HPA Tech Retreat: The production budget vs. project struggle

“Executive producers often don’t speak tech language,” said Aaron Semmel, CEO and head of BoomBoomBooya, in addressing the HPA Tech Retreat audience Palm Springs in late February. “When people come to us with requests and spout all sorts of tech mumbo jumbo, it’s very easy for us to say no,” he continued. “Trust me, you need to speak to us in our language.”

Semmel was part of a four-person HPA panel that included Cirina Catania, The Catania Group; Larry O’Connor, OWC Digital; and Jeff Stansfield, Advantage Video Systems. Moderated by Andy Marken of Marken Communications, the panel explored solutions that can bring the executive and line producers and the production/post teams closer together to implement the right solutions for every project and satisfy everyone, including accounting.

An executive and co-producer on more than a dozen film and TV series projects, Semmel said his job is to bring together the money and then work with the best creative people possible. He added that the team’s job was to make certain the below-the-line items — actual production and post production elements — stay on or below budget.

Semmel noted that most executive producers often work off of the top sheet of the budget, typically an overview of the budget. He explained that executive producers may go through all of the budget and play with numbers here and there but leave the actual handling of the budget to the line producer and supervising producer. In this way, they can “back into” a budget number set by the executive producer.

“I understand the technologies at a higher level and could probably take a highlighter and mark budget areas where we could reduce our costs, but I also know I have very experienced people on the team who know the technologies better than I do to make effective cuts.

L-R: Jeff Stansfield, Aaron Semmel, Cirina Catania

“For example, in talking with many of you in the audience here at the Retreat, I learned that there’s no such thing as an SSD hard drive,” he said. “I now know there are SSDs and there are hard drives and they’re totally different.”

Leaning into her mic, Catania got a laugh when she said, “One of the first things we all have to do is bring our production workflows into the 21st century. But seriously, the production and post teams are occasionally not consulted during the lengthy budgeting process. Our keys can make some valuable contributions if they have a seat at the table during the initial stages. In terms of technology, we have some exciting new tools we’d like to put to work on the project that could save you valuable time, help you organize your media and metadata, and have a direct and immediate positive impact on the budget. What if I told you that you could save endless hours in post if you had software that helped your team enter metadata and prep for post during the early phase — and hardware that worked much faster, more securely and more reliably.”

With wide agreement from the audience, Catania emphasized that it is imperative for all departments involved in prep/production/post and distribution to be involved in the budget process from the outset.

“We know the biggest part of your budget might be above-the-line costs,” she continued. “But production, post and distribution are where much of the critical work also gets done. And if we’re involved at the outset, and that includes with people like Jeff (Stansfield), who can help us come up with creative workflow and financing options, that will save you and the investors’ money, we will surely turn a profit.”

Semmel said the production/post team could probably be of assistance in the early budget stages to pinpoint where work could be done more efficiently to actually improve the overall quality and ensure EPs do what they need to do for their reputation… deliver the best and be under budget.

The Hatfields and the McCoys via History Channel

“But for some items, there seem to be real constraints,” he emphasized. “For example, we were shooting America’s Feud: Hatfields & McCoys, a historical documentary in Romania — yes, Romania,” he grinned; “and we were behind schedule. We shot the farmhouse attack on day one, shot the burning of the house on day two and on day three we received our dailies to review for day one’s work. We were certain we had everything we needed so we took a calculated risk and burned the building,” he recalled. “But no one exhaled until we had a chance to go through the dailies.”

“What if I told you there’s a solution that will transfer your data at 2800MB/s and enable you to turn around your dailies in a couple of hours instead of a couple of days?” O’Connor asked.

Semmel replied, “I don’t understand the 2800MB/s stuff, but you clearly got my attention by saying dailies in a couple of hours instead of days. If there had been anything wrong with the content we had shot, we would have been faced with the huge added expense of rebuilding and reshooting everything,” he added. “Even accounting can understand the savings in hours vs. days.”

Semmel pointed out that because films and TV shows start and end digital, there’s always a concern about frames and segments being lost when you’re on location and a long distance from the safety net of your production facilities.

“No one likes that risk, including production/post leaders, integrators or manufacturers,” said O’Connor. “In fact, a lot of crews go to extraordinary lengths to ensure nothing is lost; and frankly, I don’t blame them.”

He recalled a film crew going to Haiti to shoot a documentary that was told by the airline they were over their limit on baggage for the trip.

“They put their clothes in an airport locker and put their three RAID storage systems in their backpacks. They wanted to make certain they could store, backup and backup their work again to ensure they had all of the content they needed when they got back to their production/post facility.”

Stansfield and Catania said they had seen and heard of similar gut-level decisions made by executive and line producers. They encouraged the production/post audience not to simply accept the line item budgets they are given to work with but be more involved at the beginning of the project to explore and define all of the below-the-line budget to minimize risk and provide alternative plans just in case unexpected challenges arise.

“An EP and line producer’s mantra for TV and film projects is you only get two out of three things: time, money and quality,” Semmel said. “If you can deliver all three, then we’ll listen, but you have to approach it from our perspective.

“Our budgets aren’t open purses,” he continued. “You have to make recommendations and deliver products and solutions that enable us to stay under budget, because no matter how neat they are or how gee-whiz technical they are, they aren’t going to be accepted. We have two very fickle masters — finance and viewer — so you have to give us the tools and solutions that satisfy both of them. Don’t give us bits, bytes and specs, just focus on meeting our needs in words we can understand.

“When you do that, we all win; and we can all work on the next project together,” Semmel concluded. “We only surround ourselves with people who will help us through the project. People who deliver.”


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