Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Are producer's born with the innate skills needed to succeed?

Sometime ago, I can't remember exactly when, I was at a conference or seminar listening to someone talking about the skills a film producer needs to be successful. The gist of their argument was that unlike the other (more technical) roles required during a film's production producers don't have any specific skills required to actually do that job.

The person went on to describe the role of the producer: they talk to writers, talk to directors, make phone calls, talk to financiers, bring people on to a project to get a job done and generally oversee the process of getting a film made and distributed from end to end. Their job is organisation and co-ordination. Whilst there are a hundred and one different things they have to do in the lifetime of a single project ultimately, the things that producers actually do (seemingly a lot of talking) are things that absolutely anyone with a mouth can manage.

This was compared to the technical roles - writers need to know how to craft narratives, director's need to know how to direct actors and pace action, cinematographer's need to know how to frame and work with light; sound recordists also need to know their onions as do make-up artists and gaffers and setdressers and editors and so on and so on. Basically, a film production is made up entirely of people who have specific craft skills that take years of training to master. All except one person, the producer!

So, says industry expert, anyone can be a producer!

Except, I don't think that's true. In fact I think it may be that the opposite is true and that actually a good producer is the one truly skilled person in the personnel of a movie production. To demonstrate the point lets first look at directors, or writers, editors or whatever. Yes, each of those roles requires training and experience to be done well but its not as if all of the people that occupy these roles are trained to some baseline standard. There are great directors and very, very bad ones but they are all directors nonetheless. Each of the specific roles on a film can be appraised and you can spot the good from the bad but can you tell a good producer from a bad one simply by looking at the results on screen? Perhaps bad producers don't get films made in which case there is no public evidence of their ineptitude.

I think my point is that you can train hard and be proficient as a craftsmen or technician - you may not set the world alight and you may only manage to deliver workmanlike results but with enough commitment anyone can become a passable director, editor, actor or cameraman.

Producer's on the other hand have to be able to talk the good talk, win a room, negotiate and conciliate, hire and fire and generally be all things to everyone. A good producer is, or should be, a people's person. Someone who knows how to get things done whilst pissing off the minimum number of people to do it! How can that not be a skill? And what's more how much of those things can be (or are) taught in formal training or through a dedication to personal development. Just as we think that some people are born to be good at sports and others good at art and others to be strong personalities then could it be that producer's are born with some of the qualities (or at the very least develop them at an early age) to be good at what they do?

Perhaps the above description of a producer is naive! Perhaps what I've described is the sort of producer I would like to be but is not a real reflection of most producers in the real world. Afterall, film producers do tend to have a reputation for being scumbags! But I would argue that those producers who do shout and are generally abusive are bad producers.

I can see that there are a number of obvious flaws in my above argument and it is fairly simplistic. However, it leads me to some questions that I, at least, find pertinent. What is a producer? And more importantly, what is a good producer? What qualities does he/she need to succeed and are their skills in any way innate or can they be developed in the same way that directors learn their craft?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

