Surviving the roller coaster
worst practices in project management within the television production industry
Despite the fact that the television production industry offers many advantages in the practice of project management, including highly developed methodologies and straightforward (technical) quality management, productions fail or encounter significant setbacks with great regularity. This points to the inherent complexity and difficulty of the production process. This paper identifies commonalties in the project management experience within television production, in an effort to develop a list of universal “worst practices”.
It was relatively easy to pinpoint these commonalties, as there was significant agreement in the literature and in the professional experience of industry insiders. Worst practices that emerged included:
- Do not secure interim financing
- Ignore budgetary constraints in establishing scope
- Do not work out clear lines of authority
- Do not hire the right people for the job
- Ignore red flags in the script
- Do not allow for contingencies, do not establish contingency reserves
- Do not maintain the reputation of key personnel
- Do not lock down the script
- Do not manage the human side of production
- Do not secure all necessary rights before production
Despite the difficulties inherent in the television production industry, it continues to thrive and flourish. Given the huge amount of experience, expertise, and resources available, it is possible to manage projects in television production with excellence and integrity. It is hoped that by identifying a suite of worst practices, this paper will be helpful in guiding future production endeavors.
One day three and a half years ago, I, along with two partners, received word that the concept for a television show that we had created and shopped had been picked up. We had a television production! Little did I know at that time the maelstrom to which I was committing myself.
Three and a half years later, I find myself with a lot more gray hairs, and a passion to understand the chaos that is this industry in which I am immersed. In many ways the television production industry lives up to its glamorous reputation. What other industry can virtually guarantee creative, engrossing and demanding work that varies daily, combining camaraderie and teamwork with the chance for individual excellence and artistic expression? When the shoot is going well there are moments where I have truly marveled at the fact that I am getting paid to do this. However, these moments have been balanced by the many times in the heat of the battle when I have made a note to myself that this industry is just not worth it - at any price. The television production industry is also incredibly demanding, notoriously uncertain, and just plain exhausting. Crises are to be expected as a matter of course. Ten-hour days are the starting point.
Given the incredibly demanding nature of television production, excellent project management becomes essential. From a project management perspective, the television production industry would seem to offer many opportunities. There are highly developed production methodologies and best practices already in place. Quality management, at least from a technical point of view, is rather straightforward. For a g iven level of resources and talent, the technical quality of the finished product can be estimated with a high degree of accuracy. The nature of communication and information flow necessary for effective production management is well understood, and there is significant documentation of best practices. To top it off, there is a large pool of highly experienced and specialized freelance talent upon which to draw.
Despite these advantages, it is undeniable that a significant proportion of television productions fail outright, or fail to ever become financially viable. An even higher proportion encounter significant and unexpected setbacks and obstacles. Project integration management, time management, cost management, and risk management form the heart of the project management challenge in television production, and defy easy solutions. The logistical challenges to overcome, not to mention the technical and artistic skills needed to produce a quality television program are truly staggering. I can state from personal experience that small errors and omissions can have huge consequences for a production, and the probability of these errors occurring is large.
I have spent a great deal of my career first in television post-production, and now in television production environments. I have noticed in both that similar stories of disasters and project management nightmares keep cropping up again and again. This paper sets out to identify these commonalties in the practice of project management in the television production industry. Through a review of recent television production literature and through personal interviews, it has been possible to identify damaging mistakes that re-occur with enough regularity to be classified as worst practices.
In order to establish a frame of reference from which to begin with, this paper will first provide a brief description of the television industry from a project management perspective, Worst practices will then be outlined, and their impact on the production process examined.
Television Production – A brief overview of the industry
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge(PMBOK® Guide) identifies a project as a “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”(PMI, 2000, p. 4) A television production is a temporary endeavor that has the goal of realizing a particular television program or series, and therefore fits perfectly within the definition of a project. It begins the moment a creative idea is moved officially into development, and ends when a finished program has been delivered for distribution. A television production is typically incorporated as its own company, and is staffed almost entirely by specialized freelance talent assembled on a production by production basis.
The environment within which television production takes place is volatile, dynamic, and extremely challenging. However, the process of television production has remained remarkably stable. A highly refined methodology has evolved, with widespread adoption. A television producer would be able to walk onto a set or a production office almost anywhere in the world, and recognize the processes at work.
This television methodology involves the following parameters:
Phases of Production
The original creative concept is developed to the point where it can be “pitched”. When a viable concept attracts financing and distribution, it moves into phase two of production. By the end of the development phase the scope of a production will be largely determined. At the end of the development phase financing will be secured, office space will have been found (if necessary), relevant union and guild contracts will have been negotiated, legal paperwork will be in place, insurance will be in place, and a director and principle talent will be onboard.
