‘Managing expectations is a vastly underutilized skill, in my opinion. Not everyone does it, but maybe if more did, we could avoid a lot of the day-to-day drama that goes on in every business.’1
Producers have to live, breathe and eat the films that they make; often having to live with their creations from cradle to (hopefully not) the grave. Epidemic to the profession is a tendency to believe one’s own press. As a producer you have to believe. Believe that you will make money for your investors; believe that you will make a good (if not great) film; believe that you can bring the project in on time and on budget; and believe that people will want to watch your masterpiece when it is done. But a producer has to manage their own expectations for a production, as well as others.
What many producers sometimes fail to understand is this: What the world entertainment markets are willing to pay for a film or television show has very little to do with what the budget was to make it, or how long one labored to get the project made. To the television/cable, online, DVD, and theatrical exhibitors a film/program is just another slot in their schedule. Most producers and financiers need to manage their own expectations about how long it will take to realize an ROI on their fully finished productions.
“One of the best ways to manage expectations is to make sure you communicate with everyone on a frequent basis. In the early stages of a new project or as a key milestone or deadline approaches, you may want to even over-communicate… By holding frequent check-ins throughout the course of a project, you also have the chance to provide real-time status updates and manage any delays, risks, or blockers. When you're proactively honest and transparent in your communication, you have room to put a Plan B in place, if needed, or the flexibility of making new decisions as you move toward the finish line. Being honest about a delay is a thousand times better than promising to deliver and then missing your deadline.”1
Distributors and sales agents are a more sanguine lot. They can afford to be picky and usually will not distribute a film unless they sincerely believe that they can sell it… but even they are always working on a hunch. They have to anticipate the appetite of the buyers at film markets spread from Los Angeles to Berlin to Hong Kong, often six months to a year in advance. Who knows what the Australians, Germans or Chinese will be looking for next winter? What was hot at the last market may be as dead as a doornail the next. Films and television programming follow the laws of supply and demand just like any other consumable commodity.
Producers and creatives alike need to be more realistic about their expectations and should conduct proper research prior to greenlighting any project, and not pin all of their 'Hail Mary' hopes on the distributor. Learn directly from the distributor what foreign buyers are saying in those Cannes and AFM bunkers before you shoot that heartfelt film about a vampire transvestite with Asperger's. Discover what films are succeeding in the VOD space by talking to the aggregators. Meticulously keep aware of the latest industry trade winds so you're not caught with a genre trend that ended a year ago. If your direct discussions with a broadcaster or home video connection tell you that cable TV and DVD is a brutal sale these days, don't be afraid to LOWER projections on your film business plan (or even zero a media or territory out where warranted). You don't have to constrain your originality - just don't back yourself into a financial corner with insanely unachievable expectations.
While honesty is the best policy…one can be too honest with those dependent on you. A producer telling the investor that he or she will possibly lose all their money – is usually not going to be productive. A distributor telling a producer that their film is a derivative pile of horse pucky is probably not a smart move. A foreign territory movie buyer telling a sales agent that no one in their country gives a damn about a kid in Kansas and his dog… is probably not a good relationship builder. So, we use discretion, and diplomacy/tact. There are a lot of delicate and blustery egos in the entertainment industry. Since motion pictures and television programming are consumable entertainment, if we were always, brutally honest with each other, very few of our movies and serial television programs would ever get made.
“A huge piece of managing expectations is the actual expectation, right? You have to be comfortable that the expectations are realistic and achievable. If they're not, you can--and should--push back. The key here is pushing back in a way that balances the organization's needs and the team's abilities. Being open about what can be delivered and what the plan is to bring in the rest can go a long way towards instilling confidence and getting the go-ahead. If you can nail the fine art of pushback, you've won half the battle of managing expectations successfully.”1
Managing expectations is what we must do to get films, documentaries and television programs made, distributed, and seen by an audience. And managing expectations is all about communications. As a business consultant to the entertainment industry, I constantly have to assess, interpret and manage the expectations of my clients. This means that I have to listen carefully to what they are saying and then find the best way to help them achieve their goals. I can be brutally honest when I have to be, but most often I find that a deft touch works best with the majority of my clients.
Uncovering the true expectations of the other person or organization is key to meeting their needs. Sometimes they are unsure, or simply do not know what outcome to expect. Vague goals such as “make money” or “get on air” or “tell an interesting story” don’t help you very much. You need to dig deeper to find out what is driving the motivation to make this film, at this budget, with this cast – now.
Because you can’t very well manage expectations unless you know what they are.
A special thanks to Larry Goebel, Keith Birkfeld and Lise Romanoff in the writing of this article.
1Managing Expectations: The Most Underrated Leadership Skill
By Janine Popick, March 2014, Inc.