The plight of the feature producer: Rachel Griffiths’ epiphany

18 December, 2017 by Don Groves

Rachel Griffiths at Screen Forever.

After 25 years as an actor Rachel Griffiths made a discovery which shocked her while negotiating her fee to produce her first film, the Michelle Payne biopic Ride Like a Girl: Most feature producers get paid peanuts.

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Presenting at the Screen Producers Australia (SPA) Awards at Screen Forever last month, Griffiths told producers: “I realise now you make no money, you have no power and you are exhausted. That’s a very new revelation to me.”

She strongly recommended producers tell agents how little their cut can be after relating a discussion she had with her agent, Shanahan Management’s Ann Churchill Brown.

After crunching the numbers on her producer fee, she asked, “Did you realise Ann, that’s all we’re getting?” The agent replied “No Rachel,” which made her think there may be a bit more upside for her on the production which will star Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill and Jacki Weaver and which marks her debut as a feature director.

Still, the point is well made. If experienced and successful actors like Griffiths were blissfully unaware of how little producers typically earn per picture, it’s highly likely the wider screen industry has not fully grasped the issue.

To try to remedy the situation SPA has reiterated its calls for producers to be better compensated during the often lengthy development process and for the Producer Offset funding to be platform neutral.

“Feature film producers these days are among the most poorly paid in the entertainment sector, particularly for the amount of work over very long periods,” SPA CEO Matt Deaner tells IF.

“The backdrop to a lot of negotiations across the industry is a misguided thinking that money somehow is being captured by producers. It’s not. Everyone should be thinking about the overall amount of finance available and how to work to build that.

“We are campaigning for better funding for feature films and a platform neutral approach to the offset, allowing more films to be made.

“Also more consideration should be given to how producers are remunerated during development – it isn’t sustainable and the potential for upsides aren’t working as a compensation to that process anymore.”

As Sue Maslin revealed to IF, she earned just $14,000 in producer fees during the five years she spent developing the script of The Dressmaker.

According to SPA, the average development time for feature films in Australia is five years, during which time producers earn almost nothing. If the film is financed, producer fees are effectively back pay and recompense for the long years spent acquiring and developing the intellectual property. In order to get the film made and earn anything at all, SPA estimates many producers are doing what Sue Maslin had to do – reinvest their producer fees into the film.

This results from the challenges in raising the gaps in financing in a difficult market with limited Screen Australia equity investments, caps on above-the-line eligibility for the Producer Offset and where large amounts of funding still need to be raised from a combination of distributors, sales agents, private investors and post-house reinvestment.

So the producer fills the gap by often reinvesting all or part of his or her fee, which may never be recouped.

Overall, feature budgets are not rising except for some top-end films where the inflation is due primarily to ballooning performer fees. In fact, many producers are being forced to cut budgets to get films financed, particularly those which are primarily focused on the domestic market.

Deaner concludes: “Films do not get financed without producers driving them. As feature film producing becomes less sustainable, unless we start to develop different strategies here we will make less and less films which will affect everyone who works in the industry and damage our global standing as one of the world’s leading creative film industries.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Wayne Coles-Janess

    Maybe the industry would benefit with complete Transparency when accessing Public Funding?

    Maybe all allocations should be standardised and locked for program category; TV drama per hour; Feature; Documentary?

    At the moment, one driven Producer is getting paid $14,000 over 5 years and others are being subsided how much and for what outcome?

    • popularculture

      without transparency true discourse about profitability is conjecture. Australia suffered from a lack of true figures on film profits, as appalling Sue Maslin’s pay for a great production is.

  • Tor Larsen

    OMG and we thought it was only actors that got ripped off?

  • LfO

    This ignorance extends to other film crew roles.

    There is this belief that independent producers have a magical money tree (studio style) that will cover everyone’s bills at studio rates. This simply is not the case.

    Add to this that films take “time” to develop. That means that there are option fees to renew. And Writers who need to be paid – but who seem to think that process will happen in an instant – but may be only writing part time, and/or need considerable coaching and/or their scripts need editing/co-writing by someone more experienced and/or there are funding applications or investment that needs to be raised to do all this (which all takes TIME).