With the concept developed, and financing secured, the production team is assembled. Pre-production involves taking care of the logistics involved in readying the production for the start of shooting. This involves assembling a production team, hiring technical talent, casting the parts, scouting and securing locations, arranging for support infrastructure and materials, initiating set building, construction and wardrobe creation, setting up financial structures and controls, and so forth.
The production phase starts on the first day of principle photography, and ends on the last day. Each day of production involves the shooting of a number of scenes from the script. It involves everything necessary to keep going day-to-day during shooting.
This final phase of production begins when the raw material generated in the production process begins to be edited into its final form. The raw material travels through preparation (film development / digitization), to picture editing, to sound editing and design, to final screenings, to printing and then final delivery. Post-production ends with the wrap up of the entire production.
Television production phases map against the project phases identified in the PMBOK ® Guide as follows (Exhibit 1) (PMI, 2000, p 31):
In actual fact, a significant degree of closure occurs at the end of the production phase within the television production process, as the project is handed over to a relatively small number of post-production specialists.
Television productions have the ‘luxury’ of having their scope and cost largely determined in the initial phase of the project. The two largest determinants of scope are the requirements of the script, and the amount of financing secured. Other factors that influence the scope include:
- Duration of principle photography
- Nature of the work week (5 day or 6 day workweeks, many productions work weekends and holidays to take advantage of traffic patterns and location availability)
- Length of the work day (10 to 12 hours is typical)
- Day shoots and / or night shoots
- Complexity of shoot (number of extras, locations, special effects, music clearances)
- Stature of the “star” performers
- Intended distribution (networks, specialty channels, foreign distribution)
- Complexity of financing (grants, co-productions)
- Number of producers, diversity of producers (A production may have producers from any number of different companies and countries. Titles for producers include Executive Producer, Supervising Producer, Associate Producer, Creative Producer, Producer, Co-Producer, Line Producer, and so forth)
- The corporate structure of a production (each individual production is typically set up as a unique incorporated company)
- Size of the crew
- Size of the production staff
As there are few unknowns in the general process of television production it is possible to project the resources necessary for a production of a given scope with a fair degree of accuracy.
A rigid organizational design, with highly specified job descriptions, exists within the television production industry. The organizational chart of a typical, large budget television production appears as follows (Exhibit 2):
As previously mentioned, the positions on this organization chart are filled almost entirely by specialized freelance talent, brought together for a particular production.
As is typical of a complex project, actual working arrangements are many orders of magnitude more complex than the organization chart would suggest. There are creative chains of command, there are financial chains of command, and there are logistic chains of command. Frequently, team members will be serving two or more masters simultaneously. This complexity becomes evident in Gold and Mason's description of the responsibilities of just one of a dozen key project management positions:
” The First Assistant Director's personal balancing act is between the director, the star, and the production manager. He must keep the director happy by giving him what he wants, when he wants it. But if he gives the director too much, the Production Manager will climb all over him, because he is spending too much money. The first must also cater to the star. He must make sure the dressing room facilities are acceptable, that any special needs the star has are taken care of….” (Gold & Mason, 2000 p. 60)
And of course, the First Assistant Director's direct superior is actually the Producer. Many of the potential pitfalls of this system of complex relationships are ameliorated by the shared understanding of job descriptions and boundaries arising from the established production methodology.
Furthermore, television production inevitably involves dealing with television networks. As a project manager, it is typical to find yourself in a position where decisions are getting made at the network level that directly pertain to your production. You typically have little influence over these decisions, and even less information about them. This can add another layer of complexity and ambiguity to the authority structure. As Gold and Mason point out:
” Television is a much more complex arena than feature films when it comes to putting a project together, because you are at the mercy of so many entities over which you have no control. Not only don't you have any control, you will never even know who or what some of these entities are?” (ibid, p.131)
All this leads to the question: Where does the project management responsibility lie?
Responsibility for Project Management
Several positions within a production team encompass significant project management responsibility. The production manager realizes many of the routine project management functions on a day-to-day basis. Significant scheduling and budgeting responsibility lie in this position. Several other key positions incorporate significant practical project management duties. The production co-coordinator is the primary project co-coordinator. She is the communications hub of the production.
