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Round table: Heads of drama production

Blog
24 April 2019

In our latest Round Table discussion, Televisual invited leading drama heads of production and producers to talk about how their role is changing at a time when a greater number of ambitious scripted projects are being made than ever before

On the panel were Alison Barnett, Kudos, Head of Production; Louise Mutter, Lookout Point, Head of Production; Piers Vellacott, MD, Raw; Christopher Hall, Producer; Kyla Brennan, Line Producer; Liz Pearson, Post Production Supervisor; Paul de Carvalho, GM, 3 Mills Studios; Alan Piper, MD take 2 FILMS; Mark Purvis, MD, Mission UK; Helen Phelps, Head of Broadcast Sales, Molinare


At which point do you typically get given the production to manage? When does it arrive on your desk?

Alison Barnett (AB) Very early on – at the development stage. We might have a script or a bible – and out of that I have to do a budget and a schedule to give us an idea of what tariff we hope we can ask the broadcasters for and if we have to find additional finance.

Louise Mutter (LM) We do a lot more feasibility studies now because everything’s got so much bigger, so there’s a lot more research – particularly if we’re filming abroad. There’s quite a lot of risk that we carry in trying to get a project to a point where we can get it green lit. If you’re flying quite a few people to South Africa,  Canada or India, those costs can hugely increase from what they used to be for development budgets

How complicated are your budgets?

AB They’re 60-85 pages long. A great deal of time is spent writing them – and changing them. You could do 14 or 15 versions. The whole thing is a great moving piece – as the scripts are being written, cast aspirations come in, directors come on board and people want different things.

Piers Vellacott (PV) We now increasingly find ourselves as both production company and financier. You have to occupy a space where you are responsible for justifying the cost of your production but also financing your own show. So you’re having conversations with broadcasters who are actually only contributing a percentage of the total budget. There comes a point where the production company wants to get as much as they can because they know that they’re going to make a better show for it, and the broadcaster wants to pay as little as they can for that same show. So hopefully you meet in the middle.

How do you budget 
for talent?

PV We deal with talent in capped tiers. So, for American scripted, we’ll make a budget assumption of X for for actors one and two, and then three to five at Y and then everybody else is scale. Over and above that it’s breakage as there is no other way to budget the huge ranges that talent fees can be.

LM We’ll allow for our key main cast and then we’ll allow for tiers below. If the broadcaster wants a particular piece of talent, you might have to go back for cast breakage.

PV The cost of putting the crew in the field rises relatively steadily year on year. What has completely changed in the last five years is the cost of talent. We’ve had some talent deals, admittedly on American shows, where people are earning millions of dollars for a six-part series, it’s like movie money has moved into TV. Talent can command astronomical fees and then there are the ‘associated’ costs with the talent that can add significantly to the talent fees. We’ve got some at the moment where they’re asking for specialist transport, personal trainers, dedicated makeup artists and security.




How does the budget work in practice?

Christopher Hall (CH) What’s changed in the last five years is the way budgets have gone up, and how we’re becoming more and more like the feature film business where we’re having to put packages together and satisfy many masters.

LM You’ve also got to think about how you’re going to structure your tax credits and structure your money going from one country to another country. Are there benefits in setting up local companies or not? How does it affect people’s tax status?

CH There are so many variables. You get ridiculous situations where people say you’ve got to cut the budget, but actually, by cutting the budget you’re actually cutting the funding, because it involves the tax credits.

How rigorous are the budgets from your experience?

Kyla Brennan (KB) It’s all about how you make all of those pieces of the jigsaw fit together, and ensure that the budget doesn’t go over. You’re constantly cost reporting every week to the broadcasters.

AB They want to know why you’ve spent another £70,000 that wasn’t part of an original discussion. There’s always someone above us looking down saying, “Hang on a minute, this isn’t quite right, what are you going to do?”

PV It’s all about the prep. The problem is really when things start slipping, because the most expensive items are people and days. If you can keep to your planned shooting days, you’ll be all right. But you should always have an element of contingency built in for the unknown. And there comes a point sometimes where that is literally stretched to the max, and it’s nobody’s fault that additional costs come in. It’s just part and parcel of what we do.

