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21 August 2019
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US indie producer Paul Mezey on low-budget producing

Paul Mezey was a guest advisor at the 2007 IndiVision Project Lab. He is a New York-based independent producer and founder of Journeyman Pictures. Paul has produced many critically recognised films, including Maria Full of Grace and Half Nelson, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2006 and received an Academy Award nomination this year for Best Actor (Ryan Gosling). Paul also recently produced the film Angel Rodriguez (directed by Jim McKay and featuring Rachel Griffiths). In this edited transcript of his Lab session, he shares his experience and wisdom about producing low-budget films.

What makes a low-budget film successful?
In the independent world, the producer's role is all-consuming and runs the gamut from creative collaborator to strategic planner to manager to accountant to negotiator to salesman. As a producer, I will typically work for three or more years on a single film project, shepherding it from script to distribution. In addition, I am still responsible for managing the ongoing business of films that have been in distribution for years. The model under which I work has three key components, which include:

1. Maintaining as much creative and financial control over the project as is necessary in order to (a) make the film that you, the creative team, envision, (b) allow you the options and flexibility to ensure that the film will actually get made, and (c) give the film the best shot at reaching as wide an audience as possible.

2. Choosing collaborators with whom I will want to work again, with the goal of building long-term partnerships with writers/directors. Looking beyond a single project towards building careers over a long term, building a market for the types of films that we make, and creating a model that empowers us and helps to protect the sustainability of our work.

3. Owning what we make (to whatever extent possible), building assets that we have some control over in the long term. In the studio world, writers, directors and producers are hired to provide all their services on a strictly 'work for hire' basis, but do not necessarily share in the ownership of the results of their labour nor retain ultimate creative control. In the independent world, we are working for ourselves (in partnerships) and retain a certain level of ownership in what we have made. This ties into the sustainability equation and also the distribution equation.

Choosing projects
It's never simple to explain why a certain idea or script will grab you in such a way that you can't shake it, but for me this is the critical first step for embarking on any project. There has to be some very personal resonance and something that I can feel passionate enough about to work on for years. I tend to prefer projects that take the audience where they perhaps haven't been before. I am attracted to films that reveal a unique and less-known world, but that have at their core themes/emotional struggles that I can relate back to my own experience (that feel universal yet are very specific).

The second most critical factor in my decision to commit to a project is the realisation that the director/writer and I share the same understanding of what this film needs to be. I can't say enough how critical it is that the producer and the director share the same vision for the film they are making. Because the producer is constantly the one who has to set limits and come up with creative solutions, it is imperative that I have the complete faith of the director. They have to believe that I will not compromise the film. The process of making a film is constantly one of making clear choices and each choice involves some sort of trade off. The challenge is to navigate this and try and make the right choices, so at the end of the day you have compromised as little as possible.

Getting a film made
You need to develop a comprehensive plan for production that allows the film to be economically viable. For that, the 'price' (i.e. cost of production) needs to be right and there has to be a perceived audience, i.e. a demand for the film.

Assessing what the film should cost:
You need to come up with a budget that makes sense for your project, both with regards to what you need to achieve the creative vision for the film and also what will allow you the greatest likelihood of actually getting the film made, and allowing the film to be successful in the marketplace. There are two main steps in this process:

STEP 1: Involves coming up with a range, high-end/low-end analysis of what the film can cost to make. Both are equally important - meaning a film can cost too much or too little. It can be over-budgeted as well as under-budgeted. How to do this:

(a) First identify the critical creative elements, which underlie your creative premise. What distinguishes the film, makes it unique and would be critical to its successful execution? For example in Maria Full of Grace:
* the film needs to be in Spanish
* Colombians should play/represent themselves as Colombians - meaning the lead actress is not going to be a star
* it should be a Colombian co-production
* we want to take the audience on a very specific journey, two critical elements: we need to get the facts right and show them authenticity, and it needs to feel immediate/intimate. Maria will lead us, the camera will go where Maria goes. We follow Maria on her journey, so real locations/world should feel authentic.

Half Nelson is a story about a relationship, not a story about a drug addict. Plot will not drive this story, so it will be completely performance dependent. [In the] Dan Dunne character much of the conflict/tension/drama is internal, which means we must be willing to strip away any artifices that could impede that. Create a flexible shooting environment, keep it simple for the camera, create settings where the actor can invent/strive.

