PRODUCTION/POST-PRODUCTION: TAKING THE TEMPERATURE - As margins are slashed in the slowdown, glossy production values are being replaced by realism. Jim Davies reports

Gritty, raw, rough-edged, true to life. Well, that's one way of

looking at it. Watching the ad breaks of late, you'd think today's

commercials directors had been fed on a diet of pure Mike Leigh, as they

celebrate the ordinary, make a virtue out of shabbiness, sacrifice

slickness for spontaneity. Maltesers, Ronseal, Pot Noodle, Thomas Cook,

Birds Eye - they're all at it, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Is this voguish style part of a greater cultural wave, perhaps, a

reaction to the excesses and over-vigorousness with the polish in the

past? Not a bit of it. The new no-nonsense style has been born out of

financial necessity. If they look cheap, it's probably because they are

cheap. And don't let any groovy post-modernist rationale convince you

otherwise.



We may not be in a bona fide recession, but advertisers are feeling

twitchy.



And as a decade ago, when the economy nose-dived, it's the production

companies who are the first to feel the pinch. Squeezed on the one side

by ad agencies and on the other by suppliers, many are surviving

day-to-day, having to use determination and ingenuity to get by.



Dwindling demand, fostered by a sense of economic uncertainty, has been

exacerbated by the chipping away of profit margins over the course of

the past few years. "The problem is that mark-ups have been cut and

cut.



Nowadays, production is probably one of the most transparent businesses

around," Adrian Harrison, the managing director of the production

company RSA, which represents big-name directors such as Hugh Hudson,

Ridley and Tony Scott, as well as younger talents such as Sean Ellis and

Chris Cunningham, says.



Advertising agencies, Harrison argues, believe that production company

mark-up is pure profit, but fail to take into account significant

overheads such as running a centrally-located office, support staff and

administration.



He uses the analogy of going to a swanky bar and buying a glass of

wine.



"People don't think anything of paying pounds 4 for it, although it has

probably cost the bar 4p. They just accept it. For some reason, that

isn't the case with commercials production. We are having to play a

major juggling game just to stay in business."



Harrison, and many others, recognise that commercials production has now

become a turnover-driven (rather than profit-driven) business -the

engine has to be fed constantly to keep ticking over, otherwise it might

splutter out completely. "Running a production company has become a real

grind," he says. "Too many directors and production companies are

fighting over small budgets and even massive blue-chip clients are

negotiating really tough deals." It's the medium-sized companies, he

reckons, who are in most jeopardy -the small one-man and his megaphone

start-ups have the flexibility to duck and dive their way out of

trouble, while the big multinationals have the clout and big-name

directors to see them through.



Lizzie Gower, the managing director of Academy, which represents the

director of the moment, Jonathan Glazer, believes the downturn in

commercials probably started about two years ago, although workloads

were kept artificially high by the short-lived dotcom boom. "Dotcoms

provided a lot of budgets around the pounds 20,000 to pounds 40,000

mark," she says. "They were great for new directors and often required a

contemporary look." Now the blip is over, however, budgets are the

lowest she has known for at least five years and "business is

undoubtedly down".



The climate has prompted a radical revision of day-to-day working

methods, she continues. As the duration of shoots shorten,

pre-production has become more crucial than ever and directors are

expected to get things right first time. More significantly, much

shooting has been forced abroad. "We've always got our passports out and

are ready to fly off at the drop of a hat," she says. "You get much

better value for money in places such as Italy and Canada. We have to be

on our toes to remain competitive with the Scandinavian production

houses (which have established themselves as serious contenders in

recent years)." Apart from interesting, unusual backdrops, another

compelling reason for shooting abroad is the strength of sterling,

although the flipside of the coin is that UK production houses have

become relatively expensive propositions for foreign clients and

UK-based support services -lighting, camera crew, make-up, stylists etc

-inevitably miss out to local specialists.



Currently, Prague is a particularly attractive destination, offering

arty locations, skilled technicians and a highly manageable travelling

time. "Only a few years ago it used to be like the Wild West," Blink's

managing director, James Studholme, says. "But now they've really got

their act together and geared themselves up to location shoots." Though

Studholme concedes that the trend to up sticks and shoot on foreign soil

is partly a matter of financial expediency, he believes there is also an

underlying creative reason. In the 80s and early 90s, he argues, the

studio was king - if you wanted a beach scene, you'd get in loads of

play sand and have a set made. These days, directors are more concerned

about authenticity, of really feeling the vibe, so they're more inclined

to find a real beach, pub or bungalow.



Blink, like many other of the production companies surveyed for this

article, felt it was riding the storm relatively comfortably, mainly

because of the directorial talent it has on its books - a good stylistic

mix of accomplished film-makers. When the going gets tough, not

surprisingly, ad agencies are looking for a safe pair of hands, a

director they are confident can deliver on brief and on budget.