And how important 
are tax credits for 
the budget?

LM We’re chasing tax credits and soft money because the license fees haven’t gone up. Broadcasters are still paying, £800-900,000 [an hour] but getting a £2.5m show. So, how do we make that work? With soft money. Accessing it can be really painful.

PV One of my lessons of production, and particularly running a company looking across a huge slate, is to beware of false economies.
The broadcasters are obsessed with soft money, with tax credits. But all of these things come with a sort of a tick sheet. We’re doing a movie at the moment with a number of the UK screen agencies.
It’s very, very difficult because the financiers want huge amounts of creative freedom on the cast, and meanwhile we’re trying to tick boxes for regionality and nationality – which means they can’t access certain talent.
We’ve got our three big American leads and then below that they want all of these cameos. Well, you can’t have all of those cameos if you are going to get all of that soft money.

What’s the key next step after the budget?

AB Finding the right producer and director are key for me, and especially because things are far more complex now. You want to find someone who knows what they’re doing, who can be across everything.
Everyone’s moving up the food chain so much more quickly now, so you’re getting younger producers who really have been script editors, who don’t know the in’s and out’s of producing. So, for me, it’s important to find people who actually know what they’re doing.

LM You spend a lot of time thinking about the team, depending on who the director or producer is, and about how you can support them.

AB Yes, when you’ve got your producer, you’ll ask ‘Who’s the best line producer or right accountant, to work with that person?’
It’s really important getting that team right; it’s such a short, concentrated period of time when people are thrown together – and you’ve got £7m and six episodes to make something. We’re having to keep our eye on production a lot more than we used to, because some teams are much younger now and maybe they don’t have the experience.

Liz Pearson (LP)  So you end up carrying them, and you go, “No, you can’t do that.” There’s a huge amount of conversations you constantly need to have.
What about booking in crews? Are there shortages?

PV You book in crews as early as you possibly can. There are now shortages in every area – from sound designers, cameramen to make-up.

AB Sometimes people are now paying holdover payments to keep people for the next show. If you’ve got something green lit and you want a certain DoP, you’ll pay a retainer. I mean this business is really cutthroat now.



And how far ahead do 
you feel you’d need to book a studio?

Paul de Carvalho (PDC) In terms of when we get approached at 3Mills, sometimes it’s six days ahead, sometimes it’s six months. Lately, it’s more like six months and sometimes even a year ahead.

LM I’m looking at studios now for things we may get green lit next year. It’s so hard to book them.

PDC People assume they’ll get into a studio but then they’re shocked when they actually fail to because so many shows are pencilled in. We work with a production company who paid us to store their sets between seasons, which is fantastic, so we had 100% occupancy on four stages for four years. Lookout Point’s Press shot with us, as did Sister Pictures’ upcoming Giri/Haji and Cleaning Up finished shooting last December.

What about booking 
in directors?

LM When you have a commission that is based on delivering to a TX slot you’ve kind of got to get on with it. If the director’s not yet on board, you have to forge ahead.
We’re also making dramas with just one director a lot more. They’re very authored pieces of work and to hit TX we have a three editor model for a six-part series.Ab Yes, we’re doing that on four-parter drama now – we’ve got one director and three editors.

How far ahead are you booking DoPs?

AB Normally after the director. But, again, they’re so busy and moving around the world. So it’s also about finding the new generation of DoPs.

PV DoP’s are a problem, because you can’t book your DoP without a director. And you can’t do anything without a DoP in so many areas, such as the camera crew.

Will you change camera midway through a series?

KB We’ve got a new DoP who has come in and wants to introduce a different camera. The broadcaster is a little bit reluctant about the idea so we’re having to do camera tests to see if they want to change the format and the way they shoot because the show is on its 23rd season. They’re a little bit hesitant to do something that could be a major risk and also he’s not the one DoP working on the series.
It means there are other DoPs who are then going to inherit that camera and format and that sets a massive precedent. We need to be sure this is the right decision, so we’re waiting for camera tests to be done first.

