Media Production

3 Rookie Mistakes Media Production Companies Make

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.

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8 Comments

  1. This article is right on the money! Some of the best productions I’ve been a part of are made up of freelance artist who are specialists in their field and understand the entire scope of the production. Even the largest TV networks turn to expert freelance artist to help them deliver the best productions!

  2. As someone who has worked inside ad agencies for 80% of my career (and freelance the other 20%), I concur wholeheartedly with everything said here. Mistake #1 is endemic to any group dealing with production. I’ve been at agencies where the management got the bright idea of turning production into a profit center. Big mistake. Not only was it a huge capital outlay in equipment that guaranteed to be obsolete in a matter of months, but it also constrained the quality of executions since we were expected to push for “our guys.” Clients didn’t really accept that option too readily, either. Mistake #2 — I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really top-end prodcos over the years, and I can’t remember a single one that had a really fancy office. After all, if they’re doing their jobs right, most of the staff is out shooting somewhere. The only exception, of course, are editorial houses who have clients on site most of the time. Mistake #3 is a key one to avoid – again, you’ll be stuck selling your gear to a client instead of your vision. I once had a prodco tell me we should shoot on their new DigiBeta camera instead of 35mm film because it would still look like 35mm film. Well, you can a RED or other digital cinema camera these days that rival film (thanks in no small part to the glass you can put on their bodies), but you sure couldn’t 20 years ago.

    Shorter version: Trust Phil on this one.

  3. Agree with every single point you made Phil. Spot on. Hope churches are paying attention. I’d add one more: don’t expect volunteers to provide the level of production or editing quality a professional will. That’s why talented, experienced freelancers are worth their day rate. About gear: Just this past week a Christian filmmaker wannabe texted me to ask what camera to buy for his low budget film. I asked if he had a script? No, not yet. Just a story. Again, he asked…what camera should I buy? Told him to get his script together, actors, locations, organization. THEN get a camera. He wasn’t pleased with the answer.

    A few years ago I worked on the #1 Emmy winning network reality competition show. The show was global, I mean it. We spent 4 months in prep for 3 crazy weeks of shooting. Only when we were about one month from start date did we even think of booking gear. (And always used the same rental house,) The other 3 months were ideas, plans, story, casting, logistics, creative, negotiating, organizing. I learned a lot from seasoned professionals how lots of prep is far more important than lots of production. No flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Many faith-based producers could learn from that.

  4. These are great points Phil. I agree on the office space issue, I’ve rented a couple spaces and now work out of a home office. I think there comes a time when a separate space is necessary whether it being shared space with another production company or your own office space. But, I think it should be done only when needed, depending on the kinds of projects you have coming in.

    And then with gear this is certainly quite an issue. Not all gear investment is the same. You invest in a camera and the value drops rapidly as new cameras keep coming out. Some cameras can pay themselves back quickly if you get it at the right time, whereas others are oversaturated in the market like Red cameras are right now. On the flip side, lighting equipment, lenses, and support gear hold their value much longer.

    I’ve found its best to buy the gear you’re always having to rent and rent the gear that you only need sometimes. If the equipment pays for itself within 1-2 years then its worth getting rather than renting it. But, if its going to take longer than that probably better rent it.

  5. Phil, you’re absolutely correct on all three of your observations. I have been asked far too many times “which camera should I buy” and when I mention options other than buying gear, they turn and leave.

    You’re right about offices too. I have one at home, and the aisle seat on Delta, and airline lounges and hotel rooms… but people love to be able to boast about their spiffy offices. I don’t get it. Save the money.

    And you are spot on with staff. Why pay benefits and vacation time to people just so you have a staff? I hire freelancers for every job, and I only pay them when they are needed… not when they are surfing the web in my fancy rented office.

    This is some of the best, real-world advice I’ve read in a very long time. Great job, Phil.

  6. I agree. In my days in church media, week-in, week-out production required gear and personnel (vols and staff). But the once-in-a-couple-years vision/stewardship campaign was always freelanced. The demands were unique and different and on top of the weekly cycles.

    Now, leading a media unit at a Big 10 university, it is similar. We staff and purchase gear for the week-to-week production (2 PBS shows, live events/streaming, etc.) but rely on renting for unique projects. Hiring freelancers is more challenging at a public institution, but we can sometime “borrow” staff from other media units.

    I’d love to buy a 4K cinema production camera, but in the end, it wouldn’t fit well in our regular production process. If we really need one for a specific project, we can rent one.

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