Triple Take: What It’s Really Like Working as a Producer in TV & Film

“Passion is the immeasurable, indescribable factor that separates movie from movie. Passion moves freely across borders, speaks every language and flourishes in every culture. The movement of passion is the most gratifying satisfaction in any movie maker’s life.” — Saul Zaentz

producer

The producer. A role in the anatomy of a film that many people hear about (cue the awards speeches) but few understand what it actually means. A producer’s life cannot be easily explained. Rather than offer textbook examples of what a producer does for a project, International Film Institute of New York (IFI) turned to three women working in this role for insights and advice on getting started. Stephanie Serra produces and directs films in New York City, Krystia Basil works within film and TV around NY, and Ashley Pacini started in film but has found herself in the world of television while living in Los Angeles. The following is how Stephanie, Krystia and Ashley define working as producers in today’s world of cinema:

 

How would you define the role of a film producer?

Stephanie Serra: Film producers have several roles to play and seemingly endless duties to fulfill throughout the course of a film’s development, production and distribution. A good producer thinks critically and creatively in each of these roles and regarding each duty/task.

Krystia Basil: I would define the producer of a film project as the alpha & omega. That sounds self important, but what I mean is that a project starts and completes because of the efforts of the producer. He/She is the one who initiates a project by finding a story, optioning an intellectual property, developing a script – and follows through to the final product – the film reel – but also beyond that to distribution, publicity, and if all goes well, he or she is the one who gives the Oscar acceptance speech! In between, the producer hires all the key players, both creative and logistical, onscreen and off screen, and then trusts their vision, supports their choices, and coaxes a collaborative effort to create a cohesive end result.

They are also responsible for putting money in the bank to get all these peeps paid. As they say, ‘You have to pay movie if you want to play movie.’

Ashley Pacini: A producer is a connector and problem solver. Producers do various connecting from money and story to logistics and talent.

 

How did you become a producer?

SS: I started producing my own films. Colleagues of mine saw that I had an understanding of the above-mentioned roles that a producer fills and so they asked me to produce their films as well.

KB: I started out wanting to be a writer/director, but my innate skill set – management, finance, persuading people to do things they may not ordinarily do – thrust me into production coordination, line production and from there producing. I also like nurturing stories into scripts or concepts into shows.

AP: While studying film, I fell in love with the concept of connecting people and stories. I love the idea of seeing something from inception to execution. To me, producing is the best of both worlds: logistics and creative.

 

What is one surprising thing you have learned about the film/TV industry while working as a producer?

SS: When I began making films, I believed, and still do, that producing my own work was a valuable experience; that it would allow me to better understand the many crafts that are a part of a filmmaking collaboration; and, that this understanding would help me to be a better storyteller, writer, director, etc. I’ve been surprised to find that many of the first-time/beginner filmmakers I’ve encountered in the NY independent film industry seemingly do not share this view. There is more specialization and less interest in an interdisciplinary approach than I expected.

KB: How many people it takes and how much teamwork it takes to go from script to screen. It is the most collaborative art form in my opinion. If filmmakers ran the world we would get all sorts of stuff done and fast! I’m [referring to] production and crew though. Development is slow as a sloth trapped in molasses.

AP: There are a lot of people willing to help. I didn’t expect to find as many support systems as I have.

 

What is a typical day like for a producer during the production phase of a project?

SS: In the world of independent producing, days are often described as anything BUT typical. Each day of shooting brings new challenges.

Mostly, I try to do whatever it is that I can to keep the shooting schedule on track and to keep my crew moving at an efficient pace. I try to get a lot of the nitty-gritty work done and out of the way during pre-production so that I can expect my directors and departments heads to be prepared and ready to deliver.

KB: It’s putting out fires, placating ruffled feathers, keeping your eye on the ball while preparing paces ahead. It’s a lot of phone calls and emails, lots of coffee during the day and something a ‘lil stronger at the end of it!

AP: During production there is very little sleep. It’s getting to set early, making sure things are set up properly. Once the day is moving along, it’s time to get ready for the next day and the day after. It’s securing, confirming, and finalizing permits and talent. Helping to get call sheets ready, etc. Then, it starts all over the next day.

 

Where do you get ideas for projects?

