Producers, The Buck Starts Here

Ernest Greene
Come awards night, the players and directors troop up to the stage to collect their honors for scenes and titles, but when the big brass is handed out for the two awards that matter most — Best Video and Best-selling Video — it’s the producer who gets the golden handshake, and with good reason.

Producing porn is not for the faint-hearted. However, those with the knack can not only turn healthy profits, but can also put a unique stamp on a particular genre, a specific style and even on the industry as a whole. If it can be fairly said that the directors and performers have made the pictures, it’s equally true that producers have made the business itself.

Given the intrinsic volatility of a specialized entertainment market driven by changing consumer tastes and ever-evolving technologies, with the added suspense of an unpredictable legal climate, a good porn producer needs the daring instinct of a riverboat gambler and the steady hand of a riverboat captain. Not often are these qualities found in a single individual. In a dynamic, sensation-driven sales environment where others are always pushing the envelope, a producer has to take risks to compete. But if the wrong risks are taken, it’s the producer who goes to jail. That’s the flipside of the big awards and the big rewards.

This is a key difference between staff producers and company owning independents. While staff producers rarely share directly in the revenues of a strong release, neither do they have to dig into their own pockets to pay for a legal defense if the D.A. in Wrath-O-God, Georgia decides to indict that release.

The stakes of virtually every decision an independent producer makes are much higher than they are for his or her corporate counterpart. XBIZ readers who, like myself, keep running across references to “the multibillion-dollar porn industry” in mainstream media, know that those billions are spread wide and thin and that the margins on most X-rated video products are very small. An independent producer rarely has a lot of extra cash to try things that don’t work, which is one reason why the longest-lived independents owe much of their longevity to having found a style of video that works for a certain demographic and stuck with that style.

Not surprisingly, many of the most successful in this category have come up through the ranks, working as performers and directors before cranking up shops of their own. This background gives them important advantages, both in understanding how the picture-making process works in (so-to-speak) nuts and bolts terms and in having more direct contact with consumers with whom they interact as the public faces of the industry. And it doesn’t hurt to have some practice at making a few bucks go a long way.

Making commercial pictures by committee presents challenges of a different sort. Big companies are less likely to run out of money in the middle of trying to get something out there, but they may run out of time when popular trends begin to change. Many of the large corporations instrumental in creating the industry as it exists today no longer exist themselves, or live on only as imprints owned by other entities, because they couldn’t keep pace with the demands of an audience that wants all 18-year-olds today and all MILFs tomorrow.

For any producer, the temptation to intervene and the necessity to delegate are always in conflict. Too much heavy-handed “guidance” from HQ will stifle anything hot, fresh and new that might actually emerge from the set. Too little may open the way for cost overruns, late street dates and unpredictable catastrophes requiring late-night visits to the set. No one ever phones a producer’s mobile in the middle of the night to report that everything’s going fine. As a producer, if I got such a call, I’d be on my way to the studio in a hurry. However I would come to be on a set, my first question would always be: “Why am I here?”

The reason, more often than not, is to fix something that’s broken — problems with the fire-marshal, the location owner, the lead performer, the fancy camera you got talked into renting — whatever it turns out to be, the time and money needed to make it right will be the producer’s call.

There’s an art to anticipating these things and heading them off without stalling the machinery. Having the producer hover over every detail of the production creates a resentful dependency in others that just creates a need for even more intervention.

Spending all day on the set just makes everyone nervous. On the other hand, dropping by the set to check on a few key indicators can be the best production insurance you can buy. A very successful producer once told me that he spotted a suspiciously large catering line-item in a budget and made a point of coming around at lunch to see where that money was going. When he found nothing but “a few bags of potato chips” and a hungry, grumpy crew, he knew that what he really needed was “a new director who wasn’t a crook.”

An eye for detail, such as line items in budgets, and a street-smart sense for who can or can’t be trusted are important elements in the producer’s skill-set. This is not a boy-scout business and while you can’t make pictures without trusting those who work for you, it’s unwise to trust any of them too much. Ambitions, appetites and addictions can all cost money and a good producer has some knowledge of how those elements operate in the characters of those upon whom the production depends.

And speaking of character, a producer also sets an example from the top that does much, for good or evil, to inspire those below. Producers who hang paper, stall on payments, bust deals, move the goalposts and otherwise behave dishonorably can expect the same in return. Cheap gets to be very expensive when you make a practice of trying to knock a few bucks off everybody and everybody makes a practice of doing less than their best in return.

Likewise, character counts in dealing with equals and superiors. Staff producers who go along to get along do no favors to their bosses or themselves. A bad idea from above may need to die on the producer’s desk. A good idea from below may need defending from a accounting department that just doesn’t see why Performer X is worth two hundred dollars more than Performer Y. Things can get downright Shakespearean in the office when Cable Licensing and Wholesale go at it over where the edge should be when it comes to content. Guess who has to broker solutions to those disputes.

For all these hard calls that no one else can make, there is a satisfaction that comes from seeing a project through to a profitable, high-quality finished product. That’s the real reward for a difficult job well done.


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