Lessons from Hollywood: On Getting Projects Green-Lit & Spec Work
For over a year now I’ve been working with a well-known producer/writer/director as his Internet marketing manager on two movies; one in development and the other now in pre-production. It is an interesting experience that has taught me loads about what not to do as a freelancer as well as educated me about finances, the business of freelancing, and how Hollywood really works. It is exciting, exasperating, engaging, frustrating, upsetting, and rewarding. But I have no clue what my job actually encompasses.
I thought I would share the wisdom I’ve acquired along the way.
What’s In A Title?
So, I’m “Associate Producer” now of a movie in “development hell”. How did I earn this title? It is typically awarded to people who work on movies without a portfolio. I jumped into Hollywood blindly — well, sideways as things usually come to me. This movie is the personal project of the a Pulitzer-prize winning screenwriter and Producer/Director. He was trying to market the concept of a script on YouTube (“Confession of an Iraq War Vet“) by asking for comments on a small scene that the Director had shot.
It happened to star a wonderful actor who is relatively unknown named Ben Browder. As a fan of the actor, and as a web designer, I emailed the Producer/Writer and offered my services to further his push to raise money via grassroots marketing. He accepted and thus began my lessons on how Hollywood does and doesn’t work, or how to market an independent film.
Working “On Spec”
The man is a genius. This isn’t a plug for the movie, it is the truth. Geniuses have unique and compelling ideas but don’t know how to get them off the ground. Those ideas are magical and his is particularly poignant and unworkable—to support today’s soldiers and to express his own history with Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD) and the Vietnam War. I became his liaison into Internet-based fandom, but more than that, I built a website and social networking system to support his dream of making this movie without having to touch the Hollywood deal-making apparatus and its habit of using creative accounting that eats up profits leaving very little behind. I helped him build the infrastructure to support his plan of a non-profit veteran’s organization surrounding a movie. The website, which has been up and running for over a year, is providing a platform supporting education about our treatment of veterans with PTSD as well as promoting the movie about an Iraq vet with PTSD who tries to commit “suicide by police” and the Vietnam vet also with PTSD—a television documentarian—who further ruins and saves his life.
But, the Producer’s dream of having local veteran’s organizations and supporters of veterans raise the $5 million needed for the movie was an utter failure. The Producer wanted to use a relatively new and successful Internet fund-raising process called The Million Pixels Project. The Million Pixel Project is a successful way to raise money for non-profit organizations.
The limited liability partnership the Producer founded (it is typical for movie productions to form corporate entities for tax purposes), could not get its 501(c) non-profit designation because although the gross producer profits from the movie were to be totally donated to veteran’s organizations dealing with mental health, the SEC saw the organization as being For Profit. So, the idea of selling pixels at $10 each to raise money (you set out blocks of pixels and the money is raised through social networks whose members can take those blocks and sell them for the non-profit via their own Million Pixel sites), never got off the ground. I built the software to do it, I spread the word through the science fiction community (the lead actor featured in the video was the lead in two successful cult TV programs), but we never could reach the real community who was needed to raise the type of money needed to make a film; namely veteran’s organizations.
All through last year I got to edit screenplays, act as a sounding board for story ideas, set up Twitter and Facebook campaigns, build a very large portal website and run it, including research and write articles about PTSD, network with my fannish Internet community and bring in experts in graphic arts, programming, marketing, and so forth. I did these things without payment; on spec.
Was the Producer using me? Was I crazy to put so many hours into something that paid nothing? Was this exploitation by the Hollywood machine? Was it right to do this when running my business on such a thin margin? All these questions went through my head and certainly bothered my family and business associates. All I know today is that I believe in the Producer’s quixotic quest and I continue to work free now based on the promise of future payment when the movie gets made.
Here’s a lesson for freelancers: always understand the corporate or system structure when writing your contract so that you work with the person who is paying you. I wrote and the Producer/Writer approved my contract, but even though he is the Executive Producer and CEO of the movie LLC, he had no authority to issue payment.
Thus, although I had a contract and I had a project, I didn’t have a real client. There was no production company attached to the film, nor was there a distributor, thus no one who had money in the bank. In Hollywood and even with totally independent productions, the money does not become available until the movie or TV project is “green-lighted” which literally means that the lighting and cameras get turned on. The millions of dollars needed to make a film is raised in such a complex fashion (especially in indie productions) involving stocks, promissory notes, bonds, and rich donors; and the legal and financial laws are so strict about who can invest in a film (you have to have at least $1 million to invest), that until a production company announces the production date, no money is available for anything. This makes a standard contract where upon signing one gets paid a down payment with additional payments at milestones, moot.
Every participant in a movie works on spec with the hope that the film will be green-lit. The movie is currently stuck in pre-production — the planning phase when the Director and Line Producers and other crew (all members of various unions that have defined their payment schedules) do not get paid when they do the work, but only when the movie actually begins shooting.
So, if you want to work in Hollywood, prepare to do hours of design and writing work for free with the promise of payment IF the movie actually shoots. It sometimes takes years. I feel that this type of speculative work is worth the gamble.
I would and am doing it again in a heart beat. Why? Because I get to hear real stories of actors, producers, directors, and writers and befriend a mentor who has taught me about overcoming tough situations, never quitting when you have a goal, how to overcome doubts in yourself and others, and he continues to astound me with his cynical but wise take on real life. We have become deep friends.
But I also learned that the glimmering sheen of actors, lifestyles of the rich and famous, and what you read in fan magazines (I’m a big consumer of this junk — a secret vice) is just fantasy concocted by the Hollywood machine. In reality, actors, producers, writers, and the like are people like you and me. I’ve gotten to meet with some and work with famous screenwriters this year.
The lessons about how to work independently while maintaining a vision are priceless. I love this work also for allowing me to brush shoulders with idiots, zealots, geniuses, and utterly nice people, all working in Hollywood. The best part of the job is that I got to be a “jack of all trades” and managing editor of the project; something I truly enjoy for its creative freedom. The level of management was light, making my risk of failure high, but rising to the challenge of creating a viable marketing presence for an important cause brought direct benefits for the movie while allowing me to stretch my skills and abilities into realms I have wanted to pursue, such as Facebook advertising and page creation, Twitter page creation, research and writing, and deeper into Joomla! CMS development; while working very independently, pulling in specialists when needed under the trustful eye of the Producer.
I’ve just started a new project for the Producer for a film he is directing. Again, for the promise of payment when the film is green-lit. Again, I’m Associate Producer and I’m going to build an Internet presence for this movie produced by an independent studio.
Am I stupid or just a believer? I’ll have to see.