By Rebecca Green
It’s that time of year when social media peer pressure causes people to sum up what they accomplished in the last year, share their ‘best of’ lists and ‘thank you for the happiest year of my life’ (those on TikTok will understand that reference). I am not one of those people, but in keeping with the tradition of looking back at the previous year, I would say in 2021 I was on an unplanned and exhausting sustainability crusade, both for myself and for the producing community.
When I launched Dear Producer in May of 2018, I had a simple goal of publishing interviews with producers to highlight their extraordinary work. However, with each producer I spoke with, it became more and more clear that I’m not the only one who feels that the struggle is real. Almost every producer I interview feels that regardless of how hard they work, emotional and financial sustainability is unattainable.
When naming the site Dear Producer, in the vein of an advice column, I never imagined becoming the person producers would pour their hearts out to and I feel a responsibility to return that vulnerability not just with my advice, but by challenging our industry to do better. And so the crusade began. Quietly at first. Then full force in 2021.
Anecdotally from conversations, I knew producers were not able to make a living off their work so I decided to get the real data and deployed the Producers Sustainability Survey and Report released last February, which revealed that in 2019, 41% of producers earned $25K or less from their producing work. The report then led to a roundtable with 41 organizations to discuss their role in producer sustainability, which led to the Producer Rate Sheet and then the Film Festivals and Filmmaker Sustainability Survey and Report. All the while, behind the scenes I’ve been leading the Producers Union, which officially launched in March of 2021.
Along the way, I’ve heard every excuse as to why things are the way they are and all the reasons why things can’t change. But I won’t accept that. I won’t accept that we can’t do better. Because if we can’t do better, then I don’t see a future for myself in this business.
One of my 2021 highlights was helping my best friend’s daughter get a raise. For the past three summers, she’s worked at one of those go-cart, putt-putt golf places and she told me that other kids, who had not worked there as long as she had, were getting paid more money than she was getting paid. My advice to her was simple, ‘go to your boss and let him know that you are aware that those kids are making more money despite not being as loyal as you have been and ask for a raise.’ I told her that no one, at any stage of your life/career, will pay you more if they don’t have to. A few weeks later, she texted me saying she took my advice and she got a raise without any pushback. I was so proud of her.
The point of the story is that I will continue to advocate for producers and challenge the broken system, but if you don’t also advocate for yourself, my effort is meaningless. So to help you / help me / help you, here are some guiding principles to follow in 2022.
DETERMINE YOUR VALUE
This is different from receiving vague advice to ‘‘know your value and not settle for less.’ I mean, in actual real dollars, determine your worth. When the Producer Rate Sheet was published I received emails from people saying that the rates were too low while others said they were too high. To be clear, the Rate Sheet was meant to set a benchmark and make a statement that producers should not be asked to work for free, not set one-size-fits-all rates for producers. It was created to encourage filmmakers and organizations to reevaluate their beliefs and policies around sustainability using the Producer Rate Sheet as a guiding star. You are the only one who can determine your value. Take the Producer Rate Sheet and come up with your own compensation rates that match your level of experience, expertise and time commitment.
DON’T BE PRESSURED TO “GIVE BACK”
Once you set compensation rates in your own personalized rate sheet, you must actually ask for that compensation. When the Producer Rate Sheet came out, a friend emailed me saying, “How much do you charge for the confidence to ASK for this money?” I told her that my confidence came from starting to ask for compensation and quickly discovering that most people don’t want to pay me for my time and knowledge. I’ve even had organizations insulted by the mere suggestion because their org is a non profit and I should participate for free under an obligation of “giving back” (as if I’m not doing enough of that via Dear Producer). In 2021 I made it a point to always request compensation when organizations asked me to participate and I’d say about 95% of organizations said no. This meant that I did not participate and I began to notice how much of a time suck it’s been “giving back” and how much more energy I have for my own endeavors and self-care by not participating.
HOLD ON TO YOUR FEE
The work the Producers Union is doing to establish salary minimums for producers will hopefully put an end to producers being asked to waive their fees. However, until we are fully up and running, it’s on you to push back against waiving your fee. We’re in a time where there is little upside for producers, especially in the low budget indie space. Producers are discovering talent (directors, actors, cinematographers etc. ) who in success, go on to bigger projects with better pay and unions to join. There is more incentive for them to work for lower rates on potential breakout films. But producers don’t have the same opportunities. For example, unlike everyone else involved in an indie film, producers don’t get hired to work on one episode of television. That’s just not a thing. Unless you generate the entire series, there are no opportunities to break into TV. And even before the pandemic, backend compensation was dwindling down to nothing so unless your film is the mega sale at Sundance, you shouldn’t expect any contingent compensation. If there is little growth opportunity and no backend, all we have is our upfront payment. Don’t give it away.