‘Virtually every bit of information comes across her desk, and it is her job to channel it in the right direction. The Production Coordinator runs the production office; it is her domain.’ (ibid, p. 62)
However, an examination of the producer's job description makes clear where ultimate project management responsibility lies:
- Make basic decisions
- Maintain an overview
- Obtain financing
- Be financially responsible for the film
- Plan the production
- Run the shoot
- Set and uphold standards
- Set priorities
- Keep the shoot on schedule and on budget
- Supervise post-production
- Follow the production through to the end (Garvey, 1985, p. 11)
A Note about nomenclature: As the producer assumes overall responsibility for the production, for the purposes of this paper the term producer will be used synonymously with project manager from here on in.
How Not To Produce TV – “Worst Practices”
To begin a discussion of what goes wrong in project management within the television production industry, it must be stated at the outset that the production process is, by its very nature, volatile and unpredictable. It is expected that production problems and challenges will crop up on a daily basis. It is accepted that any production process, no matter how well managed, will be highly unpredictable. Yet within this chaotic milieu there are particular types of problems and pitfalls that crop up over and over again. All seasoned production veterans have experienced these problems in their own, personal ways. These horror stories get shared over drinks at the end of a grueling day on the job. In collecting these horror stories, a truly compelling road map to ensure project management disaster in the field of television production emerges.
In many respects, television production and film production are very similar processes, with high-end television productions being virtually indistinguishable from medium to high-end film productions. For this reason, some examples from the film production industry will be borrowed to illustrate real world ‘worst practice’ scenarios.
Criteria for Inclusion
Inclusion in this examination of worst practices was based on the following three criteria:
- Frequency of occurrence
- Damage caused
- Recognition within the industry
It was, in fact, fairly easy to construct a comprehensive list. The many sources consulted, both in print and in person, were remarkably consistent in identifying the following “worst practices”:
Worst Practices by Phase - Development Phase:
Do not secure interim financing
Gorica states that ‘virtually no series today is made without deficit spending’. (1999, p. 134) Financing in television is generally set up as a series of payments, based on the achievement of certain milestones. Because there is no collateral, financing is released as proof of progress is provided. This payment-upon-delivery arrangement can lead to significant gaps in financing while production is ongoing. The following paired-down Microsoft Project chart outlines the four phases of production for a 13 episode television series, with typical financing milestones indicated (Exhibit 3):
In addition, certain sources of financing have notoriously unreliable payment schedules, with payments being delayed months, or even years. Tax rebates are among the most notorious for delays. This creates even more potential for disaster if interim credit is not secured.
As of the writing of this paper, the author's current television production has encountered tax rebate delays of over 18 months, and is also currently wrestling with an industry fund that is three payments in arrears. For small production companies these sorts of delays can strain project financing to the breaking point.
Ignore budgetary constraints in establishing scope
The creative impulse that underlies the television production industry can lead to wild flights of fancy in concept. However, even in this age of digital wizardry scope is proportional to expense. To ignore this certainty is to doom a production to a compromised final quality. Even the best story needs a certain level of technical execution.
Once upon a time I had as a roommate a talented post-production sound engineer. Every night for a few weeks he would complain about this low budget television drama he was working on, a production that had been shot in Northern Canada. The quality of the source material was spotty, and the production did not have the budget for a proper post-production treatment. In fact, the production had run out of money before the end of production, and every possible corner was being cut. Toward the end of post-production my roommate brought home a dub of the final mix. I watched intently, expecting a dismal show. Much to my surprise, it was not bad. My roommate had certainly done an excellent job of masking the many sound problems he had encountered. The story propelled me along, climaxing in a showdown in a remote northern fishing lodge at the peak of a snowstorm. But instead of snow, there were blinding white 2D blobs floating down the screen – possibly the worst special effect I had ever seen. Suspension of disbelief was replaced by me rolling around the floor laughing uncontrollably. (The artificial snow effect was really that bad). After I stopped laughing, I asked my roommate what had happened.
Well, the weather had not co-operated in the shoot. The producer simply did not have a budget that adequately addressed the scope of the shoot. There are costs associated with shooting in the Canadian north in winter, and these costs were not addressed in the budget. Everything takes longer in freezing weather. And who would have thought it would not snow the entire length of the shoot? The production phase took considerably longer than budgeted for, and by the end of production there was still no snow coming down. After waiting several additional days (at great expense) the final climatic scenes simply had to be shot. The shoot went ahead without snow, with the intention of adding computer-generated snow in post-production. But the delays had exhausted all contingency funds, and some of the post-production budget as well. This ridiculous, cheap snow effect was already more than the production budget would allow.
