Category Archives: Producing

Master of Suspense Masterclass

Well, technically, it’s a 96-minute press conference moderated by film historian, author, and critic Richard Schickel. However, it really is a bit of a masterclass as Alfred Hitchcock, quite confident in what he does and doesn’t do, gives pronouncements about how he goes about things.

Note that you may want to watch Family Plot, his last film, before watching this as that’s the reason for the press conference. You may also find that he’s rather old school and private in his answers, compared to what you might expect from a modern talk show. That should in no way distract some great nuggets of wisdom as to how he approaches filmmaking as a craft. I especially appreciated his observation on keeping the audience engaged and, above all, not confused.

Also, a pro-tip from the comments. If you play the video at 1.5 times speed (under the settings menu in YouTube), you’ll finish faster and Hitchcock will, frankly, not sound like the spokesman for the Slow Talkers of America (which he clearly isn’t, what with being British and all).

“Guilt can’t scale”

Let me start by giving credit where credit where credit is due. The inspiration for this post, and indeed the title above, comes from a post this past May by Russell Nohelty on his Complete Creative site.

His post hit on the current issue I have with Jabberwocky Audio Theater. It’s perhaps the most difficult metaphorical needle I’ve ever had to thread — and so I’m writing it about it here in case you’re in the same boat.

You Want to Share Your Lifelong Dreams

See, making audio theater is essentially a lifelong dream. Talking with other creatives, they often have similar passions even if the dreams are, naturally, unique to the person. And when you have a chance to earnestly and continually work on your lifelong dream, you want to talk about it.

The energy behind this urge to share is tantamount to the thrust put out by a Saturn rocket launching. So, by gum, I’m gonna share. And who better to share the news of your lifelong dreams with lifelong (or at least very long-term) friends?

So that’s what I’ve done… and I’ve run into an issue some of you may have as well.

People Just Don’t Care

That’s right. You let people know. You share links and images and mention it quite a bit and you find that people –including friends– do not care. At least, they don’t care in the way or care to the degree you need them to.

“Need?” Yes, because if you’re engaged in creative pursuits, more often than not your dreams include being able to make a living from said creative pursuits so you can do those wonderfully energizing creative pursuits “full time.”

So what you really need are fans of your work: people who like you and like what you do — and here is the trap I think we can fall into.

Because, ultimately, you need enough people to like you and your work, people who trust you and trust that your work will be good, and people who will then give you money for your work one way or another. In the end, it’s transactional.

And when you step back from all your efforts to talk up and hype your creative pursuits, you realize that you usually don’t –or at least don’t want— your relationships with your friends to be transactional.

Living in a Transactional World

One of the reasons I think being able to make this separation is so hard these days is that social media has made friendship so transactional. (And so much of our communication with friends is now through social media). How many likes does your post get? How many retweets or shares? When your birthday comes around, how many people shoot you messages? And how many were ever with you in person at any of your in-real-life birthday celebrations? Though some have tried to divide acquaintances into separate, overlapping groups (rest in peace, Google+), there’s an inherent blurriness in online forums as to who’s a friend, a work colleague, a peer, or simply a non-objectionable acquaintance.

And in among the blurriness of friends and colleagues and peers and acquaintances is the fact that you’ll never love someone else’s work the way they do. Even, your dear, dear friends.

Sure your friends want to be supportive of your dreams and sure you want to entice potential fans with “calls to action” in ways that are quite transactional, but you just can’t mix the two. Conveniently, social media mixes the heck out of transactions and messages with friends because these tools care more about “engagement” or umbrage rather than effective communication or enriching relationships.

So what does all this mean for you and me and our desire to realize our lifelong dreams? I have actions that come out of observations, which are:

  1. Trying to get people into your work is going to be transactional
  2. You shouldn’t treat your friends transactionally (a big point of Russell’s post)
  3. A lot of the ways you communicate with friends AND fans default towards being transactional.
  4. You have to constantly work to engage with your friends AS friends. No guilt-tripping (related to #2 above).

Okay, so I’m a project manager. What’s my plan?