Experienced directors with track records actually tend to benefit during

recessionary times, as risk-taking becomes anathema. "You've only got to

look on the television at the moment to see that no-one is doing

anything particularly interesting at the moment," Studholme says. "The

older, established directors are taking all the work away from the young

turks."



For Studholme, this is the most worrying aspect of hard times: that

fresh, young talent, the life-blood of the industry, is held back.

Short-termism, he argues, is potentially disastrous, leading to

stagnation and mediocrity.



"As a production company, you've got to be constantly reinventing

yourself. It's central to the Blink ethos to champion new talent and we

represent our young directors bullishly. You have to take a long-term

view -otherwise, it would be a bit like advertisers saying things are a

bit tough at the moment so let's just stop advertising."



Karen Cunningham, the managing director of the production company Pink,

has a slightly different take on the situation. While she concurs that

established directors are thriving, she reckons that there's also an

opportunity for "very new, very different" directors to find a niche in

unpromising economic circumstances. "Directors at either end of the

spectrum are generally OK," she says. "Reflecting the country as a

whole, it's the people in the middle who suffer -middle classes, middle

management, Middle England. Advertising is addicted to who's hot right

now -next year it will be someone else. It's not unlike the music

industry - you have the act of the moment and bands who can sustain a

career."



Some production companies, Cunningham maintains, have a tendency to

bemoan the passing of the "good old days", when television was the

automatic medium of choice and the living was easy. Like any other

industry, however, commercials production is constantly evolving to meet

the needs of the marketplace and practitioners need to adapt and

reinvent in order to prosper.



"People who live in the past won't survive in the present," she

says.



But she does resent the fact that production companies all seem to be

tarred with the same brush, publicly chastised for taking leisurely

lunches rather than snatching a sandwich on the run. There's an outmoded

image of profligacy and unprofessionalism, lingering from the 70s and

80s that for some reason has been has been difficult to shake off.



"Every so often someone will pop up in the pages of Campaign

perpetuating the myth and filling clients with fear, suggesting that we

just sit around all day making piles of money. That's not the case, but

we are businesses, not registered charities."



This, plus a new generation of marketing/advertising literate clients

and cost controllers, has meant a much tighter level of control over the

entire creative process, with clients demanding a more hands-on role in

film production than ever before. For directors and production

companies, this can be stifling and often results in ads with their

briefs showing.



With ever-diminishing budgets and advertisers turning to new forms of

promotion such as sponsorship and digital branding, many commercials

companies are now looking to other, related avenues to showcase their

skills and spread their interests. They are busy opening pop promo

divisions, film and television offshoots, launching new-media start-ups

and alliances. "Certainly the disincentives to diversify have gone,"

Bertie Miller, the managing director of the production company Spectre,

says. "Traditionally, commercials were a profitable business compared

with music video and television, but that's not the case any more. It's

less risky to get involved in television and the margins are similar.

Feature films are something we all aspire to and you could argue that

investing in a movie involves less risk than sponsoring a young

commercials director."



"All of our directors have feature film ambitions (indeed, Jonathan

Glazer recently realised his with the well-received gangster flick Sexy

Beast) and are developing scripts," Gower agrees. "I'd be disappointed

if they weren't. Just directing commercials is like wanting to be a

co-pilot." Academy's feature film department, she says, offers "another

string to (their) bow" and is part of a reshaping of the company, which

has seen the formation of a research department and the arrival of two

reps.



For others such as Blink, sticking to their guns and what they know best

would appear to be the way forward. Its joint venture into interactive

advertising with the new-media agency Deepend is a recognition that

times are changing but, ultimately, its business remains a conduit for

its directors' vision. "Our core business is and always has been

advertising," Studholme says. "It's what we're good at. Keeping one step

ahead of the ad agencies, anticipating their needs and being able to

offer them advice and technological expertise as and when they feel

ready for it, is simply common-sense good business practice."



And this, really, is the key factor in surviving the slowdown. Although

making commercials is far from being an exact science and creativity

remains a great intangible, basic business principles still apply. You

have to be able to offer the customer what they want (or at least what

they think they want) with confidence and reliability. "There's no point

in selling flares if people want drainpipes," Cunningham says. But the

main problem facing the industry -even in good times -is a basic

over-supply of directors (although as Miller points out, there probably

aren't quite enough top-flight experienced directors to go around). So

having the right directors on your books is more critical than ever.



And, if you think about it, taking on a director is a big commitment for

any production company. If an ad agency backs a wrong'un for a

commercial, at least that's just an aberration. For a commercials

company, it's a potential disaster that has implications for everyone

from the managing director right down to the lowliest runner. "If you're

not getting the business, you have to ask yourself 'why?', and cut your

cloth accordingly. You can't just blame it all on bad luck," Cunningham

says.



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