On the Ground: Produced By Conference 2014

Shawn Montgomery here! First official blog post on beyondthenametag.com. Wow, has the site been growing over the past month. Our social media initiatives to reach out to the Independent Film community have cultured some great relationships and led to a spike in viewing on our Vimeo page. Expansions to YouTube, Instagram, SlideShare and Tumblr are coming soon. But enough about us, let’s discuss the state of producing entertaining content in the digital age.

Living in Los Angeles certainly has its perks, especially when it comes to accessing professional film industry events like the Produced By Conference put on every year by the Producer’s Guild Guild of America (PGA). I’ve been a member for three years now and this is also my third Produced By Conference. Leave it up to the PGA to bring the biggest names from film and television to the table for panels with prestigious moderators that ask how can we break into an ever-changing landscape of entertainment.

 

Guides on Warner Bros. Studios Services
Guides on Warner Bros. Studios Services

I was able to attend three sessions on Saturday, June 7th at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California. These panels included discussions moderated by esteemed Producers such as Mark Gordon, Marshall Herskovitz and Michael De Luca, with big-name talent such as Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Cean Chaffin and the one and only, David Fincher. Also in the groups I attended were talks with Producer Jessika Borsiczky (House of Lies, Flashforward), TV Agent Peter Micelli from CAA, President of Scripted TV at Slingshot Global Media Quan Phung and Head of Drama at Amazon Studios Morgan Wandell. Here’s the run-down:

James Weaver, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Moderator Mark Gordon.
James Weaver, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Moderator Mark Gordon.

First up on the agenda was A  CONVERSATION WITH SETH ROGEN, EVAN GOLDBERG AND JAMES WEAVER. The names speak for themselves, but in case you didn’t know, they’re the comedy mega-force behind such hits as (my favorites) Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and Superbad. Weaver was on for the later Neighbors and This is the End. None other than the Mark Gordon (Producer Saving Private Ryan, Grey’s Anatomy) moderated to keep this bunch on their toes.

As a general note throughout this post, in respect for the conference, I’m not going to give a run-down of exactly what was said. Instead, I’ll re-cap what I think are the important highlights of the discussion as it pertains to the challenges we face as content producers today. After all, that’s what we’re here for, to learn and progress in our craft.

The overall sentiment I received from all three of the guest speakers is how important community and camaraderie are. Seth Rogen literally spent his off-time from Freaks and Geeks hounding Judd Apatow in his office, helping him with whatever needed done. This led to a fruitful working relationship both in front of and behind the camera, with Rogen eventually earning a Co-Producer credit on Knocked Up because of all of his time lent to Mr. Apatow. Next thing you know, Rogen and buddy Goldberg have set up Superbad, a project they had been working on “forever” and had literally set up meetings that were unsuccessful at 16 different studios before it was finally made thanks to his new found friend in Judd Apatow.

You might notice right there near the end, the next take-away from this session: to stay persistent. 16 studios passed on Superbad but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg believed in the project so much that the thought never crossed their minds to give up on it. Obviously, their perseverance paid off. Superbad is one of my favorite comedies, hitting right at the perfect time for me between high school and college when it was released.

The last two things I leave you with starts with what Seth Rogen feels is their biggest mistake, which was Green Hornet. They admittedly stepped out of their comfort zone with material and budget range and the result was abhorrent. But the last thing they leave us with is to just create content. There are no excuses these days. If you have an idea you believe in, don’t wait for someone to come along, do it and if it is good you will be found. The girls from Broad City were discovered off of their YouTube page by Amy Poehler. The time is now to create the content you want to see.

My Produced By Agenda.
My Produced By Agenda.

Next up was the highlight of my day and arguably the conference, a conversation with David Fincher, one of my favorite Directors of all time, and his producing partner Cean Chaffin. From Seven to Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, how can you mention American Cinema without David Fincher in the sentence?

Right off the bat, the topic was familiar, he had met Cean Chaffin back in 1992 when David Fincher was still directing commercials for some of the biggest brands, such as Coca-Cola. They’ve been working together ever since, through the meticulousness of Fincher’s work and the challenges his style brings to budgets and marketing. The emphasis was once again put on community, building relationships with people who share the same vision that will “care in the moment”. Always do what you say you’re going to do and work hard towards the same goal, which is what true team work is all about.

Something I’ve always been interested in is directing, as you can see, from the shorts and music videos on beyondthenametag.com. The hardest thing to do is to take your vision and carry that through all the way from development through post production and final delivery. David Fincher had a really nice sentiment on this responsibility of the director. He mentions that the first and only time the project will resonate with the director is that initial time of reading the script, or hearing that story. If they are immersed in it and meant for the material the vision will start to develop in the director’s head and he will want to find things and show other collaborators things that support that initial feeling he felt or that thought that was enveloped during that first reading.

