The Elephant In The Studio: When The Budget Bites Back


Sumner Redstone knows a little bit about production. His billions in holdings include majority shares in CBS, Viacom, Paramount Pictures, and the National Amusements theater chain with more than 1,500 locations.

That's why we sat up and took notice when we ran across this little quote from him:
"Success is not built on success. It's built on failure. It's built on frustration. Sometimes it's built on catastrophe."

First of all, it's encouraging to know that failure can be a good thing. Especially if it comes from you boldly experimenting with ways to be better at what you do. Of course, you have to learn from it before you get any benefit. But you can look at it as an investment in your eventual success rather than a total waste.

So, the reason this quote is so salient to us right now, is that we recently wrapped a production that we're counting as our summer school class on how not to do things.

In the end, we believe the client got the piece they wanted. But being involved in this project was like watching Wile E. Coyote rollerskate along the edge of a cliff with a rocket strapped to his back. Every second you're expecting him to miss a turn and plummet into the canyon below.

We're going to start with what happened, and then briefly tell you what we learned.

What Went Right
The video was supposed to show an actress singing and dancing through a 48 foot wide set, divided into the four parts of her day, which would be captured in a single shot. It was one of the the largest set we've ever had in the studio.

The set designers and builders did a great job. The set looked great, was constructed on time, and worked exactly as planned. The crew did a thorough job of making sure we had all the lighting, camera and other equipment we needed to make the shot work. This included running the live lighting changes through 64 channel DMX board to control our SkyPanels and additional lighting equipment.

And the talent came prepared. The lead actress and supporting cast were rehearsed and ready for run-throughs. 

But then there was a fly in the ointment.

Enter The Villain
The bad guy in all this was the production budget. Though at first glance, it had seemed viable to the production company (an out of town group), it placed limits on the project that threatened to turn it into a complete disaster again and again. 

And as always happens in these situations, it ended up making the production cost more than if it had been adequately planned for in the first place. Plus, it strained a lot of professional relationships and caused a huge amount of stress.

For starters, the client had originally planned for a still photography shoot at our facility. Apparently, during the preproduction process, it morphed into an ambitious video shoot.

At that point everybody agreed it should be a six day shooting schedule, allowing for a build day, pre-light day, rehearsal day, two shoot days, and a wrap day. 

However, once financial reality set in, they were forced to slash the production to three days. And even then, they tried to cut back on the necessary levels of crew and equipment.

Budgets are vindictive creatures. If you hack at one too much, it will come back and bite you with a vengeance. And on this project, our producer friends have the scars to show it.

What Went Wrong
In our business, the cost of production mostly goes to pay people for their time. Sure, there are a few hard costs that can't be cut, but otherwise, when you don't have quite enough money, you can ask people to work for less. Or, like in this production, just have them work less and just hope everything works out.

As you know, planning and expertise are what keep big shoots from going completely off the rails. And when you cut either one of these--well, things have a tendency to go off the rails.

For example, here are just a few of the major things in this production:

1. The wrong actor was hired. The agency didn't realize until midway through the rehearsal day that the wrong supporting actor had been hired. Not only did the production company have to scramble to get the correct actor, but they had pay the wrong actor for his day. We're not sure whose mistake it was, but we do know there was a miscommunication between the production company and the agency.

2. The production designers quit. That's not quite accurate. Because of the chaos and inadequate resources, the original production designer quit the week before the shoot. They had to hire a second one, who really wanted to quit too. But instead just got really sick.

3. No lighting board operator was originally hired. The concept called for the lights to go on and off as the talent danced from left to right through each set environment. This required split-second coordination with the lighting. It wasn't until the end of their pre-light day that production recognized they needed to hire a board operator. So they had to bring someone in at the last minute. Which wasn't cheap.

4. No one planned for overtime. Because ambitious planning and a compressed schedule resulted in the shoot day falling way behind schedule (go figure), all the crew qualified for overtime pay. This unforseen scenario caused more dollars to fly out the window.

5. They forgot about lunch. We shudder to even mention this gruesome detail. But we have to, because it really happened. Nobody had made arrangements to bring food in for lunch. Because they had to send the crew out to order their own food, this slowed the shoot down, and ended up costing a lot more than it had to. 

What We Learned
OK. Besides, "We never want to go through THAT again," what valuable lessons did we learn? 

After all Mr. Redstone said that success is built on things going wrong. Here are four things we won't soon forget.

1. Budget like you're a business. If a client has an idea that's simply too big for the budget, don't take it on. It will end up costing more in work, aggravation, and additional money. "Reel trophies" are not worth it. They do not attract sustainable clients.

2. Hire the right people, no matter what. If it's not somebody's job, it won't get done. Be sure you have brought in trusted professionals to cover each aspect of the production. If the budget doesn't allow for this, walk away. A stay in the nervous hospital can be very expensive.

3. Beware of project creep. Yes, it sounds like a police sting of some sort. But we mean it like the military's caution over "mission creep." Be careful about getting involved in a project that begins as one thing and then morphs into something different (usually bigger) without also changing and expanding the budget and logistics plan. 

We learned our lesson on this one when Chris went to change a light bulb, and initiated a major remodeling project in the Upshur building. 

4. Build trust with your fellow professionals. This means you should live by the Golden Rule and be quick to help your friends with favors. But be wary of people who get you on the hook with a low bid and then add to your responsibilities. 

Avoiding The FOMO Trap
In an unpredictable sector like production, it can be scary to say no to business. There's a fear that even if this opportunity isn't the best, it's going to lead to something better. Sometimes that's true. But often it's not.

It's wise to consider another Sumner Redstone, this one on risk-taking:
"One doesn't accept bad challenges. Part of it is always the risk-taking without seeing that the risks are rational and the rewards are commensurate . . . are more than commensurate . . . with the risks."

In other words, take risks. But make sure they're smart risks. Always go in with eyes-wide-open. 

Don't agree to a budget number until you've thoroughly assessed what it will take to do the job and still make a profit. If after that, you've figured out it doesn't pencil out, then bow out of the bidding and consider yourself fortunate.