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The Co-Production Dilemma: Producer’s Tips and Tricks

This monthly series illuminates some of the mysteries associated with co-production. This is not a step-by step guide, as each co-production relationship is unique and dependent on numerous variables. Though there are often financial advantages to co-production, the content below re-enforces that co-production is first and foremost about relationships, and relationships are an art rather than a science. What’s most important is to understand that preparedness, logic, flexibility and creativity are the most vital tools when determining whether co-production is right for you.

UPDATE: See this series as a published and shareable pdf here: http://bit.ly/1W6FNHL

This week Hot Docs Jots offers tips and tricks from senior producers in Canada and international consultants that reflect the nuances of international and cross-cultural co-production.

Does the project need a co-production? Can you justify it?

A co-production is a hugely involved and lengthy relationship that requires careful planning. If the budget is not large enough or timeline not long enough, it is likely not worth the effort to co-produce. 

-Co-productions are inadvisable from a strictly financial standpoint. If you are entering into a co-production  for the purpose of accessing a specific fund, it is likely not worth the effort, time and relinquishing of creative control of the project

-Co-productions are recommended for projects that will benefit from most or all of the following: creative expertise, cultural nuance, access to relevant funds as well as access to the broadcast platforms/audiences of both co-producing countries

-Even if two co-producers have a good working relationship, the requirements of film agencies/funds in other countries are not always compatible, so the decision to enter an official treaty co-production should be carefully researched and considered

-A filmmaker might think they need a co-producer to be able to access commissioning editors or private foundations in other countries, but what they actually want is an executive producer, who doesn’t necessarily have to be a co-producer

Vetting a Co-Producer

Co-productions are often pursued by production companies that are very familiar with each other and have taken steps to develop trust and transparency before activating such a deeply entrenched professional relationship.

-If you are hunting for a co-producer, go to festivals and markets to find out who the funders in that country know and trust, and who has a good work ethic

-Look at a potential partner’s work and team to consider if you can build a sustained relationship with them

-Speak to other producers and collaborators who have worked with them, to gauge their individual approach to business relationships and creative work in general

-Look at a potential partner’s website, social media presence and marketing collaborators to determine marketing style

-Study not just a collaborator’s film partnerships, but their key collaborators in the field their films are about. Are they willing and able to collaborate with different kinds of organizations who can help promote their film/cause?

-Get creative by thinking about and listing what you might get from your collaboration in an ideal world, both during and after production

-Interview new partners to learn who their key creatives are, what experiences they have, and if their directors are even willing to collaborate

-Do a dry run on paper to map out what it will be like working together from co-development through to the end of post-production

-Carefully dissect if your film will work for the producers, broadcasters and audiences in both countries before entering into an agreement. Don’t force a partnership that doesn’t make sense.

-Team up with someone who believes in your project. Start working together from the very beginning through co-development to establish whether you have a shared vision

What You Need to Know to Stay On Track

-Film agencies’ eligibility requirements for official treaty status are bare bones compared to other critical elements both sides must negotiate. Before signing documents, make sure everyone is on the same page by establishing the deliverables, who’s responsible for that delivery, the levels of accountability, the shooting plan and schedule, and how the budget will be managed day-to-day. Budgets should be shared between co-producers for the sake of transparency.

-To help avoid creative disputes, outline the key creative players and the level of creative input they’ll have from development to post-production. Have a chain of title in place—make sure it’s clear who has worked on the concept and who has ownership of the content.

-Detail an exit strategy in case the partnership fails. Be transparent and clear about consequences and responsibilities.

-Have detailed provisions in your agreement for what happens if one side fails to deliver, beyond the copyright ownership details required by your treaty administrator. Discuss and map out a plan to dissolve the co-production if necessary. Have a clear understanding of the terms and write those elements into the agreement.

-Have accountants keep an eye on the ratios of contribution when costs rise, budgets change and new funders are brought on board as this can affect your treaty status

-Acknowledge that business practices (ways of communicating, negotiating tactics) as well as filmmaking practices (aesthetic choices and taste) differ internationally, as they do from company to company. If you don’t work with partners you respect, both partners, and the potential of the film itself, will suffer.

-A co-production relationship means being willing to contribute to the success of your partner’s outcomes just as much as you plan for the success of your own

-Trust and understand your co-production partner. You have to like each other to understand and sympathize with each other. This will allow for flexibility, compromise and negotiation.

Remember to Consider…

-Common disadvantages associated with co-production are that it can slow the production process,  you relinquish some level of creative control, and you are accountable to more people and cannot make choices as a sole decision maker. This increases as more co-producers join a production.

-Do not underestimate the effect time differences between partners can have on a production timeline

-Extra costs incurred may include audits, insurances, lawyer and accounting fees, etc. Disparities in cost also have to be considered in each budget. For example, an audit is usually a minimum of $5,000 in Canada but might be different elsewhere. Bureaucratic loopholes result in stretched timelines, increased costs and cash flow delays.

-Acknowledge that you will constantly need to recalculate and re-evaluate what is best for the film and the crew. As the project evolves there may be shifts in responsibility. Co-productions need to be fluid and flexible, but at the same time you need to carefully adhere to the requirements of a treaty or your funders.

-Money raised in a country has to be spent there. Do not put yourself in a position where you would be forced to dilute a project with talent that can’t contribute creatively to the nuance of the story.

-Each partner is responsible for versioning, content and overall cultural appropriateness for television programming in their home region

Practical Tips

-Treat local treaty co-production administrators as you would the business affairs office of your broadcaster: Keep them in the loop from the out-set, run any major changes past them and be communicative.

-When applying for a grant, have the creative producer provide the treatment and all other creative components of the application, regardless of which producer is applying, in order to strengthen the application

Creative Tip

-When working in a different culture with characters who are complex and problematic, don’t gloss over content just because you don’t understand it;  work with your co-producers to represent it in a useful way. Collaboration requires working with those who have a rooted understanding of the people you want to make your film about.

Thank you to Pat Ferns, Björn Jensen, Toni Kamau, Bob Moore, Josette Normandeau, and Sarah Spring for offering their advice and expertise. 

In March: International treaty co-production from a Canadian point of view and the logistics of inter-provincial Canadian co-production.

Want to learn more about co-production? Check out our 2015 Hot Docs conference sessions here.

Photo Credit: Adriano Trapani

Coordinated by Madelaine Russo.

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