6 questions to help you choose the right production company
6 questions to help you choose the right production company.
by Mark Fallone
I’ve been working in television for more than 36 years. I learned early on that whether you are a producer, director, make-up artist, client, actor or in production company management, to be successful in the craft, you have got to be consistent at making great artistic and business decisions. Artistic decisions and business decisions are inextricably linked. Like twin sisters. Like ham and Swiss. They go hand-in hand. They must be balanced. They must be justified. And, above all, despite their separate functions, these critical artistic and business decisions must be rationalized with the savvy of a veteran defense attorney.
From the vantage points of you, our client, you may have the toughest decision-making process of all when you kick-off a video project. With a video project dropped in your lap, a brutal deadline pressing down on you and little to no time or resources to apply to the work, a production company has to be handpicked from the vine of many. The range of partner options and rates run from your neighbor’s nephew with an iPhone to a documentary crew complete with Hollywood-grade cameras, prime lenses and green-screen effects.
When I meet with a client for the first time, I need to create a sense of trust early with you by finding common ground, understanding your pain points on the project and most of all, communicating the value my team and I will bring to your production. In the end, my objective is first and foremost to return you to your office place as a hero with the best video content you’ve ever produced and ready for deployment when I said it would be.
Here are 6 questions I humbly suggest you ask as you make the best choice possible in hiring a production company to produce your video content:
1. What is that production company’s value proposition for helping both of you leverage the mutual benefits of working together?
In his content marketing eBook, BREAKING THE TIME BARRIER, FreshBooks CEO Mike McDerment outlines a simple yet powerful blue-print for client-vendor relationships. For McDerment, successful client-vendor relationships are always built on the notion of client and vendor exploring the mutual benefits of value. In other words, “What value (and not in terms of low pricing) will the production company bring to your project?
Like McDerment, I would press the issue of trust. Is your production group creating a sense of trust and are they taking sincere interest in understanding your company and project’s unique problems? Do you want to work with a company that is offering you cookie-cutter solutions or one that is gathering insightful questions that demonstrate deep expertise? Are you entering into production with someone in the room who can truly help you be successful, make you look like a conquering hero and ultimately have your stakeholders dancing on their desks?
McDerment asks us if we have partnered with a firm who is seeking to “foster alignment” in the “exploratory phase” of the work. Does your production company grasp where you are now- at Point A- and where you want to go- Point B. We can gain “an immense amount of clarity by establishing the A and B points, but many service providers don’t do it,” adds McDerment.
I like to work hard to bring clarity to the work and goals early into the project discussion, when my team and I are being interviewed for the job. If I can help you see the way forward more clearly, see how you can get to point B and what obstacles might be in our way, then I may even help you vet all the vendors you’ll be evaluating for your project. “The deciding factor quickly becomes which production company can deliver value rather than price,” says McDerment. I like to believe that in helping you gain that clarity, I’m bringing tremendous value to you before I even get the job. It’s a win for everyone. In fact, I don’t like to discuss price up front. If I talk about prices at the get-go, I’m doing you a disservice by making “price” THE distinguishing difference between me and another vendor, not my ability to deliver results for you. ¹
2. What is the production company’s production experience and how has it been tested?
As part of your company’s interview process wherein you work to vet production firms, there are three principal themes I would suggest for consideration as you evaluate your new production partner. One. Request references. Nothing mysterious about doing the homework by talking to clients of the companies your thinking of hiring. I welcome opportunities to provide references. Talking with my clients is a great way to gain insights into our company, our work ethic and our consistent efforts to bring value to clients through excellent customer service and great outcomes. Two. Study work samples. On our web site, in our newsletters and in blogs like this, study us and our breadth of work, our client diversity and the quality of our work. Ask questions that uncover how a project was conceived, how it was executed and the impact it had on a client’s problem. Ask what resources were invested to get the job done and did the creative vision stay fit throughout the production process. Finally, ask for a tour of the producer’s facility. Meet the production team you might be working with, check out the studio if they have one, office and especially the edit spaces. You’ll get a vibe for the culture and a sense of what it might be like to produce your vision within our company’s operation.
3. Can you illustrate for me what your workflow looks like?
In today’s digital world, clients looking to produce video content for any screen or platform have a host of viable options for getting their projects conceived, developed, produced, posted and distributed. I often brand workflow at our company as FULL FLOW PRODUCTION. “How will your project get from point A to point B”? How will the work “flow” from start to wrap? I tell our Phenomenon clients, “Workflow should be a seamless experience for you.” At Phenomenon, our earliest conversations with new clients are deeply entrenched in workflow practices. We even have an infographic we share with new clients that outlines the roles of you the client and your vendor/production partner throughout the relationship-building process, through production, through post and ultimate delivery. There is as much science and art involved in managing workflow as there is in getting a great shot or writing a compelling voice track to tell your story. Keep an eye out for my next blog post. I’ll break down workflow into it’s own discussion.
