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Producer Meltdown

by on Feb.23, 2010, under Filmmaking, Projects

Some folks can't keep their cool.

It seems like there are a million ways a film or television project can die, but one of the saddest is Producer Meltdown.  It’s also surprisingly dangerous because it always seems to hit when success seems assured.  I’ve seen it on several projects and I’m currently witnessing it again.

Here’s how it typically works:  Over the course of months or years, a group of filmmakers get together to try to will a project to life.  People combine their contacts, resources, creativity, and good karma to build someone’s crazy idea into a project that has a chance of getting made.  It’s an amazing moment when something is on the cusp of transitioning from dream to reality.  But it’s also the time when people’s expectations, real or imaged are about to be solidified into concrete terms.

Invariably, one participant thinks he deserves a bigger piece of the pie.  Maybe the original deal terms were loose (or non-existent).  Maybe someone did a hell of a lot more work than the others involved.  Or perhaps someone’s connection to a distributor, star, or money was the lynch-pin for the project.  As a dream gets locked down on paper as who-gets-what-when-and-how, it’s pretty typical for someone to feel that their contribution is being given the short shrift.  Or maybe that person is just a douche who thinks he can grab a little more than he’s due.  The reasons vary, but the results tend to be the same…a project that was a “go” is suddenly just gone.

In the Baskin-Robbins of “Producer Meltdown” flavors, this one is vanilla–you’re probably going to see it a lot and no doubt taste it yourself as your film career progresses.  Why Producer Meltdown, not Director Meltdown or Writer Meltdown?  Well, I’ve yet to see anyone but a producer be short-sighted enough to pull this act and actually kill a deal over their credit, someone else’s credit, or a few points.  Usually, a writer or director has a creative as well as a business goal for each project and when pushed, these folks will usually see reality, or more likely just take one for the team in the name of getting the project made.  But some* producers  don’t see it that way.  Their credit and compensation are often all they get from any given project and if it’s not up to what they feel they deserve (or think they can get), then they may just play the spoiler and kill the deal.  Really, it’s the fact that all the creatives involved are willing to give up a lot of what they’re due that emboldens this brand of producer to push their weight around and grab for a little more of everyone else’s share.

(* To be clear, I do not believe all producers are like this. Probably not even the majority.  But sadly, it just takes one on a project to kill it, and a lot of long-suffering projects in development have one of these types amongst their ranks.)

The worst thing about Producer Meltdown is that it most often happens just as a project is about to get a greenlight or already has.  All the little deal-point triffles that didn’t seem worth documenting when the project was struggling for any possible toehold are suddenly the very issues that someone is going to be willing to kill it all over.

I’ve been a victim of Producer Meltdown a few times.  Once was my first feature film that was supposed to actually get made.  After years of working with a producer on a loosely documented, good-faith agreement, we finally found our key pieces of the puzzle–financing and distribution–only to have the producer present me with a new set of deal points that were different than our original agreement and completely non-negotiable.  The deal died.  My script lies in eternal limbo, but I learned a lot from the experience.

I’d like to be able to tell you what do to avoid this situation on your own projects, but I can’t.  Certainly, having well documented deal memos that spell out everyone’s piece of the action from the very start is a good way to mitigate this–but not eliminate it altogether.  A better approach is probably to pick your partners carefully.  (I realize this can be tough to actually do.  It’s tough to get your project into the hands of any producer, let alone one who’s up for sainthood.)  After seeing maybe a dozen films die this way (my own and friends’) it strikes me that the producers most likely to morph in to deal-killing credit-grabbers are the inexperienced and those who don’t seem to put a lot of value in what others bring.  It makes sense: experienced producers know that getting a film made is usually more important that any particular points.  It’s better to have a small piece of something than all of nothing.  And producers who don’t recognize the contributions of others often think the deal will go on without anyone they force out–forgetting the reason why they teamed up with that partner in the first place.  My latest project is a case-in-point.

Today I have a slightly different viewpoint on another Producer Meltdown–fortunately for me, it’s on a project that means a lot less to me.  I wrote recently about a very cool project that I was working on.  It was a Special for a major network that had gone through a couple years of development and had been given an air-date (a really good one in fact) in the first half of 2010.  I’d heard about the project for over a year, but had only recently been brought in as a sort of head writer.  (Yeah, they got pretty far down the line without realizing that they might just need a writer!  Possibly a warning sign right there.)  It was a tremendous stroke of luck for me based on my being in the right place at the right time, with a few decent credits and contacts, and the not-small matters of the producers being extremely strapped for time of my being willing to work deferred for a couple months.  Hey, with something that had an air-date a few months away, that’s not a terrible deal.

