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CPA News | Crafting a future for production houses
Nov 23, 2022

Crafting a future for production houses

The commodisation of the production industry

By Herman Manson. The choice of production company and film director is an absolutely key contributor towards making more impactful work. This is according to Peter Carr, Massif executive producer, who contends that the right producer and director team will improve on an idea, not just regurgitating what was presented to them on paper.

“The production company has a responsibility towards providing production value in the supply of the best available [craftspeople] needed to produce a more effective commercial. It’s also our job to find the most economical solutions and make sure every cent is spent in the right areas, which all together adds more magic to the idea. This comes with an experienced team who combine together to add all the right ingredients needed to achieve this,” he says.

According to Bobby Amm, Commercial Producers Association of SA (CPA) executive officer, production companies play a highly significant role in creating impactful work for advertisers, being responsible “for taking the concept and narrative created by the agency, transforming it into the physical realm and then refining it further in post to create the finished product that appears on screen and captures the attention of the audience. This process requires creativity, knowledge and skill from directors, producers and the dozens of specialists who collaborate to make commercials. “

The commodisation of the production industry

Are different production companies still offering unique points of view or has the sector become somewhat commoditised? The average budgets are much lower these days and, as a result, they’re seeing a lot of clients hiring companies and film directors purely based on price over ability and track record, says Carr.

“They’re often even aware that they may not achieve the best commercial by going with a cheaper, less experienced company and director,” he continues, “but they’re prepared to risk it and, therefore, we are seeing this becoming somewhat commoditised. A cost controller should not be selecting the film company [on] the basis of cost only, at the expense of a responsibly produced film, but this does happen. I’m not sure that all clients understand the difference between one director and the next but most good directors do have a unique style, so one should really take the time to look at showreels to ensure the style they end up employing is relevant to their script.”

Production companies must find ways to add value to survive; simply being good at production is no longer enough as this can be done in‑house by agencies or by in-house production companies (IHPC), adds Colin Howard, Egg Films executive producer and CEO. “Whether you offer culturally/sub-culturally, performance and narrative, humour, visuals effects or beautiful car work, you must find a way to add value if you want to thrive,” he says.

“The quantity and mixed quality levels of content required by marketers means that there is space for IHPC and independent production companies to co-exist — if there is always a non-conflicting bidding process, and they don’t pitch against each other,” he continues. “The structure of the IHPC makes them ideal to create lower- and mid-level content, as well as adapt and version content for the ever-growing list of deliverables required for different platforms. This is not work we as an independent production company can add value to and we have no desire to do it.”

IHPCs, Howard continues, have posed a challenge to independent producers as many agencies have been instructed by holding companies to give a percentage of work to their production business. “This issue seems to have subsided, with independent production companies only agreeing to pitch if it’s a fair non-conflicted bidding process, where no entity in the bidding pool is connected to the agency or holding company. This means clients/agencies can choose to have independent pitches or to go in-house, and most of the work we would want to do goes out to free pitch.”

Why craft is everything

How can a production agency ensure its team consistently maintains excellence in craft, ingenuity and reliability? “Status meetings! Hahaha,” jokes Liesl Lategan, executive producer at Spitfire Films, which is celebrating its tenth year in business this year. Though, seriously, she says she used to have them once a week and now it’s twice a day. “We also have very open lines of communication with our clients and we are very open to constructive feedback,” she says. “We do a post-mortem on every job and it has really helped us grow in every aspect.”

“One needs to assess the script vs the budget and decide how you are going to best craft the film within the allocated means, usually that being the budget,” adds Carr. “In film, craft is everything. If the budget happens to be low, shoot less, but craft the important ‘bits’ beautifully. Decide what areas of the script are critical to the narrative and work outwards from there.

“Good producers and directors will manage the expectations better and seek ingenious ways to achieve the most effective commercial. They’re heavily invested in their established reputations and can’t afford not to craft every aspect of the film. Their experience will ensure the film is responsibly and reliably produced in the best interest of the client. If a young director is being given a break, then be sure to check that the young director has an experienced director, producer and all department heads behind them to help guide and make this happen.”