In the end, the show went to air with realistic, and very expensive computer generated snow. This extra and considerable expense most likely came directly out of the producer's (production manager's) pocket. Ah, the glamour of television.
Do not work out clear lines of authority
Despite a well-established organization chart there are still numerous possibilities for problems in the chain of command. These sorts of problems typically start at the top. If a producer is heavily committed elsewhere, or has lost the respect of the production team, then problems are likely to arise. Similarly, if there are multiple producers, which is not atypical for bigger budget productions, then the chain of command may not function in an optimal manner. The position of producer is perhaps the most potentially ambiguous in television production. The following are all variations of the title ‘producer’, each with it is own job descriptions and responsibilities (Simens, 2003, p. 28)
- Producer – “I'll get the show made”
- Executive producer – “I'll get the money”
- Co-producer – “I've got the money”
- Associate producer – “I know where the money is”
- Line producer – “I'll allocate the money”
The amount of project management responsibility ranges from immense, with a line producer fulfilling the same function as a production manager (a production will not have both), to absolutely none, with an associate producer doing nothing more than introducing the producer to sources of financing. Having co-producers guarantees complications and problems in the project hierarchy, unless these issues are addressed up front.
Symptoms of a lack of clear authority include:
- Decisions take a long time/ are not made at all
- Constant changes to scope and parameters
- Lack of project progress
Do not hire the right people for the job
This is a theme that appears over and over again in discussions of what goes wrong during production. Television production is a highly specialized industry, with highly specialized talent available. There are job descriptions within the production team that seem, on the surface, to be relatively straightforward. However, the “devil is in the details”, so to speak, and small facts overlooked in the initiation and pre-production phase can have monstrous consequences once production begins.
A producer who I am acquainted with had been successful with several small budget productions, and had contributed to the careers of several actors who had reached the top echelons of the industry. She had used her career momentum to land a Christmas special, starring a well-known comedian. This was her chance to propel her career and business to the next level.
The show would open with the comedian lounging on a Florida beach, lamenting the fact that it “just didn't seem like Christmas”. A flash of glitter, and he and his entourage would appear outside a gorgeous Canadian chalet, surrounded by snow and pine trees.
This producer hired a location scout to research possible locations for the chalet scene. This scout took Polaroid of the most promising locations, and everyone in the production office agreed that one particular chalet stood out. Availability was checked, the location was rented, and arrangements were made for the talent, extras, makeup, camera crew, grips, lighting crew, craft services, director, assistant directors, gear, and so forth, to arrive at the location on the first day of the shoot.
On the appointed day the entire production turned up at the site. To the producer's horror, the chalet stood in the middle of a cement parking lot. This fact had not been obvious in the photos. The site was completely unsuitable for the shoot, and in the end the day was cancelled. This was a disaster for the shoot, and had negative ramifications far beyond the actual financial expense of this mistake.
This producer should have hired a location manager, instead of a location scout. A location manager would have known what questions to ask, and what details to look for. A properly supervised location scout would have been given a specific set of criteria with which to guide her search, and would have brought back more detailed information with which to make a decision. The result of not hiring the right person for this task caused irreparable harm to the production, and some significant harm to the producer's career and business. As previously stated; small facts overlooked in the initiation and pre-production phase can have monstrous consequences once production begins.
To complicate matters, production talent tends to specialize in a certain genre. For example, working on an episodic TV drama can involve some key skills that differ from those involved in a lifestyles series. Not only must you ensure that a potential team member has experience at his or her job, but has experience in the particular genre of your production.
Ignore ‘red flags’ in the script
The following items in a script imply risk and should set off alarm bells in a seasoned production team:
- Children are required.
- The schedule calls for outdoor shots in winter.
- The shoot calls for capturing specific weather conditions.
- Animals are required.
- Stunts are required.
- Special effects are required.
- Travel is required.
Stunts and special effects are extremely complex undertakings. They require highly specialized talent, and they always run the risk of going over time and over budget. In fact, any of the factors listed above have the potential to increase the complexity of a shoot to a significant degree. Some are simply unpredictable, or uncontrollable. All these factors will have an additional financial impact on a production, with the potential to dramatically increase insurance and bond completion costs.
My own production decided that we needed a pig for a particular scene. We would open this odd door in the basement, and there would be the pig. (Trust me – it would have been really funny). The production did not have the budget for an animal wrangler (or specialist) to be on set, but managed to find a petting zoo that would drop off a very “friendly” pig for an afternoon.
Well, the pig was dropped off in the backyard of the house that was serving as our set, with instructions to just “wrap it in a blanket, and carry it down the stairs. It may squeal a little, but not to worry”.
