Writers on the Web: Putting Out Last-Minute Fires in Pre-Production

putting out fireI’ve been doing a lot of firefighting this week.

I haven’t mentioned it yet because I focus on web series in this column, but I’m producing a feature film right now! Writer/Director Kevin Resnick and I co-wrote a romantic comedy, Cloudy With A Chance of Sunshine, and we started production just this week. Holy crapolie! I’m so excited about this film.

(Needless to say, I haven’t slept more than a few hours per night in weeks.  I may actually be falling asleep right now as I write this.  My apologies!)

I worked in theater for years, and with every production the same thing happened. Everything would be going fairly well until the last week. Then pressure would mount, people would freak out, the whole production would fall apart, and we would scramble until the final hours, when we would miraculously pull it together and have an amazing show on opening night.  (Okay, not all of them were amazing, but at least they started on time.)

I’ve had the same experience working in film and web: the last week of pre-production is when all the demons come out to play.

These demons come in many forms and shapes and sizes. They can resemble:

  • Actors dropping out of the production
  • Crew members dropping out of the production (especially ones that were letting you use a pricey piece of their equipment you can’t afford to rent)
  • Last minute “family emergencies” AKA someone got offered more money to take a different job
  • That location that said you could shoot for free now wants to be paid
  • Losing a location altogether and having to rewrite scenes to shoot in your friend’s basement because that’s the only place you can get at the last second for free
  • Realizing your script isn’t as good as you thought it was, and having to rewrite it…and then rewriting your rewrite
  • People suddenly demanding more money than they originally agreed to
  • People refusing to sign the release form or deal memo, or wanting to re-negotiate the terms
  • People revealing two days before production that they don’t own a car and asking if you can drive them back and forth to set each day (Seriously?! Why do people do this?)
Ha, ha! I'm going to make your week before production hellish!

Ha, ha! I’m going to make your week before production hellish!

I could go on. This week before is when some people who seemed totally on-board and gung-ho suddenly drop away or fade into obscurity. It’s like dating.  Some people are rearing to go until they realize they’ll need to make an actual commitment, and then they can’t follow through. They’re “just not that into you.”

So, what to do in some of these situations?

First, strap those rubber firefighting boots on.  Then…

ALWAYS, ALWAYS HAVE BACKUPS

Keep the headshots of all the actors you auditioned, and resumes for all of the crew members you interviewed.  After all, what if your Sound Recordist gets offered a higher-paying job and drops out at the last second? Or your lead actress has a death in the family and has to leave town a day before you shoot? In theater they have understudies for this very reason.  Have your second and third choices’ phone numbers ready to dial in case of emergency.

ASK FOR REFERRALS

Ask for referrals from other filmmaker friends for crew members they have worked with and trust.  Then you can have a Rolodex of people to touch base with if someone bails, or if you find yourself in need of extra hands on set during production.

SPELL IT OUT IN WRITING

When you’re meeting with potential cast and crew, make sure to be incredibly clear about what the terms of your agreement will be, and put it in writing. I have been guilty of hiring people with only verbal commitments and had it go up in flames later. Have a deal memo for crew members and a talent contract/release for actors to sign.

Get it in writing!

Don’t mess with the Judge.

I’m a big nerd so I actually like pouring over contracts. If you’ve ever watched The People’s Court, Judge Milian is always yelling at the plaintiffs and defendants: “Get it in writing!” You’d do well to follow her advice and familiarize yourself with these documents.

You can obtain a sample Crew Deal Memo through the book Producer to Producer by Maureen A. Ryan.  Buy it; it’s an amazing resource. Then log on to www.producertoproducer.com, go to the Resources page, and click on Templates.  There you’ll find several documents you can download, including a great deal memo sample.

For actors, you can Google “talent release” and find several samples. If you can swing it, I recommend printing some sample contracts and taking them to an entertainment attorney. Explain your plight as an indie filmmaker and ask if you can negotiate an affordable flat fee to look over the documents and make sure the wording is correct and they cover what they need to cover.  Then you’ll have those documents to use for your current and future projects.

Normally paperwork is given out to everyone to sign on the first day of production.  However, on Cloudy we had everyone sign it and email it to us in advance, and I’m glad we did.  We were able to stomp out miscommunications and misconceptions before production as opposed to during.

Be definitive about exactly what the compensation will be in your paperwork. If it’s a low-budget project where you’re offering Copy, Credit, and Meals, make sure to spell it out: is it a DVD copy or digital download of the finished film, or both? For credit, where will they be billed? Opening credits or closing credits? For the meals, is it a catered meal? Are craft services included?  Are you offering any kind of mileage reimbursement?

I realize we’re working on a small scale here with ultra low-budget indie films and web series, and not everyone will be offering luxuries such as mileage reimbursement and fully catered meals.  But one time I worked twelve hours on a film set and was only offered a bowl of Chex-Mix to eat for the entire day. (Don’t do this.) Sadly, everyone has a different definition of what a “meal” is.

So spell it out in writing.

GET THOSE RELEASES

Why is it important to have everyone sign releases? Because you need permission from each person to record their image and voice, and/or use their work. You need everyone to “release” their claim on the copyright of the work to you, the Producer, because you need to show a chain of title where the buck stops with you.  Nothing is more important than making sure that you own the copyright of the content, because you’re not going to be able to get third-party distribution unless you do.

signing contractsThat is why EVERY SINGLE PERSON working on the film needs to sign a deal memo or release before you start shooting. It doesn’t matter if it’s your best friend, or your mom, or your teacher.  Don’t put your blood, sweat, and tears into your project only to find out you can’t distribute it because you didn’t get the proper releases. (And now the people who worked on the film have vanished into thin air and you can’t find them.)

This is the same for locations! Have location owners sign a location agreement (clearly spelling out the terms) and a location release. (Google these as well to find samples.)

Next time, we’ll talk about the oh-so-entertaining (but incredibly important) topic of production insurance, what you need, and why you need it, and how to have your ducks in a row for your first day of production!

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