Monday, June 18, 2007

The Cone of Silence

This is the first in a series of anonymous email interviews with music video industry insiders. Up first is a major player at a very major music video production company.

What kind of things does an executive producer do on a daily basis?
I’m not sure how it works at other, bigger companies, but at my company the executive producers are involved in every aspect of the music video process. My impression of EP’s at other companies is based on my previous life on the other side of the equation and it seems that they are less involved, less hands on and wear fewer hats than me and my co-workers.

So with that said, my duties are as follows:

One – Sales. Ultimately I’m a salesman. I could be selling cars, but instead I am selling directors. Selling starts like Glengarry Glen Ross – with cold calling. This is my least favorite part of the job. I feel like a telemarketer, especially when clients don’t take my calls and don’t reply to my emails.

Luckily, we represent directors who are in demand, so to a certain extent the work comes to us. A client will send us a track and it becomes my job to ask the client a bunch of questions – are they really interested in our director directors they have solicited? Who else is writing? When does it shoot? What is the budget? Will they spend more for our A-list director, and can we have our B-list director write since the budget is too low for our A-list director and/or our A-list director isn’t available. Once I get all that information, we are on to step two…

Two – Interfacing with the director. This is still sales because all directors are picky and I’ve got to sell them on why writing on a no-budget, mediocre rock track with a nightmare client is a good idea. Or it’s the pep talk with a junior director about why they should write on the new Gnarls Barkley track even though they have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the job.

With our younger directors, we’re very hands on with their treatment writing. Our A-list directors have earned the right to have us just spell check their work and forward it on to the clients. With our babies it is much more involved. This is the part of the job I like the most. It is occasionally the most pure moment in the process of making a video. It’s about ideas – it’s about finding references, refining the pitch and making the writing clear and concise. It is also about protecting directors from themselves and their tendency to over-promise specific things in their treatments. Why write “massive sea of fans” or massive club scene” when you only have $50k?

Three – Budget. Once the treatment is in and the label or artist says that they like it, the next step (unless there is a re-write) is budgeting. We prefer to have producers work on budgets so that there is some accountability (even though we end up hacking away at most bids anyway). We like to pretend we’re not handing the producer a pile of shit.

Four – Overseeing production. Besides spending time on set, we try to stay involved in the day-to-day production. At the very least, we’re in the loop on most decisions that are being made on a job. At the most, we are stepping in to help produce jobs because the producer is semi-retarded and has let things get completely out of hand.

All this stuff is happening simultaneously so when we’re busy, we end up doing a bad job at all of it.

Talk a bit about the way MV world has changed in the last few years.
The business has just gotten harder and harder. Budget reduction is only one part of it. Labels are in turmoil, so there is a level of stupidity and chaos that is mind-boggling. People are afraid to make decisions, afraid to do anything new and creative. Everything ends up being really last minute, and the people we are dealing with as commissioners have less and less power. As far as I am concerned there is only one really good commissioner left in the business. She’s good because she has real power, she can make real decisions and she’s able to manage people’s expectations because she understands production.

Do you think that some of the "blame" for the current state of the MV industry belongs to MV production companies for their behavior during the "glory days"?
No. When the entire industry is badly behaved, you can’t blame one part of it. The only thing I would say is that production companies are their own worst enemies. Unlike the commercial world (although, this seems to be changing as well), MV production companies have never banded together in a positive way to make a stand with their client base. It’s no coincidence that the commercial standard is to have three directors compete for any given job while in videos it’s not uncommon three of our directors write on a given track. [That is just at one company,] so do the math, it’s possible that 10-20 directors are writing for certain tracks. That is insane and foolish.

What is the craziest thing you have ever seen (heard about ?) a director do on the set?
I wasn’t around for the crazy years. Coke and booze on set is old school. I don’t see anything wrong with calling out Wayne Isham since he stood up at this year’s MVPA Awards and did a shot [of liquor] as the finale of hiss speech. He’s famous for his hard partying. It’s why certain bands still want to work with him.

The worst I have personally dealt with is yelling. “So and So is the stupidest fucking idiot I’ve ever met!” Most of our directors are really nice and relatively normal.

What is the one thing that labels do (pay late, string directors along, screw with edits, etc.) that annoys you the most?
Making everything last minute. Especially with the budgets we’re now dealing with, working with really last minute situations is a nightmare. With the down-grade in quality of commissioners, there has been a huge drop in the condition in which jobs are done. Because the commissioners have no power, they’re afraid to tell their bosses, who really know nothing, that they need to push the dates of their shoot if they want a good video.

What is the most over budget one of your jobs has ever been? The most under?
$50k over is the worst. I have heard stories from the old days of being $200k under budget, that just isn’t possible any more.

Do you think about the long-term of a director's career much, or does that take care of itself if you get them doing good work on a day-to-day basis?
Our company’s philosophy (that I don’t really agree with all the time) is that work begets work and that directors shouldn’t be picky. We want directors who want to work, we’re not interested in developing “artists”.

What is the most extravagant "gift" you (or your company) ever got for an artist/manager/exec?
Huge amounts of weed. $15k to a manager who approached us and guaranteed a single bid for his huge artist. That’s only happened once or twice. I’ve heard stories about companies that have a more serious approach to the kick-back game. That’s never really been our thing, but good clients do get nice meals and nice Christmas presents.

Ever had a gun pointed at you (music video related only)?
I was in Miami recently and walked past the artist’s car, when I peered inside in the open door and saw a hot groupie polishing a Glock.

What director do you wish you had gotten to work with? What director are you glad you have avoided?
I know it is a cliché but I would have liked to work with Michel Gondry. I’ve heard he’s a nightmare but I’d like to have seen how his mind works. I have not been able to avoid the worst.

That was great! After the Glock polishing, my favorite part was the coining of the term “a more serious approach to the kick-back game.”

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Great interview. Keep 'em coming!
love it!

I can't believe people used to do "cola and booze" ... crazy!
Any chance of naming the source? The answers weren't terribly damning. Any specific reason why you're hiding their identity?
awesome post! i linked to it from our homepage on!
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