7 Things To Notice When Watching A Film To Become A Better Producer
Just as there are many types of films - action, drama, low budget, blockbuster, experimental, festival, etc… so too are there many different types of producers.
A creative producer may find a script and work with the writing team to develop the story and flesh out the necessary elements.
A financial producer may hit the pavement in search of financing, distribution options and casting possibilities to structure the return on investment proposal.
An Executive Producer may personally finance or broker direct financing for a project — or perhaps be employed by a studio entity directly to oversee the production process.
The list goes on and so too do the types of films that these producers create.
Each producer watches and analyzes film and media differently
— some with strictly a creative perspective, others with simply a financial and others yet with a macro vantage perspective on the larger picture (no pun intended).
So how can we watch films more effectively to better our producing skills? The answers lie in the similar processes of filmmaking itself — the breaking down of elements to bring together a whole. Below we’ll reverse engineer the process to take a closer look at each step.
Scope — perhaps the easiest thing to first notice when watching a film is the nature of its scope. Is it a sprawling epic across time periods with stunts, animals and hundreds of extras in wardrobe? Or is it an intimate picture with minimal characters interacting in a modern day locale? Assessing the scope provides insight in to each of the elements below that make up a production from writing through distribution. The Avengers has a much different scope than Good Will Hunting — right?
Budget — each of the major points in assessing a film for production purposes arrives back at budget. The bottom line of a film budget greatly determines the product. How can one assess budget? Shot sequences are a strong indicator — similar to television, low budget filmmaking requires minimal set-ups (shot selections) in order to get through each production day on a timely schedule. Performances from the cast also provide insight in to how much prep-time was provided in pre-production for rehearsals, cast read’s and directorial staging. Locations are a major indicator of the overcall budget - with small productions utilizing the same location many times (think SAW versus 12 Years A Slave) and an even closer viewing will reveal that many locations are re-dressed to act as multiple locations to save production time and money from having to move. Studio versus practical locations also indicates a budget reality (think Avengers versus Dallas Buyers Club) as studio locations prove to be tremendously costly due to the necessity of building and operating costs from a pre-production and prep stand point.
Cast — while this has changed over the past several years due to an overall shrinking of film-budgets, a cast is a strong indicator in to the budgeting and logistics of a film. Day playing characters — those who only appear in a few scenes (whether key scenes or secondary) are typically utilized because of the strength of their name while the production budget cannot sustain their pay for the full shoot. Lead performers provide great insight - although often times performers operate production companies and act as producers on projects they want to get made aside from the pay (think Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell & Bradley Cooper in Hit & Run). The bottom line is that:
Political, financial and relationship elements are at play in high level casting and most smaller films cannot afford the time or financial elements necessary - indicating a lower budget project.
Development — the early stages of gearing up a project for production is time and labor intensive which requires funding. The writing of a script can indicate the strength of team, the budget at play during development and the oversight of a larger entity with re-writing and polishing capabilities. While the theory or auteur directing is fascinating and exciting — the vast majority of projects are not controlled by a sole individual. Characters are developed with directors and writers interaction early on in the process but also indicate the strength of the team, the time spent (equated once again to the budget) and the organizational elements at play. Many films have large budgets but flat characters — this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team was weak in development — read on below to understand that each film has a purpose and flat/cliches characters are simple for audiences to swallow which equates to broad release performance.
Camera — one of the biggest indicators for a films specifics from a production stand point lie within the camera department. Steadi-cam shots are a perfect example of time, preparation, budget, skill level and vision from the creative department heads that aren’t typically available to projects on minimal budgets. Dolly & crane shots also signify that a skill set is present and time was not a major factor dictating the bottom line creative - which is often the case for lower budget projects. Color tone & palette also reveals a director and his teams abilities to convey messages and story structure visually. These elements are consistent across all sectors of film as all projects rely on visuals to illustrate the story. Analyzing the technicalities of lighting set-ups, shots being intricately blocked out (rehearsed with both talent, technical crew and creative departments) and the success that these elements have in coming together for a singular purpose given the schedule for the production — are a major tell tale sign of a production process.
Team — the credits that run both before and after a film are a great indicator. The director is obvious and when Scorsese, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers or a similarly revered name crosses the screen an experienced audience knows exactly what they are in for. The producer and their teams/production companies also tell a lot about a film. They provide insight in to financing structure, distribution options, casting and even buzz (think Weinstein and every major Oscar contender he has had over the past 20 years — teams generate similar results with different projects). The strength of the team and the projects they have worked on recently and traditionally/historically will grant you access in to a slew of details - budget, cast options, releasing structures, financing methods and more.
Purpose & Audience Intention — as a lover of art film, European Cinema, film history, film philosophy and film-theory — it was difficult for me to separate the notions and ideals I held about film for years before I entered the business of filmmaking. However, the bottom line remains consistent the purpose of the film business is earn a return, build a career and open future opportunities for revenue generation. Watching a festival film (think Martha Marcy May Marlene) illustrates that high level revenue was never the intention as the release strategy called for a limited release for a more niche market. Watching a studio picture on the other hand (think any Marvel tent-pole over the past 10 years) illustrates a simple truth - revenue needs to be generated to sustain the business model currently at play int he studio system. Purpose & audience intention grant insight on whether the project was a means or an ends. Whether a director or producer was building a name for themselves or adding another notch to their resume.
Analyzing the history of the attached team and the larger elements at play grant insight.
Analyzing these elements takes time in building up a base knowledge on the major players - both individuals, companies, financiers, banks, distributors and the many elements in between - that make the film business an eco-system all of its own.
From there, researching deeply in to a body of work - whether viewing the entire catalogue of a director, barreling down the classic library of a studio or diving in to an actor/producer/company resume - will enable you to understand the connections between the projects and what they mean on a larger level.
In the end, the goal is to watch each film with a purpose.
Film is so enjoyable as an escape, as a piece of entertainment and as a shared experience
— and once you’ve mastered the elements of filmmaking on the front end and researched amply enough to accurately assess the back-end the process of viewing becomes even more rewarding as you realize the difficulty, overcoming nature of production and often the brilliance of the elements coming together to form just the right project.
Author: Matthew Helderman, founder of Bondit.
BondIt was founded by independent film producers Matthew Helderman & Luke Taylor of Beverly Hills based Buffalo 8 Productions. Having produced 30+ feature films, the team recognized a dilemma in the production process — union deposits — and launched BondIt to resolve the situation to assist producers & union representatives alike.