They say the best things come in small packages. Perhaps the same argument could be made about production companies.
In a session titled “Small Companies, Big Ideas” at the Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C., a panel of indivdiuals who co-founded their own production companies came together to share tips for breaking into the business and challenges they’ve faced along the way.
Colleen Needles Steward, president and CEO, Tremendous! Entertainment, moderated the panel. Participants included Mike Duffy, co-president, Ugly Brothers Studios; Joseph Livecchi, CEO, Noble Savages; Ari Mark, co-founder, AMPLE; and Rob Shaftel, founder of Hit+Run.
Aside from running their own prodcos, many of the panelists had something else in common: experience working in large-scale, global production companies.
The advantage of that, said the panelists, is having seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t.
This can be particularly evident when it comes to company culture. Shaftel pointed to the struggle of having to maintain a company culture that’s friendly and inclusive, while also working behind the scenes to maintain the business side of things. “You have to exercise discretion, while still being a cheerleader,” Livecchi said in agreement.
Livecchi opted to define his business through the name of the company: Noble Savages. “It’s someone who operates with the highest level of integrity and is fierce in the pursuit of excellence,” he explained. These personality characteristics are particularly important for a smaller prodco because in order to succeed, you have to maintain passion in the face of (sometimes constant) rejection. “You have to be relentless and wake up every single day saying, ‘I’m going to be a better producer than yesterday’.”
But being small has its advantages. Indie prodcos are able to weather the storm when the time comes to cut overheard. They’re able to navigate the weeks or months of uncertainty.
The panel stressed that if a producer approaches them with a project, their vision will become the company’s vision, which will then be pitched to a network exec. This sometimes isn’t the case with larger companies, who sometimes inject their own opinions or scopes into a project after taking it on.
Mark pointed to the success of Ample’s Murder in the Heartland — a true crime series set against the backdrop of heartlands in the U.S. — as a project that showcases the work that can come from a small crew. “It was a documentary quality program,” he said.
Part of the reason smaller companies are able to produce such high-quality programs is that when you run a company on leaner budgets, you learn how to be innovative on less. It may mean less footage, but the material is better.
A big lesson for the panel was having the courage and confidence to shoot less. Duffy cited a quote from reality star Mike Rowe: “Production is the enemy of authenticity.”
As the founders of their companies, and working with smaller staffs, the panelists noted that they often have to wear a lot of hats. But Duffy expects to see more industry execs to adopt a jack-of-all-trades approach in the future.
“We have to be the doers, we have to write the treatment, pitch the show, execute a vision on a single reel,” he said. “We’re seeing an exodus of folks that are just executives, not storytellers. As the business condenses, we’re going to see more auteurs.”