Q&A with producer Tom Berry, Part 2

FilmsThe Craft

tom-berry

This is Part 2 of an interview I did with producer Tom Berry of Premiere Bobine/Reel One Entertainment. To read Part 1, click here.

JM: How difficult is it to get into producing?

TB: People don’t generally start off as a producer. You can either work your way up the ladder, or you can move laterally. A lateral move is very feasible.

If you’re in film sales, you may not know how to make a movie, but you have a good idea of what buyers want and that’s valuable information. Entertainment industry lawyers also get into producing, bringing with them a whole different skill set. Some directors move into producing, but that’s not as obvious a move – again it’s the left brain/right brain thing.

Another popular move is from writing to producing. In my view, that’s the best possible background you can have.

JM: How are projects developed?

TB: Practically speaking, development is very time consuming and expensive – both in resources and cash. For someone just starting out, the thing they write is probably going to become portfolio material, not a produced script.

Most things that are made for film and television these days come from a verbal pitch, and the green light comes from the people who can finance it. The pitch is usually made by a showrunner who is capable of developing the project.

As a producer, you don’t want to spend time and money developing stuff that doesn’t get made. The reality is that most projects come out of discussions among senior creative and business executives. Or even directors – most experienced directors have a pretty good business sense. Senior sales executives generally have pretty good taste.

Again, it’s a team sport.

So once you’ve got the nugget of an idea, you form a consensus around a couple of sentences. You should be able to get someone excited in a couple of sentences [aka a “logline”]. If you can’t describe your project in a few lines, you might not be on the right track. Of course, something like Seinfeld is the exception that proves this rule.

Once you’ve got your logline, you’re ready to get financed. From there, you draft a synopsis, which turns into an outline which eventually gets turned into a full script. With script in hand, you put together your key elements (ie: director, stars) and you’re ready to go.

JM: Are there any inherent advantages to working in Canada?

TB: Yes. And this is good news for people thinking about entering the industry. Canada is one of the best places to do that, for a whole variety of reasons.

It’s a cost effective place to make quality film and television. People come here from all over the world to do quality work at the best price and in predictable situations. You don’t have to worry about corruption, there’s a reliable telecommunications infrastructure and it’s generally cheaper than the US, depending on what you’re doing.

In addition, you have an environment which can look like the US and seem familiar. Most of the high quality film and television productions around the world look American – that’s the standard. Canada enables you to achieve that look.

The resources are good. Well-trained people, advanced technology, good work habits, equipment and organizational skills. And film and television takes quite a few skilled people who are comfortable with technology.

In addition to all of this, there’s been a very deliberate and surprisingly successful set of government initiatives to help develop the Canadian film and television industry.

I would say it’s a balancing of factors – industry and government working together over a number of decades has created an environment that has enabled the industry to thrive and there’s no indication that the support for the culture will go away. It does not seem to be dependent on who the current political power is. It’s surprisingly broad-based.

JM: What advice do you have for people who want to get into the business?

To get into production at any sort of remunerative level probably means quite a few years of starvation. I’m not talking about 2 or 3, but more like 10. You often have to work for free while you hone your craft, and it’s not assured that you’re ever going to “make it.” And then, if you do, the situation reverses itself.

You spend so long trying to get there and once you do, you get a flood of offers you can’t possibly accommodate. And the reason for this is that no one wants to take a risk on a newcomer, but once you’ve got a track record, EVERYONE wants to take a risk on you. You just have to accept that that’s the nature of the business. Be prepared to accept this as a lifestyle.

And speaking of lifestyle, you have to ask yourself if getting into this industry is compatible with yours. Long days, night shoots, travel – if you have a family, it’s hard to structure a life around that. It’s not that nobody does it, it’s just that most people have trouble with it.

I loved being a director, but it didn’t fit into the tapestry of my life. As a producer, I get to control my own agenda. You have to control your own agenda.

This is a hard industry and it takes a lot of hard work to get anywhere. I used to say to people, “You shouldn’t be in this business if there’s anything else you think you can do with your life.”

****

Tom touched on the subject of government initiatives created to help filmmakers in Canada. Is this something you’re interested in hearing more about? If so, let me know in the comments.