Otherwise, once the project is delivered it is done for him. He doesn’t watch it. He has seen it so many times and that first viewing of the story is the only time, in his opinion, that he director can enjoy that journey.

I wanted to yell out a rallying cry when Mr. Fincher began to criticize the current state of the studio system. He feels that the constant push-back and “underhanded” nature from the studios hinders the creative process immensely and probably costs more than it should. He’s always up front with how much he thinks something will cost to make, with his vision, the right way. But still the studios want 100% for 80%.

Mr. Fincher mentioned how there seemed to be two seasons in Hollywood these days, “spandex season and affliction season” where superheros rule the summer and ho-drum emotional Academy-grabbers in the winter. The studio system seems to be centered around distillation, something preconceived, which completely takes the risk, failure and therefore the fun out of the entire process. He also took this time to chastise the state of film criticism, saying all of it should be advocacy, not trying to steer people in or out of the seats.

I wholeheartedly agree with both notions, on the studio system and film critiques. Everyone tends to be a critic these days but most are just trolling, in my opinion, they’re not really saying anything about the piece of content. The studio system has been in shambles for years. Proven intellectual properties are less of a financial risk than something completely original, so it always helps to have the comic book hero, best seller, or even just a good book from a back shelf behind your project. Yet the only way we can combat the madness of Hollywood is to make content ourselves, discover the next young talent on YouTube or Vimeo and bring them to the world. It’s the only way it will ever get done, don’t waste your time with begging studio executives. As David Fincher put it, “Ask for forgiveness, don’t ask permission.”

Final thoughts from David Fincher and this session:

  • Biggest challenge facing the industry is digital. Not necessarily the film vs. digital argument (he prefers digital) but how to make the film-making process more succinct and proficient using the technology at hand. He feels the way studios operate productions now is draconian.
  • TV still has too much restriction and formatting. People now tend to consume content anywhere (tablets, smart phones, etc.) in novel-like fashion. More like reading a book than watching a show every week. No need for 22 minute restrictions on the artist anymore, programming needs to catch up with the consumer.
  • Content making process if different for everyone, the executive, the director, the grip, etc. It’s important to understand where other people are coming from in that journey in order to prosper in that shared goal.
  • You can make great content at low budget levels. He specifically calls out the British and their fantastic TV. They don’t have the ability for large VFX work so the writing is brilliant instead.
  • I also found it funny that he riffed on Seth Rogen even being featured as a “Director” at the conference. He thought it was a joke. Just goes to show that there are so many different avenues to success and diverse audiences.

 

Panel for the Disrupted Landscape of TV
Panel for the Disrupted Landscape of TV

Finally, my final panel of the day (I skipped the last session and networking due to other engagements, unfortunately), THE REVOLUTION HAS JUST BEEN TELEVISED: THE DISRUPTED LANDSCAPE OF TV. Speakers on this panel included Producer Jessika Borsiczky (House of Lies, Flashforward), TV Agent Peter Micelli from CAA, President of Scripted TV at Slingshot Global Media Quan Phung and Head of Drama at Amazon Studios Morgan Wandell. I was impressed at the diversity of this panel, covering all aspects of the topic from traditional network distribution to new VOD like Amazon and Netflix.

First up and most stressed topic is that every platform has a completely different measure of success and financial structure. Some generate profits from ads, some just from subscriptions, and some are even hybrid models combing some sort of the aforementioned. Essentially, when it comes to distributing your content, it is important to remember that everything is related (start thinking about distribution and the final steps at the very beginning) and remember who you’re talking to when selling. Amazon has a completely different structure than NBC.

Working back from distribution, from a production standpoint, audiences expect high-quality, HD content but the market portion is shrinking and therefore so are the budgets. Our content should be loud and distinct in order to stand out from the crowd. You have to think to yourself, “is this a world that people will be intrigued by?” Be very specific, don’t build for a mass audience, you have to find that specific audience and dig within that material to find the universal (humanity) that will appeal to a larger audience (i.e. Orange is the New Black).

Final thoughts from this panel:

  • With some much competition, you can still breakthrough, you just need emphasis on controlling intellectual property, following trends and knowing what is coming next and pursuing projects which you are passionate about.
  • Create awareness for shows by thinking outside the box for advertising. Social media has become an entirely new way to get people informed about your content. This is the key challenge, awareness, which is why IPs are so essential because you already have a built-in audience.

I’ve always felt like this industry and media in general is on the verge of a renaissance, but it has clearly already begun. Some of the best in the business are already harnessing the power and potential of digital platforms to extend the value of storytelling. Ultimately, at the end of the day, that is what we are doing, telling stories. Remember that in all that you do, whether you are posting on Twitter or about to go into production on your first feature. Authenticity will always rule and storytelling will always live on.

-Shawn Montgomery

More information on all of the Produced By conference can be found at www.producedbyconference.com. All events were put on by generous sponsors of the Producers Guild of America, including Warner Bros. Studios, Illinois Film Commission and more.