An apology (sort of) and some more thoughts on crowdfunding

So, this is my first blog in ten months. Let me explain! I have now entered into the second year of my study (on crowdfunding as a model for film finance, for those of you who don't know); the first academic year mercifully came to an end in September - it has been difficult for a number of reasons. The sense of isolation has, at times, been stultifying. I'm told this is a perfectly normal way for a PhD candidate to feel but that hasn't really been of much comfort. 
The year passed in a mixture of ebbs and flows. The flows have seen some welcome progress but the ebbs have been particularly barren; passages of time filled with little but procrastination. Not knowing whether I've been reading the right books or doing any constructive work led to cul-de-sacs of the imagination where rather than trying to hoist myself up I succumbed to the temptations of long hours at home and indulged in too many episodes of Frasier or The Sopranos when I could have been doing something more constructive. 
Coupled with this sense of isolation has been, to a small extent, a feeling of abandonment by my institution. Whilst I admit to squandering passages of time these episodes of inertia have usually coincided with times when I've needed the most help which I have reached out for but the assistance I needed was not forthcoming. This is something I desperately hope improves as I go forward; recent developments, thankfully, suggest they will. 
The year hasn't been a waste though,  not by a long chalk! I've developed my understanding of the topic, attended several conferences, met many new people who share my interest and have made significant advancement to my overall goal of getting through the study. 
The most beneficial development, however, has been linking up with Antony Smith at Tornado Films. Following a few speculative meetings at the start of 2012 Antony agreed with my institution that Tornado would act as a business partner for my study; I now work with him a few days a week developing feature film projects with a view to taking a crowdfunding campaign for a test drive in the not too distant future. 
Serendipitously, Antony is also working towards a PhD via a study on the independent film value chain. Our areas of study converge nicely enough and there is obvious potential in our collaboration. Furthermore, both being at similar stages of our respective studies, we are able to share ideas and practical advice about the development of our projects and this acts as a support network that I've sorely needed. 
Beyond the study, I have to admit to being very fortunate to be involved with Tornado at this particular time. From my position it certainly looks like the company is moving in a very promising direction and is making links with established names as it develops a slate of feature films. Having aspired to be a film producer for over a decade I felt that my time (following a long period when I went off to do something completely unrelated to filmmaking) had passed, so  being in this position is something I am very thankful for. Prior to my film producing hiatus, my 'career' had been devoted to producing a series of short films that, despite positive reactions, failed to propel me into a position where I got paid enough money to get by or to flex my muscles on feature film production. As any filmmaker will tell you the difference between making shorts and features (that people actually pay to see) is large and there is a knowledge gap that can only be acquired in process of making the transition between the two. With my knowledge of making shorts having been slightly dulled by passing years of inactivity it is with great relief and comfort that I find myself at Tornado; I feel that this is the place to learn, to sharpen some old skills and to develop new ones and I have enough residual confidence in my old achievements that I have something to offer that will help the company grow. 

So, to crowdfunding! On Friday last I had the fortune of attending the Iris Prize organised Producer's Forum in Cardiff where I listened to several, respected film professionals discuss the various challenges faced by the industry and by producers in particular. The  subject of crowdfunding came up several times and, whilst feelings were mixed, there was defintitely a positive response overall with one particularly exciting piece of news. 

The first plenary session, entitled Funding Your Project, was panelled by Adam Partridge (Production Executive at Film Agency for Wales) and Kevin Dolan (Talent Development Manager at Film London) and was an informative overview of film funding opportunities including essential tips and advice for producers. When questions were opened to the floor someone (COUGH me COUGH) asked the panel their feelings on crowdfunding. The response was one of qualified positivity. It would not surprise me to learn that crowdfunding was anathema to the regional public funders. Crowdfunding can potentially fund as many projects as....well, as many projects as there are projects but in contrast regional funding bodies, such as Film Agency for Wales, have a very limited amount of funds to invest in actual productions and therefore have to be very selective with relatively small amounts of money. In a possible future landscape where film producers felt that crowdfunding offered a viable route to the cash they needed without being encumbered by the conditions that come with public money then the public bodies might find that less projects come through their doors. Of course, we are not in that landscape (yet?) and so there is no real reason for the public bodies to feel threatened. They also provide a service that is essential to filmmakers which is not readily available on the pages of IndieGoGo or Sponsume (a point I will elaborate on shortly) so it is unlikely they ever will. However, regardless of the current state of play, it is unlikely that crowdfunding has reached anywhere near its full potential or maximum usage (I wouldn't be doing this study if I thought it had). Of course, it is naive to suggest that crowdfunding might have any sort of impact on these funding bodies at all but who would have thought five years ago that $1,000,000 could be raised to finance a film about moon-dwelling Nazis (Iron Sky)? It is this anything goes, unquantifiable, viral-esque nature of crowdfunding for film that would likely put the fear into those with opposing vested interests. Video killed the radio star?

However, if crowdfunding was about to put the traditional movie business out of work it did not appear that either Adam or Kevin had been sent the memo . Both panel members were insightful about the model and offered examples of where it could succeed but were careful not to over-emphasise its potential. Adam, in particular, was forthright with his examination of the limitations of crowdfunding and stressed that production cash is only a part of the picture when it comes to film producing. Equally as important are the stages throughout the value chain that need to be negotiated; steps of the process that cannot necessarily be devolved to social media networks and benefit from the steering hand of a professional or dedicated agency. The film industry, and all it's various players, provide a quality framework that no amount of well intentioned individuals who fund your project can replicate (unless, that is, one of them happens to be Tim Bevan or Harvey Weinstein). Without that framework nothing can be guaranteed which is something that might very well put off any investors or stakeholders (such as sales agents, distributors) coming in at the back end of the process: (although I don't necessarily see that crowdfunding should exclude film professionals from this framework - as an example, perhaps you have the experience and are well versed in the process but choose to crowdfund because you want to make a film with full creative control of your own vision). However, the point being made is an important one, it just happens to opens up a number of things to consider. There is obviously a gap between the types of films that need crowdfunding to get made and those that can access public money but why is that the case? Of course, there are quality and commercial considerations but sometimes it is not access to cash that filmmakers need but the knowhow to navigate within the industry. It would be encouraging to think that our public services were working for us and that if a filmmaker came through their door with fistfuls of cash but just needed some all important advice then it would be readily available regardless of what type of project they had on the table. I think the perception that crowdfunding is just for amateurs who can't get funded anywhere else is short-sighted. What is needed is a link up between industry and crowdfunding filmmakers - people to steer those with enough entrepreneurial spirit to get things done!