And what about the costs of data – do you factor this into budgets?

Alan Piper (AP) Some of the recently introduced Large Format cameras can bring a significant increase in data if used to record RAW uncompressed images.
That increase in data, the required storage, and related off-load time, means increased costs.

Mark Purvis (MP) Resolution doesn’t always mean more data. With the Red cameras, you can change your data rates at the push of a button just before you turn over. So you could be shooting a green screen vfx shot at 8K and say, ‘actually we’re going to shoot this at 3 to 1 because we want the best data possible’. Or if it’s a landscape scene with trees and lots of movement within the scene, the Red camera can intelligently read the new information from one frame to the next. You can often shoot most of it at 8 to 1 where the difference between frames is minimal.

PV I think we’ve become obsessed with what ‘K’ we’re shooting. Whatever we’re shooting in this year will be different next year. We did a film, The Imposter, six years ago in 2K which I think is one of the most beautiful films we’ve ever produced. We spent the money on lenses, and the cinematography of that film will stand the test of time.
The audience wants to engage with beautifully shot visuals and good quality lenses. At the risk of sounding controversial, I think we get too caught up in what ‘K’ we’re in this year. I sometimes think the technology eclipses the thing that the audience are buying into which is the look.

AP The next season of Doc Martin will shoot on Super 16, which it has done for every season bar one, and it looks great. Glass is always a consideration and a contributing factor.
Netflix has had an impact on camera choice, based on their minimum technical requirements. The Alexa has been excluded and its caused a stir. Its one of the most successful and popular cameras in use. The Alexa LF does meet those Netflix standards - but then, perhaps, you’re back to the data issue.

Have you changed the way you budget based on the new deliverables that are coming through, 
such as HDR?

Helen Phelps (HP) It’s definitely changing, each production is very different and we offer advice on how to best budget for deliverables based on our experience.

PV The cost doesn’t come from the K’s, the cost comes from the data production. The question to ask is, ‘how much data per day are we going to produce?’ The cost of the deliverables can now be more than the cost of 
the post.
Usually you’d say it’s going to cost £30,000 an hour in post and £5,000 for your deliverables. I’m seeing post production being £30,000 – and sometimes the deliverables might be £40,000 on top. All of the mastering is more expensive than the creative process.

MP If we get enough time in prep and the production is open to conversations, then there are ways of working around it and reducing the cost. But quite often post-supervisors aren’t there at the start of production when they’re needed most.



So what about post? How far ahead are you booking the post?

PV As soon as we start before we’ve even hired people. It can depend, if you’ve got one director helming then, of course, you’re waiting on him. But with all the shows we make, it’s a company decision as to which post houses we work with.

LM It depends on the project. If it’s a lower cost project then you will be more producer focused, and on these higher end projects, you get very much led by the director.

CH We do tests with DoPs and grading artists before we shoot.

Tell us how you work with post companies?

PV We work through four specific post-production companies where we more or less do all of our work, because of the volume we produce. As a company we’ll make the decision about which post house to use, when we’re setting up a show. And that is mainly because we’re producing a lot of very big shows. What we’re buying is an efficiency that works for our business. As a production company we’re delivering between a 100-150 hours of television a year – a huge amount. What doesn’t work is having piece-meal arrangements all over town.
We are resolute about not splitting sound and picture. It has to be under one roof. On big volume television deliverable size is becoming so complicated. When you start separating it out, the buck is passed.

What advice would you offer to help save money in post before they shoot?

LP They should do camera tests. The budget can easily go up if nobody has done a make-up test. For example, all of a sudden you might have this beautiful young actress who has a moustache, and then a lot of money is spent on tracking and painting it out and wig lines. Particularly if you’re mastering to HDR you can see everything.
Those camera tests are often not happening because people are trying to save money at the front end.
A producer might go, ‘well we don’t need to do that, we can sort it out in post’. But it will cost them a fortune. I always do the tests if I can get the tests. I also get them to shoot some sample footage. You’ve got young DoP’s out there who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing and that’s a worry.