Now, what I learned that afternoon is that if a pig does not want to do something it will most definitely squeal. Not cute little pig squeals. But ear splitting “help - crazed lunatics are trying to rip me apart limb from limb” squeals. It will squeal at the top of its lungs for as long as you try to get it to do what it does not want to do. It will squeal if you look at it wrong. After an afternoon of squealing, grunting, agitated neighbors, and a producer watching the day's schedule fall apart, a solution was found. Baby goats are much easier to get down a flight of stairs.
Do not allow for risks
Even in the best-managed television productions there will be a great deal of uncertainty and improvisation. If even one significant factor goes wrong, such as injury to key talent, uncooperative weather, equipment failure, and so forth, a production schedule can be sent into disarray. If any of the six ‘red flags’ listed above are in play, the need for generous contingency allowances is guaranteed, both in scheduling and in budgeting.
No matter how substantial the initial budgets, risks have the potential to derail productions. During the filming of the Matrix, actress Carrie-Anne Moss woke up the morning of a key special effects shoot in which she would be doing her own wire stunts, to discover her back had seized over the night. She was in so much pain that even getting out of bed was problematic. But the schedule had so little room for deviation that a few hours later she was flying upside down in harness, with film rolling. Of course, there was room in the contingency budget for the chiropractor, physiotherapist / massage therapist, and back specialist to help with her ailment. Productions with contingency funds that did not allow for an army of specialists would have been in a great deal more trouble. Even at this extreme upper end of production budgets, project integrity hung on a thread, with human frailty at the center.
Unknown-unknowns are so prevalent in television production that production budgets will always have an explicit contingency allowance built in as a separate line item.
Do not establish / build / maintain the reputation of key personnel
A television production is a highly elaborate and complex undertaking. “Doing it right” is a learned skill, and success depends on the many members of the production team meshing as a whole. If one member of the team is not qualified, they can, and will, make the other team members' work seem sub-par. This is not readily tolerated by crew members. If a senior member of the team is perceived as being unqualified, or worse, incompetent, the ramifications for the production can be disastrous, well beyond this team members' “immediate circle of influence”. (Covey, 1989, p.81)
The previously mentioned producer who failed to hire a locations manager, and had an entire production show up at the unsuitable chalet, paid a much higher price than the considerable expenses associated with that lost day of shooting. She lost the respect and the confidence of her talent and her production team. The comedian was furious with her, the creative process completely broke down and the rest of the shoot was miserable. The final result has been described by friends who saw it as “some of the worst television ever”.
Do not lock down the script
Most projects suffer scope changes, and scripts go through revisions. These revisions can be extremely minor, such as a change of dialogue. They can be major, with the addition of a new scene, location, or character. Script revisions are a normal part of the production process. However, there must be a limit. Script revisions obviously have the potential to change the scope of a production, and therefore must be monitored with care. The script is the blueprint from which the show is created. Late and / or extensive revisions can create a “moving target” for the production team
By convention, each script revision is given its own unique color of paper. Some production managers aim, as a point of pride, to never duplicate colors. If the number of versions keeps expanding, this can pose a challenge. Debra Patz, in her book Film Production Management 101 describes how a particular show had gone through so many revisions that they had literally exhausted every unique color of paper they could get their hands on. And then came the final blow – a simple, two-page revision that threatened to push them over the edge. Would they now need to reuse a color?
Not to be defeated, she and her staff used rulers and highlighters and created unique plaid paper for every copy of that final two -page revision. Re-use was avoided. (Please note that I am not endorsing this tactic as a high priority allocation of precious project management time). If your production has a script that is now labeled “third goldenrod revision”, then a concerted effort should probably be made to finalize the script once and for all.
Do not manage the human side of production
The television production industry has a reputation for long hours, frequent crises, and generally stressful working conditions. Office staff, on-set crew and talent are prone to burnout and overload. Ignoring the human equation will lead to mistakes, diminished quality, and less than stellar performances on camera.
There is an established culture of catering to the stars. From a project management perspective, this makes perfect sense. So much is invested in these people, and so much depends on their performance, that every reasonable effort should be made to maximize this effort.
However, successful project management will depend on careful attention being paid to all members of the crew. Television productions have a way of focusing crises in clusters, creating periods of intense stress. Pro-active human resource management practices can form a vital part of successful project management.
The job of monitoring the health of the team is made more difficult by the fact that the freelance specialists who form the backbone of the industry conduct themselves on the whole with a great degree of professionalism, and will seldom complain – especially to those who may be a future source of employment. This requires an extra degree of attention to the “temperature” of the team.