4. Will you treat my budget like it’s your own?
How often have you heard this stinging comment from a vendor? “We’re over budget on the project.” Sometimes there are justifiable cost overruns or in some cases, you, a member of your team or a senior stakeholder may request changes beyond scope, request a reshoot or re-edit. It happens. Having acknowledged that overruns can happen with good cause, production company “project leaders” must still begin any project with a frame of mind that suggests they will treat your budget as if it’s their own money. Directors, producers, editors or production managers who are touching your project must foremost seek a balance between art and business, realities and wishes, time constraints and the “one more shot” syndrome. My approach is to always consider every choice I make within the context of budget impact. Art direction, location shoots, crews, special effects, casting, post production- the truth is always in the numbers. Bottom line, production companies have to operate profitably, however, not at the expense of your budget and your project’s success.
5. Will I like working with you and your team?
I believe this is a fair and significant question that should be addressed. Maybe during the first meeting, a lunch sit-down or a facility tour, transparency and trust-building between you and your production partner is key to realizing successful outcomes for your video project. Trust your gut. Ask for reasons that make the production company team a value-add to the project. What does the team bring to your work? What is a difference-maker between Production Company A and Production Company X? Production companies like Phenomenon love to talk about the experiences, talents and characters of their people. Ask about these qualities and how they add up to delivering real value to your project. Once you get into the frontline trenches of the production, you’ll be counting on the producer, director or editor next to you for emotional, creative and project support. Did you make a good choice in hiring this particular team?
Let’s take one more look at framing the notion of likability in the light of passion for and dedication to commitment? In the February publication of the Wall Street Journal Magazine, renown New York Architect Robert A.M. Stern (who I have interviewed in the past for a documentary) comments that, “every project requires 100 percent commitment.” He frames his philosophy of commitment within the context of the young architect who at times may commit to a bad idea and stick with it only to realize the idea proved to demonstrate a false commitment. “The young architect may think that his or her first design is perfect and shouldn’t be changed,” says Stern, “that the client should just line up and accept it.” Like Stern, my methodology is rooted in the notion that whether you are an architect, or a television director, the “mature” person, the mature client-service professional, understands that the “kernel” of an idea can survive for a long time.” Those ideas need massaging, nurturing, a commitment to getting the best of that idea for the client. I’m in Stern’s camp when it comes to winning the faith and trust of clients, earning their “like” of you. I am committed to my clients and their needs. Stern puts it this way. “Sometimes they (clients) want things very quickly and we’ll try to educate them about the process,” says Stern. “It can be a slow road. But when the commitment goes both ways, between the client and the architect, when it’s sincere, only then did you get a good project.” Does your production team demonstrate commitment, show passion and serves you with smart choices and lots of action? I would bet more often than not, they are likable human beings. ²
6. Can I count on you and your team to deliver the project on time meeting all metrics and dealing with multiple reviews throughout the project journey?
This is a huge question from my point of view. As the producer/director and production company “lead”, will I drive the ship efficiently and effectively for you and deliver the goods as I said I would? You have a right to ask this question. It’s your money, your reputation at the office and possibly your career that hangs in the balance. As part of the workflow discussion, you can request the full production timeline and delivery date on paper. Request what I like to call a pre-mortem; a list of what-if’s under the category of “what could go wrong” at this stage of the work, that stage of the work or even after the video hits the streets? My and team and I often use this pre-mortem exercise to vet potential obstacles in our production path; obstacles that could stall the work, impact the delivery deadline or worse, hurt the overall quality and excellence of the content. “Every project has its own DNA,” I like to say. And, “We don’t know what we don’t know, folks.” I can guarantee hiccups will happen. However, clear communication, decisive planning and making informed and defensible choices go a long way to averting issues with delivery of your important production.
Phenomenon is a commercial and corporate video production company that has served clients and their television projects since 2007. Our short-form ad work, documentary filmmaking and proven corporate production is led by a unique team of experienced content creatives. Our work is expressed in each new project through the talents and skills of our veteran team. We help our clients brand, market and deliver their products, people and practices to target audiences. We help our clients think and execute like mediamakers developing content and media that moves markets and minds. Our own brand comes alive in our work, our creative process and in the many successes our clients and their projects enjoy. We work hard to have our clients return to their stakeholders as heroes, with prized videos in hand and their stories communicated to a variety of audiences via multiple platforms.
( 1 footnote: BREAKING THE TIME BARRIER: How To Unlock Your True Earning Potential, Mike McDerment and Donald Cowper, FreshBooks Cloud Accounting)
( 2 footnote: WSJ Magazine. February 2017, p. 28 , THE COLUMNISTS – WSJ asks six luminaries to weigh in on a single topic. This month: Commitment)