I’ve focused a lot in this column on different aspects of self-producing your work, from landing your first job on set to directing for the first time to attending film festivals, but it’s now time to tackle the thorny issue of budgets, schedules, and what it means in practical terms to go from “I wrote a script” to “I made a film.”
If this is your first self-produced project (whether or not you plan to direct the film yourself), you will want to work with an experienced Producer to help guide you from beginning to end. After you’ve brought a producer aboard and have established who will be directing, you’ll be faced with every other detail required to shoot the actual film. If you just thought, “yikes!!” then keep reading, this article is for you.
To get a handle on what a Line Producer does, and to make the most of your experience working with one, I interviewed three seasoned Line Producers and asked them the questions I wish I’d known to ask before making my first film. They focused their answers on producing short films, webseries, and micro-budget features because these are most likely what your first self-produced projects will be.
The producers I interviewed are Lynn Appelle, Rachel Brenna, and Violetta Ekpe. I’ve worked first-hand with two of the three (Rachel and Violetta) and look forward to the chance to work with Lynn somewhere down the road. I’ve left their bios for the end, where you can learn a little more about each of them, in order to jump right in now with the goal of learning more about what it will take to produce our films on our (admittedly) limited budgets.
Kim Garland, Script magazine: Starting with the basics, what is a Line Producer and what are her or his responsibilities in a film’s production?
Violetta Ekpe: A Line Producer creates and manages the budget, hires the crew, sources equipment, scouts and secures locations, and creates the preliminary schedule for the production. During production, Line Producers serve as the liaison between the director, producers, and the rest of the crew, making sure that both the budget and schedule stay on track.
Rachel Brenna: This is an interesting question because as budgets get tighter, and productions are hiring less people to do their specific jobs, I am taking on more work than is typically my responsibility. Basically, a Line Producer (LP) does a thorough breakdown of the script, which can then translate to a real schedule and a budget. The LP manages the budget, the insurance, the union contracts, the equipment, and the payroll. The LP negotiates with Department heads that the Producer and Director want to bring on and also does some of the hiring (in most cases, I have done almost all the hiring). Essentially, the LP is the project manager of all the production-related elements.
KG: When is the ideal time to bring a Line Producer on board for a project?
Lynn Appelle: If a producer needs a budget or schedule in order to raise funds, then we can be hired very far in advance. We may be required to help find the best state to shoot in because of the tax incentives. Sometimes, I’ve been brought on only 3 months beforehand and just go right into prep.
VE: The best time to bring a Line Producer on board is during pre-production. After the script is completed and the director has a clear vision of the project, the Producer will hire a Line Producer to produce a realistic schedule and budget for the production.
KG: Would this answer change if you knew the film’s budget would be crowd-funded?
VE: If the film will be crowd-funded, then the Line Producer, along with the producer and director will come up with a game plan for the crowd-funding campaign. If the crowd-funding campaign does not reach the desired goal, the Line Producer will work with the producer/director to come up with a strategy of either seeking secondary means of financing or adjusting the existing budget without compromising the director’s vision.
RB: As far as crowd-funding goes, there are a couple issues, but it’s definitely workable. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, as long as it’s in the bank when we need to access it. It takes a few weeks to be paid out from those sites, and not everyone takes that into consideration. So, you can’t start to pay for things without that money in the bank unless you float it yourself until that check arrives. Secondly, if you don’t raise the full budget, are you going ahead with production? What’s the number you have to reach? Can production dates be pushed? The producer should be helping you with contingency plans.
KG: What should you look for in a candidate when hiring a Line Producer?
VE: A Line Producer should have good knowledge of finance, budgeting and project management. Strong communication and problem solving skills are critical when negotiating with vendors, crew members, rental houses, and location property owners. A Line Producer should be easily accessible and ready to solve problems through communication.
LA: Also, personality has to be a big part. You work very intensely in a short amount of time – you have to get along.
KG: Is there a standard way Line Producers are paid, e.g. flat fee, percentage of budget?
LA: Well, I am in the DGA, so we do have minimums, but usually it’s a negotiated rate depending on the budget size.
RB: We generally agree on a flat rate based on the budget.
VE: There is no set way of how a Line Producer is paid. Depending on the budget and needs of the production, the producer and Line Producer will negotiate a fee.
KG: What expenses usually surprise first-time producers the most?
LA: How much the “other stuff” costs, i.e. the line items they just don’t know about. For example, probably crew overtime and meal penalties and how fast a day just goes by. Transportation, parking costs, and things associated with locations. Office expenses… I could probably list 100 line items.
VE: Insurance fees are sometimes not included in the producer’s preliminary budget but they are an essential budgetary part of the production. It’s easy to minimize the importance of insurance when a production has successfully concluded without an incident, but in the rare occasion that an accident does happen, nothing can alleviate the financial and emotional burden of knowing your production is fully insured and that you have done everything possible to make sure your cast and crew are fully protected. In this case, it’s not about the money, it’s about doing what’s right.
