The Buzz: MIP @ the Produced By Conference

Produced By . . . But For Whom?

MIP spent June 9 and 10 in Culver City where the fourth annual “Produced by Conference” brought a sold-out crowd, more than 1200 attendees, to the Sony lot. Presented by the Producers Guild of America, in association with International CES, the conference hails both rookie and veteran producers for a series of panel discussions about “current and evolving trends in production, distribution, finance, marketing, branding, and media strategy.”

Yet, with registration costs reaching upwards of $1000, the conference clearly favors more established ranks than outright newcomers. In fact, when I asked a number of participants about their reasons for attending, I repeatedly heard one of two responses: they either came to the conference to network with other producers or they were lured by the thrill of seeing high-caliber professionals, like Christopher Nolan, discuss their craft. Typically, the latter group stood next to me in the standby lines; we had secured donated tickets through professional contacts or educational affiliations.

I bring up this anecdote because it underscores the rather tenuous role of the panel discussions themselves—the conference’s primary offering, at times, played second fiddle to wine receptions and star power. Accordingly, the event engendered some predictable media coverage of its biggest names making well-rehearsed revelations: Christopher Nolan dismisses digital filmmaking; Marc Cuban promotes traditional television; and Lionsgate embraces its indie status. 

Likewise, I heard similar disclosures during the panels I attended: “mega-producers” rarely sleep, talent unions are the gateway to first-class talent, and Hulu is willing to pay for genre-bending original content (though they refused to reveal how much money they’ve slated for development).

As an academic exercise, the conference offered a fascinating glimpse into the trade show as cultural space, an arena where interactions with colleagues and potential partners help producers shore up their collective identity in largely affirmative terms (See: John Caldwell). Of course, there were professional insights to glean from the discussions, too, even if cutting through the spin sometimes required listening across panels, picking up on silences, and cornering people on the sidewalk after the session ended.

Below you'll find my major takeaways. Anne Thompson at Indiewire provides another thoughtful list. I also tweeted throughout the conference if you’re interested in perusing my initial reactions.

And if the PGA is reading, here’s some friendly advice for next year: mix it up a little. Seeing panels that address film, television, and new media at this year’s conference was great, but keeping those conversations separate made the discussions too insular. Why not put a reality television producer on the same panel as a union representative or a development executive from a cable channel next to a development exec from Hulu?

2012 Produced By Takeaways

Pitching

Pitching projects in the current media landscape involves much more than describing the idea as an amalgamation of previous hits (e.g., “It’s Jaws in space!”) Instead, producers increasingly find themselves putting together massive bibles to accompany their pitch sessions: “look books,” soundtracks, trailers, video montages, even finished pilots made on shoestring budgets. Ideas about how the project extends across platforms and into other revenue streams also form part of the very earliest conversations.

Social Media

Social media enjoyed disparate reactions throughout the conference. Independent producers found it a necessary tool to help their projects gain traction amidst proliferating distribution models, even acknowledging the additional labor required from talent to make it work as an effective marketing platform. If talent refuses to engage in social media marketing campaigns, they are deemed “not right” for the project. Conversely, franchise producers regarded it as a necessary evil, saying it primarily helps assuage fans when adapting material from another source. Otherwise, it’s a form of communication in which they don’t overly invest. Todd Phillips (The Hangover) jokingly said he hopes “it’s a fad.”

Franchises

Both Nina Jacobsen (The Hunger Games) and Lorezno Di Bonaventura (Transformers, Harry Potter) lamented a time when the studios had more diverse productions slates, suggesting “the go big or go home” mentality threatens the overall creative health of Hollywood. Nevertheless, the conversation focused on what the future holds for franchise films, and according to these producers, we should expect more female protagonists and content with international origins. They also dismissed the notion that studios can manufacture a hit franchise by design. Such a strategy risks alienating increasingly savvy audiences. Instead, they urged producers to focus on creating solid characters and tone, which helps the film make a much more authentic connection with its audience.

Incentives 

Incentives drive global production, but with 40 states and 30 global territories offering rebates, the divergent guidelines make it a headache for producers to navigate on their own. For instance, I heard producers say they sometimes waited years before receiving rebates; Gale Ann Hurd told a story about shooting in Florida only to have the state legislature deny the rebates after production ended. Accordingly, companies, likeEntertainment Partners, have emerged to consult with producers on location decisions. Britain emerged as a clear favorite, repeatedly called the “poster child” for global incentives because of its clear guidelines and lack of funding caps. California, however, fared less well. In a discussion about incentives, of the two Los Angeles-based producers on the panel, only one had made a film in the state in the past 9 years. A Pinewood Studiosexec also acknowledged the import of incentives to its global expansion strategies, saying they’ll only build studio facilities where incentives already exist. A structure in Malaysia is the group’s latest project.

Labor

Labor proved to be one of the more tenuous discussions at the conference. A question about the budget implications of using union labor prompted stilted responses from a panel of reality television producers (they’re not really into it). It also made for one of the conference’s more open exchanges when the audience at a panel on SAG-AFTRA asked a series of questions about compensation for work in new media. Representatives acknowledged the need to see the new media contract evolve to better address video game work and growing budgets (e.g., Netflix’s House of Cards) but negotiations aren’t slated until mid-2014.  On a slightly different note, a panel on green production practices highlighted an emergent and perhaps overlooked form of labor in Hollywood: executives charged with implementing eco-friendly practices across studio offices, backlots, and sound stages.  It isn’t an easy job. They must understand the creative, technological, and financial nuances of production to argue effectively for sustainable alternatives, like LED lighting and glass filters. They also face resistance from producers who balk at the additional level of union oversight. PGA Green is a driving force behind the greening initiative.

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