Being a film producer

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Lauren Parker talks to Shaun Weston about life as a British film producer, Vimeo, trust and funding in this podcast transcript.

by Shaun Weston

Being a film producer, image

Introduction

Shaun Lauren, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Lauren Thanks for inviting me.

Shaun So you’re a film producer. Is it a life of limousines and cocktails?

Lauren No, definitely not! Not when it’s an independent producer.

Shaun As someone who specialises in the industry of production, whether that’s music videos, short films or commercials, 2020 must be a year you’ll want to forget. How has work been for you and how have you adapted to things?

Lauren Work has dried up pretty much. It’s kind of weird, I was on a job on a big interactive project that finished the week before lockdown, so all the post had to be done remotely for that; all the colour grading, sound mixing and stuff. It did mean it managed to get released on time, but everything else I’ve geared up after that is still on pause. We don’t know when it’s going to go ahead.

All I’ve really been doing in lockdown is, like most producers and people in production, is developing projects I already had. I have a few short films I was going to shoot this year or early next year, so they’re going into a lot more development. And I had a bit of money from the BFI to develop a feature film, so I managed to get the treatment ready for that. It’s been meeting with filmmakers – directors and writers – and just trying to get new projects together as well. I’ve got the time to sit and read, so I’ve read a lot of scripts that I don’t normally have time to get through.

Shaun The networking side of your industry is all-important, isn’t it? I guess it’s been a time to build on those relationships that you wouldn’t normally have time for.

Lauren I’ve had a lot of filmmakers get in touch with me to have a chat, which is quite nice. And then we can see if projects grow. I’ve done a lot of Zoom calls, Skype meetings. Like a lot of institutes as well, like Bafta – I’m on a thing called Bafta Crew, which is sort of a ‘mentorship’ programme, a teaching programme for filmmakers. We’ve done a lot of networking and chats over Zoom through that as well, so it’s been quite good.

Shaun The TV and film industry produced guidelines to adhere to throughout this whole lockdown business. Is that unfolding a little bit now? Are things relaxing a little bit?

Lauren As far as I know, things haven’t really gone back. I know Jurassic World (the latest one), they went back but in the first week they had quite a lot of Covid cases. It’s still going, but they have a lot of money to pay for all these extra things you need. I think the soaps have gone back. But as far as I know, nothing really has at the moment. Anything that maybe already had stopped for lockdown, so it was already in production, can get up and running, but we’re still getting massive issues because no one will insure productions against anything to do with Covid.

Shaun And cast and crew. I think there’s a lack of appreciation sometimes for what happens during film and TV production. There are so many people involved. I did read, in preparation for our chat, that cast and crew no longer have to self-isolate when they arrive in the UK if they’re travelling from somewhere else. I guess that’s a good sign to maybe get the ball rolling again and get work going again.

Lauren As soon as they sort insurance out, it will be fine – people will start moving forward. Bigger stuff will start going again, and the smaller things can see how the bigger things are going.

First starts and horror

Shaun That makes sense. Let’s find out more about your professional background. It appears you’ve spent a great deal of time over the last decade or so honing many different skills. Along with being a producer and production manager, you’ve been a writer and a sound recordist. What was your first job and where did it lead to?

Lauren I think my first ever proper job … I left uni and worked as a production assistant for Endemol – it was a reality show called Super Sized vs Super Skinny.

Shaun I remember Endemol, but I don’t remember that show.

Lauren I used to watch it as a teenager, so I was happy to be on it in a weird way! That was very much working in a production office, doing a lot of photocopying or arranging shoots. It was a lot more admin-based. I only went to set a couple of times. I just lived in the office, but it was good insight because I’ve always sort of gone the production route ever since.

I was a sound recordist because I had literally gone on a set once: a no-budget project with loads of hobbyist filmmakers. They said, “We need a sound recordist.” I said I would do it if someone teaches me how to do it! I did manage to get better and paid work doing it.

Shaun Well you did it for two and a half years, so you must have been quite good.

Lauren I think so. I did a lot of horror and I’m always happy I didn’t … like, when people scream it’s really hard to get the levels, and I never messed it up!

Shaun That’s a challenge, I guess! You also wrote for Shock Horror magazine. Is horror something you really get into, or you just fell into that genre?

Lauren Horror is my favourite since I was a teenager. I’ve been obsessed with horror films! I naturally leant that way. The first short I produced was horror and the first feature film I worked on was a horror film. It’s just a natural thing. I’ve done a lot of writing for the local paper, and I think I knew someone that knew someone that worked for that magazine, so I got a job interviewing horror actors and directors. It was quite fun.