SS: Strong stories are rooted in their characters and I like engaging with people to find my inspiration for characters. This has the added benefit of requiring me to practice active listening.

Having an eye for material that people will connect with is, for most, a skill learned over time. Some may possess this talent from early on but I believe the real skill necessary for a producer’s sustained success is the ability to exhaustively research the idea from its many angles so as to be able to cultivate it. Everyone has ideas but bringing them to life requires commitment to them.

KB: Books are my favorite source, news or feature articles are next. Personal stories are great when it’s unique, yet, universal.

AP: I have a great group of people that I reach out to. They are so talented. Sometimes their ideas spark ideas where I can also participate in the creative process, which is always rewarding.

 

What personality traits make for a great film producer?

KB: You have to be an entrepreneur in spirit and an artist in vision. You have to be dogged and determined. Never ever, EVER give up on something you believe in – all you need is one Yes. Shake off the No’s and the naysayers and keep going. When a project is picked up, sustain your initial vision while listening to and collaborating with the crew and cast. You’ve got to be like a conductor with the Philharmonic. The harmonious whole is what matters and you simply cannot achieve it solo. Understanding that is key so that your ego is not getting in the way of your art.

AP: Patience, being a good listener and being a quick thinker. Creatives will come to you in confidence to express frustrations or talk through creative blocks. By listening, they generally figure out what they ultimately want [to do]. And, like any creative project, things will fall through. Things will happen that are unexpected. By being a problem solver, it helps move the creative process forward.

 

What advice do you have for someone considering producing as a career?

SS: Find stories that fuel you and surround yourself with collaborators who complement your abilities. Also, dabble in other production work if you can manage to.

KB: It’s not really a career anyone CHOOSES because there’s no straight path, such as you get a degree and you hang a shingle and you’re ready for business. It’s something you build up to while doing other things. You’re working as a PA and making connections. Maybe one day you park someone’s car for them, and now you’ve got their ear. Maybe you tell them about the article you read, and maybe it comes to nothing, but at least now you’re in their mental Rolodex as a keen mind. Or, maybe you write a small piece and shoot it on your iPhone and get a ton of likes on Facebook. If you like the process so much, you do it again with a stronger script, better camera and an aspiring camera person who is also an extra on the show you’re day playing on. You’re building your network and sharpening you narrative sense while learning the techniques and tricks. There are just so many paths to it unless you’re Steven Spielberg’s offspring (and that comes with its own problems I’m sure!). If you like leading, collaborating, and bit by bit, creating a magnificent whole then trust yourself and start telling the stories that inspire you; use whatever you have access to. Especially today with no boundaries on format, medium, or budget – anything is possible as long as the story is interesting and timely.

AP: First and foremost, make sure the crew is always taken care of [on your project]. Network as much as you can. Also, make sure you always have an exit strategy and Plan B.

 

Stephanie Serra works as a producer and director in New York. She is the founder of TRISERRATOPS Productions, an independent production company dedicated to delivering content for and about children. Serra’s goal as a filmmaker and mission at TRISERRATOPS is to create films that broaden young audiences perspectives of the world. TRISERRATOPS collaborates with producers, directors, and writers, both domestically and abroad. TRISERRATOPS is currently developing a live-action series of short films for young audiences, as well as its first feature film. Serra’s film slate includes award-winning short films, CHRISTINE (2016), and STEEL (2014). TADPOLES (2017) a Norwegian co-production and Serra’s directorial debut is currently slated to premiere in the 2018 film festival circuit.

Krystia Basil has been producing since 2003. Basil has developed and produced narrative as well as documentary features & shorts. She has line produced reality television shows for History Channel, Animal Planet, HGTV, BBC and PBS. She has worked with celebrities such as Matt Lauer and Lara Spencer, as well as invested in and developed shows with emerging talent and new voices. Her passion is, and has always been, to collaborate with and consummate the vision of artists as they tell their stories through the screen.

Ashley Pacini is a TV and film producer and founder of The Reel Women, stories set up to support and celebrate women in film, television and media.