The importance of managing the human side of the equation is reinforced by the damage that can be done to a production by the sudden loss of a key team member. Large productions are amazingly complex projects, pursued at a rapid and unrelenting pace. There is almost never time to halt the process in order to bring a replacement up to speed.
By the same token, human resources management also involves assuring the competency of team members, and exercising appropriate supervision of their work. There is no prescribed, formal educational path to most jobs in the television industry, and because of this, hiring decisions are based mostly on the real-world experience of the candidate. Producers and producing managers prefer to hire people who they have worked with before. Results are everything.
It will usually become obvious if a team member is not pulling his or her weight. However, someone who successfully masks inferior work can have disastrous consequences further on in the project. I have recently worked on a production where the relationship between the production co-coordinator and the producer deteriorated throughout pre-production, finally coming to a head the week before shooting. At this point the production co-coordinator quit. This alone could have been enough to throw a very large wrench into the works. There was simply no time to get a replacement up to speed, with a great many pressing tasks, each on the critical path, demanding immediate attention.
To compound the matter, it was subsequently discovered that many of the pre-production details that she had reported as finalized were in fact nothing of the sort.
Not only did this production fail to retain a key team member at a critical juncture, more importantly, it failed to detect that this team member had in fact been under-performing for some time. (Not entirely surprising, given the level of tension and conflict surrounding her employment). A direct consequence of this series of events was the appearance of many more gray hairs in my beard.
Do not secure all necessary rights before production
Anything that is protected by copyright that the production intends to use, such as music, names, or images, will need the rights secured in advance. While this process is typically straightforward (and expensive), occasionally snags do occur. If copyrighted material ends up being used in production, and it proves impossible to secure the rights, then anything and everything in which that material appears becomes useless. Necessary rights may include any of the following:
- Clearance for using real names (written permission is necessary, even if clearance is freely given)
- Music Clearances (consisting of publishing rights, recording rights, artist, rights, and arrangement rights)
- Photographic clearances
- Miscellaneous clearances
- Title searches (a title search is necessary to clear the title of the production)
In the production I am currently involved with, we improvise a lot on camera. We must at all times be extremely careful not to hum a recognizable tune, or use any material that is protected by copyright. If you actually pay attention to the number of times a day anyone in North America will use a trade marked name, or hum a copyrighted song, you will realize how easy it is to let something slip by.
If something does slip by, it can be serious. A large budget made-for-TV movie was starring an actor who was renowned for his improvisations and additions to the script. During the filming of a pivotal scene he began ad-libbing, breaking into a copyrighted song. The moment was so perfect that the director decided to go with it, with the Producer's permission. However, when the Production Manager attempted to secure the rights, she discovered that the production company that was the primary financial backer of the production had a pre-existing conflict with the conglomerate that owned the rights to this particular tune. Guess what was used as a pawn in this conflict. Guess which star was never allowed to improvise copyrighted material again.
Do not prepare contingency shoots whenever possible
The potential reasons that a planned shoot may prove impossible on a given day are infinite. Uncooperative weather, talent problems, poor location scouting and critical equipment breakdown are just a few examp les of factors that may come into play. If contingency shooting arrangements are not in place, that day is lost, and most probably the production will still be required to pay full salaries.
Examples of unexpected changes to the shooting schedule are so numerous as to be commonplace. Because of this, production crews are generally very adept at getting a day's shooting in, no matter what it takes. The challenge arises when planned shoots are changed at the very last minute. Very last minute typically means 11:00 p.m. at night, with the crew call at 6:00 a.m. the next morning At this point it is the First Assistant Director's job to ensure all talent necessary for the revised shoot will be on set in the morning. It is entirely conceivable that some of the necessary talent for the revised shoot had previously been told they had the day off. They could be visiting family. They could be out with friends. They could be staring at the bottom of a glass in a local dive. Many a First Assistant Director has found themselves in the most ridiculous of situation in the middle of the night, frantically following up any hunch they may have as to the whereabouts of a key actor needed the next morning.
