This is an exciting time for television producers, with possibilities expanding every minute. The traditional broadcast and cable outlets are willing to try new things, video on demand is gearing up, and Internet protocol tv is right around the corner. Everybody needs content. It should be bonanza time for independent production companies, right? Well, yes. And no. And the ‘no’ part is often – I hate to say it – our own fault.
Which brings me to what I call ‘stupid production company tricks.’ I’ve had the enormous good fortune to learn these lessons from brilliant colleagues, mentors, employers and clients over the years. I have the license to pick on producers because I am a producer by trade, training, and temperament, and because I help run Banyan Productions, a company that produced more than 600 episodes of television last year. I love producers and wouldn’t trade my workday for anybody else’s. But we all might as well admit it: we tend to put our passion into the ‘production’ part, and forget ‘company.’ Baaaad idea. Whether our prodcos are large or small, without commerce, our fabulous ideas are nothing more than dreams that could have been.
We need to start by knowing what’s happening in the content business, which is easier said than done. In-house productions dominate much of the broadcast landscape, making it harder for independents to break in. The cable scene is getting tougher as competition multiplies and programmers hedge their bets. vod, iptv, and direct-to-dvd are tantalizing new businesses that haven’t really taken shape yet, so it’s hard to tell what intellectual property is worth, especially if you’ll be expressing it in more than one medium. It’s the Wild, Wild West out there. How, in all this madness, does an indie find creative satisfaction and actually make a buck or three? Start by avoiding some common pitfalls:
Stupid Production Company Trick #1:
Thinking a great idea is all you need. It’s not. If you often find yourself seeing a program and saying, ‘I thought of that years ago!,’ ask yourself what that producer has that you don’t. I’ll bet the answers are creative team, development system, access to exhibitors, and track record. So, build the creative team. Do everything you possibly can to attract and retain the very best staffers at every level. Invest in people first and foremost. Empower, trust and respect them, and give all the support you can muster. Most importantly, have fun together! These people are the team that convinces a potential buyer or investor that you can deliver the show you promise.
Then foster a creative think tank atmosphere. Banyan’s founders say ‘no idea is a bad idea.’ They don’t mean it literally, of course, because some ideas are downright awful! The point is, everyone in a company should be encouraged to brainstorm. Recently we had an in-house ‘pitch me’ night with a prize for best pitch. Many employees participated and some of the concepts were great. In the end, the winner wasn’t one of our showrunners or development people. Our 23-year-old receptionist simply had the best idea. It was a great moment for her and all of us.
Also, pitch. Your fabulous idea only has value if you can convince someone to exhibit it. Learn to pitch or work with someone who’s gifted at pitching. Find out how to get to the most likely buyers/investors and put just as much effort into selling your idea as you did in developing it.
SPC Trick #2:
Failure to invest in the future. Do you find that you never seem to have time for development and selling because you’re too busy meeting today’s deadlines? A percentage of the profit on every project should be allocated to new research and development, and you need to do it even while you’re producing other things. This is true regardless of your company’s size. Even if you’re just starting out and your only asset is your own time, allocate a generous percentage of it to developing your next few projects. If you can, build and nurture a permanent development team. Otherwise, your creative pipeline will go dry and your firm will be gone in a year or two. Do this even when it seems you need the resources for other things. In a down market, the very best thing you can do is put every possible minute and dollar into research and development.
SPC Trick #3:
Failing to deliver excellent quality content on time and within budget. To avoid this, focus on your client. Remember the programmer who bought your show is trusting you to pull it off. Do everything you can to provide what they need. This seems obvious, but any programmer will tell you a lot of producers fail this test.
Be good at the money. An independent has to be great at budgeting, projecting, and tracking costs. Learn it or work with someone who’s a whiz with cash.
Negotiate well. Be fair, but stick to your convictions. If absolutely necessary, walk away from a bad deal even if it means losing that dream project. Stay profitable and reputable and you’ll be around to fulfill the dream later.
And budget honestly. Never knowingly underestimate your budget. When the client wants twice as much program as he or she can afford, it’s tempting to just say yes. Don’t. You’ll find yourself charging your client overages later, looking foolish, putting your client in an awkward position, and probably hurting the show, too.
SPC Trick #4:
Hiding problems. C’mon, we’ve all done this and regretted it. You know something’s going very wrong and your first urge is to make sure the client doesn’t find out. Resist that urge. Don’t go into denial, blame somebody, or try to cover up. It’s always better to address problems immediately and work out a solution together. Honestly, have you ever seen a perfect production process? Me neither. Show me a television production that went flawlessly and I’ll show you a producer who’s hiding the truth.
SPC Trick #5:
Failing to take care of business. This can be a real killer. Diversify your client base. Layer current value, like profit from production operations, with longer term value like dvd rights and overseas format sales. Seek product integration possibilities if your production can benefit from them.
SPC Trick #6:
Giving your clients less than they paid for. You’ll only do that once. That’s not a profit, it’s a disaster!
So happy producing. It’s the best business in the world. Just remember to keep developing and pitching. Don’t let today’s deadlines keep you from building for the future.
Jeanne McHale Waite is chief executive officer of Philadelphia-headquartered Banyan Productions.