The advertising production company is under threat. A number of factors are involved, most of which are known widely enough by anyone reading this that they don't need re-stating. The most obvious is the rise of in-house agency production departments.
Being threatened does not mean the worst prognosis will come to pass, but it does demand a response.
The Chinese word for crisis translates as 'dangerous opportunity'. This is not a moment of crisis, yet, but it is foreseeable that it could soon be. Production companies certainly have a dangerous opportunity. That is the opportunity to define themselves and what they offer in strong rather than weak terms. To be bold, and confident, rather than defensive. To face challenges head on rather than wish them away.
When the water outside is inexorably rising, there are broadly three options. One is to stand around bemoaning the unfairness of it all and questioning the morality of floods. Another is to build higher and higher walls of sandbags, trying to plug the gaps as they appear. A third is to build yourself a boat.
The first of these is clearly disastrous, and when the flood in question is technologically driven, as this one partly is, two doesn't have a great record either. Notable examples of industries that took this approach are music publishing and book publishing, both of whom are still recovering 20 years on from that strategic mistake, trying to belatedly fashion their boats while the remnants of their gilded houses float around them.
Production companies were once the only people who had the proper relationships and expertise to get a film of any kind made. They are not anymore, and that time is not coming back.
It is now cliché to say that 'anyone can make a film these days', but the often unspoken obverse of this is that not anyone can make a good film. In fact this is very hard, and it's what production companies do brilliantly.
The straightforward question put by this series may seem almost facile, but quickly provokes a surprising range of answers, some conflicting. Answered correctly, it can help to define production companies for the next 30 to 40 years, rather than trying in vain to turn the clock back to the last 40. Are they to be merely gatekeepers to good directors, hoping to stem the flow of talent outwards to agents and independent reps, or are they to offer a genuinely irreplaceable service?
The APA believes this service already exists, and it's called producing. It is rarely if ever properly defined, and as a consequence is woefully undervalued by many agencies and clients, which is how they have come to think they can do it themselves with no great loss of quality.
This is an error, and they will come to realise it, but there's no reason this has to happen before they've killed off the industry and skill base they're underestimating. As Britain has found out to our cost in other sectors, recovering a skill base after it has been dismantled is virtually impossible. British agencies and clients have a clear vested interest in British advertising continuing to be among, if not the, best in the world, and if they only protect production companies for selfish reasons, this will at least be a display of intelligence. It is not an excuse that looking to expand by land-grabbing revenue from every possible supplier is what agencies do. They will need to stop doing it in this case if our business is not to become one big Scorpion and Frog parable.
With this series of essays, we hope to open a big, frank and provocative conversation about what producing is, how to do it well, and why production companies are still the best possible repository of the most vital skill in the making of the moving image.
It is a conversation we need to have, and for it to be productive, it will also have to be unflinchingly honest about what production companies do badly, or may in future not do at all. In that spirit, we welcome critical opinion from inside and outside the production world, so long as it recognises the above as a fair assessment of our shared interests. We are happy for contributors to remain anonymous if it helps them to say what usually goes unsaid.
Some of you may not want to have this conversation, but the water is rising.
What Do Production Companies Do?