What Do Production Companies Do?

November 30, 2016 /

By Anonymous

A Director's View

They overvalue Directors.

 

I've worked in every formulation of the commercials process. Been signed to a 'big' production company, signed to a 'small' company, and signed to nobody. I've had one producer for a long string of jobs, as well as various freelance and in-house producers hired by the project, and latterly producers employed direct by the agency.

It's this last experience that I think illustrates what a production company (and only a production company) does.

In my experience, agency in-house production companies are staffed by very genial people with no real idea what they're doing, working in an environment structurally designed to fuck up the
job.

The main reason for this is that the producer's role (even in the rare cases that they have significant production company experience) is to pass on diktats from higher up the agency, and bring in the job as cheaply as possible. The result is that £10 is saved here to cost £100 there, what money is spent goes in the wrong places, and the army marches in 20 directions at once. Meanwhile the field commander (in this case me) finds he has little or no control over his troops, and all his cannons have been replaced by cheaper inflatable versions without telling him because of some budget conversation he wasn't involved in.

Predictably, the biggest of all the many casualties littering the battlefield is the film itself.

Commercial Producing has an image and status problem within the industry, perhaps because if it's done well you hardly notice it. This is linked to a major misconception about how important
directors are.

You've got more chance of making a good film with a good producer and a bad director than the reverse, but the industry attitude doesn't seem to reflect that. Perhaps over the years, companies have deliberately overvalued their directors because they thought this was the only asset they had. It made sense to present them to the market as invaluable special snowflakes whose ideas emanate from an oracular source somewhere up an imagination mountain that mere mortals can't access.

The first problem with this is that it's bullshit. Great directors are pragmatists. In the 70s, an unknown director heard that a TV show was filming out in the desert near LA, and the unit were
coming up to a long break and due to be stuck in the wilderness with nothing to do. He quickly wrote a script, persuaded them all to come with him to shoot it in their downtime, and took the entire cast and crew wholesale from a TV show he had nothing to do with to make his first movie. The director was Steven Spielberg, the movie Duel. That to me is being a great filmmaker. Not coming up with wild ideas and treating who pays for them and how as someone else's problem.

Even if it were true that directors are the ‘real’ talent here, the second problem is that this may not be a resource production companies are able to monopolise much longer. Maybe in five years, maybe ten, but it seems to me that the days of directors being tied to a single production company are numbered. Not because any individual wants this to happen, but for simple economics. This will start with the lowest profile directors who need multiple avenues of income to pay the rent (this is already happening), and work its way up to the heavy hitters who can afford to strike inequitable deals with companies.

But it isn't true, and the most compelling argument is that almost all the best directors in the commercials world seem to have a longstanding and close relationship with one single producer. It could simply be that being successful, they can afford to stick with the same person, or it could be the other way around. Perhaps they're only successful because of that relationship?

Filmmaking, more than most creative processes (e.g. writing novels or music) actually benefits from the tension between money and ideas. Financial restrictions keep the storytelling efficient. If
anyone thinks having an unlimited budget and total artistic control makes the best films, they will might want to re-watch Waterworld or Heaven's Gate.

When an agency is allowed total control over a commercial, we all know that the film usually suffers. What we rarely admit is that the same is true of a director. Every year I watch the APA show, and it's interesting to see how many of the films were better in the shorter version I saw on TV than the two-minute director's cut with another five beautifully shot scenes repeating the same point.

A producer is the only person who can calibrate this tension, and only if they work directly for neither the agency nor the director, but with both of them.

In theory that doesn't mean producers have to come with a production company attached, but the fact that they do is not an accident.

Having a producer employed directly by the agency and answerable to them for their monthly wage (or indeed repeat business) encourages the wrong behaviour - not least short termism and a reluctance to give unpopular answers up the chain.

It discourages the thing that makes producers good - the cold-blooded assessment of risk, and the courage to take the risk if the reward justifies it. This can only be done effectively by someone whose judgement isn't clouded by whether their kids will get to stay in private school.

The only way around this structural problem would be for the agency to be enlightened enough to employ someone to come in at the very end of an often multi-year process, and then trust their opinion enough to listen to it even when it calls into question the result of that process, and costs them money into the bargain. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but this doesn't seem to be how large multinational companies (which almost all agencies either are or belong to) operate.

In large organisations, people with real decision-making clout drift further and further away from the people on the ground. This happens in every walk of life from politics to medicine to education, and production will be no exception. Almost uniquely, ad production currently has a 'bottom up' structure where significant power and trust is given to people at the coalface (the producer and director) who have only a tenuous long-term stake in the process.

This is a historical accident with several benefits:

Filmmaking as a process cannot tolerate mistakes. Time on set is too expensive. The white heat of this environment is a million miles away from the comparative stability of a job in an agency, which makes outsourcing to a production company the only way to guarantee the level of craft skill necessary to do the job properly. It also makes production companies better placed to sort the wheat from the chaff, producer wise.

To be a good producer you need a high level of constantly updated experience at an amazingly diverse number of things. For an agency to keep producers 'match fit' in this way they would need to shoot as often and as diversely as a good production company. Even for the biggest agency this has to be wishful thinking - one client may shoot only one ad a year. Another may shoot two a month but they will all be the same. Neither of those will develop good producers.

They say that good government needs a good opposition. Anyone at any agency who understands filmmaking (and there are many) knows that having somebody who can afford to give you an answer you don't like is a valuable asset, providing of course they have the creative and financial interests of the project at heart (and they do - producers are very well incentivised to bring the project in on budget).

Where this will end or how production companies can address it is above my pay grade, but I don't know what production companies can offer if it's not the skill of being the only people who know how to turn all this talking and all these meetings into an actual film.

In other words, producing as a skill of its own, independent of the director. There are companies who have this reputation already. They are the best placed for what may be coming down the tracks, but this doesn't excuse the general undervaluing of producers.

In movies, if a director or actor is successful enough he becomes a producer. It seems to me that commercial production companies inverted that hierarchy to make money, and they might have to start inverting it back.

Comments (5)

  • Thank you so much. Although I suspect (beeing a producer myself) that this superb article stems from an anonymous producer, not a director. Be that as it may: the most flattering account of the line of work I’m in that I have ever read. Aian: thank you.

    by Stephan Pauly on 2016 10 24

  • (should have read: “Again”)

    by Stephan Pauly on 2016 10 24

  • Good article, although the story about Steven Speilberg’s Duel is absurd. Duel was written by David Matheson based on his novella and produced by ABC as a TV Movie of the Week.

    by Mark N on 2016 10 25

  • Really interesting and insightful, thanks a lot

    by Caroline Bottomley on 2016 11 09

  • As a “seasoned” Independent Producer who learned the craft from ground up (PA to AD & then Producer) who has also worked at various Ad Agencies in the past as an an “Agency Producer” and an EP that built a production arm within an agency, I take this article as a huge compliment.  It is very much"on-point” in this current market.  I have and will survive this new agency positioning but hearing a “Producer” who is also is supposed to be a seasoned Photographer/Stylist and Makeup Artist as well as an Agency Producer, really reflects the current status…unfortunately. THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE

    by Cat Sautter on 2016 11 30

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