KG: What are the best ways to trim a budget with the least affect on the overall quality of the production?
RB: Get as much as you can for free and a deal on everything, don’t promise anything, including, money or credits you can’t honor. Lately, crews are working for such little money, I hate to sacrifice pay, but if everyone is in the same boat together, it lessens the pain.
VE: Locations are a great way to trim down the budget. Filming outdoors, in public parks, friends’ houses, and locations that can be used for no-to-low cost can free up a large part of the budget. Don’t be afraid to ask. This is where a Line Producer’s smooth communication skills can really help the production.
LA: Well, this is hard to answer. First, I see if there is a way to lose a day of shooting – which would be a nice amount. Then it’s about trimming things from the script that may be extraneous. I always make suggestions that don’t cross the creative line too much – but we have to be able to say what we feel. For example, I once told a director that the dog didn’t do anything to the story or the plot, and shooting with animals are expensive and unpredictable. And so sadly the dog was cut (not sadly to me!). It’s all about sacrificing something so that you get the thing you really wanted.
KG: What should be considered in the script stage to ensure the project in development can be successfully produced on a micro budget?
LA: Be conscious of the amount of cast you have, of “period” stories, and of being too ambitious the first time around. Also, consider the number of extras/background. I call it the domino effect and some producers (or directors) don’t realize that 50-100 extras cost a day rate and possible overtime, but also that you have to budget for the additional meals, craft service, additional wardrobe personnel, and a place to hold them. So it can be very costly outside of just getting a few extras.
VE: Being realistic about the cost of production, including set design and construction, wardrobe, location, equipment, use of weapons, stunts, vehicles, and how these elements affect both budget and scheduling is essential to keeping a budget at the micro level.
KG: Looking beyond budgetary concerns, what advice, general or specific, would you give a screenwriter who wants to produce his or her own first film?
LA: Prep is the most important part of a film to me. Allow yourself plenty of time with the script/story, then with hiring the right team and trusting them to bring on the best folks for your project. Be focused and know what you want so decisions can be make quickly.
RB: I’m going to speak as a fellow filmmaker on this question. This business is so hard, and it’s kind of a miracle we pull any of this off sometimes, so be passionate about your story. Ask yourself this question: Is this really a story I must tell, or simply want to tell? I have a long background in theater, acting, writing, and directing, and I read so many scripts that aren’t about very much. We need stories with real dramatic elements, no matter what the genre. Always work on your craft. So many scripts today are very thin in character development, conflict, and story. It’s too expensive and too hard to waste time making a film about nothing. That may sound harsh, but seriously consider what you’re doing. When you know a story is powerful, then people will believe in you and come to your side.
VE: Just do it! And then expect to work exhaustingly long hours with little rest in between. There’s no better learning experience than being in the trenches, taking a script from inception to the screen and knowing that the work began and ended with your vision.
KG: Thank you all so much for taking the time to answer my questions. This is invaluable information for our Script magazine readers – and for me as well. Thanks for giving us the scoop on Line Producers and I wish you all lots of success with your future projects!
MEET THE PRODUCERS
LYNN APPELLE is a 2002 Academy Award winner for the documentary short, Thoth, which she produced with director Sarah Kernochan. The short was invited to over thirty film festivals, aired on Cinemax, and is currently available on DVD.
Over the years, Lynn has line produced/co-produced the films New York City Serenade, Lake City, Nobody, Bringing Up Bobby, Rob the Mob, and Howl which premiered at Sundance in 2010, starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, and Jeff Daniels. Soon to be released films: Gimme Shelter and Hellbenders (3D).
In addition, Lynn has produced feature films: Slippery Slope and Premium, Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles. Her newest venture is a NEW rock/pop Musical for the stage, called Petunia, a bitter love story about redemption that is playing as part of the NYC Fringe Festival this summer of 2013.
RACHEL BRENNA began her career in Radio, writing commercials and performing voiceovers for WPST in Princeton, NJ. She received a BFA in Acting from USC and is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Producing at Columbia University in NYC. Her most recent producing credits include: Reaching Home (Producer), Irene & Marie (Co-Producer/LP), Vivienne Again (Co-Producer/LP), Ladybug (Producer), The Startlight (Producer) and the webseries Mammal Drama (Co-Producer/LP).
VIOLETTA EKPE is a Los Angeles-based producer. She has produced a wide range of short films, commercials, and documentaries. Her most recent credits include: Loco de Amor (Producer), All the Days by HAERTS (music video; Line Producer), Deal Travis In (Producer) and The Key (Producer). She has worked as a Consulting Producer on the feature film Offal and Weeds and as an Associate Producer on the documentary Nobody Knows.