A) Look Beyond Friends and Family for Fans

You need fans to support your working as a creative. That means you need to get a big enough group of people who:

  1. Know who you are,
  2. Like you,
  3. Like what you’re doing,
  4. Trust you to do a good job of whatever it is you’re doing, and…
  5. Eventually buy from you,

That’s a lot of steps. People will drop out between step 1 and step 5. You simply can’t rely on just your family and friends. Not only will your efforts to find buyers invariably get transactional (see observation #2 above), no one had enough family and friends to make this sustainable. You need to go after complete strangers… just like you’re a complete stranger to the companies and people behind so much of the stuff you buy.

If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve known this for years. It’s just that building some sort of sales funnel that accomplishes all those steps of knowing, liking, trusting, and eventually buying is a lot of work. I just wanna get back to creating stuff already! Can’t I just ask friends and family?

Nope. My long term goal is to not ask my friends and family for support, just let ’em know how I’m doing in my quest.

B) Reduce or Eliminate Transactional Rituals with Friends

Friends and family can be supporters. I think most of them are.

In fact, I firmly believe the vast majority of friends and family want you to do well in pursuing my dreams. I mean, assuming said dreams are not Lovecraftian, Machiavellian, or otherwise awful, how hard of a stretch is to just wish someone success?

But at the same time, if I step back and think about it, I know my friends –even my best friends– never liked the same stuff that I do. Not all of it. And the stuff we both like? We almost certainly like it for different reasons.

No matter how closely our tastes align in music, movies, books, or other art, we’re coming to that art on our own unique path. What resonates with you might not resonate with someone else. And that goes the same with art we create ourselves. I think art is most relevant if it does have that uniqueness, yet isn’t it paradoxically wonderful that it resonates with other people at all? Thank goodness that art resonates in many ways at the same time.

If your friends and family support you and support you creating art? That’s huge in and of itself. My mother has one of the nicest gifts for me whenever we talk. “Have you had a chance to write?” she asks. I can talk about what I’m writing, what I’m excited by, what troubles I’m having with this story or that, but her question goes straight to the point. My passion is writing and have I had a chance to feed that passion?

I am old enough now to appreciate the value in letting people love what they love, even in this age of angry, entitled fans (or perhaps because of it). You can wish that people shared your passions a thousand times over and they just won’t. To paraphrase Gandalf’s advice to Frodo, you can’t choose what passion you have. All you can choose is what to do with it.

(Oh, and if it’s a destructive or sociopathic or otherwise nasty passion that hurts peope, please see the Balrog to the door on the right. Back to the creative, enriching passions…)

Likewise, you can’t choose what other people’s passions are. Let friends and family support you as much as they can. As long as they’re not trying to drag you away from your passions (again, we’re assuming they’re creative and enriching passions, not nasty ones), then let them support you as much as they might. And bid them farewell wherever they want to stop following you on that journey. It doesn’t mean you need to stop following each other as friends.

It’s important to remember that there are these two paths, that of friendship and that of fandom, and that you must allow the people in your life to “opt-in” as much or as little as they want to on the fandom path.

Bear in mind that, and I’ll just speak for the United States here, but for a lot of people on a personal level: business isn’t booming. The economy sucks. You’ll find that people are living paycheck to paycheck or otherwise fighting their own battles in ways which you have no insight or ability to change. That goes the same for complete strangers as well as friends and family.

As I’ll go into next, one of the ways to make sure friends and family implicitly feel they’re opting in as fans and not being forced with you on your journey is to be clear, even if there’s some nuance, about your personal and public channels — and to make sure your personal channels are not transactional.

C) Define Your Channels and Be Aware of the Social Media Currents

If you’re going to find fans and build your creative brand/reputation, you simply have to have a presence online. You have to get out in the world.

That means putting on your marketing hat more often than many of us like. And that does mean putting yourself out there on the Internet (ahem, like a eponymous website) as well as social media (e.g. Facebook, etc.).

