Saturday, July 01, 2006

Chronicles 26 - To Beg or not to Beg?

As an independent producer you are always in begging mode, even if the begging is re-packaged as a 'request to enter into a partnership' or a quid pro quo, a "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours (once the finance is released and the movie is greenlit") - a deferred scratch as it were.

In the meantime you find yourself alternating between positions of weakness and strength in this beggar/begg-ee dynamic.

I had a meeting with an established film professional over a week ago who I was referred to by a financier in Cannes. Now this person, being a working professional in the film industry has a pretty good take on who's who, who can deliver the goods (and who can't), who to work with and who not to etc. - knowledge that I will gladly absorb and exploit.

In my case the dynamic was one of: he is interested in me because if my film gets greenlit then he will get paid, by me. However, up until that point and certainly up to the point where I attach bankable cast there is no guarantee in this fickle world of film-making that my movie will EVER get made, so, in terms of power dynamics the ball is in his court.

I seek his knowledge and recommendations and he takes the meeting on the off-chance that I will deliver at some point. Now he knows what I'm looking for and what I have to offer which is not insubstantial, but, at the same time it's not about to blow him off his chair either i.e. he ain't going to be holding any calls for me right now.

We had a fairly long meeting and after our meeting as a reply to my thank you note he sends me an email back with a, "let me know if I can be of any help" note. Okay, great! I take this literally not realizing that what he probably meant was, "Come back and hire me when you have a movie to shoot but don't waste my precious time with dumb questions in the meantime".

I read his note as the offer of an on-going dialogue, a "Hey, whenever you have any questions shoot me off an email or pick up the phone, I've got all the time in the world" note. So, I send him an email and run some names past him for his feedback. He emails me back saying I should call him. It takes me 2 days to get through to him and when I get him on the phone I'm ready to get comfortable, put the kettle on, shoot the breeze and talk about all my financing possibilities, recent ups and downs, who/what he recommends etc.

The trouble is I'm forgetting the beggar/begg-ee dynamic that's going on here i.e. I don't have the gold yet so I'm in a weak position. As far as he's concerned I could disappear into the night, never to be seen again. He on other hand is involved in a number of real-world productions and his time is limited. The upshot of this conversation is that at a certain point his impatience kicks in and he says, "Look, I'm not sure what you want from me here", (Ohh-oh) and "this isn't really what I do ..." which is basically sub-text for, "You've out stayed your welcome my friend, now get out of my fu$%ing face".

So, not being a total brain-dead moron, I pick up on 'the vibe' here and swiftly segue my way back into my original request and he abruptly gives me a name. He then gets annoyed when I mis-pronounce the name and when I mention other names he just snaps back with a, "well, I gave you the names in my meeting". Unfortunately I had only slept 3-4 hours before that meeting and I'd forgotten to take a pen with me and hence had not jotted these names down! Of course I realized that now probably wasn't the best time to mention this. Anyway, he asks me to speak to his receptionist for any numbers and swiftly and abruptly ends the conversation.

Now, if I was in a greenlit position and I was about to hire him the dynamic would no doubt have been different. It's a tricky game that one has to play. On the one hand, you need as a producer to give the impression that you are informed and in charge, on the other hand as a first-time producer you need to tap into the experience of others, you need to know the "word on the street" and sometimes you just have to risk being a pain in the butt and ask some dumb questions.

I have often gotten on the phone with producers who have passed on my projects and asked for advice. Again you are clearly the beggar here since in that moment in time you have nothing to offer and the questions that go round in one's head are:

1) This guy has some useful info, I'd like to be able to call this guy again but how many times can I do that without coming across as some kind of sad loser-stalker-type.

2) How can I strike the balance between gleaning enough info out of this person and trying to avoid being put in the position where they end the conversation? Let's face it, you're in a weak position anyway since you are calling them for advice, so a quick, "Hey, that's great, really appreciate your help, got another call coming in, let's do lunch sometime!", lets you exit the dialogue with some semblance of dignity, whereas a, "Look, I'm really busy right now, that's all I can tell you, good luck with your project" from their end leaves you scuttling away with your tail between your legs.

This dynamic is in a state of flux and can change at any point. I'm currently pursuing US casting directors with a view to acquiring their services to attach 1 bankable and 2 semi-bankable actors for my rom-com. The fee, I've been told is generous, but, and this again puts me in a position of weakness, the fee is deferred. If I had the fee in the bank I would be in the stronger position but now I'm hoping that, based on the script and the existing package, I can lure them in and motivate them to work on spec, so, once again, I am relegated to the position of the beggar.

It is not uncommon for casting directors to have a project under their wing that they take on as 'pet projects' but it's a case of hoping that a) the casting director has strong enough relationships with the agents and b) they are excited enough about the script/package to take it on. Still, whatever the outcome, the 'song remains the same', I'm the dude pulling favours here.

This continues down the line - the financiers are in a strong position when you have an incomplete package i.e. no cast, but once you have key bankable cast then they are eager to do business with you as are sales agents, distributors etc. That power dynamic can change with one fortuitous, 'Yes' from a bankable star and instead of them hiring you, you are hiring them!

Ultimately, and ironically the real power lies with those invisible people who sit in the dark slurping Sprite and munching popcorn. The producers, the studios, the stars, the agents etc all prostrate themselves at the veritable feet of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmoe and their connection between the rear end of their anatomies and those chocolate stained seats in the movie theatre - because - if that connection doesn't happen, they're out of a job.

At the end of the day that's what all these power dynamics are down to, that almost alchemical ability to get 'bums on seats', and until you can prove that you've been able to glue multiple posteriors to multiple seats for 90 minutes then you better get comfortable with the phrase 'cap in hand'.

See Chronicles 25