 


The elements of a successful movie have remained constant since the inception of the art form. The International Film Institute of New York (IFI) was founded in 1997 to provide those with a sincere and abiding interest in filmmaking with a high-quality, low-cost education in all aspects of the filmmaking process: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, and editing in a curriculum combining classroom instruction and hands-on technical workshops. http://www.nyfilmschool.com

New York City vs. Los Angeles – The Filmmaker’s Conundrum

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New York City owes a lot of its glamorous, iconic status to film. From King Kong climbing the Empire State Building to Robert De Niro’s You talkin’ to me? in Taxi Driver, the greatest city on earth is great in part because filmmakers have flocked here for generations to imprint New York in all its loud, proud glory on celluloid for generations to come. After all, New York City is a movie in itself – a rom-com walk in Central Park one moment, a Woody Allen gabfest the next, and navigating the crowds near the Rockefeller Christmas tree during the holidays can quickly turn into a nightmarish thriller.

But for the second year in a row, blockbuster movies filmed in New York have declined.

Of the top 100 highest-grossing domestic feature films released in theaters last year, only six were made in the Empire State, according to a study released May 23 by nonprofit organization Film L.A., whose mission is to keep production in Los Angeles. The number, which is down from seven the previous year and from a peak of 12 in 2014, puts New York in sixth place.

Georgia had the most top-grossing motion pictures with 17, followed by the United Kingdom with 16 and Canada with 13. California hosted 12 blockbusters, which put it fourth.

So what’s behind the trend?

“New York has become a TV town,” Film L.A.’s lead researcher, Adrian McDonald, told Crain’s New York. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The budgets on many one-hour shows rival that of large movies.”

According to the study, the state has so much television production that overall it ranked second in total film and TV production spending with an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion after California, where an estimated $30 billion is spent on production annually.

020.JPGIndeed, the sheer variety of production in New York City is what keeps Misael Sanchez, founder and director of the International Film Institute of New York based in the city that never sleeps. He lived and worked in L.A. for a two-year stint in 2011 and ‘12 before returning to New York.

“My personal experience with the two towns is a perfect example of why new opportunities seem to be opening in New York,” Sanchez says. “New York is more than movies. It has fashion, advertising, corporations, health organizations, small businesses, theater, all looking for content. Filling that production void is what called me back east.”

So where should an aspiring filmmaker put down roots – New York or L.A.? It’s an age old question that Sanchez fields from students every year.

As a film professor I spend quite a bit of time discussing with my students the opportunities related to staying here or moving out west,” says Sanchez, who spent 15 years as a professor and director of production at Columbia’s Graduate School of Film before moving to Sarah Lawrence College to teach film production.

“Both cities offer incredible opportunities in the television, film, and theater industry. L.A. is known for being the heart of the film industry but New York has always been a city for independent filmmaking. Everything about the city’s resources lends itself to the smaller budget projects,” he says. “That, in turn, provides opportunities for up and coming filmmakers. In addition, being in a town where everything is relatively close to everything else makes networking and meeting others outside of your field much more accessible.”

The other driving factor behind production location is simply the bottom line: New York’s $420 million annual tax-incentive program is a huge attraction, but it only covers so-called “below-the-line costs” such as crew salaries and production expenses. The tax incentive in Georgia offers 30% on the entire movie budget, including star salaries, and has no annual cap.

But when you need to set a story in New York, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And New York City’s scrappy reputation means it will always be home for young, hungry artists.  

“I do feel that the best is yet to come,” Sanchez says. “More opportunities are on the horizon as film professionals continue to call New York City and the surrounding cities home base. Los Angeles will always be a huge part of what makes the film industry but New York is what will keep the torch alive and moving into the future.”


Misael Sanchez: Founder and director of instruction at The International Film Institute of New York, currently working in collaboration with Sarah Lawrence College. BFA, New York University. Certificate in Producing, The New School. Recent production credits include a feature-length documentary, Last Call (director and cinematographer), now in post-production and producer on the feature-length narrative, Central Avenue, scheduled to cast Marisa Tomei and Lorraine Bracco. A book-in-progress on cinematography lighting techniques is titled Lighting Tricks and ShortCuts. Staff member, faculty member, and head of the cinematography concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, where he supervises students on thesis productions. Past work includes four one-hour specials on Latinos in the media for network television, short documentary projects, films, music videos, and industrials. SLC, 2009–