Do not feed your crew well on-set
There are very few industries where a complete food package is provided for employees. Television production is one of them. There is not only the expectation of food; there is the expectation of good food. Simens sums up the reasoning behind this as follows:
“Your crew is waking at 5:00 a.m. and getting home at 10:00 p.m. They don't have the time or energy to buy groceries and prepare meals. Thus, all the energy and nourishment needed for those labor-intensive, anxiety-ridden 18-hour days will come from the fuel you provide. Food prepared improperly will destroy the moral on your set and quite possibly induce your crew to quit.” (Simens, 2003, p. 274)
Even for small budget productions, the necessity for good food exists:
“On a big budget it is expected that you feed the crew well. They are working long, hard hours on the production, so it is only respectful that you do so. As the overall budget gets smaller, the catering must be excellent on the production, too; since you are probably not giving the crew enough time or money to buy their own groceries, you need to feed them well to fuel them through production and keep them healthy for their work.” (Patz, 2002, p. 31)
This seemingly minor point, if ignored, can have ramifications that are almost unbelievable. This is one area in which it is guaranteed that any industry professional you talk to will have stories of their own. I have witnessed first hand how a lack of access to convenient drinking water became a huge irritant, leading to a thoroughly disaffected and demoralized crew. Note that there was drinking water available. But it was in the tap. Not in chilled plastic bottles. It was just not convenient. And this was almost a show-stopper.
It must also be mentioned that no matter how good the food, the crew will always find something to complain about. This seems to be common to the biggest productions and the smallest. There really is no pleasing all of the people all of the time.
Do not leave enough contingency time to allow for significant delays during production
The post-production process is the last step before delivery of the final product. It is very frequent in the industry that the post-production process ends up compressed, to make up for time overruns during production. However, there is a limit as to how much one can compress this phase of production. If sufficient contingency time is not allowed for up-front, this compressed post-production schedule can have several negative consequences, including:
- Compromised final quality
- Missed delivery deadlines (post-production is always on the critical path)
- Increased post-production costs (the cost of crashing this phase of the critical path).
I have spent a significant portion of my career to-date in post-production, and have experienced first hand the “amazing shrinking post-production schedule” phenomenon. Of all the producers I have worked for and with, there was only one who consistently met his initial post-production schedule. Guess which producer I joined forces with to create my current television series.
So far, the problems discussed have been of a technical or logistical nature. However, one further source of project management difficulties deserves discussion – creative conflict. Creative issues are intertwined in a great many aspects of the television production process. A full discussion of the management of the creative side of the production process is beyond the scope of this paper. However, successful project management demands that the potential sources of creative conflict be proactively managed. As Mason and Gold state:
“In order for a production to have a chance for artistic, as well as financial success, the chemistry between the producer and the other creative entities must be symbiotic.” (Gold & Mason, 2000, p. 33)
There are sources of conflict both on set, and behind the scenes. Creative disagreements are prone to arise in the following relationships:
Writer / Director
This relationship is clearly structured with the writer providing a service to the director. There are very few writers who maintain any level of artistic control of their screenplay once it enters production. On big budget productions, it is not uncommon to have up to ten writers work on a single screenplay. However, there are several advantages to maintaining a good working relationship here. A quality writer, if allowed, can help maintain a level of artistic unity for the production. A happy writer will also be willing to make last minute script changes and adjustments.
Producer / Director
Many of the authors sited in this paper listed problems in the producer / director relationship as being the most potentially damaging to a production. In the words of Gold and Mason: “One of the most destructive things that can happen during a production is a contentious relationship between producer and director…. You avoid it by never letting it happen in the first place.” (ibid, p. 46) Extreme importance must be placed on the initial selection process. Address all issues – creative, financial, logistical, scheduling, and casting – ahead of time. Find out who prospective directors like to work with, and who they will not work with. Talk to industry professionals who have worked with them in the past. Trust your intuition. Garvey makes the importance of this relationship clear – “You'll need each other's cooperation at all stages in order to keep the film on schedule and on budget”. (Garvey, 1985, p 144)
Producer / Producer
The potential for creative conflict in a multi-producer production is compounded. If lines of authority are not clearly delineated, production can degenerate rapidly. Conflict at the top can be devastating from a project management perspective.
Talent / Anyone
Dealing with actors is an art unto itself. Actors approach the project from an artistic perspective, and a culture clash can occur with those responsible for project management. As Mason and Gold state:
“Dealing with actors will test your diplomatic skills to the breaking point. Prepare yourself to deal with individuals who are so unlike anyone you have ever dealt with before, they might as well have come from another planet or astral plane…Actors are, how would you say, different from us average people.” (Gold & Mason, 2000, p. 51)
Art Linson, in his autobiographical book What Just Happened? (2000) describes some of the events that transpired as he produced the Hollywood movie The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. Alec Baldwin was cast in the role of a dashing New York high fashion photographer who engineers a crash in the Alaskan wilderness in order to kill his rival in love, etc. The movie chronicles their devolution from hip New York urbanites to primal wild men. And there was a huge grizzly bear. You get the picture.
