I often feel that I inhabit three different personas. There’s the happy-to-be-alive, creative person, who’s excited about working in film, tries to see the brighter side of life, and is probably insufferable to be around. Then there’s the salty, bitter, but organized line producer, who’s tired of slogging it out in the independent film world for little money and less reward. Both personas wrestle for control with the geek who loves to take stuff apart, learn new programming languages, play with Photoshop for hours, and be a mini-MacGyver (‘look, I fixed a fan that originally cost me 10 dollars’).
This week it’s the salty dog’s turn, to talk about the five most annoying phrases uttered by producers. You have been warned.

I just need a topsheet budget

Every so often I get asked to do this. Just “assemble a topsheet” without doing a script breakdown or detail-level budget. It’ll take less time and cost us less money, right? Wrong. A film budget is meaningless unless it’s been built from the bottom up, detail-by-detail. These detail-level costs are only arrived at after breaking down and scheduling the script, researching costs (or will be shot in), talking to the director, producers, and other involved parties… in other words, doing work. A lot of producers are broke at the beginning of the process, and so it’s tough for them to cough up my fee. But ask yourself this: would you NOT hire an engineer to make sure the architect’s plan for your dream house can actually be built? Would you risk putting in bad numbers, and thereby potentially place your project, your investors – your future career – in jeopardy?

We’re looking for people who will partner up with us

When I first stuck out my producer-for-hire sign, I took more than a few meetings where this phrase came up. The subtext is… our script is/we are/our director is SO AWESOME that you will be temporarily blinded into insensibility and will gladly exchange your salary for a meaningless deferment (in third position, usually). This is a common mistake all producers make – that other people will believe in their project to the same extent they do. Now, it IS part of your job as a producer to rally the troops. But that also means recognizing that different groups need different rewards. For the crew, that’s usually decent food, a living wage, the means to keep warm in the winter, and plenty of caffeine. For the cast, it’s a juicy role (and hopefully, a director with a clue). For investors, it’s the chance to do something more sexy and adventurous with their money than put in a savings account. For me, it’s (a) a salary that includes at least some of my prep and wrap days (yes, those count too), (b) a line item for an intern and preferably a few paid staffers, (c) a team that I could see working with again in the future. Unfortunately, partnering just isn’t an option for me – I really need to pay my rent.

We’re Looking To Take People With Us

The idea here is that I do you a solid and do this film for free/next to nothing, and you’ll hire me for the big budget film that’s RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. This can work, actually… but it usually doesn’t. For one thing, most producers can just about make one film every three years. For another, low budget work tends to breed more low budget work. And finally, when you do snag that bigger-budget film, you’ll hire the line producer that the person writing the check wants you to hire. Or someone WILL mention my name at some point only to hear the words “he’s great at low budget work, but we need someone with more experience at this budget level.” I do think about future work whenever I consider taking a job, but salary is still my main concern.

Just come in and interview, we’ll give you the script later

I really, really hate this. How can I talk intelligently about the project with you if I don’t know the material? I understand you may be a little skittish about letting your baby into the world. I may say things you don’t want to hear, like “you can’t make this movie for $200K AND have a ten-page car chase scene through a crowded mall and down a major highway” (yes, I did have to say that). But that’s part of my job.

We have enough money to…

… get into two weeks of production, then the magic money fairy will come and rain down more. Or maybe the crew will turn around and eat me at wrap time when I hand out rubber checks. I’ve worked on several films now that used the “just in time” financing model, and the good news is that most of them made it through production and eventually got finished. However, many of them also took a long time to complete (because they’d have to break off production). Sometimes people were paid late. Other times the producers bounced my last paycheck. In one case I paid my PAs ahead of me. In every case the producer burned bridges. And it could have been avoided if they had raised those last dollars before starting the shoot.

I really get it

I produce my own films too, and sometimes one has to be ruthless and maybe even a little dishonest to get there (yeah, “we’ll never go into overtime”). But some of the best producing techniques I’ve ever learned came from the classic How To Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. If you can get past the sexist and racist language, and remember it’s not a great way to actually maintain friendships, it’s worth the read. The main technique : talk in terms of the other man’s interests. When you’re thinking about hiring a line producer, look at the above five phrases and see how they don’t align with his/her interest.