    Writer’s agents tell writers that if a producer cant get a film greenlit within 6 to 12 months to “move on”. In the meanwhile, that producer has invested time and money – both developing the script, pitch materials (which now are a production in themselves) and traveling the project to markets. Not to mention investing their reputation with agents, getting their clients to “attach” during the development process, similarly for investors and distributors.

    Every time a writer (or their agent) refuses to renew an option – the money invested into that project is either the producer’s money lost “forever” or it’s a debt accrued to a funding agency, which will be deducted from the producer’s tax offset for the next film they get greenlit. That money the agencies give producers to pay writers – is NOT a donation – it’s recoupable.

    Producer’s investment is not insignificant. It’s the cost of budgets, schedules, breakdowns (cast, VFX, locations, sets, costumes etc), finance plans, legal fees, Pitch materials (artwork, Look-books, teasers, websites etc) travel to markets, all of which needs to be paid for during development – during that time that producers are earning no money – and we are not even talking about producer’s basic
    costs – office, stationery, phone bills – or a wage to live and feed their family.

    Writers will often complain they can’t get a producer to look at their work.

    Here is the reality …

    “if a producer loses a property, it’s a very expensive venture”.

    If a producer loses several properties (or they are simply not worth contining with), that investment accumulates and becomes a huges overhead / loss to their business.

    Many producers don’t want to develop other people’s projects anymore because they may never be able to recover that cost. If they develop their own projects – they might at least “eventually” recover the costs. If they project needs to be put on hold for several months/years etc they wont get a writer refusing to renew an option.

    This is the reason why many producer only want to work with writers willing to accept longer options/purchase periods ie minimum of 3 years, but many are now asking for 5-7 years, because it better reflects the time required to develop an independent project that is not “production ready”.

    Similarly, if a producer is luckily enough to have a project that is shooting or in release or doing the awards circuit – it’s worth waiting for them – they have demonstrated that they can get things done !!

    Don’t forget that the government agencies will not allow a project to be submitted if it has been previously be rejected twice before. Those earlier rejectionsmay be no reflection on the project quality – it may simply be the quality of the projects submitted during that round may have been further advanced. Once the government funding agency door is closed … the only other option is private investment – but THERE IS NO INCENTIVE FOR PRIVATE INVESTORS TO INVEST IN DEVELOPMENT OF CULTURAL COPYRIGHT-ABLE MATERIAL.

    So in short – yes talent and crew agents and guilds all need the 101 on how films are financed during both development and production.

    LfO

  • brian rosen

    Nothing new in any of this. Has always been the case that Producers only see real money if their film performs. Fees never cover time and effort spent getting the project made.

  • Janice

    FINALLY! If I did not have a husband with income I could never have afforded to produce. I sell my scripts and get option money. As a producer that money is spent on options, legals, office and bills, travel to markets and deposits on talent, not to mention we have no weekly pay for our time – and so on. It can be years before you get to preproduction and with 7 projects underway can you imagine how much money I have out? How are we expected to build the industry in our own country? Really! I must say I am surprised that Rachel is surprised after her amazing career but to be fair us producers put on a brave face. It takes guts to risk all you have and my dream is that our industry becomes huge , showcasing the amazing talent we have and allowing our people to remain in this country. So many actors are living in LA now. Without support for us local producers during the development period I can’t see that can happen. I am now forced to partner up in Santa Fe….. already the opportunities are on offer. So, please lets all work towards some help during development so we can make some great films. The projects are there, but the funding is not. Thank you Rachel, we owe you!

  • Sue Marriott

    This is a particularly prescient article given the House of Reps Communications & Arts Standing Committee Film/TV Inquiry just handed down a report recommending the reduction of the Producer Offset for feature film by 10% & only increasing it for TV to 30%. Classic Liberal economics – rob feature producer Peter to pay TV producer Paul.
    Please get involved & support the screen production industry campaign Make It Australian!