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International networking has taken on new meaning for factual program producers forced to work with shrinking budgets. SUSAN ZELLER talks to doc-makers about how, and where, to save money
January 1, 2003

International networking has taken on new meaning for factual program producers forced to work with shrinking budgets. SUSAN ZELLER talks to doc-makers about how, and where, to save money

When it comes to production costs, doc-makers have a hard time catching a break. Technological innovations such as non-linear editing systems and digital video cameras have certainly brought down capital costs over the past 10 years. But, for many producers, these savings are more than countered by the combined effect of downward pressure on budgets (from broadcasters) and the rising rates for skilled staff.

Notes Richard Clemmow, director of factual programs for Carlton Television in London, U.K., ‘[A project] you might have gotten US$250,000 for five years ago you’re now expected to shoot for $200,000.’ Simon Nasht, director of London, U.K./Sydney, Australia-based Real Pictures, concurs. ‘The money available from broadcasters has definitely plateaued and in some cases lowered – in most cases lowered – yet I haven’t noticed any give among the cameramen and editors.’

Nasht isn’t saying that technical crews should bring down their fees. ‘I’ve got a lot of sympathy for them. Are they less valuable than they were three or four years ago? Of course not.’ At the same time, he recognizes that the current situation is putting the squeeze on producers and forcing them to look for alternatives.

‘You’ve got two choices if you can’t afford the going rate,’ Nasht advises. ‘One is to take someone with less experience, pay them less and hope they turn out. The second is to go global and start seeing what’s possible.’

As the barriers between borders gradually disappear, it’s this latter option that appears to hold the most potential for doc prodcos.

Look to the north

The U.S and the U.K. are the big markets for commissions and talent, but not for deals. Notes Clemmow,

who has worked on both sides of the pond (he spent three years in the U.S. for Carlton), ‘Costs in the U.K. and the U.S. are broadly comparable. There are small variations in specific terms, but you can produce for the same cost in each country. The places you look to make things more cheaply are Canada and Australia.’

Donna Luke, who recently left Britain to join Canadian prodco Cineflix, can attest first hand to the savings proffered by America’s northern neighbor. Luke is the new head of production at Cineflix’s Toronto office (its head- quarters are in Montreal) and is the production supervisor on Mayday, a 6 x 1-hour series (now in production) that considers the causes of several major air disasters, as well as the investigative procedures employed after the incidents. She spent much of the past six months calculating Mayday’s budget, which is roughly CDN$2.9 million (US$1.9 million). Most of the production work is taking place in Canada; if it were being done in the U.K., Luke estimates an additional cost of about CDN$600,000 ($390,000). ‘The industry in Toronto is gearing up,’ she observes. ‘It’s where the U.K. was 10 years ago.’

Labor, which Luke defines as the production team and technical crew (with equipment), is the component for which she set aside the largest share of funds (35% of the budget). It’s also where she expects to secure the most savings. Comparing the editorial positions in Canada and the U.K., Luke estimates that a series producer in Britain costs about 46% more than his Canadian counterpart; a director, 26% more; assistant producer, 70%; production manager, 60%; production coordinator, 30%; researcher, 26%; and production secretary, 54%. As for other crew (lighting, camera, sound recording), she reckons the cost in the U.K. to be about 30% higher.

The relatively low Canadian dollar affects this to some extent, as does the different interpretation of some job titles between the two territories. Explains Luke, ‘What I would call an assistant producer isn’t necessarily what somebody would refer to as that person [in Canada], in the same way that a production coordinator’s role for me in the U.K. encompasses way more than it would [in Canada]. So, the roles aren’t completely comparable, which probably means the lesser fee is justifiable.’ Still, the overall cost in Canada is lower, she acknowledges, adding, ‘Labor costs are very good value for money here.’

Since Mayday requires the re-creation of several airplane cockpits, Luke also had to budget for set design. Of this she says, ‘Set-building in Canada will be significantly less than it would have been in either the U.S. or the U.K. Given the nature of the series, in the U.K., for example, there would have been a much greater division of labor. The talent available in Canada exists in a much more cost-effective way. The materials for the build in the U.K. would cost around 15% more than the total set costs in Canada.’

