I've produced theatre, film for myself and others. So I have a head-full of knowledge that I'd love to share. Everything I learned about producing film, I learned by working for peanuts for saavy producers. The result is four Sundance films, a Tony-winning Broadway musical, tours and workshops of my own plays in which I also act. I've screwed up plenty, collected unemployment to make it through post-production and maxed out credit cards to meet a Sundance deadline. But each time, the film, play was a success and I now I make a living at it and can even stay home and let other people do my work and collect a check. Not bad. Not easily done, but totally doable. Now I have a mission to make work and help create the next generation of storytellers who also happen to be producers.
So use my brain. Ask me what you will...let's start with the most obvious.
From Jonathan: What does a producer do and how do they make money?
A producer does whatever is necessary to get a project on it's feet and put on stage or network TV or film. Producers' jobs range from raising money, to hiring creative team (director, writer, actors) to finding locations for a tour or movie theatres, picking up actors and getting them to set. Or some producers work for hire. Say, you'd like to produce your own webseries, but you need hard cash. You could hire a producer to raise the money and pay them by giving them a small percentage of whatever they raise. That way, it's less work for you, and if they raise no money, you're not out of pocket paying their salaries. A producer can simply attach their name to a project to help the artist raise money, without actually giving money to the project. Often times in broadway, this is called an Angel producer. Someone famous, says, sure, use my name as Executive Producer and if they are famous enough, other folks will automatically give money to the project because they are involved. That's why you see so many famous peoples' names attached to projects that they had little parts in or no parts at all. They've allowed the creators of the work to use their name to raise money. For example, Brad Pitt lent his starpower to "12 Years a Slave," not for the big role, but to make it easier for Steve McQueen to raise money for the film and to get it sold. Hence, using Brad Pitt's face on the poster was a super smart business decision. It meant people all over the world who would not normally see a film about African American slaves, would go if Brad Pitt's name and image were attached. No Black film has ever been bought by distributors in Europe the way "12 Years a Slave" was. It's an opportunity to put more butts in seats and get the story out there to a wider audience. Or Will Smith has a long line of producer credits for films he didn't appear in: Saving Face (lovely little Asian American indie film), The Secret Life of Bees, The Human Contract, etc.
Producers also do things like write grants to raise money, do research on a project. Look for scripts for an artist to star in and develop. Line producers create budgets for indie films and then pass the budget on to the other producers who are primarily involved with raising the money or getting actors attached. In short, if you help put a project on it's feet, you're a producer. Own it, live it and you are it.
Producers make money all kinds of creative ways. As I mentioned before, there are producers who work for a percentage of whatever they raise. There are producers who will write grants for you and write their grant-writing salary into the grant. There are producers who do lots of leg work on a project in return for a producing credit. Producers will work on a fundraising campaign (like a Kickstarter and their salary is either written into the budget, or they take a percentage of what is raised.) Producers who also happen to be actors, will often work for producer points on the back end (if it's a film, meaning once the film is sold and starts making money, they get residual checks each time the film makes money) or they will do legg work on the project in return for a part in the film and a producer credit. Those are just a few of the ways, folks make money as a producer. If you're self-producing, always, always, put your salary into the fundraising budget. If you don't, you won't be able to focus on putting the project on it's feet, because you'll be too busy working 3 other jobs to keep your head above water. It's tough,but rewarding work and totally beats auditioning ad nauseum for the rest of your life with no guarantees of work. When you produce, you make your own opportunities.
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""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson