Editor’s Note: Long-time industry vet and founder of the newly launched Palmy Inn, Michael Neithardt weighs in on the questions that all small studios eventually ask themselves: Is it time for an executive producer? Or maybe a rep? How about a production company?
Most of today’s biggest studios started small and grew by strategically engaging production companies and sales representatives.
So how do you know who is right for you—and if having that type of partner is even the right move?
Every studio goes through (sometimes painful) cycles of growth and/or downsizing—and for the most part, that never ends.
While most studios begin by trying to handle everything on their own, eventually something gives. Whether they get bogged down by management or simply lose inspiration, studios start to look outward to expand their horizons.
But it’s hard to understand what’s missing. If you don’t have an executive producer, is that what you need? Or is it a sales rep? Or is it a hybrid of the two—an overall production partner of some sort?
“How did we get here? Is this really necessary?”
The industry has become saturated with smaller studios and powerhouse individuals. These smaller entities often have big talent, with a wealth of experience on large-scale projects that they earned at previous shops.
And thanks in large part to technology, smaller studios are increasingly able to punch above their weight in an expanding marketplace.
Why do small studios stagnate and have difficulty attracting new clients?
The most common cause: a lack of proper leadership.
Back in the early days of the motion industry (as we know it today), creatives were in charge. Only over time did the role of the executive producer gain the respect that it needed. Creatives were wasting too much time on business-related issues that pulled them away from the creative vision of the studio itself. A division of labor needed to occur.
“Okay, I hear you. So what should I look for?”
Option one is taking the leap and hiring an executive producer.
EPs are usually the most outward facing person at your studio and are responsible for keeping up external relationships. But EPs come in many forms, and the good ones don’t come cheap. Some know production, some are great with the bottom line (i.e. maximizing profit) without compromising the studio’s vision and others approach things from the sales side.
What skills are the best to look for in a potential partner? Well, all of the above.
A good partner should have years of experience getting their hands dirty in physical and/or post-production, get excited by numbers/actuals and enjoy engaging with potential clients on the phone, at lunches/events, and during the production itself.
We tend to forget, but this is a service business, so if your partner doesn’t like to serve, you’ve probably picked the wrong person. It may seem strange, but if you find someone that also has a bit of bartender or waiter experience in their past, it can sure come in handy. They need to know when it’s fair for the client to send back their steak.
A quick EP checklist:
- Honesty and a proven track record
- Several years of hands-on producer experience
- Excellent written and oral communication skills
- Knowledge of what it is you do…for real
“We can’t afford to hire an EP as a full-time employee.”
This is a common dilemma. While all studios could benefit from the right EP, this can come with a hefty price tag that just isn’t in the cards yet.
If this is your case, another option is to find both a production studio and a rep all under one roof. There are a handful of production houses out there that play the dual role of rep and EP/producer.
They need to know when it’s fair for the client to send back their steak.
Here you can gain a partner to help grow your studio from sales and production angles without having to staff them. This hybrid partner can help shape a production-forward voice for your studio by actively showcasing your work and doubling as your EP/producer for pitching, production and strategizing. This is a unique situation and can work for many studios with a great portfolio but a lack of exposure in the industry.
Alternatively, there are some great industry consultants out there that can work with you to guide your path moving forward…. but the good ones will probably tell you to find a solid production partner (insert smiley face).
Searching for a rep
“Why are they asking for a monthly rep/retainer fee?”
Watch out for retainer fees. Remember–it is your work they are selling.
There are a growing number of representatives that charge a monthly fee that can range anywhere from $500-$2000 USD/month.
These reps will tell you the fee is for overhead, travel, lunches with clients and to promote your studio overall. This is a red flag.
You need to remember that you are already providing them with a retainer–it’s called the portfolio you’ve tirelessly worked on for countless years. If a potential production partner ‘loves’ your work so much, they should be able to sell it.That’s how they make their money.
They should see selling your work as an exciting challenge and thrive off of it, not expect you to pay them with absolutely zero guarantee that they will actually get you work.
“But what if we’re a young shop—or an individual?”
When someone tells you that your studio is “young, hungry or new” and they need a fee because it’s going to take “a lot of work and time” to get you noticed, do the following: finish your (hopefully free) lunch with them, say thank you, and delete their contact from your phone.