This task can be difficult. Because who are you online? More and more, companies and websites want you to be ONE person and, speaking for myself, I don’t want the one person I am online to be a salesperson.

What keeps me sane, and perhaps what may keep you sane, is not just “branding” but curating your persona based on where you are. I’ve mentioned before about my social media strategy in a joking manner, but there’s truth behind the humor.

Right now, you have different personas, different faces you present to the world. This is simply human. It existed before the Internet. It exists now. I’m in a different mode at work than at home. Not only that, I’m going to be in different modes at work, whether I’m in a meeting with executives, leading a meeting, or talking with my team. We curate the persona we present to the world… depending on what part of the world we’re presenting to.

Now the Internet and social media come along and, unsurprisingly, can’t parse the very subjective, idiosyncratic way we define and redefine ourselves every day in so many spheres. I have no doubt they’re getting better, but it’s best to remember that the various corporate forces at work want to define your identity to better market and monetize you. To any degree that they understand you contain multitudes, they want to set the ground rules for your complexity.

This isn’t the stuff of tinfoil hats. Corporations like to make money. It’s kinda their thing. So they’ve been trying to define prospective buyers and actual buyers and then placing us in nice, marketable groups since well before the Internet. The Internet and current data analysis simply allows them to reach more people and have more marketable groups.

I wrote about this a little in June, citing Conor Friedersdorf’s article about how the Internet is eroding are ability to curate our identities.

The nice thing is you can curate your identity even in this environment. You’re probably doing it already to some extent, but the trick is to take the time and be more mindful about it.

Consider that Facebook has your timeline, but also gives you the opportunity to create a more public “page.” I have many friends who, in addition to their personal presence, also have an official page for themselves as the actor or the artist or the musician or any of a number of things they are. It’s nice to have that barrier: take it. You the artist or the brand are clearly you, but that channel will not be doing the family updates and cat videos (okay, maybe it will be the cat videos, I’m not sure).

If you’re a company, you can also have a Facebook page, just like you could have a corporate Twitter account, Instagram, web page, or what-have-you. Define your channels. Yes it’s extra work on the one hand, but it’s also creating built-in ground rules for which types of posts or content will go where. In that sense, I find this separation of channels helps me greatly. The canny people who are their own brand are quite aware that their tweets are not as private as a conversation had among friends at home. You don’t need to bare all everywhere — and someone going to the YouCorp page or twitter feed or website knows that’s different from You on Facebook. And you never have to bare all anyway online, even for your “personal” channels. is here, in part, to be a more personal channel. I have a Jabberwocky Audio Theater website and Facebook page for those posts as well as a general Team J website and a Facebook page for casting posts. I resurrected this eponymous website to post more personal thoughts and updates. This site is, in part, to scratch that itch, but also to help not dilute the posts and content that will be on those other websites. They are separate brands. Yes, I’ll happily mention Jabberwocky Audio Theater a hundred times here –it’s a lifelong dream, remember? However, you opt-in to visit that website, get those tweets, get on that mailing list, and so on. That’s where you will get more explicit selling and branding.

I realize my approach may not work for all people — and powerful currents are pushing you to “be your own brand” just as related currents want to make every hobby and interest a “side hustle.” (I disagree with making all your efforts a “hustle” as explored here and here). However, if you just stop and think how and what you want to post or reveal online, I think you’ll find you have a lot more agency than you realize. If your name is integral with you as an artist, than maybe a less personal (yet still personable) you is who is online.

My main point is that you retain the ability to interact with friends as friends: not a brand, not a side hustler, not a salesperson. It’s not that you won’t sell or can’t sell, but give yourself time and space to be “off the clock.”

D) Keep on Making Time for Friends

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that every entrepreneur and small business owner has experienced the pressure to never be off the clock. Sure you had a good day or week or month, but no matter what you do a bad day or week or month will come. You could always do more market research, do more outreach, finish this before lunch, finish that before dinner, stay up a bit longer…

There is always something more to do.

Combine that with all the external pressure to maximize the branding of You, Inc. that any freelance creative will recognize and is it any wonder that we want to see how to maximize our fandom among family and friends?