Freelance writing and horsehair blankets

Shaun You freelanced as well, in terms of writing – you’ve written a few things. I notice on your LinkedIn profile that you freelanced at Future Publishing – where I worked – for a couple of months. I had long left when you were there in 2010. What did you work on?

Lauren I did a proper placement while I was still at uni or had just left. A did a couple of weeks’ placement on Total Film, learning how it works and getting to write. I can remember I got to go to The Social Network premiere. That was quite cool.

Shaun Oh that is cool. Leicester Square?

Lauren Literally my first night, “Do you want to go to this?” I was like … yes! I did the odd article afterwards. It was a bit weird: when I came out of uni, I never knew what I wanted to do. I always thought I’d be a film director. But I was quite good at writing – at university you spend loads of time writing!

Shaun It does seem like all the positions you’ve held, and these pieces of experience you’ve had – they’ve all kind of related to one another, and then it’s ended up where you are actually a film producer who can handle production management. So all of these little strands of things you’ve learned along the way have all come together to form quite a substantial whole in terms of your skill set.

Lauren I always think that if you want to get into production, you should have an idea of what other crew do as well. I am very rare in that I’ll always back up the sound guy. I’ve got a friend I work with. He will always ask for things, but the producer will be, “No, it’s too expensive.” I will be, “He does need it.” For example, we’re in a warehouse that had corrugated metal roofing, so obviously any rain, severe winds …

Shaun You would hear everything.

Lauren … we need to pay to get this covered with whatever he wants to get it covered with!

Shaun What do you cover that with?

Lauren It’s some weird horsehair blanket – very expensive! I’m sure there’s other ways, but we did it.

Shaun Can you rent them at least?

Lauren Yeah, you can rent them.

“If you want to get into production, you should have an idea of what other crew do as well.”

Finding crew you can trust

Shaun It’s a good point you make there about understanding what other people do, so you have this broad view. You could say that about any job, couldn’t you? If you’re the CEO of a company, isn’t it good to know what other people do and how they do it? It’s really common sense. You become better at your job. You were a writer, a casting assistant, an assistant director. It has created this bigger picture of you, I think. In 2018, you were selected for the Talent Lab. What’s a Talent Lab?

Lauren That was really fun actually. There’s various ones, and this one was for Edinburgh Film Festival. You pitched a feature film – it was all for people on their first or second early features – and I pitched a feature version of a short film I did called Wash Club, and that got selected for the Talent Lab. The Talent Lab itself … it was great because all you have to do is get yourself to Edinburgh and they put you up in a hotel and you get all your meals paid for, which is brilliant. Free bars! You get loads of sessions: they take you to writing sessions, producer sessions, sessions with filmmakers. There’s lots of talks, but they also arranged one-to-one meetings with people from the industry that normally wouldn’t answer my cold calls, like sales agents. And you get to pitch your project, which was great.

There were probably about 20 of us on the Talent Lab, and that’s been a great network because we still all have a WhatsApp group if we need help on shoots. We all get in touch with each other.

Shaun You’ve almost developed a community from that one visit to Edinburgh.

Lauren Definitely. It was maybe four or five days we were all together. I think we built some good friendships out of it.

Shaun Is it good to form that group, by the way, in your line of work? I ask this because you notice it in large, big-budget things as well: Scorsese’s worked with De Niro, he’s worked with DiCaprio so many times, and Clint Eastwood works with his certain group of people. Is that how things tend to work – you develop a bond or trust with certain members of crew?

Lauren Me in particular, because when I was doing my own projects – music videos and shorts – I was working with crew that would be happy to work for no money, on weekends, or very little money. I know I can trust them. They’re working with me for the right reasons. They’re all working with me because they like the projects. So now I’ve got bigger budgets, I still try to have those onboard where I can, because I can trust them. I think that’s the thing: you keep hiring people you’ve worked with because there’s a level of trust. You know they’re going to deliver. And on longer-form projects, you can be with people for … The last shoot I did was six weeks long and I was with people during two months’ prep. You want to be around people you really like as well!

Shaun You’ve worked with a guy called Simon Dymond a few times.

Lauren Simon Dymond is probably my main collaborator.

Shaun So you pick up on his style, because he will obviously have a style. And the more you work together, the more you start to understand one another’s approach to making a film. Did you meet Simon in Edinburgh?

Lauren No, I met Simon back at a networking night at a pub! In Nottingham, there used to be a thing called ‘Shooting in the Pub’ – there’s a website called Shooting People – and it was part of theirs networking night.

Being a British film producer

Shaun So what’s it like to be a British producer? Tell us about the challenges you come across and perhaps the benefits.

