Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Production Costs, Union Costs

Some hours ago, I had an enlightening talk with a Wise Old Animation Director who works Everywhere (union and non-union) and knows Everyone (union and non-union).

Among other things, we talked about budget overruns we've seen over the years. I told him about some of the doozies I'd encountered (thinking of a daytime series a decade ago that ran up a tab of a million dollars an episode ... when a mill was real money; one 22-minute piece hitting the $ 2.5 million mark.) The W.O.D. said:

"I know a production exec at one of the studios who's in deep doo-doo. She keeps choosing inexperienced show-runners who keep having big cost overruns with their projects. She thinks hiring "new blood" is what her bosses want. But the newbies keep lousing up because they don't know how to run a production, where to put the dollars, what's important and what's not. They're not stupid, they've just never been in charge of a show and budget before.

"And now the production exec is uptight that she's going to be let go because she's hired all these smart but green artists who don't know how to keep things on an even keel."

What I've found over the years is that production costs aren't determined by the crew being "union", or the expense of the benefits package, or richness of the wage rates.

They're determined by the staffing decisions made before production begins.

If the right story artists are hired (you know, ones that can do the job?), the correct writers signed, and a savvy, experienced director who knows how to orchestrate the proceedings and personnel is put under contract, then the show (feature or t.v.) is probably going to come in at close to budgeted costs.

Oh. And be pretty good.

Wandering around as I do, I see lots of waste. There have been shows where directors come and go, characters get redesigned, storylines revamped. Some of this is unavoidable, but a lot of it is plain old waste predicated on lousy choices up front:

Hey! Let's get some new recruits! They're young, they're enthusiastic! They can draw real good! And they're really, really cheap!"

Except they're not. Because they've got no clue about the requirements of a professional production, so they make lots of mistakes. Expensive mistakes. And then some old pro is brought aboard to salvage the smoldering wreckage, and the exec who made the original decision to hire the newbie (who will end up being quite good when he/she gets a little seasoning) tries to fob the responsiblity for the debacle off on somebody else.

This all seems obvious and elementary, but it's not. Because over thirty-plus years, I've seen the same dumb choices being made again ... and again ... and again.


Anonymous said...

You can say that about the tech industry as well. These personnel people think that hiring the "cheap, enthusiastic" young blood for a big project will produce the same results as hiring more expensive veterans are always in for rude awakenings.

Anonymous said...

This is why I've never understood why writers get made into producers. I have nothing against writers at all, but very few of them have the practical knowledge to make the kind of decisions required to create a production that runs smoothly and efficiently.
This also goes for 'creators' who are given the title of producer without any real experience in running a show from beginning to end.
An ideal producer has experience in as many facets of the production pipeline as possible: story (or 'writing'), design, timing, storyboarding, layout, editing, voiceover direction and mixing.
Very few people have that kind of experience, but then that's why they should be running shows.

Anonymous said...

That "draw real good" comment doesn't always follow. Take a peek at the Frederator site and look at what the young, green "talent" is producing. Ill-designed, ugly characters mostly, imitating a lot of the ugly, unsuccessful stuff that makes it to air but doesn't last very long. As for the writing, too much of it sounds like bad stand-up, and for good reason (take a peek behind the curtain). It's no wonder so few new productions are successful. And I don't see things getting much better very soon...

Floyd Norman said...

Anybody who's been around awhile knows about the phone call from a desperate executive. they need you to fix what some inexperience kid has screwed up.

I'm not picking on the kids because they're not always lacking in talent. However, they don't have the experience to run a show. The executives have a responsibility to hire the right people. If they don't - - then why the hell are they executives?

Anonymous said...

I agree experience is very valuable. It takes a mix of experience and new people thinking differently. But it's also very commendable for people to be looking for new talent, executive and anyone else. There are many other factors that contribute to runaway budgets besides inexperience - the conflict between what the network was sold verses the reality of what can be delivered; the issue of development changing direction; the issue of networks changing their ranks every time you blink; budgets that, compared to ten years ago, are unrealistic (hence, "over-budget"); and everyone's favorite - a free-for-all committee inspired wealth of top-down 'notes' from marketing, brand recognition, over-seas markets, and other interests that reflect more the networks inability to trust and commit rather than the inability of a show to deliver.

Of course, when it all goes overbudget, the showrunners get the blame. Well, they didn't follow our notes, and they went over budget. After that, it's "that guy is nuts," and then that guy "quits," and then the network finally gets to do it the way they wanted.

Then they realize they don't know what they want - besides ratings, of course. Which, yes, is definitely important. It's all madness, really. Perhaps there's just so much to distract johnny from the television that the pressure to compete with the lastest video game console is more than the current tv network model can deliver.

Anonymous said...

Its always better to have experience but I always laugh at execs who complain that labor is the highest cost of a project. That is true but they only have themselves to blame.

Back in the early 90's when CG can into our landscape few people had the skills that companies needed hench supply and demand. Salaries were very high.

Now that technology and talent has proliferated there are alot more talented folks in the marketplace. Now you would think that the laws of supply and demand would then dictate a lowering of salaries since there are more talented folks.

Sorry but there is a little thing called free market capitalism. This means companies are in competition to secure the best talent. Some will poach, jump hoops and do whatever it takes to attract talent.

When we are negotiating our salaries we don't hold a gun to employers heads demanding that they except our terms. They pay high salaries cause they don't want the competition to nab em.

It the studios fault for production budgets going out of control not ours. Its capitalism at its finest.

Anonymous said...

Please. Spell check and proofread.

Anonymous said...

And now sony has put a 29 year old woman with zero animation (traditional or digital) and scant film work experience, other than being the daughter of a film director and one time personal coffee cup holder of that other non-talent amy pascal.

Anonymous said...

what does being a woman have to do with it, or are you just worried about clinton?

Anonymous said...

it has NOTHING to do with it being a woman? It has to do with her lack of experience. Hilary doesn't care much about having sex with women. And george bush is the worst president in U.S. history.

Anonymous said...

Harry Truman had lower approval ratings than Bush. I suppose he was a lousy president too? Feh. Getting back on the topic, I wish the producers of TV toons would try to look at life the way their primary audience - kids do. Kids believe in the difference between right and wrong. Kids believe that evil should be punished. Kids believe that the right should prevail. Kids don't believe that good guys should act like jerks and get away with it. Kids don't "get" irony. Kids don't think cruelty is funny. Kids aren't comfortable with cynicism. Now, look at the above list, and notice how many things kids don't like are in the toons being produced today. And then you'll figure out why so many new toons fail, and why others, like Fairly Odd Parents (aside from the baby gimmick), fall from grace. Maybe when toon producers understand that we'll have more Spongebobs and fewer Yin Yang Yos.

Anonymous said...

here, here!

Anonymous said...

Wow...when you start a converstion trying to somehow equate Bush with Truman you immediately make anything else you say suspect.
It's so nice to know that someone who can make that analogy can explain to us what makes a show work or doesn't work. ROFLMAO!!!

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