But if you’re like me, you’ve caught yourself during interactions with friends or family (online or in-person) where you’ve realized you were more mercantile then you’d like. Perhaps you feel that tinge of guilt tactic in there. Again, back to the article that kicked this whole post off: guilt makes bad friendships.

This is where having the different channels is handy for me. I can tell friends or family about the website or twitter feed or whatnot. They get to go check out my on-the-clock persona if they want and it’s implicit what they’re getting now is off-the-clock (observing doctors, therapists, and lawyers in social settings has taught me a lot about being on and off “the clock”).

Remember what you’re doing creatively that you love. Share that. I will tell people about projects I’m working on ’til the cows come home. I just don’t dwell on the selling of them to friends and family. That, incidentally, is why creatives should always have something free. That way, you can always offer them to check out the real deal. Here again, I agree with Russell. That free stuff should be as good or better than anything you’re selling. And you’re giving that to friends and family without a second thought. Because, first, they’re not only implicitly giving you the time to read or watch or listen to your creation, they just might be giving you extra fans in case they love it. It doesn’t hurt that they have a bit of ‘insider knowledge’ in knowing you (“Oh, I know this person who does this comic you would love.”) How cool is that?

I’d mention here that this is also where it’s very good to take a cue from those doctors and therapists and lawyers: strictly define what the “free” is you’re giving and don’t venture beyond those borders. If you have a free book, that’s what’s free, not every book you ever write for all time. The free thing you give to friends and family serves the same purpose that the free thing you give to perfect strangers: to go out into the world and find fans and buyers (see “A” above). Friends and family just have an inside track to get that free stuff. Your free thing isn’t a gift, it’s a marketing tool.

That’s a key fact to remember: you’re not doing them a favor by giving them the free thing. They’re doing you a favor by taking it and implicitly promising to spend some time reading or listening or watching. So what is doing them a favor?

It could be as simple as listening. Odds are if you’re a creative, you have a bunch of creative friends. What have they been doing? What are they struggling with? And it doesn’t all have to be “talking shop.” What’s been inspiring them? What are they listening to, watching, reading? Have they traveled anywhere recently? Are they planning a trip? You know: the kind of things that would fill up a lot of conversations before you were busy creating, trying to create, and trying to get people to buy your creations.

This is yet another reason why I push back on the attempt to make your every interest a “side hustle.” You need spaces and people where your actions are not tied to performance metrics. Odds are your friends and family need that more of that too. Make time for that, just as surely as you are being mindful of your marketing and personal channels. Because when things aren’t going well on the business front, the salve isn’t another sales opportunity: it’s time with friends and family.

E) Allow Yourself to Not Be Perfect

Wait! What’s this? This doesn’t align to one of the four observations above. That’s right. Still, it’s necessary.

Look, we’re all just one person amid a sea of powerful societal currents and a whole bunch of other people trying to do whatever it is they’re dreaming about. We’re not going to be unmovable by all that moves around us.

You’re going to be too transactional to one friend. You’re going to care more about a relationship with someone who sees you more as a colleague. You’re going to care less about something where a friend really needs validation. Things won’t go well on an emotional, personal level. Somewhere, sometime, some interaction is going to suck.

But all your interactions don’t have to suck. And they don’t have to be bad forever.

So, after writing all this, have I figured out everything I’m going to do? Have I managed my ideal balance between finding fans and maintaining friends? No.

Am I going to keep on letting friends know about all I’m working on with Jabberwocky Audio Theater? Yes.

I’m even going to keep seeing if any of them might be fans or supporters or pass the word on. But I feel better about how to thread that metaphorical needle without hurting friendships.

Because guilt can’t scale.

Working with Candor

It could be finally getting around to hearing the Ray Dalio interview on Freakanomics where he talks about honesty, it could be some of the workplace diplomacy I’ve done over the past year or three, but this article by David Vallance about how Kim Scott approaches workplace communication felt very topical and applicable.

Where I’ll Be: Escape Velocity 2019

Wow, has it really been over a month since I’ve posted anything?