So, Alec Baldwin shows up for the first script read through with a full beard, or as Linson says, “a beard that had run amok”. (2002, p. 65) The production crew kept waiting for him to shave it off, as the first part of the shoot clearly called for the clean-shaven urbanite, but as the first day of production neared, he showed no signs of being razor friendly. Finally Linson, as producer, had to ask Alec directly to shave. Alec expressed the opinion that his character should begin with a beard. He brought up the word INTEGRITY! (capitals not mine), and made a royal fuss. He seemed very, very committed to the beard. Alec eventually stormed out of the room, and disappeared for a week. No one knew if he would be there on the first day of the shoot. Linson had to make Alec Baldwin's very unfortunate agent pass on the news that if Alec did not shave, the movie would not be made with him in it. He just did not work as a leading man if he started with the beard.
Alec Baldwin did in fact show up on the first day of the shoot; clean shaven, but not happy. The relationship between himself and the producer was frigid from then on, and the production was not a particular happy one. Linson states that this problem had a “far reaching and dampening effect on the morale of the whole shoot.”(ibid, p 64) And it cost Alec Baldwin's agent his job.
It was only later that Linson discovered a possible rationale for Alec Baldwin's seemingly alien behavior:
“Months later, I asked an actor friend of mine why Alec would have been so insistent on not shaving his beard. What sort of funky Stanislavsky decision would make him so committed? My friend said, without hesitation, ‘Alec probably thought he was a little too heavy and he didn't like the way his chin looked.” (ibid p. 73)
The greater the status of the star talent, the more potential for problems there are, as the star will feel freer to flex their muscle. The producer has two primary roles with regards to the ongoing management of talent:
- Provide a comfort zone in which the actor can perform with a minimal amount of outside interference: This involves shielding them to some degree from the outside interference of the ‘real world’. This is seen as an important component in enabling the talent to do their best work.
- Keeping the schedule moving. Actors are famous for obsessing over the micro elements of production – a characterizing, a specific piece of dialogue. Issues of scheduling are not their concern. If the director is constantly forced to override creative concerns in favor of schedule and budgets it may undermine their relationship with the actors. It is the producer's role to step in and take some of this pressure off the director, ensuring that the overall project management picture is always kept in mind.
If creative conflict is not carefully managed the final product can be irreparably compromised.
Despite the level of expertise that exists in the television production industry, project management remains challenging. The field of television production is obviously highly complex and unpredictable. The “worst practices” described above comprise a checklist of the most common and potentially damaging errors made in the television production process. That these problems crop up over and over again in the literature point to the ease with which they can be overlooked, and the likelihood of their occurrence.
Thankfully, best practices in this industry have been extensively documented, and most importantly, highly specialized and experienced talent is readily available. With the right team, a realistic scope, and a concerted effort to avoid the more predictable pitfalls, any given television production will be well situated to navigate the inevitable turmoil and controlled chaos that is the bread and butter of the industry. It is hoped that this paper, in its synthesis of current views concerning worst practices, will prove useful in the quest to improve project management practices within this challenging environment.
Benedetti, R. (2000) From Concept to Screen. Boston: Allyn and Bacon Publishing.
Broughton, I. (2001) Producers on Producing. New York: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Elliott, P. (1972) The Making of a Television Series. London; Constable..
Garvey, H. (1985) Before You Shoot. Los Gatos, California: Shire Press.
Gold, D. & Mason, P. (2000) Producing for Hollywood. New York: Allworth Press.
Gorica, F. (1999)Canadian Television Financing. Scarborough: Centennial College Press.
Linson, A. (2002) What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Frontline. New York: Bloomsbury.
Orlebar, J. (2002) Digital Television Production. London: Arnold Publishing.
Paisner, D. (2000) Horizontal Hold: The Making and Breaking of a Network Television Pilot. New York: iUniverse.com.
Patz, D. S. (2002) Film Production Management 101. Wise Productions, 2002 Simens, Dov S-S. From Reel to Deal. Warner Books.
Zettl, H. (2002) Television Production Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing.
Project Management Institute (PMI®) (2000) A Guide to The Project Management Body of Knowledge: 2000 Edition. Newton Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute
With thanks to Anne-Sophie Brieger and Jolyn Somervil for their generous time, advice, and critique.
With special thanks to Prof. John Rakos, PMP, for his input, guidance, and encouragement.
© 2004 George Brook
Originally Published as a Part of the 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California