For me, the challenge and achievement of both Maria Full of Grace and Half Nelson was each film portraying the main character in such a way that the audience could rise above the impulse to judge him/her. There was not any clear moral case being made. We just follow him/her freely and therefore hopefully come to understand him/her.

(b) Break down the script and come up with a realistic shooting schedule so you know both the optimal day count and minimum day count. Be realistic about what you want to achieve, then build both a high budget and a low budget so that you know your range. List those things that can be adjusted such as crew size, fees, locations, extras, shooting format etc. Each scenario should preserve the essential elements that underlie your creative premise. There will also be some script elements that you know could be adjusted without compromising the essence of the film. That is, you may set a scene to take place in a different location. Does this moment have to happen in a car? Some of these things that might be great may not be essential to the story and may actually cause you to invent something more interesting.

This process can be revelatory in the sense that you really are forced to understand what is at the heart of the film that you want to make, and you will probably make discoveries along the way that strengthen and focus the film.

STEP 2: Assessing the 'value' of the film in the marketplace. Now that you have created a fairly thorough understanding of the budget range of what it will take to make the film, we need to look at the flip side of the equation and make some assessment of the potential value of the film in the marketplace. This whole process of assessing your film's potential value in the marketplace may seem counter-intuitive to what I have just discussed in terms of the pure passion of the idea, but I am not talking about tailoring the substance of a film for a marketplace, but rather, trying to use one's best judgement and available knowledge to begin to understand what the demand for the film might be, and therefore what cost is reasonable in order to best ensure that the film can reach the marketplace and be successful. Factors in evaluating your film:

* Try to determine a fair valuation of your film (i.e. what revenue might you reasonably expect from the exploitation of all rights, based on the current state of the marketplace). Research other films, looking at how much rights were acquired for and how well the film performed. Both are important factors, the latter being weighted more heavily. Be realistic because this is what the person on the other side of the table is doing (i.e. you will need to interface with a buyer/distributor at some point).

This means you need to do some homework. Research the marketplace: know the landscape, the general market and how your film fits in. Also, know something about the distribution companies and/or financiers that you are considering approaching. What is their profile? What types of films have they supported in the past? Do they work with first-time directors? What budget range?

* Know your film. What is your intended film like? What can you compare it to? How have similar films performed from a financial standpoint? What is the audience and marketplace for your particular film/what is the demographic of the intended audience? Is it a genre film? Is this a film that critics might embrace? Will theatres hold it over? Who might be the ideal distributor and why? What is the salvage value of the film (i.e. what is the value in secondary markets if it proves disappointing theatrically)? What are the bottom line economic and production costs?

* The Package. What are the critical creative elements that you will use to present your project and which will determine its perceived value, that will become part of your pitch/value-added? Value of any underlying material (popularity, etc)/how topical is it? Strength of your script, cast, genre, reputation of the writer (both critically and past performance of his/her work in the marketplace), reputation of the director, reputation of the producer.

You may not necessarily have every element locked in by the time you go out for financing, but you should have the majority already in place or at least to a point where there is serious interest. In other words, these should not be purely hypothetical. The most valuable resource of any independent producer is his/her integrity (and track record), therefore any producer should only include elements in the package that are actually confirmed, and a producer should be extremely realistic and careful not to misrepresent things. Your production plan may include a Plan A and a Plan B (two different game-plans/budget levels) - one of which is optimal and one which is a back-up/secondary plan. This is done when evaluating your project and preparing your budget. This is your own info and will inform your strategy.

For Maria Full of Grace we had budgets from [US]$1.5m on low to $5m on high. I think we realised that we had to bring this in for under $3m to have any chance, and even then we had to be prepared to make the $1.5m version.

For Half Nelson we had somewhere around $600,000 low and $2m high. It became clear that [it was an] execution-dependent situation and we would have to try and get as near our low as possible, but with a plan that would get a bigger distribution deal, and building in those elements/production values that wouldn't hamper that. The total budget ended up around $1.2m.

The film took $3m at the US box office, and so it's considered a success. But importantly, if we had made the film for $3m and it had taken $3m it would have been considered a failure.

Read the feature article about Danish writer Mogens Rukov (AFC News March 2007) who was also a guest advisor at the IndiVision Lab 2007.

US indie producer Paul Mezey was a guest advisor at the 2007 IndiVision Project Lab. Photo: Simon Cardwell.

A scene from Half Nelson, which Paul Mezey executive produced.