Okay, well, I can’t go into everywhere that I’ve been, but I can tell you where I will be this weekend: Escape Velocity!

Escape Velocity 2019 Promo from Museum of Science Fiction on Vimeo.

I’ll be part of two panels and one performance….

Friday @ 8:20pm: Alien: 40 Years of Fright

I get to chat with Charles de Lauzirika all about Alien and such.

Saturday @ 3:30pm: Nostromo 2: Electric Alien Boogaloo

If you don’t know about Jabberwocky Audio Theater‘s live performance lovingly sending up Alien and Buck Rogers, you clearly haven’t been to our website.

But even if you didn’t know until now, join us as we give you more sci-fi references than a Cyberman can shake a Dalek plunger at.

Sunday @ 12:15pm: So You Want to Make a Film? A legally-sound producer’s guide

For those of you who aren’t adverse to making lists and know that producing a film means you need to know what Inland Marine insurance is, this is the nitty-gritty (albeit lightning-paced) panel for you as we go through the unglamorous aspects of filmmaking.

Arguing for the Golden Goose, Comics Edition

One trend I continue to follow is the decline of “mid-tier” creative works, whether they be “mid-budget” movies or “middle tier” novels.

I touched on this just over two years ago when I was looking at the film Warcraft in particular and film budgets in general. At the time, I also noted how the erosion of the mid-budget movie and how a similar trend seemed to occur with “mid-list” authors.

Now, superhero movies in general are not likely to be modestly budgeted these days: they’re too tempting to be used as tentpoles by the studios. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought in over $7 billion. Disney’s not about to abandon using them as tentpoles.

But what about the the medium where these superhero stories first appeared: comics?

Now, going into the whole state of the comics industry, what the direct market is, and so on, is more than I can cover briefly or authoritatively. Suffice to say, fears regarding a dire fate of the comic industry have been around for a couple years, the direct market business model seems to be poised to change, and, well, stats back up the thought that the market is struggling (even with bright spots).

So all that made the article I read about Marvel comics editors advocating for different tactics recently at SXSW all the more interesting.

Parts of their argument is that comics –even if they aren’t as all-fired profitable as their big screen offspring– serve an important function as idea incubators. In a sense, they’re narrative R&D projects. Certainly, good periodic comic books and graphic novels aren’t the cheapest things to produce — many an indie creator colleague has made me aware of that. But they are a darn sight cheaper than bankrolling a $120 million tentpole movie. And in fact, just about all the tentpole movies owe some of their “genetic material” from the comic form.

Another way they could be thought of is as the “narrative farm teams” for some of the bigger budgeted stories. And, of course, I’m thinking of that mainly for the business folks to better reconcile the numbers. The creativity and storytelling on display in so many comics is not “minor league,” but bean counters usually don’t care if a comic book was emotionally impactful, just how many units it sold. So whatever keeps the presses rolling.

Where Have All the Film Rights Gone?

Continuing on the topic of producing films from Monday’s post on film budgets, what do you do when you –miracle of miracles– finish the film?

Well, you want to get it distributed, of course!

And, just as I want more than theoretical notions and generalizations for distribution, I want to know who likes to acquire what — and as much of their terms and conditions can be shared.

So over at the site Dear Producer, Liz Manashil and Rebecca Green surveyed a host of distributors and compiled their responses.

The resulting list breaks down not only the types of films dozens of distribution companies acquire, but what festivals they typically attend, what their standard term lengths are, and so on.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard the sage advice of knowing your distribution plan before you make your film dozens of time. Well, it’s great to be reminded of that, but then there’s the whole problem of knowing –even within a given market– who the best buyers might be.

Yes, I’ll absolutely research the heck out of the individual companies before approach them, but I find this list is a great way to get some companies to keep in mind (or exclude) from the get-go. I hope that’s the case for many of you as well.

By the way, if you’re already in the mode of learning more about distribution for your indie project, Avril Speaks has a great article about lessons she learned about what to look out for when making your distribution deal.

