What Do Production Companies Do?

November 11, 2016 /

By James Studholme

A Production Company's View

We take ideas further than advertising agencies can.

We produce. We’re makers. Production companies come in many guises and aim themselves at different target markets and specialise in different mediums. Some, like mine, operate in many markets. Some specialise in moving image, making television commercials. Their work comes from brands via advertising agencies. They are the ones this article is mostly about.

I’ve been running a commercials production company for more years than I care to mention. From a time before executive producers and reps, and when a ‘colourist’ was the lady my grandmother went to for a lilac rinse. Our industry was still a closed shop. The fax was yet to become available, let alone Google Maps and Skype. If you went to shoot in the Lake District you took a huge bag of ten pence pieces and had a runner hold fort in a phone box.

It’s fair to say that the grounds are shifting more now than at anytime in those last 30 years (oh...I did just mention it). What was once the exclusive preserve of the production company is being carved up (or at least is attempting to be carved up) by all comers. advertising agencies, digital boutiques, long-form production companies, post houses. Even some big clients like Pepsi are looking for a slice.

In particular the ad agencies are hard at it, seeking to make up a shortfall in their declining revenues by hanging on to some of the loot they perceive to be walking out the door to independent production companies by building in-house production facilities. That’s a hard thing to do. To be a specialist in one discipline and then become a brilliant exponent in another. Difficult. It’s been interesting to observe that while arguments seem to be made in favour of potential synergy and cost, judging strictly by the work, no new agency in-house offering seems to have put ‘improved quality’ in its pitch. I wonder if their clients have noticed. I suspect the strong ones will.

The DNA of an agency and the DNA of a production company are two completely different strands. A production company is predicated on risk, flexibility and an entrepreneurial spirit. An agency specializes in conceptual creativity and strategy, but is completely risk averse. And the clue’s in the name. Agency. An agency is an agent. It finds something polished and glowing with starlight, and makes a turn on it. And in this example, directors and production service is that thing.

Back to what we were talking about. It is within the context of this emerging landscape that I want to look at what a commercials production company is and does. Historically it has been a relatively small group of highly motivated entrepreneurial individuals, with considerable creative ability and aspirations, working together to spin gold out of - or as the Americans would say, to ‘plus’ - scripts of variable, and sometimes questionable quality, emanating from advertising agencies.

In a production company environment, if you don't work you don't get paid. It's an 'eat what you kill' environment. That’s what makes it a highly competitive sector and with competition comes a meritocracy that is difficult to maintain in a large organisation.

In this environment, a production company must prove it has the safest hands in which to place a script. It ensures it is the repository of a great deal of hard-won specialist knowledge gained through many, hopefully many many, production situations. First-hand experience of the myriad unique situations likely to be found on large-scale shoots is critical in producing realistic cost estimates, usually at increasingly short notice.

Whilst this may be the particular job of the line producer or production manager, the executive producer is the person who must ultimately assess the risks inherent on the project. As with the farmer, who may not be doing every job on the farm themselves, they certainly could do if they had to. That knowledge and experience is critical. The viability of any production company depends on assessing risk and budgeting projects as close to perfect as is possible, under the circumstances. Small jobs can also have equally large scale and disastrous consequences if they go wrong!

Preparation is everything. And preparation comes down to experience and knowledge.

It’s important to note that the transcendent talent in Production Companies in not just the directors, it’s the MDs, EPs, producers, production managers and runners. Characters of unquenchable ambition, resource, innovative and drive.

A great production company finds, nurtures, and does its best to hold onto great talent. Directors, in particular, are grown with great guile from seeds to shoots to beautiful plants in full bloom. This can only be done by making significant investment and by exposing young directors to the widest range of opportunities. They need to be supported and guided. It is no coincidence that the very best directors in the world have maintained very long-standing relationships with their parent companies. In many cases, career spanning. Just looking at London, think about Jonathan Glazer, Ivan Zacharias, Dougal Wilson, Frank Budgen, Sam Brown, James Rouse, and Simon Ratigan. Their respective production companies have supported them along the way and at the highest level.

Unearthing, developing and hanging on to world-class talent is the aspiration of all production companies. This doesn’t just require financial support. It requires strategic overview and long-term thinking. Finding and fighting for career-transforming opportunities and perhaps, most importantly, knowing what work to avoid. A piece of uninspired work undertaken for short-term financial gain can do untold damage to a director’s long-term prospects and reputation, particularly in the early stages of a career.

