers perish in the wilderness, I have a somewhat jaded perspective, so here is my list of what you must know to survive:
1. Most films lose money
So don’t ever invest in your own films. You know those romantic stories about filmmakers financing their dreams with stacks of credit cards? Most of them went bankrupt, but that doesn’t make good news.
2. Start Small
Think about providing short-form content for the growing market of content aggregators. And you should be able to get it financed, with a fee for you thrown in, by getting financing from advertisers (see my previous Screen opinion piece “How Hollywood could benefit from Box Financing.”) This will gain you credibility and traction.
3. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Producing is a tough job. It is a life rife with backstabbing, sell-outs, broken promises, and stolen ideas. If it’s not being done to you, then you’re doing it. How do producers lock in talent without money and money without talent? They lie to both. And putting all that aside, you better be able to chew bricks for breakfast as practice for dealing with agents, studios, and lawyers. If you’re a softie, forget it. So take a hard look in the mirror to check if you’re skin is thick enough for this shoot out.
4. Grab Your Partner
Don’t walk into this wilderness alone. Find a seasoned veteran and become his or her junior partner. You need someone with credibility and muscles to elbow your way to the table. You need someone with the clout to have calls returned. “Hi, I’m a newbie producer and I’d like to…[click].” Once you have a few projects under your belt, you can go off on your own, but until then, fly under someone else’s wing.
5. Sell Out
Do you have visions of the creative and artistic freedom of expression you will have as an independent filmmaker? Skip it. Right now, we live in Jurassic Park, and independent filmmakers are the tiny marmosets getting squashed by the rampaging studio dinosaurs. It is better to work your way up by working for others in the industry than it is to languish at home pretending you are an independent filmmaker.
6. Schemers and Dreamers
In Hollywood, we start off with the rebuttable presumption that whoever is talking is lying. This industry is chock-full of schemers and dreamers. You can usually spot the schemers a mile off, because they prey on wannabe producers by claiming that if you pay them a little money now, they will come back with buckets full of cash later. Dreamers are much harder to spot because they walk the walk and talk the talk and aren’t asking for money up front. They honestly believe that they hold the secret to releasing torrents of cash, usually based on the word of an entire chain of dreamers. Like the dreaded zombies of film lore, dreamers are among us everywhere – don’t let them get you!
7. Get it in Writing
Two producers sat in my office last week and said that they were “partners” on a project and swore undying allegiance to each other. However, when we tried to get their deal on paper, it blew up over fundamental issues of control and cash. But better now than later. Get your deals in writing, and not half-baked “deal memos” or “term sheets,” but real contracts, even if short and sweet. If you have nothing in writing, at least know that whoever controls the football (the rights) is the only one that can score.
8. Real Creativity
For filmmaking, the creativity that really matters is the creativity it takes to cobble together financing from many disparate sources, including equity, pre-sales, subsidies, foreign tax-shelter financings, and bank debt.
9. Ask, and Ye Shall Receive
Know what to ask for! A standard producer deal is a fixed fee in the budget, plus 50% of net profits reduced by third-party participations. If your share of net profits is subject to a “soft floor” of some stated percentage, it means that all further participations are deducted “off-the-top.” If your share of net profits is subject to a “hard floor” at a stated percentage, it means that the film company, and not you, will bear 100% of any further third-party participations. As you build clout, you should be asking to include video on the basis of actual revenues minus costs (as opposed to the 20% royalty that will be shoved down your throat until then) and for a first-dollar gross corridor, increasing at certain break-points.
10. Get Smart
In order to set yourself apart from the average dreamer, you must learn the basic business aspects of the film industry. You must learn about debt and equity financing, securities, pre-sales, distribution, completion bonds, copyright, trademark, right of publicity, guilds, bankruptcy, and taxation, to mention just a few issues. You must learn the rules, or you can’t play the game!
Schuyler M. Moore is a lawyer at Stroock and the author of The Biz, Taxation of the Entertainment Industry, and What They Don’t Teach You in Law School. He is an adjunct professor at both the UCLA Law School and the UCLA Anderson School of Management.