BE SPECIFIC WITH YOUR GENEROSITY
Producers are inherently generous people. They show up for their peers and provide impactful mentorship that arms the next generation of filmmakers to bring important stories and perspectives to the screen. Our mentorship is necessary, but should also have boundaries. You don’t have to say yes to every filmmaker and organization who asks for your help and it’s ok to ask yourself what you will get out of showing up for someone else. As you put together your own personalized rate sheet, determine how many hours of your time in 2022 you can give away for free. Actually do the math. For example, in October, producer Mynette Louie Tweeted that she has spoken on 31 panels since the pandemic began. I replied saying that if all organizations paid her per the Producer Rate Sheet, she would have made $7,750. Look back at 2021 and estimate the hours you worked for free, compare that number to the Rate Sheet and see what you would have made had you been paid.
STOP ACCEPTING THAT THIS IS JUST HOW IT IS
Broken systems don’t change if you continue to enable the behavior that created them in the first place. Within five minutes of the Producer Rate Sheet being published, a friend at one of the major film non-profits texted me saying, “I love all that you do on behalf of producers, but you know from our standpoint, we can’t afford your recommended rate sheet.” This person could have taken a different approach and acknowledged that producers do deserve to get paid for their time and while the current budget doesn’t allow for this kind of compensation, it is something their org will consider and discuss. Or something along those lines. Radical change is needed to keep indie film alive and that change is not going to happen if we resist big ideas and keep living by the rules that were created decades ago. Don’t accept someone telling you ‘this is just how it is.’
TAKE BACK YOUR TIME
Even prior to the pandemic, most producers were working from home without infrastructure such as assistants and office phones, which means our colleagues have 24/7 access to us. And the pandemic has only exacerbated that access. Unless you are on the ground in production, there is no need to be available 24/7. I’m sorry to tell you this, but nothing we’re doing is that important, we’re just making movies and television, you’re not an on-call ER doctor during a pandemic. Yes, our work can change the culture and I believe art is necessary, but your mental and physical health is important as well. Create structure with your colleagues by creating office hours where they will know you will not be available to respond. And actually stick to those office hours. You deserve to have a life where you get to enjoy dinner, spend uninterrupted time with your loved ones and not constantly feel that you have to be checking your phone. Working from home does not mean you have to be working all the time.
PRIORITIZE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH PRODUCERS
In managing the Sundance Producing Lab and being the lead Creative Advisor for the Film Independent Lab for many years, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting incredible producers who went on to become friends I constantly lean on for support. Our business focuses on the director above all else and while those relationships are also important to nurture, nothing can replace having producers in your life who you can call on when the going gets tough and there will be no one more happy for you in times of success. If you don’t have close producer friends, make it a point this year to seek them out. If you’ve been neglecting your producing friends, set a time to check in with them.
This holiday season I practiced the art of doing nothing. I’m writing this piece today, but otherwise every day since December 17, I’ve woken up and told myself that I do not have to do anything productive unless I feel the desire to do so. This amounted to a lot of time on the couch, taking naps, slowly cooking meals, taking several baths and many walks in the park. This year I chose not to travel for the holiday, as I’ve done almost every year since I graduated college, and decided to give myself the gift of true rest. It was a bit lonely, but as Adele sings, “Sometimes loneliness is the only rest we get.” 2021 was a rough year for me with a lot of disappointment and setbacks and it was necessary to give myself time to grieve the losses and let my mind and body recuperate so that I can go into the new year with the energy needed to keep pushing the boulders up the mountain.
The phrase I’ve been using since I launched Dear Producer. I’m not really sure where I picked it up from, but it has been my motto ever since. According to Merriam-Webster, “keep going” means “to continue moving forward.” But don’t think of it in a narrow sense like you have to keep going on all your projects or that you have to stay on the same path if things aren’t working out. Continue to move forward with what is best for you, not just what’s best for your projects and filmmakers. Keep going can even mean changing your career path. Keep moving towards creating the life you want to live even if it’s not what people expect of you.
I have no idea what 2022 is going to bring us, but I hope sharing these sustainability lessons I’ve learned will help you on your path to building a sustainable career that is filled with more joy and less anxiety. I am committed to continuing the crusade so long as you join the fight by advocating for yourself.