Reminder: If you’re a fellow filmmaker that wants to chat about this or other fun, wonky producer stuff, I’ll be at the VIP Film and TV Summit in April. I’d love to compare notes.

Film Budgets… Through a Film Lifecycle

One wonky thing I’m endlessly fascinated by is film budgets. When you realize that an hour of modern “prestige” TV can top $10 million, yet the average Hollywood blockbuster is over $100 million, you know certain choices are being made and risks accepted.

And yes, I know traditional theatrical distribution and traditional network and cable distribution have business models that can inform and support these widely disparate budgets. However, I lap up little tidbits from behind-the-scenes features and other clues dropped in media interviews for how crafty producers and production staff save money here and there.

Here’s yet another instance where I have to thank my dad for taking us to see no end of foreign and classic movies growing up (TCM before TCM existed, as I like to say). Among all the other lessons I absorbed was the implicit reinforcement that you can have a damn fine movie for less than a blockbuster budget. Don’t get me wrong, things cost money… and there’s always something that costs more than you’d like. But great locations, sumptuous costumes, and even some visual effects work are absolutely within reach of modest or even “low” budgets.

It still might not be enough money.

But I’m not satisfied with the theoretical. I want to know specific tricks to save time and money. I want to know the ratios to use when estimating this versus that. I want to know the types of risks associated with all the different departments making a film.

And while it doesn’t nail down all of that, Stephen Follows’ article about feature film budgets is a veritable treasure trove of exactly that kind of historical data.

Seriously, if you’ve kept reading up until this point, odds are much higher that you have been obsessing about these things too and Follow’s article goes straight to the kind of planning-based-on-historical-data producers (aka project managers) in any industry live for.

Read deep into the article and you will be able to plan risks and contingency budgets based by department. How cool is that?

This is energizing me for attending the VIP Film and TV summit next month.

Where I’ll Be: Escape Velocity 2019

Last week, I got confirmation that Jabberwocky Audio Theater has a thumbs up to do a live performance at the Museum of Science Fiction‘s annual science-expo-meets-pop-culture-convention, Escape Velocity!

Escape Velocity 2019 Promo from Museum of Science Fiction on Vimeo.

We had a chance to do a live performance of War of the Worlds last year which was well received (and a lot of fun to do as well).

We don’t know the exact date and time of our performance –it’ll be sometime that Memorial Day Weekend– but the whole convention is a lot of fun.

In addition to the live performance, I’ll be joining one of the Museum’s production counsels in going over the legal and practical aspects of making a movie.

If you’re going to be in the Washington, DC area that weekend, please come by National Harbor. We know that tickets are now on sale.

More details as we get closer to the event!

In Case You Want to Misbehave

A lot of my efforts these past few months have been working on building the audience for Jabberwocky Audio Theater. Frankly, a great way to do that is with a giveaway.

As recipients of the JAT Mailing List know, JAT is running a second giveaway during this “pledge drive period” between our seasons.

This time, we’re focusing on Firefly, which more than a few listeners have compared my space opera, Rogue Tyger to. What can I say? Tarnished knight characters make great spaceship captains.

The giveaway runs until tomorrow, February 19th, so there’s still time to enter if that is your aim.

Choose Your Own Theater Adventure

I’ve enjoyed more interactive theater for a long time, whether it’s traditional audience response (applause/boos/hisses) or more modern breaking of the fourth wall or simply the immediacy of staging a show “in the round.”

I’ve often thought about staging a play for our local Fringe festival whose outcome is decided by the audience… perhaps after they’ve weighed in on several decision points.

I thought about those ideas again when I read a piece by Alysia Judge from the Guardian about Felix Barrett and his company Punchdrunk. Their form of theater is often site-specific, non-linear, and immersive. In fact, it sounds kind of like a limited LARP or other character-driven game (board or video) that isn’t completely open-ended.

Resisting the urge to have this be another new project (I have one that’s taking more than enough time, thank you) and remembering that not every interest needs to be another side hustle, I hope to attend a show one of these days. It feels like something that will only grow in popularity.