But luckily, independence brings choice. Production companies and directors are able to choose what they will or won’t pitch on. Seems obvious enough but if you’re only as good as the work you produce, choosing what not to do is at least as important as what you choose to do.

In a sense, a production company has many of the attributes of a talent agency in marketing, guiding and managing reputations. Except, as we’ve already discussed, a talent agency, as an agent, finds talent and makes their profit through commission on the wages that talent earns. Production companies make the lion’s share of their living on marking up the raw costs of production, rather than from commission on creative fees paid to directors or producers. This creates quite a unique relationship. We are creative partners, helping define the outcome of the project, rather than just agents, providing access to that starlight and creative fire.

On a personal note as someone whose greatest excitement has been in finding and developing great talent, I worry that agencies who are, for structural and fiscal reasons, unable to take the long view, will not be able to support and grow young directors. If the already shrinking independent production company sector founders completely through the short term expediency of advertising agency group FDs they will have unwittingly killed the means of developing the great creative talents they will desperately need in the mid-to-long-term future. A great sadness but most particularly a terrible loss to clients with high creative aspirations.

This wasn’t the question but I’d like to digress into another important one - What is best for the directors of tomorrow?

I believe that the cream of the directing talent will always want access to the widest range of opportunities, in a supportive environment, committed to a long term vision of their careers. They want and need people to push them, guide them, and challenge them. People to help them avoid the trappings of short-term gain in favour of long-term relevancy and prestige.

I have no doubt that agencies and their in-house production companies would like to offer this. But for structural reasons they simply can’t. Agencies tend to have problems and need solutions. There are two ways to solve a problem – the right way or the easy way. The path of least resistance is the most efficient route to a solution. But as any creative team who has slaved over their script, been sent back to the drawing board over and over again, re-written the VO ten times, and sweated every detail can attest to – the most efficient and most obvious route is rarely the most creative, or the most interesting.

On a larger scale, I believe that the best creative minds want access to an open market of directors, editors, visual effects artists, colourists (not Curl up and Dye in Plymouth), and everyone else that makes up the creative prowess of the production industry and the domain of top-tier production. Great creative minds deserve to work with great creative minds who are willing to sweat, bleed, and honour their vision. Like directors, creatives need people to push them, guide them, and challenge them. The most powerful force in the final hours of the creative process is a great director to galvanise the raison d'être of a project and rally a team around that raison.

After an agency has taken many months to develop a TVC script idea, and see it through research and various client strictures, a production company is able to pick up the baton and see the project afresh. The agency has been working on it for, in some cases, more than a year already. The production company has none of the baggage of the difficulties encountered along the way. Like a brilliant film editor who didn’t see the complications and hardship on set, the director and production company brings objectivity and a fresh perspective, a new energy and enthusiasm that can be enough to reignite the fires of creativity in the heart of even the most jaded and torn down account handler, creative or client.

On a consumer level, I believe that people want entertainment and a fair value exchange in giving up their attention to an advertiser. Consumers are smart enough to understand that advertising pays for their entertainment. You’re no longer ‘pulling one over’ or ‘sneaking one in’. We can’t underestimate the savvy of the punter. If a brand is responsible for giving them something wonderful, they’ll embrace it, maybe even tell their friends about it. But consumers are also smart enough to discern between something honest and something contrived. When a visionary director takes a single-minded view on a project, rallies support from their team, gets everyone on board and really goes for it, people watch it and they feel it. It resonates. They remember it. Guinness Surfer, Levi’s Drugstore, Cadbury Gorilla, Volvo Trucks, John Lewis The Long Wait. That’s what we do when we’re at our best. Our commitment is to quality. The highest quality. If we stick to our guns and maintain our belief in the magic of great talent producing brilliant work for great value, then we have a very bright future indeed.

And on an industry level, I believe that there will always be clients who believe in the power of great ideas, agency creatives, producers and account handlers who value the craft of production and storytelling, and agencies (and clients) who place value on skill and experience.

If even a fraction of what I’m saying is correct, then we should be able to weather the storms and adapt to the changing tides. We may even find that tomorrow turns out to be a lot sunnier than today.

James Studholme is Managing Director at Blink.

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