Or turn to the south

Tapping into the talent on the other side of the world from Canada has the potential to be equally rewarding. Says Nasht, ‘In terms of money, without a doubt, the quality level among the Australian technicians and crew is great. And, they tend to be cheaper than their U.K. equivalents.’ Nasht, an Australia-born Londoner, is preparing to move back to the land of his birth to produce Frank Hurley, The Man Who Made History (w/t), a one-hour doc in the US$400,000 range about an Australian photographer who is internationally known for his images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition.

For Frank Hurley, Nasht will be filming all over the world, from Antarctica to the Middle East. He specifically sought out an Australian cameraman for his Antarctica shoot. Nasht explains: ‘Even though we were only shooting on location for a week, it’s a five-week journey. And, we had to go by ship there and back. Your cameraman has to be prepared to do a deal, including gear, for all the time he’s just feeling seasick and not working much. I suspect that while an Australian cameraman was prepared to do that, I wouldn’t have been able to get someone from New York or London.’

Nasht notes that timing played into his Aussie cameraman’s flexibility, as filming took place over the Christmas/New Year period. ‘That’s the heart of the summer holidays in Australia, when everyone is goofing off. In the northern hemisphere they were going to have to be back at work after a week and expecting work, so that was the issue.’

Doc-makers can also save money by hiring Australian musicians, Nasht says. ‘I’ve done a comparison between a film I did last year with very good musicians in the U.K. – it required orchestration – and then looked at the same prices in Australia. There was a big difference… Australia’s a good place to get [music] done, particularly for complicated stuff. If it’s just a musician and a synthesizer, it doesn’t matter much. But once you start getting acoustic performers and singers, you need to start looking around.’

…and east a bit

In recent years, Australia’s neighbor – New Zealand – has established its own reputation as an economical center for film and TV production. American fiction series Xena:Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys were shot there, as was Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which helped put New Zealand on the map for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Part of New Zealand’s appeal is the combination of experienced production crews and relatively low rates. Notes John Harris, managing director of Auckland-based doc prodco Greenstone, ‘We have a strong tradition of making money go a long way, because we’ve had to.’ Perhaps as a result, production staff are often willing to multi-task, he adds. ‘For instance, the sound recordist will traditionally help put up lights and lay tracks if there are any. We respect the individual disciplines, but people are willing to go that extra mile to make things work.’

According to Harris, the average hour-long doc in New Zealand (actually 43 to 46 minutes) carries a budget of about NZ$140,000 (US$72,000), with costs breaking down roughly as follows: Beta camera rental including minimal lighting kit, NZ$2,000 ($1,000) per week; director fees, NZ$2,000 ($1,000) per week or about NZ$20,000 ($10,300) in total; editor fees, NZ$1,800 ($900) per week, based on at least five eight-hour shifts; special effects technician, NZ$600 ($300) per day; and actors for re-creations, assuming non-speaking parts, between NZ$250 and $500 ($130 to $260) per day.

Of his own company, Harris says, ‘We’re attentive to every dollar. When you know you don’t have money to throw at a problem, you’re forced to always be budget-conscious.’ In eight years of operation, Greenstone has produced 65 hours, including The Zoo and several Private Lives of… docs.

Save while you can

Over time, as producers grow accustomed to using facilities and services around the globe, prices will likely equalize. Nasht says he has already seen this happen with post-production facilities in some territories. ‘Eastern Europe used to be very cheap – no longer,’ he contends. But, full equalization will take years, and in the meantime there are savings to be had.

Even for veteran producers such as Jeff Tuchman of New York, U.S.- based prodco Documania, who has traditionally worked only in his home territory, hiring international technicians or editors appears inevitable. Says Tuchman, ‘I suspect the model for finishing docs will change radically in the next five years. I’m anticipating that I’ll be able to sit in front of my laptop virtually anywhere and watch an editor cut, whether that editor is in New York or Toronto or Paris. At that point, location is going to be much less of a consideration.’

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