Diversity & new talent

Has the industry managed to become fully representative and diverse — are there any areas where it’s still falling short? According to Lategan, the industry has made great strides, although there’s obviously room for further growth to make up for the injustices of the past and to address the balance of power. “I look around at my team and I feel extremely proud of the fierce females [who] have formed such a bond. There are true friendships and real respect for one another. I believe it is everyone’s personal responsibility to get on board.”

Lebo Mabuela, FirstPencil production partner/co-founder, agrees that the production industry “has become fully representative” but notes that there continues to be a shortfall in giving young blood opportunities. So how is FirstPencil finding and developing new talent? “Technology has made everything very easy,” she says. “Emerging talent is everywhere on social media, just waiting for someone to take a leap of faith. [I]f we believe in your talent, there is always room for mentorship.”

Carr says he’s seen a massive improvement in this area during recent years and that it’s great to see that it’s diversifying beyond film directors only: “Historically, the focus always seemed to be on developing film directors but now we’re starting to see development happening in all departments of production. Producers, production managers, unit managers, makeup artistes, editors and all heads of departments are populating the crew base and are more accessible. Yes, there’s still a way to go but as long as clients continue to request more diverse options, production companies are more likely to fill the demand and invest in such development.

“We’re also now seeing greater ownership of companies, including our own, which is fantastic.”

At Massif, the company has a policy of mentoring from the ground up, with people starting in the creative production department and progressing from there, not only on the film sets but also in the boardrooms. “It’s one thing to teach someone filmmaking but one must never forget that half the job is being able to handle pressure and having the confidence to [deal] with difficult situations in the boardroom where films are actually made,” he says. “The last two covid years made it really difficult for us to maintain this continuity because we could not have anyone shadow the pros in the office environment, where so many skills are learnt, so this period did set the industry back a little. Now that we’re [mostly] back to normal, this will kick in again and I expect we’ll continue to produce more amazing, employable new talent.”

Opportunities & obstacles

What are the major opportunities and obstacles faced by local producers at the moment? “The main obstacles are budgets and deadlines,” is Carr’s response. “Isn’t that the story of life?”

He adds that, while this has always been the issue, it’s never been harder than it is right now. “Many scripts we see are trying to cram too much information into 30 seconds and, as a result, are actually less effective. The scripts are not all being written to the allocated budgets and the production companies are given less time to craft the work properly. We somehow always get it done but, all too often, I feel that the films could be so much better if we gave a little more time to finessing the work or having the best crew available.”

That companies and directors no longer shoot only for television and now more so for online platforms, he says, has presented “tremendous opportunities for the filmmakers and clients to create stronger stories with time for the narrative in a less restrictive timeframe”. This makes for more entertaining viewing.

Amm agrees that the biggest obstacle is declining budgets, a trend she says has escalated rapidly since the beginning of the covid pandemic. “Tighter budgets make it impossible for production companies that prioritise production value to make commercials in the way they once did. Clients are now expecting the same product at a much-reduced cost and this is simply not feasible — particularly as the cost of living is increasing at a rapid rate.”

As a result, many production companies are reporting that they’re unfortunately having to turn away work. “This increases risk all around and fuels resentment within our supply chain,” she says. “The industry is becoming insecure and unsustainable as a result, which is alarming. Opportunities are scarce in the industry at the moment. Commercial producers are looking to other production formats for alternatives.

“The fluidity in the industry will possibly create new opportunities in the future but the situation remains precarious, post-covid.”

Brands & production excellence

When asked which South African brands stand out in terms of their investment in production excellence, Amm picks DStv, Chicken Licken, Johnnie Walker, Volkswagen (VW) and KFC as some of the brands investing heavily in quality production.

“We would love to see more brands investing more into production to promote creative excellence and the longevity of our industry!” she says. “The future of television advertising depends on it.”

This article was first published in Mark Lives on 22 September 2022