I’ve yet to hear a we-paid-a-rep-$1000/month success story. But the model works pretty well for reps. Say a rep gets 8 people on their roster, each paying an average of $1000/month. Do the math. That’s a shitload of tasty lunches you’re paying for.
“What if someone wants to rep me exclusively and take a fee for all business we bring in with or without their help?”
This is a tricky one.
Production partners are going out on a limb here to promote/sell you (hopefully at no cost to you). They hold lots of meetings, which can result in people learning about your studio and reaching out to you directly.
That said, it’s unlikely that a production partner alone can bring in enough work to the smaller studios to meet their bottom line. Especially if you have existing clients, you want to work with your production partner to understand that you as the studio will still have the right to attract and bring in your own business without the obligation to pay them a fee on said business.
Honesty on both sides definitely plays a role here. It’s best to have a true sense of the person, an excellent recommendation or, better yet, a prior working relationship with the production partner before engaging.
“So I should never agree to a rep fee for all business?”
Be careful here, as this is strictly a case-by-case/rep-by-rep situation—there is not one right way to go about it.
If the Smugglers or Free Agents of the world want to sign you, they’ll likely require rep fees on all your U.S. based work. These are top players in the business and if they want you, they clearly have a vision. Given their size and positions in the industry, you should seriously consider the offer.
(Hint: If you don’t know who Smuggler or Free Agents is, it’s time to start Googling.)
Other things to keep in mind
“When you walk into that room, they want you to be good. They need you to be good.”
I had an acting teacher who said that years ago, and it stuck with me.
A good production partner wants you. They either seek you out or, when you seek them out, they quickly make you a priority in the hopes of signing you. They see the potential in your work and partnering with you to sell your talent to clients.
Avoid the person that doesn’t write you back in a timely fashion, who leaves you hanging or keeps rescheduling a lunch or call because they are too ‘crazed,’ ‘swamped,’ ‘slammed,’ “drowning” or any of the other overused generic excuses.
A good production partner is seasoned in time management and will always find time for their artists. We are all busy, but if this is how they are before you even enter into contract, it’s a tell-tale sign of things to come.
Their job revolves around their artists and projects. If they are experienced, this will not be an issue.
“We love that motion stuff you do.”
Your production partner should have a good sense of the work you do and how you do it. They will always need to discuss the scope of projects with you and strategize a production approach, but if they are asking you what “roto,” “render” or “frame rate” means, that’s a bit scary.
Your production partner needs to be versed in what you do in order to sell what you do. No, they are probably not going to be able to discuss the inner workings of AO passes, but they need to know what questions to ask the client at the beginning of a project, how to budget/schedule a job and what it takes to get things done on time, on budget and up to and exceeding the client’s expectations.
Know the (real) budget.
You are the one that has to deliver the creative. If you enter into a relationship where monies are being run through the production house and then passed through to you, be sure to have knowledge of the fully awarded budget.
Both sides need to know that everything is on the up and up. If the production partner is a straight-shooter, this shouldn’t faze them.
On the flip side, the studio/artist needs to understand the work that goes into a seamless production—from pitch to award to delivery—and that this highly specialized skill needs to come at a fair price.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to hire a production partner—whether it be an EP, a sales rep or a hybrid of the two.
If you want to stay small and wear all the hats needed for your business, there’s absolutely no shame in that. Just be sure to have a full and realistic understanding of what that will mean for you. Try to think 5 or 10 years out, and make sure that you’re on the right path to reach your goals.
About Michael Neithardt and Palmy Inn
Palmy Inn is dedicated to guiding collaborations between our directors and your creative vision. We deliver top shelf content for advertising, television, film and mixed media.
Palmy Inn is led by founding producer Michael Neithardt. Bringing over 20 years of industry experience, Michael is known for his dedication to creating a comfortable, highly productive and collaborative environment for artists and clients alike. He has held posts at MTV Networks, Sony Music, Blacklist and served as executive producer at Stardust Studios and Psyop.
Michael has produced and executive produced hundreds of commercials, television show packages and print campaigns for leading worldwide agencies and networks including Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, Leo Burnett, Wieden+Kennedy, Viacom Media Networks, HBO, Google, Showtime, NatGeo, FX, amongst many others.