Tips for keeping afloat

While many people attend conferences like the Realscreen Summit and markets to have meetings, make deals and network to make new relationships, for producers, that's all a part of staying afloat. This afternoon Danny Fenton, MD of Zig Zag Productions, moderated a panel of independent producers who discussed the keys to survival for indies, particularly in this tough economic climate.
February 2, 2009

A lot of the talk at this year’s Summit revolves around money: how to make money, how to budget money and how not to lose money. Always important subjects for anyone in business, but particularly important to independent producers who are either trying to break into the business during these rough economic times or to hang on while broadcasters tighten their budgets. Danny Fenton, MD of Zig Zag Productions (UK), spoke with Guy O’Sullivan, president of Proper Television (Canada); David M. Frank, president and executive producer at Indigo Films (US) and Allison Shigo, director of development and feature projects for Engel Entertainment (US) about each of their strategies for staying in the black.

Owning equipment

Engel owns its own equipment and Shigo feels this is part of what keeps the company strong and nimble. Indigo also owns some of its own equipment, in particular having recently purchased an HD cam after one of its series to be shot in HD was picked up. O’Sullivan’s feeling is that certain pieces of equipment are worth owning while others are better to rent. Proper purchased 12 Avids six months ago and he feels it was a good buy; however, he doesn’t see the point in investing in cameras. ‘There are too many damn formats,’ he says. Fenton weighed in, agreeing with O’Sullivan that indies should be careful not to end up with too much overhead that’s not worth it. ‘Do what you do best and outsource the rest,’ said Fenton.


The words ‘development hell’ have been floating around the halls of Realscreen, with much discussion around how to find the money to pay for all the development needed to create a show and get it sold. Shigo, Frank and O’Sullivan agreed that development is one of the most important considerations for a production company, but they also note that it is the biggest drain on overhead. Frank sees networks as unsympathetic to the plight of the indie who cannot create a program without development, and has no hope of adding research and development to a budget. ‘You have to figure out the most you can afford and spend it,’ says O’Sullivan, who also notes that a big part of the funds indies must dig up for development should go to creating tape to show to broadcasters.

It gets easier

Despite some of the hurdles to finding enough money and commissions to keep going, each panelist said it gets easier with time. Frank pointed out that once a prodco can prove that it is able to deliver a viable product on time, the good reputation will help in securing more repeat commissions in future. O’Sullivan agrees it has become easier for him since he launched Proper at the end of 2004, but he said the early days were tough. ‘If I knew what was going to happen to me in my first year I wouldn’t have done it,’ he said. He found learning the business side quite difficult, and all the panelists agreed that the biggest mistakes they made in the beginning was going over budget on productions. But they also agreed that they love what they do now (with varying degrees of enthusiasm). One pro O’Sullivan sees to being an indie: ‘We can go broke but we can’t get fired.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.