Outs in the Cold: Producers are feeling left out when it comes to what’s left over

If you ever want to see a cocktail party full of broadcasters and producers break out into an ugly melee, all it takes is one magic word: out-take. With production budgets being squeezed, and stock footage in high demand, what's left...
December 1, 1997

If you ever want to see a cocktail party full of broadcasters and producers break out into an ugly melee, all it takes is one magic word: out-take. With production budgets being squeezed, and stock footage in high demand, what’s left over at the end of a shoot is a valuable commodity. Not surprisingly, out-takes have become a sore spot for all involved.

Most broadcasters (understandably) have this perspective on the subject: they foot the bills, so they get the product. Broadcasters have become ‘multimedia suppliers’, running stock footage libraries and creating productions for broadcast and home video. Footage is the raw fuel for all those money-making schemes.

As Alan Ritsko, managing director of NOVA/WGBH, put it at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, ‘Ultimately, all rights issues are trade-offs for dollars.’ Whoever signs the biggest cheque gets the outs. That logic relegates producers to the category of suppliers, and that’s not a title most wear agreeably.

Barry Clark, chairman of Telenova Productions and co-founder of Mandalay Media Arts, a new HD production super-house based in L.A., agrees that rights are essentially a function of cashflow. At the Wyoming festival, he gave some straightforward advice to producers who want their rights: show up at the negotiating table with money. That might seem overly simplistic, but producers who think long term can beat the system.

Holding onto obscure rights in previous projects – like foreign-language or home video rights for a specific territory – can accumulate revenue later. Clark also suggested the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. The more partners brought to the table, the less power any individual player has, and the more likely it is that a producer will get the leftover rights.

Clark also promoted the idea of a standard producer-distributor-broadcaster contract, an idea which got him a roar of support from the filmmakers present, but left broadcasters shaking their heads.

One noticeable exception to this resistance to standardization came from Washington-based distributors Devillier Donegan Enterprises. dde offers a standard contract to most of its producers, including the full rights for all out-takes. This is in part because dde works almost exclusively with experienced ‘name producers’ who have already earned their stripes in the field. ‘Our filmmakers are not workers for hire,’ says executive vp Brian Donegan. ‘We have a partnership with them.’

Donegan doesn’t like the thought of treating his producers like contractors. Many of them are natural history filmmakers, a discipline which requires the patience to wait for the right shot until it decides to appear. Long hours in the field can produce wonderful footage, none of which is in the least bit related to the project at hand. Donegan recalls a conversation with renowned underwater filmmaker Howard Hall. When he asked Hall how he achieved his spectacular underwater sequences, the producer replied, ‘I stay underwater a long time.’

The out-take conflict lies in a fundamental difference of understanding between filmmakers and broadcasters concerning the role of producer in a project. For most broadcasters and distributors, films are commodities. Suggesting that to a producer is just the kind of thing which starts fights at cocktail parties. Hardy Jones of First Breath Films in California summed up the conflict in Jackson Hole with an experience he had:

After being on a shoot for several weeks in the north, he found himself sitting on a diving platform, staring at the frigid water, watching as a pod of killer whales approached. The strangeness of the situation suddenly struck him. He was about to jump in front of a group of potentially dangerous animals in the hopes of getting a good shot for his film. It occurred to Jones that there wasn’t enough money in the world to pay him to take that risk.

And then he jumped in.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.