Lauren Compared to Hollywood, our budget is minuscule! We’re always working with tiny budgets, but I think that sometimes makes you more resourceful anyway. You’ve got to find ways to be creative with what you’ve got.

Shaun Do you get support from Nottingham, for instance? You’re Nottingham-based, aren’t you?

Lauren I’m Nottingham-based. The cast and crew here are amazing, and I work a lot for a company called Wellington Films, who produce big films like Calibre and The Levelling. They’re my unofficial mentors because I can always ask them for advice for anything based around features. But Nottingham itself used to be quite supportive, but they’ve lost the filming link at the council. That person’s gone and they never replaced them.

Shaun Is it as simple as that? A simple thing like that can put a spanner in the works.

Lauren It was more to do with filming permissions and things like that. We used to have someone called Faith and she was amazing. Before I drove, she would literally come and pick me up and drive me around a load of potential filming locations! They never replaced her, so it’s really hard to get permissions in Nottingham sometimes, because you’re having to go to the events team, and anyone who’s dealt with the council before know they like to bounce you around every department and not answer your questions.

In England in general, the BFI have been great. I’ve had a lot of funding from the BFI for short films and early development of my feature. Now the BFI network has been split into regional hubs, so we’ve got the Midland hub actually based in Nottingham in the same building I spend a lot of my time working from, and they’re very helpful.

Shaun That’s a great coincidence! So in terms of raising finances, is it that you’re solely reliant on the BFI network or short film funding programme, or do you have independents that, you know … have piqued their interest?

Lauren For short films, the BFI have always been the first port of call for everyone in the network. I’ve been quite lucky, the last few have … I’m in talks with them now and hopefully I’ll get approved. The last one I did was BFI-backed. BBC Films are open to shorts as well. I was approached by a company called Comparry Sky as well and they’re doing more genre shorts. But it is very hard. Private finance as well – just finding people with money; something I haven’t been successful with, but I know some people have raised lots of money just from very rich friends. I’ve also crowdfunded in the past.

Shaun Did that work out?

Lauren It did. I did a horror short for £4,000 and we raised over £4,000. When we did the short called Wash Club a few years ago, we had £5,000 from Creative England and the BFI, and we raised £5,000 through crowdfunding as well.

Attracting talent

Shaun How about attracting talent? Is that difficult?

Lauren It can be, but then it’s a two-way street. The more I do, the more people get in touch with me out of the blue, from writers and directors to crew members. Now I’m starting to get a bit of traction from agents. You used to just send agents emails for cast, but never get a reply! So that’s hard.

Shaun Are you actually allowed to go to the university and say, can we borrow some of your students? We get into marketing constraints

Lauren Yeah, you can! I’ve done various projects in Nottingham – there’s the University of Nottingham and there’s Trent, and we have a really good film school called Confetti. I have links with all of those. More when I do bigger projects because I can get them proper placements … We did a really big project at the beginning of the year – a six-week shoot for this interactive project – and we have students from all the local universities and various departments, giving them their first role on set. That’s the thing as well: trying to get students their first role because it’s really hard to break in.

Shaun It must be really exciting for them as well, to have that experience.

Lauren Yeah. I was quite surprised at how … One of the production runners, she was from the university and she was always happy! “It’s six in the morning. How are you so cheerful?” But for her, it was her first set and I was probably like that on my first set.

Shaun How do you market the films with such a low budget?

Lauren When I’m part of bigger projects, that’s not my job. When I’m on feature films, I let whoever deals with that. But when it comes to shorts, it’s very much trying to build a name for yourself online. The last proper major short I did – Wash Club – we knew we were going to crowdfund it as well, we had to make sure it had an online presence before we launched the ‘crowdfunder’, so we shot a teaser and made Facebook groups and Twitter accounts and Instagram, and tried to drum up as many followers as we could before it went online. And then for the online release, we wanted to go for Short of the Week, because that’s the website for short films. And then that got us the Vimeo Staff Pick. Once you’ve got those two things, that’s as much as you need for an online film, because the Bell start promoting it and other websites pick anything like that up.

Shaun Having seen Wash Club, did you actually consider putting posters up in laundrettes?

Lauren No. We did go to a lot of laundrettes. I can remember scouting and we must have been to every laundrette that exists in Nottingham to find the perfect one!

The benefits of Vimeo

Shaun So you mentioned Vimeo there. Vimeo has played such a huge part in showcasing creative talent. I can’t believe it’s actually been around for 15-16 years!

Lauren Wow.

Shaun I know! Is it still the go-to destination for hi-def video and creators like yourself and for original content?