Further to the above Adam and Kevin considered the nature of incentives/perks. What if in the course of a crowdfunding campaign you promise to give away 200 DVDs of your finished film? And what implications would that have to distributors considering taking your project on? Adam made a good point that it would be likely to discourage any investor of that kind as you would have already given away what would essentially be their product. I agree that this is something to be weary of but am not sure that this isn't a bit overly cautious - it raises a good point and is something I intend to investigate! Some phone calls to distributors will be made this week! Dogwoof, in particular, are a distributor that I know have a history of distributing crowdfunded films.

The points made by Adam and Kevin were excellent and provided a platform to really consider the limitations of crowdfunding as a model for raising finance for film. Given that I am just in the process of recapping on the session from Friday I do not intend on going any further down that road here; however, I pose the following questions and intend to return to them in another blog soon:
  • What are the limitations of crowdfunding?
  • What factors mitigate against those limitations?
  • Which types of project can succeed even in spite of the limitations?
Moving on from the first session of the day I attended another funding session, this time paneled by filmmakers Helen Grace, Matthew Mishory and Jason Davitt all of whom had first hand experience of crowdfunding and were a lot more positive about the advantages. There was definitely a guerilla, 'just do it' message being conveyed by the panel but beyond that ballsy message were three, obviously talented filmmakers who knew exactly what they were doing, what their product was and who (and where) their audience was. This is important! Having a full understanding of what your film is and who is going to want to pay to see it is essential if you want crowdfunding success - I doubt there are few 'hit and hope' success stories in this field. The importance of research, preparation and good business planning prior to launching a campaign cannot be underestimated. Knowing your audience and how to connect with them (via social media) will provide a good basis to work from; furthermore, I suspect that the most successful campaigns will have begun the process of connecting with their potential funders a long time before their campaign is launched. It may even be the case that the crowdfunding campaign is incidental to a flourishing Twitter or Facebook account, somewhere that already has a lot of followers. 

Finally, following a session on distribution, which I regretfully arrived late for and didn't really keep up with, two exciting things happened. Firstly, Rhidian Dafydd of Creative Skillset Cymru launched the new Digital Talent Fund; a scheme that "offers support to companies to address bespoke training requirements with a particular focus on developing skills associated with creating new products and services that can be exploited across multiple digital platforms and in international markets." This has great potential to help small and medium sized companies who are looking to grow but do not have the necessary skillset in house. Secondly, Tim Cagney, deputy chief executive for BFI, announced that a plan for a crowdfunding scheme was in the pipeline. I spoke with Tim (and have subsequently been in touch via email) after the event and, whilst any plans can at this stage be described as sketchy, the very idea that its being given consideration at the top level of our film industry is very exciting. An endorsement for this kind of finance model by the BFI would be great for UK filmmakers - it would legitimise the system and encourage producers to get out there and make movies; which can only be good!

OK, I've said enough. I fully intend to carry on the blogging from now on and will be very cross with myself if its another year before I get around to writing again. Please feel free to get in touch for a chat about this blog - please let me know your thoughts, I'd love to engage in any conversation (about crowdfunding) that furthers my understanding of what is an exciting subject at an exciting time!


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Some thoughts

I've been looking at Crowdfunding resources online over the last few days and I have a few thoughts in my head in response to some articles that I wanted to just get written down before they get lost for good. The thoughts below aren't fully realised - the purpose of writing them down at this stage is just so that I open them up as ideas for later consideration and so that they exist in written form so I don't forget them. Once you've had a read please feel free to comment.

