People have peculiar ideas about launching start ups. Before the Internet, I knew an inexperienced producer who was convinced that to be taken seriously, he had to deliver everything important (scripts, contracts, etc) via Federal Express. It didn’t take long to run up a $250,000 Fed-Ex bill and he eventually declared bankruptcy. Others have equally unproductive ideas about launching companies and projects. So if you’re an investor in a media production company, or a major donor in a nonprofit media effort, here’s 3 of the biggest red flags you should be looking for:
Mistake #1 – They hire a full time staff. Big markets like Los Angeles and New York have always been freelance markets, but today, that’s spread to most cities in the world. One of the best things about video and film is the best people are often freelance – particularly when it comes to production. By contrast, a full time payroll is the biggest single expense most start ups face, so why sink your initial investment upfront? In most cases, the most I would hire full time are two or three people, and bring everyone else onboard based on green-lighted projects.
Generally, I hire my teams based on three things:
A) The style of the project. What kind of shooting and editing style does the script and creative brief call for? Whatever it is, I want a DP and crew who’s amazing at delivering that style.
B) The budget of the project. If I have a limited budget (for whatever reason) I need to make sure I can deliver for the client. Crews aren’t the same, so understand the difference.
C) The location of the project. A script calling for studio shooting, interviews, drama, difficult or dangerous locations and more all impact who I hire. No one can be the best at everything, so I want people with experience and expertise specifically with what I’m facing.
As a result, the idea of a full time staff is simply analog thinking in a digital age.
Mistake #2 – They rent expensive offices. Unless you’re manufacturing widgets, you really don’t need a big space to work these days. The vast majority of productions can be created in home offices, borrowed spaces, or less. I was at a major TV network recently visiting the production offices of one of the most successful sit-coms on TV. Their “production offices” consisted of a small space at the studio, working on folding tables and lawn chairs. I’ve seen independent producers working in borrowed church basements and garages. If you’re truly serious about creating video, the idea of nice offices with desks and sofas should be pretty low on your list of priorities. I’d love to have a big fancy office that looks impressive, but the truth is, I’d much rather have a a list of finished projects, industry recognition, and a few awards to show for it.
Mistake #3 – They start buying production equipment. When I started my career, there were only a handful of film or video cameras on the market. In those days, purchasing gear made sense because you could use one set of equipment for the vast majority of projects. But today, video is a specialized business. The cameras and lighting equipment I shoot with on a documentary aren’t necessarily the same as I use on high end commercials, multi-camera events, or product shooting. Plus, equipment is changing with the speed of light. New cameras and gear are appearing on a regular basis, and I want to make sure what I use is the best I can afford and what the project needs. The only time I recommend buying equipment is when you shoot a single type of program, and you do it every week. A studio, news organization, church – anyone shooting the same program and doing it regularly should consider buying. Otherwise, I have too many producer friends with rooms full of cameras and equipment they never use. I’d rather invest that money toward the latest and most appropriate equipment.
Today when it comes to production, we live in a world of freelance teams, virtual offices, and equipment innovation. It’s a fantastic time to be involved in media and entertainment because if you budget well, it takes remarkably little to do amazing work.
The bottom line? You’re not building an empire. So invest your money in ideas and stories, not in “things” designed to impress clients and competitors.