Lauren I think so. It’s weird because I do feel like there’s a bit of a snooty vibe against YouTube and I’m probably part of that as well. With YouTube, there’s just so much content. There’s also this idea that Vimeo is a bit more creative and a bit more polished. You don’t get all those people, and boxing videos and make-up tutorials on Vimeo! It’s a bit more creative. Especially Vimeo Staff Picks – you know there’s always going to be a certain quality.

Shaun And that’s what you’re aiming for, isn’t it, to be on those lists.

Lauren Yeah. That was always – not necessarily for Wash Club – but we always wanted a Vimeo Staff Pick. Because now as well, that’s as important as a festival selection. When you go for certain levels of funding, it will say: “Did you get into an A-list festival or did you get a Vimeo Staff Pick?

Shaun So it really is such a big deal still. I know the guys who started it left a long time ago, I think. I think they really doubled down a few years ago on making it the home for people who produce short films and commercials and low-budget projects.

Lauren There’s a lot of filmmakers I’ve discovered through Vimeo that have then gone on to do features and things.

Shaun Is it also a place where you can find other people to work with? Have you experienced that?

Lauren Possibly. I’ve never really done it. Normally by the time I’ve discovered someone, and they’ve already got their feature in development. Or they’re dealing with more money than I can bring them!

Shaun It all comes down to money, doesn’t it.

“There’s a lot of filmmakers I’ve discovered through Vimeo that have gone on to do features.”

Putting a showreel together

Shaun I’ve watched your showreel. Tell me about the process of making that. It’s obviously a part of you promoting yourself and your work. Is it absolutely crucial that, in your line of work, you make a showreel?

Lauren I think it is and isn’t. No a lot of producers have them but I think it’s an easy way to show someone quickly that I can do high-quality work. But it depends. For anything visual like a DoP, I would expect them to have a showreel, but a lot of crew wouldn’t necessarily – say a costume designer or a production designer – just a bit of a portfolio would be fine. Some people send links to films, but a showreel is normally so quick and easy to digest. They’re worth having if you can have them. I’m lucky because my partner’s an editor so he just made it for me!

Shaun That’s handy!

Lauren Yeah! I just say, use these clips and use these films, and I’ll trust his judgement for the most part. I made one tweak to the first cut.

Shaun That’s the key to self-promotion is if you show the effort in promoting yourself. Oftentimes people can take you more seriously as a creator.

Lauren It’s a horrible things to say, but if people have put effort into their website and I click on that, I’m more likely to look at the one that’s nice and easy to read, and looks nice, especially if you’re going for a job that might be based more in the visuals.

Lord of the Free Range

Shaun Absolutely. So you’re working on a short film called ‘Lord of the Free Range’. Obviously put on hold for a little bit now, but is that going to be the next big thing you’re working on?

Lauren Probably through my production company, that’s going to be the next big one. But again, we were supposed to shoot this year but it will probably be next spring/summer now.

Shaun Raising finance, I suppose?

Lauren We’re literally just waiting for the finance decision. I’m 90% sure it’s funded – hopefully!

Wisdom for the next generation

Shaun I’d like to ask at this point what advice or wisdom you can give to those who want to work in film production, in this case. What might you say to the young people listening who want to forge that path themselves?

Lauren I always say to people to get on as many sets as you can. The reality is, you do the first few for free. I worked as a runner, I did a lighting job once, just to get on different projects and see how they run. I’ve learned everyone’s roles. If you can, just do it with friends. One things that really worked for me is local film nights. Obviously not everywhere is going to do them, but in Nottingham we do a lot of local film nights, where we’ll be filmmakers of varying levels getting together and showing their work. Then you can see whose work you like, who you might want to work with, and see who might be the more experienced crews you can try to get an entry role in with. That’s it really.

Shaun Have you managed to do those film nights through lockdown?

Lauren No, we haven’t actually.

Shaun No? Not an online version of it?

Lauren No. I’m sure there probably has been other things, but I’ve not seen anything.

How to contact Lauren Parker

Shaun Well, how do people get in touch with you, Lauren, to find out a little bit more?

Lauren They can just go on my website, Kato Pictures (dotcom), and all my contact info is on there.

Shaun And obviously Kato … I haven’t asked yet, but you have a certain friend you live with who you named your business after. Can you tell us more?

Lauren Yes, Kato Pictures is named after Kato the cat.

Shaun And you named the cat Kato because …

Lauren Because of Bruce Lee.

Shaun Bruce Lee! I wondered whether it would be The Pink Panther or The Green Hornet. It’s Bruce Lee.

Lauren I was on the train with someone that I’d only just met that day and we discovered our cats were both named Kato, but hers was after The Pink Panther and mine was Bruce Lee!

Shaun Brilliant! Well thank you very much for joining me today.

Lauren Thank you for having me.

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