Following an excellent and informative lecture/seminar/presentation from the co-founder of the crowdfunding platform/portal IndieGoGo, Slava Rubin, at the SheffDocFest Convergence Catalyst conference (phew) in December I stumbled upon a similar presentation by other co-founder Danae Ringelmann on Youtube:

Whilst the presentation is excellent in itself (and I advise anyone interested in CF to watch it) some questions arose about points made in the latter part of the video. (Watch from 16:58 for about a minute). The title of the presentation is 'Levelling the Playing Field, One Dollar at a Time'; however, in the section I've highlighted Danae says that the future of crowdfunding will see a shift towards brands and organisations away from individuals. Whilst the full implications of that could be the subject of a thesis in itself some immediate concerns were enough to raise an eyebrow. When big business inevitably senses that they can capitalise from moving in to this form of financing what happens to the little guy? In a world where Coca-Cola or Nike (or any other multi-national) are running crowdfunding campaigns with healthy marketing budgets (which Joe Bloggs can't compete with) what happens to the 'democratisation' process that this system first provided.

Whilst I accept that the example of the prosthetic limb company used by Danae still has social purpose I wonder what is to stop companies running 'fund us and we'll make this' campaigns. Nothing I suppose and in truth the market will decide; you pay your money you take your choice. In that way I suppose it remains democratic but when CF really takes off and individual campaigns encounter fierce competition will the bigger players be able to muscle their way to the finish line to the detriment of everyone else? And if so where does that leave you and me? Back to square one? Hmmmm.....

Leading on from that I've been recently trying to understand the legal situation that prevents crowdfunding as a form of 'investment' for profit especially (or perhaps exclusively) in the US. In terms that I'm comfortable with (but may be so simplistic as to be flawed) it appears that in the States only accreditted individuals can invest in startup businesses. This is ostensibly to protect your average man in the street from making a bad investment in something he doesn't properly understand. However, it also shields Venture Capitalists from having to compete with dozens of small investors when the startup goes into profit. That leaves entrepreneurs looking to utilise CF in a position where all they can offer to potential financiers is non-profit perks such as a credit on website or units of their end product. Whilst legislation is ongoing in the US to alter this system it remains to be seen how the situation will improve to the benefit of all parties. I would be interested in knowing whether the same situation exists in the UK and other countries. I guess I'll have to talk to a business and/or legal expert to find out. Legislation that either helps or hinders crowdfunding is obviously a subject that is ripe for investigation. Whether that legislation governs investment or something else such as IP it is certain that it will play its role in the viability of CF as a potential mainstream funding model. Watch this space!

Another issue that had me scratching my bonce recently was this news item:

Since starting this project one of my main concerns about CF is its ability to provide a sustainable base for creatives. That is, can a filmmaker/artist/musician or whoever return to CF time and again to fund their projects and to essentially pay them a living wage. If a campaign that has such an obvious, tech-savvy audience such the Occupiers can stall then surely it can happen to anyone regardless of how smart their funding campaign is.

I've heard (and read) that successful campaigns will raise 40% of their target from friends and family in the first instance. Surely on $100,000 campaigns you'll need friends with deep pockets or a lot of them. Whilst I'm certain that the 40% figure is born out by data (and the CF platforms have a lot of it), I'm less convinced that friends and family can be relied upon time after time to stump up cash to get projects off the ground. Which is why you'd need a firm understanding of who and where you market is. This makes it all the more surprising (and slightly demoralising) to see the linked project falling so short even inspite of the obvious barriers such as Christmas and competiting interests.

Some things for me to think about I suppose. I think I'd better go away and look for the answers. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Crowdfunding: a blog!

Hello to you all,

My name is Ed Casey and I am a PhD student based at the University of Wales, Newport. I have a background as a short film producer and won a BAFTA Cymru award for best short film in 2006. I have a BA in Film from University of Wales, Newport; an MA in Film Producing and Business Management from University of Glamorgan and have studied under Andrzej Wajda at his prestigious film school in Warsaw, Poland.

I have just started a three year investigation into crowdfunding. More specifically, I will be looking at crowdfunding for film and digital media. Over the next three years I intend to look at how crowdfunding is revolutionising the production of digital media and how this phenomena is being utilised by film makers. More on that soon...

The blog is intended to act as a reflective journal; a space for me to talk about some of my findings and to try to think critically about them. I also hope to engage with other people researching in this field and those who are most effected by it: the filmmakers, producers and their investors - the crowd!

A word on my study. I am a KESS (Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship) student and the programme is funded through the European Social Fund. One of the conditions of my participation is that I work alongside businesses based in the Convergence Area of West Wales and the Valleys (