September 4, 2016 Leave a comment
There was a time when I couldn’t wait to get out of television production and into feature production. Feature productions paid better, the funding was available, the working conditions were much better, the Above-the-Line cast had the “cool factor” that TV just didn’t have at all. That was the 80’s and 90’s. Now flip to 2016. The tables have turned completely.
THE BLOCKBUSTER MODEL
After 2006 it had been getting harder and harder to land feature production work. Since 2008 the number of feature films produced in the $25Mil to $50Mil range has been cut WAY down. Those kinds of feature funding models died with Blockbuster. Instead the features are either the rare “Tent-Pole Films” (gargantuan productions in excess of $100Mil), or stripped down to bare bones in the range of $7Mil to $19Mil. The high risk makes the money scarce, and it makes the job of the Line Producer and Film Accountant much more difficult.
INDIE STYLE FILM PRODUCTION
What I had been left with is the Indie Feature Film production. These lower budget feature productions are often usually backed by a distributor with some % investment, or at least a promise to distribute, with the rest of the money arriving Indie style – bank loans on tax credits, borrowings against overseas pre-sales, loans against trusted distributor sales projections, foreign partners, etc. All of that “noise” makes it difficult for the Line Producer and Film Accountant to stay on track.
- ATL: Indie feature film productions are often top-heavy. The funding model needs prediction, and the only prediction possible is with a big name “Star”, or at least a well recognized name. (Note sometimes a big name Producer or Director will draw as well – witness “Mama” when Guillermo del Toro attached his name as Producer.) That usually costs a big chunk of your budget.
- OTHER: Indie feature films are ALWAYS bottom-heavy – that is, the “Other” section at the bottom of every film budget. This is the section that includes the the bank flat rate charge, loan interest expense, legal fees to the lender, legal fees for the producer, Bond Company fees, development costs, etc. I once asked a bank loans officer, how she determined the flat rate amount that the bank was charging us just to be able to get a loan (this is before interest charges). She said, “Frankly, I charge as much as I can.” For a $9 or $10Mil production, you can expect this section to ring up a total of about $900,000 on an Indie feature film.
- MANAGING THE CASH AVAILABLE: There is also the cashflow factor – the cashflows are predicted ahead of the time, on a weekly basis, based on the film budget. The bank and the bonding company lock in the cashflows based on that schedule. If the cashflow is wrong, or if spending goes over budget, you find yourself in a situation of spending all your cash as soon as the allotted amount of weekly cash is released by the bond company/bank. Woe to you who can’t meet payroll one week – it’s a very noisy time.
- BTL: Finally, the only part that most of us got in the ‘Business to do, is the actual production of the script with the Below-the-Line crew. By this point a good chunk of the cash has been allocated to the ATL and OTHER sections, so you may need to hire some inexperienced crew just to keep the costs down.
NETWORK/CABLE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS
For the past 4 years I have been working on Cable and Network television productions. I’ve never been treated better, the pay is comparable to feature production, the “cool factor” is definitely possible if you’re on the right production, and, most importantly, the money is available! This is an experienced Line Producer’s and Film Accountant’s dream come true.
- ATL: Network Television generally doesn’t go crazy offering big bucks to “Stars” although the money is still VERY good. The big names are more willing to do television now, witness Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey appearing on True Detective. The cast deals are in place episodically, with pick-up options if the series is picked up for another season, so Line Producing and accounting for ATL is a no-brainer.
- OTHER: This nightmare of legal costs, interest charges, bonding company fees is borne by the Network, and doesn’t become an issue for the Line Producer or Accountant. Again, it’s a no-brainer.
- MANAGING THE CASH AVAILABLE: Cash is very important to the studio, so there is also a cashflow prediction system in place. It’s generally a task assigned to the Film Accountant and is prepared according to the studio’s requirements with their pre-formated Excel templates. This task is not even on the Line Producer’s radar. Usually, if the cashflow has been wrong, the studio is forgiving and sends the necessary cash as needed, avoiding the problems of not meeting payroll, etc.
- BTL: The only downside to working on Network Television Production is that the experienced crews are so busy it’s difficult to keep them together from one season to the next. The Line Producer and Film Accountant need to be on their toes budgeted and shooting 2nd units to complete the types of scripts that are being demanded by the studios.
- NETWORK/CABLE INTERNAL AUDITS: The only downside to the Network/Cable TV productions, is the seemingly endless list of rules and regulations enforced by their Internal Auditors. Once you buy-into the rules, and have a familiarity with them, the crew settle down and follow them voluntarily. It’s up to the Line Producer and Film Accountant to get the crew to that point, which is not always an easy task.
The times have changed and television production is where it’s at. The funding models are there and the duties of a Line Producer and Film Accountant are in-line with what we like to do – produce scripts.
The Indie world is probably more rewarding to the Producers, and in some cases, to the talent; however, if you’re not working with well known names, like the Coen brothers, then most of your time will be spent wrangling finances so as to keep the production afloat. So, if you’re not looking for awards, I’d recommend getting back into, or staying with, television production.
Check out my new Film Accounting 101 workshop in Chicago at http://www.talkfilm.biz