Getting a project made in Hollywood, or at any company anywhere for that matter is frustrating. There couldn’t be more obvious words written.
I spent the day today with an old friend who does budgeting for a top cable network and it’s very interesting and perhaps a little reassuring to see how and why certain really good pieces of material just can’t get made. As every network and studio do the same thing this is in no way revealing anything confidential; it’s just reminding the creative element what’s going on with the money crunchers.
A few years ago, said cable network, was handed down an edict from up high that they were spending too much money. They were doing very well and they were taking tom many liberties with their budgets because they were on a roll. Well, to stay on a roll they needed to be reigned in. That’s where my friend came in.
He was transferred from another department to put together numbers. The numbers pertain to every department for a certain amount of money per year to be used for series, movies, miniseries and documentaries to be developed and produced or purchased.
Now, there is a lot of attention put on these numbers and every department has to adhere to them. What does this mean? It means there are a certain number of projects that can be developed and made each year. Each of those has a budget which will allow for a certain number of writers, producers, certain level of actors, etc… to complete the budget. There are going to be high level movies and they may spend money on literary rights for those. There are going to be epic miniseries and they may have a bigger production budget for that. There are going to be shows from smaller up and coming filmmakers or comics and these might have less money put into them upfront but more for marketing to announce and promote the project. Then of course there are going to be shows created by the top show runners in cable and they are going to have a lot of leeway when it comes to money. Yet even they will need to stick to a budget. However, yes, those shows might get the lead in for biggest budget.
So, what happens if your brilliant television show or movie comes their way and by all accounts it should fit their mold and be made? Well as a representative of writers and directors, this happens a lot. You’re told no. You’re told how much they love the material and how it’s right up their alley but indeed they cannot develop the piece. It’s frustrating as all get out. It may be because it’s November and you should wait until the fiscal year starts again, it main mean they’ve filled up on your particular brand of whatever it is your selling. Itf they tell you they like it but cannot buy it, rest assured it likely has nothing to do with you. It only has to do with the numbers.
The first money to go out of the budgeting window is development. That’s one of the biggest changes in the entertainment industry from years ago. There used to be money paid for an option, there used to be money paid for small developmental changes in the script before outright purchase; a creative collaboration with the network before a sale happened. That rarely happens anymore and if you are lucky to have some development, it’s often done for free. In hope…in hope…
So, when you’re frustrated and wonder why you can’t get your clearly perfect material up the ladder and made as it should be, take heart. There is a budget that every department must seriously adhere to. This is certainly true at this cable network and I imagine studios and networks all have stringent rules when it comes to budgeting. I only know that this network means business and there’s no funny business when it comes to messing with the budget. There are going to be special projects led by movie stars or filmmakers that are going to take up a certain portion of the budget. There are going to be smaller TV shows that are going to take up a smaller portion of the budget. There are going to be literary purchases that will add to a budget. There are going to be medium sized long running shows that are shot in far away lands that are going to stick to a budget. There are going to be shows that have been very successful for years and now the actors get raises every year and that adds to the budget. All this prevents your project from taking a piece out of the yearly budget for this company. It’s already being gobbled up.
There is always still a chance. Packaging helps your project. Originality helps your project and one things is to watch carefully is what is not going to be on that network next year. This network has several long running shows that are over now; they need material and they are bombarded. They have competition and they have to stay ahead of the race. Can you be a part of next years race? Hopefully, but you and everyone else is thinking the same way. You need to learn how to fill the gap at networks and with cable you can look backwards to look forwards.
For arguments sake as we wrap up, let’s call this network HBO. They used to reign supreme with The Soprano’s, Big Love, True Blood. Now they have Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, Girls, The Comeback. Three of these shows are not doing very well. Find the gap and fill it. Remember “Must See TV” on NBC? That worked for a long time, there was nothing that could crack Thursday in the 1990’s. Other networks are looking for those pieces – some are going to end up with every “Friend’ making $2 million an episode. That leaves a lot less for the network to take on. Bear it in mind and think ahead. KNOW YOUR BUSINESS and make sure, if you have an agent or manager or anyone else who is helping you that they know it too. The future is in your knowledge and their budget.