The Five Biggest Mistakes a Producer Can Make (#1)

Actually, there are dozens of mistakes I could label as “biggest” if I put my mind to it.  I began drawing up a list and here are the first five that came to me.  They’re certainly biggies.

#1.  Submitting your film to an A-list festival before it’s ready.

Every year at this time, producers scramble to finish their films for the Sundance deadline.  I can’t begin to tell you how many consults I do with filmmakers that concludes with me telling them to take their time and urging them to wait.

Your world premiere is precious.  No festival, no matter how prestigious, is worth sacrificing the potential of your film for.  If you miss Sundance, there’s always Berlin, or SXSW, or Tribeca, or Toronto, or any number of other great festivals where new filmmakers get discovered or established directors get a career boost.

In the end, there’s only one thing that will sell your film and get you the kind of breakthrough results you’re hoping to achieve.  Making a great film.  Or, at the least, making the very best film you’re capable of.

And that comes from taking the time you need.  It's one thing when circumstances require you to rush (pressure from investors, funders, broadcasters, etc.).  It's another thing altogether when the pressure is self-induced.

The Five Biggest Mistakes a Producer Can Make (#2)

Thanks to the affordability of digital camcorders, along with the sad fact that it often takes years for documentary filmmakers to scrape together their funding and shoot their stories, most end up accumulating hundreds of hours of footage along the way.  Which means you're inevitably in for a very long edit period. 

Which all-too-often leads to mistake…

#2. Hiring your editor before you've raised enough money to pay him or her through the entire edit.

Let's say you've been relatively economical and shot only 150 hours.  For argument sake, let's also say that the editor is screening it herself and can get through 5 hours of footage a day (personally, I screen all the footage with my editor and discuss it thoroughly as we go along, so we're lucky to get through 4 hours/day).  That still comes to 25 hours/wk, or 6 weeks in total, to slog through the material. 

Top NY and LA editors pretty much begin at $3,000/wk, but you have a fantastic project that will save the planet so you've managed to convince one to work at $2,500/wk.  So, in this somewhat conservative scenario, you're paying your editor $15,000 just to look at your footage!  (Let's not talk about the film I helped shoot and co-produce that dealt with well over 1,000 hours of tape.)

Here's where the mistake comes in.  Many producers charge ahead with only partial funding in the blind faith that they'll raise the rest once they have a great rough cut to show.  So they get to the cut, or maybe only a partial cut, run out of money, put things on hold and frantically go into fundraising mode. 

Do you think the editor is waiting around while they do that?  Nope.  Will she be available again should the producer actually raise enough money?  Possibly.  But if she's in demand the far greater likelihood is she soon goes off on another feature. 

Your options then are to wait until she's finished, which could be quite a while, or else hire another editor.  Who'll likely want to screen most, if not all, of the footage.  Which means you've not only lost your original editor and momentum, but you're unnecessarily spending another $15,000.

I'm not unsympathetic to the fact that it could take years to raise enough money to pay a top editor all the way through to the end.  That's why so many doc filmmakers wind up editing themselves, at least to begin with.  But if you have great ambitions for your film and want to work with the very best editor available, I highly recommend you wait before you leap. 

The Five Biggest Mistakes a Producer Can Make (#3)

If you ask commissioning editors, grants panelists and other lucky blokes who get to sift through countless funding proposals for the most common mistake they come across, this one would probably top them all:

#3. Not having a high enough budget. 

Producers, particularly first-time ones, consistently undermine themselves by asking for too little money.  And usually far too little. 

Why?  Because they don't know what typical documentaries actually cost.  They underestimate the time involved and tend to vastly underpay themselves.  And because a high budget feels so scary to them, they assume it will surely scare off the funders.

In fact, the reverse is true.  Nothing sends funders scurrying away faster than producers who under-budget.  They see it as a sign that they have no experience and haven't done their homework.  They look at a line item like $30,000 (or less!) for a director/producer and wonder how this person will live for a couple of years (yes, they know how long films take) on that little pay.  They worry that the film will never get finished.  And that, even if it does, it'll be crap.

Drawing up a fair and accurate budget can be a huge psychological barrier to leap across.  But there are plenty of books and online resources to reference.  And, if you can afford it, I highly recommend attending a pitching forum like the one at Hot Docs as an observer.  Along with seeing a few dozen pitches by experienced producers, you get a booklet with a detailed synopsis and budget for each project.  You'll see that it's not uncommon for documentary features with international broadcast ambitions to have budgets that range from $500,000 to $800,000.  You'll come away with a far better grasp of the documentary marketplace. 

And maybe, just maybe, you'll stop undervaluing the contribution you're making to the world with your film.

The Five Biggest Mistakes a Producer Can Make (#4)

This mistake costs friendships.  It certainly cost me one, so lesson learned the hard way.

Mistake #4. Not getting clear, signed agreements with your key partners.

This is especially important for producing partnerships on low-budget films.  And even more important if you're producing with a friend. 

People bring different assumptions and expectations to a film.  They have different ideas about when deferrals should be paid, when a film is in profit, what credits they're owed.  So it all needs to be spelled out in advance in a very clear-cut way that anticipates all that can possibly go wrong.

What happens if one partner leaves the production early?  Or if one winds up doing the lion's share of the work?  How might that impact credit and profit share?  In what order does personal money loaned or deferred to the production get reimbursed?  What happens if an investor comes aboard?  Who gets paid back first?  Who owns the film?

Written agreements are important across the board.  But the mistake so many people make when producing with friends is thinking that a written agreement somehow shows a lack of faith or trust in the friendship.  I'm not saying this agreement needs to be run by lawyers, though it's probably a good idea.  But if you truly value the friendship, you'll spell things out clearly in black and white.  Then type it up, print it out and sign it. 

 The Five Biggest Mistakes a Producer Can Make (#5)

The last on my list of big-time mistakes is geared to documentary filmmakers.  I'll just say, going on a shoot without these is simply a recipe for disaster...

#5. Not bringing release forms.  Or bringing them and not getting them signed.

The first part is simple and should be drilled into your brain.  When you pack for a shoot, always take a bunch of release forms with you.  

The second part is pretty simple, too, though inexperienced filmmakers often have a hard time with it.  Make sure your subjects sign the releases before you leave.  

I always have my subjects sign after the first shoot, just as I'm packing up to leave.  (Never before I shoot - I don't want to make them any more self-conscious than they already feel.)  I try to make it sound as matter-of-fact as possible.  "Oh, sorry, I gotta get your autograph on this or we can't show it anywhere."  I've never had anyone refuse me, either.  Not even my immediate family.

The only time I've ever had a problem was when I didn't bring them.  It can become a huge pain getting their signature later.  They've had time to think about the footage that you shot with them, and fret about how awful they must have come across.  They're more likely to want to know how you're going to use the footage in the film.  Or maybe even say they want to see the footage before signing.

So pack those suckers, and don't forget to get them signed before you leave.