A Movie Producer On The Planning Process

May 14, 2020  |  by:

A couple of months ago, I was able to interview an amazing South African Independent Film Producer with over 28 Award-Winning films to her name. Helena Spring produces movies under extreme pressure and immutable deadlines. Beginning to sound familiar? We discussed the planning process as it applies to movies and events.

There are many similarities between event planning and movie production. Both have inflexible deadlines, demanding clients, budget concerns, and creative challenges. I spoke to Helena about what she learned over a long career, and what organization tips she could share. 

Because if there’s one thing that both careers share, it’s the importance of organization. But first, let’s learn a little bit more about Helena Spring.

How Helena Spring Became A Film Producer

Helena Spring on the planning process

I asked Helena how she got her start producing movies? 

“When I was young and foolish, I thought I wanted to be an actress. But I realized that it didn’t suit my personality at all. You’ve got to be willing to experience deeply personal rejection very frequently to be a successful actor, that wasn’t me. I also couldn’t imagine sitting waiting for people to bring me work.” 

“I went into the film industry, first worked for quite a few years on set, and got to know what happens on the factory floor.” 

Over time, Helena worked her way up to the role of producer. “I’ve always thought producers are dazzled by the creative elements of the job, but what is required is quite a strong business approach. It’s a combination of those two things.”

“I can’t remember who first said it, that is that producing is basically forcing a project into existence. Whatever it requires to create something out of nothing and get it on the screen, that is what a producer does.”

In the last few months, I’ve spoken to about 100 event planners. Most of them similarly got their start. Industry experience is critical to excelling in any industry. Whether it’s starting out as a vendor or as an assistant to an experienced planner, beginner event planners become top-flight experience-creators by starting at the bottom.

Helena Spring Movies

Important Character Traits Of Both Producers and Event Planners

Helena explained that it’s “persistence and being willing to go the distance. Of course, you’ve got to develop the project, you got to find the money for the project, you’ve got to put the team together, and those things. But to be able to do those things, you need a particular mindset. I think this is very true for event planning too.”

“When you’re putting a production together, it is really all-consuming. It takes over your life. I often, for example, when I speak to students and so on about film production, I’ll say, ‘Please understand that over and above this being a profession, you’ve also chosen a lifestyle.'”

“You’ve got to be prepared to immerse yourself. And to do the hours, to be persistent. There’s no going back. You can’t stop halfway.”

A Good Planning Process Sets Expectations And Aligns Everyone Behind The Vision

“When I bring a director on, I’ve got to be sure his interpretation of the screenplay is the same as mine. And that we’re both going to make the same film.”

I’m sure any event planners reading this are nodding already. So set client expectations early. And making sure there’s a genuine shared understanding. 

As Helena puts it, “That’s not something I want to discover on set. I think that your planner must be very sure that the client’s vision and the event planner’s vision align. We don’t want somebody arriving for their wedding, or the movie premier only to discover that this is absolutely not what they wanted.”

The Team Is Critical To The Creative Vision 

I asked Helena to get into her planning process a little more. How does a producer get to the shared vision?

“There are certain people that I’ve worked with from project to project to project to project,” Helena explained. “Those usually are people on the organizational side. On the creative side, I choose skills to suit the project. If somebody is very good at action, I’m not necessarily going to put that person on a romantic comedy. So you’ve got your director, now you start choosing the team. For a rom-com, you’re not going to select an art department or production design where they’re used to doing gritty, underbelly of the city stuff. You choose somebody who’s got more of a lyrical poetical feel about them. So it’s matching skills to your needs of the budget.”

The Planning Process And The Timeline

The timeline for events can range from two years to two months. For a movie, the timelines can stretch up to 7 years or more sometimes. Knowing how projects can suffer from scope creep, mounting costs, and other problems, I asked Helena how she manages timelines. 

“I always tell my team, panic upfront. During the preparation process, that’s the time to panic. That’s the time to dot every I, cross every T, preempt every possible thing that might go wrong. Have a plan B. If it’s going to rain and you’ve got exterior scheduled, how are you going to cope with it?”

And as the new ideas pop up, and budgets start to stretch, the ability to say no is a powerful tool to stay on track.

“Don’t be afraid of saying no. It was the case me in my early days, is you get whipped around by the vision for the project. The temptation to say yes, it’s almost irresistible. Because of course you also want the best possible. But it’s just not worth it. Getting to the end of your project and finding that you are over budget is not an option.”

Helena recommends budgeting for the likely overruns. “Each department gets a little bit less than what there is actually on the table because mistakes get made, unexpected things arise.”

But Helena makes a point to say it’s not only about the word no. It’s also about solutions. “I think the thing is when you say no to something, always to have an alternative on the table. “We can’t do it this way, but what about that?”

How To Get Good At Saying No

Helena and I talked a little bit more about this. “At this stage of my career, I’ve experienced the consequences of budget overages. It’s a painful situation.”

Personally, I’ve always struggled with saying no even though it’s useful when building event planning software. But Helena pointed out that a strong relationship with vendors and colleagues makes the planning process easier.

“You have to establish a relationship with all your key people where you can speak very openly about what is possible and what isn’t possible. And you need to address a budget issue the minute it happens. Address it immediately. Raise it in a pleasant and practical manner.” 

“You immediately say, ‘Listen, that’s going to be tough because what we’ve agreed to budget-wise is this. Let’s see if there’s another way that we can achieve a similar effect for the money that we do actually have.'”

“The other thing is I think also is it’s essential to be open-hearted and transparent. I’ve had to tell the client, ‘This is what it costs. We’ll have to take away from somewhere else if it’s that important to you. Or we’re going to have to figure out an alternative.'”

What Makes A Great Producer?

I want to end our discussion on the planning process on an inspiring note. I asked Helena, what makes a great producer? And I think the same attitude makes a great event planner.

“You have the understanding that it’s not just a job. It is, in fact, a lifestyle. What makes a great producer? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule. We’re all different people. We all have our own process. But I think for me, what is really important, focus, dedication, and have the end goal very early fixed in mind. Focus on that and don’t allow that focus to waiver.”

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