Sadly, more warning signs crept up recently on this one.  I’ve realized that when it’s not really your own project, the red flags are pretty obvious: Memos turn up with someone’s credit inflated, maybe someone else’s name missing altogether.  Deal memos that should have been signed weeks ago still aren’t.  Matters that everyone thought were long settled crop up again out of nowhere.  Producers grow dismissive of others’ contributions and inflate their own.  Yeah, that’s sort of standard operating procedure on a lot of film and television projects, but it’s also a sign that the meltdown has begun.

So now it looks like this project that last week was greenlit with an amazing air-date on a major network, and was poised to have a great shot as a series (it was a really strong concept and a fairly positive show) seems to have crossed the tipping point.  Someone got greedy, elbowed out the wrong guy and lost much of what he’d brought to the party–most likely without enough time to put it back together and make his air date.  My feelings on all this… Oh well.  Glad I was just the writer.

I’m out a couple weeks of intense work and the shot at a good network credit and a few bucks.  Not a small loss, but nothing compared to the guys at the top.  If television development was where they saw their career paths, they’re seriously screwed.  Burbank is a small town and I can’t imagine the network is going to be happy about having to fill a hole in its prime-time programming schedule this late in the game.  I feel bad for the innocent in the scenario.  Ironically, the guy who got cut out of the deal may be the only one who comes out with his name intact–at least it’s not on anything.  But for myself, I mostly feel relief.  Like I said, the signs were all there.  Sometimes, the worst thing that can possibly happen after a Producer Meltdown is that some semblance of the original project is salvaged and all these people who now distrust and resent each other still have to work together.

Looking back on my first big movie deal-that-never-was, I realize that the producer’s meltdown was a blessing in disguise.  After making a couple features myself I understand that deal-making is the producer’s art form.  That producer who couldn’t make a deal with me, an eager first-time writer-director was never going to make good deals with the many actors, agents, vendors, reps, and distributors that would have been necessary to see the film to successful completion.  Sometimes the Producer Meltdown is a mercy-killing, I suppose.  But I feel for the people who worked hard for years and lose their projects just when victory seemed at hand.  My only benediction is that they are not alone and maybe they’re better off.

What’s your take on Producer Meltdown?  Any war stories or tips on avoiding or dealing with it?

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5 Comments for this entry

  • photomatto

    I had a similar experience, not in film making, but in software development. There comes a time in the project where the stars seem to align; there’s a solid product, there’s a market, and there’s a group of people that are involved in bringing it all together. Unfortunately one of the “owners” got greedy and wanted to take a majority of ownership just at the critical time. Fortunately, I was astute enough, or actually my wife was astute enough to give me a good rap on the head and I backed out of the deal before signing any contracts. It all worked out in the end and I was able to move on with a successful product but not without a couple of years of real struggle after that event. I don’t think there’s anyway to know that this is going to happen up-front, the best we can do is to keep our cool and keep an eye on what’s important, not what’s immediate and urgent in the moment. Anyway, sorry to hear that the deal fell through but it sounds like you have a positive outlook and that you’re relieved in the end. Thanks for sharing!

  • JD

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your experiences and insight with us.

    Best of luck with your future projects,

  • SDB

    Good insight.

    Even if there’s no way to avoid the meltdowns in this business, I think it’s possible to spot the guys more prone to it:

    – They drop names that have or will have nothing to do with your project.
    – They meet with no clear purpose.
    – They’re disorganized in all the wrong areas.
    – They’re sloppy about paperwork (contracts).
    – They want everything involving money to be deferred except the free rewrites.
    – They insist their input on the idea is worth a writing credit.

    The overriding M.O. is that there’s a lot of activity, but very little deal-making, as you mentioned, and a tendency to overvalue their own work while undervaluing everyone else’s.

    Thanks again.

  • Miriam Paschal

    Do you think that Producers like this eventually get squeezed out of the game, or do they manage to make any money?

  • admin

    Usually, yes. I think most producers who do this hurt themselves more than anyone else. That producer I mentioned who blew up my feature deal a few years back hasn’t made a narrative feature since, as far as I know. The ones who melt down because they’re inexperienced or don’t value other people, usually don’t have a lot of good karma or favors to fall back on.

    However, there’s a kind of “meltdown artist” out there…I think some producers are actually very savvy about how films work and their meltdowns are calculated attempts to back everyone else against the wall in order to get a little more for themselves. Those people take their meltdowns to the brink, improve their own situations at the expense and ulcers of everyone else involved, and then back off before the deal explodes. Those producers tend to have very long careers.

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