CH On set, I’ll get told by a post production supervisor,  ‘try and get the camera not to see the football stadium or the boats out in Corfu harbour’. But the problem is we don’t always have time to take that in to account – and I know how easy it is to paint out in post production.

LP Yes, it can be easy to paint things out. It’s when you’ve got to start tracking faces – or anything with flesh – that it becomes difficult and expensive.



PANEL BIOGS

Alison Barnett
Kudos, Head of production

Alison joined Kudos in 2005 as head of production. She oversees the development and delivery of all Kudos projects; the financial control, logistics and all aspects of day to day production. Alison trained as a stage manager in theatre and opera. In 1979 she joined the BBC drama department and left to go freelance in 1985. Since then Alison has worked on over 400 hours of television.

Louise Mutter
Lookout Point, head of production

Louise joined Lookout Point as Head of Production 18 months ago and oversees all of the company’s projects through to delivery, most recently Press, Les Miserables and the upcoming Gentleman Jack. Louise started as a freelance Line Producer, setting up productions in the UK and abroad for a variety of Indies and all the UK broadcasters before moving to Sky, where she was key to the implementation and delivery of its high end Drama slate.

Piers Vellacott
managing director, Raw

Piers has been a partner at Raw for 11 years, overseeing an annual slate of over 100 hours of original programming. 
As an executive producer his most recent credits have been American Animals , Harley and the Davidson’s, Three Identical Strangers and Dream Horse.
Raw makes scripted TV, feature docs, movies, documentaries and reality formats in both the US and the UK.

Christopher Hall
Producer

Christopher Hall has been a drama producer for twenty years. He has produced work for every British broadcaster and most of the major production companies. During his working life he has experienced filming in many different countries on many different genres of drama. He has produced the hit drama The Durrells for ITV and Sid Gentle and has just completed the fourth and final series.

Kyla Brennan
line producer

Kyla has worked in production for the last 13 years. Working her way from a production runner through production coordinator to line producer in both comedy and drama, she has worked on Still Open All Hours and Upstart Crow.
Her latest projects include Click and Collect, Good Omens and Silent Witness.


Liz Pearson
post production supervisor

Liz has over 20 years freelance experience in the film and television industry, mainly as a post production supervisor but also as an animation and VFX producer. She has worked on hundreds of series and feature films including Good Omens, Adventure In Space and Time, and Misfits, many of which were ground breaking in their concept and design, utilising the latest technology combined with gifted and talented artists.

Paul de Carvalho
general manager,
3 mills studios

Paul de Carvalho is general manager of London’s iconic 3 Mills Studios. Before relocating to London from Sydney in 2015, Paul was director of production attraction & incentives at Screen NSW and prior to that manager of Fox Searchlight & Specialised Films at 20th Century Fox Film Distributors (Australia). He previously ran his own business specialising in and consulting on the exhibition of Asian films in Australia.

Alan Piper
managing director, take 2 FILMS

Alan has close to forty years’ experience in the film industry. As MD of Take 2 Films, Alan is responsible for leading business development, strategy and leadership to drive brand growth. Most recently, Alan was MD at RED Europe, where he grew the team from an initial three people focusing mainly on technical support, to a business of 30 people, responsible for the sales and service for RED product throughout EMEA.

Mark Purvis
managing director, Mission UK

Mark Purvis is the founder and managing director of Mission UK, a leading provider of media and metadata workflow solutions. With over twenty years of experience in the film, television and broadcast sector, Mark brings his expertise of digital cameras and file-based workflows to help guide the industry through the ever-changing renaissance of digital film making.

Helen Phelps
Head of broadcast sales, Molinare

Helen has over 20 years’ experience in drama post production sales. She joined Molinare a little over 10 years ago as Head of Broadcast Sales and has helped grow the company’s reputation in the drama post landscape ever since. In the past year alone, Molinare’s sound, picture and VFX teams are proud to have worked on Bodyguard, Killing Eve, Patrick Melrose, Tin Star, MotherFatherSon and Strike Back: Silent War.

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