One of the most grating pieces of advice that I hear seasoned pros dispensing to up-and-comers time and again is: “Just go make what you love, and worry about the rest later.” That all sounds good when you don’t have bills to pay. The truth is you have to get out there every day and mix it up; you never know where your next project might come from. As the production landscape continues to evolve, with ever-changing budgets and technology to cater to those shrinking budgets, filmmakers will be called on to be ever more versatile and thrifty in their skill sets and approaches to production. With that said, here are some things I’ve learned from many hours in the trenches of content production, including skills that will help set you up for success in endeavors large and small.
Gavin Garrison on set
Find Your Own Path to Success
My personal story starts in the camera department. I loved shooting, technology, gear, and tools, so at 17, I was thrilled to start as a production assistant in a camera department. I bounced around a lot of different departments on several TV shows, including The OC and Mad Men, and eventually discovered that although I really loved to work on set, I was even more fascinated by the world of the producer. I set my sights on the role, but the journey to producing was anything but straightforward. When I landed one of my most thrilling producing roles, for the show Whale Wars, it turned out that all of my camera experience was critical to me getting there, which led to an important realization: even if what you’re doing on any given day doesn’t directly relate to your goal, diversifying your skill set can yield hidden rewards.
Remember, you’re always promoting your personal brand. I’ve never considered myself a great salesperson, but I have learned to become one out of necessity. In today’s market, we all have to wear a lot of hats. In practical terms, this might mean that you have to find the work, sell the work, package the work, do a little product placement, find someone to buy your tax credits, produce the work, pick up the pieces of the work that no one else wants to do, negotiate some extra post-production funding, deliver the work, promote the work, and then start the process all over again. These are extremely dynamic, multi-faceted roles that will keep you on your toes and awake at night. Whether it’s striking a deal to get some screen time for a product or arguing with an administrator who’s refusing to stamp your film permit the night before production is slated to begin, it always pays to maintain an outwardly pleasant and friendly demeanor. The film business is international and high profile, so wherever you are, be a great ambassador for the industry and for yourself. That said, it’s also a small world. Building a reputation as someone who is consistently professional and easy to work with will help pave your way to success.
Keep an Eye on Your IP
Your ideas, projects, notes on cocktail napkins, scripts, characters, outlines, groundbreaking plot twists, genius arcs, journals, childhood stories from your hilariously ironic wonder years growing up in Tonganoxie — they can all be stolen, ripped from your hard-working hands by smiling executives, their assistants, “directors,” or your high-school best friend. I once sat at a beautiful, glossy conference table, on a high floor of one of Hollywood’s few high-rises, pitching an idea I had crafted for a mini-series I had spent the better part of a year perfecting. The pitch went amazing. One of the assistants sent me an e-mail before I’d even gotten to my car, gushing about how much they loved the project. A week later, I got a cryptic e-mail letting me know that the network had already been pitched another vaguely similar show. I was crushed. In 2015, the show (a version of it) premiered, featuring the characters I had brought to the network, and, to add insult to injury, the same title I had pitched. It became a powerful lesson in protecting intellectual property (IP).
I expected that, because one of the junior execs was an old friend, I could let some of the formality of the process slip by the wayside. I was wrong. I learned some important lessons: I should have asked my characters to enter into an exclusive agreement; I should have asserted copyright with the network (which I had); I should have asked the network to sign a development agreement before I brought any materials to them; and, perhaps most importantly, I should have pitched through an agent. Regardless of whether or not you have representation, familiarize yourself with legal and contract language — it’s a little dense and can be rather dry, but after you’ve wrapped your head around it, it’s not difficult to embrace and use to your advantage.
Learn to Negotiate
As Stephen Covey, the famous business and organizational author said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” You’ll soon learn (if you haven’t already) that many people genuinely want to help you. I highly recommend doing some light reading on building negotiation skills, then practicing to incorporate them into your everyday life. I had long considered myself an introvert and, consequently, not cut out for things like producing or negotiating. I hesitated to ask for discounts at places like hotels or iPhone repair kiosks. Over time, I educated myself on how to break out of this self-imposed limitation by understanding other people — just like our best-written characters, everyone has wants and needs. Two other things also helped me become a successful producer: the first was Buzzfeed’s confirmation that I’m an “ambivert” (whew!), and the second was learning that everyone has a margin they can safely dip into — you just have to persist to find out what it is. When the time comes and you’re in a position to help other scrappy producers who find themselves at your mercy, you’ll be able to nod knowingly and help them out – after all, we’ve all been there.
Gavin Garrison has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). In 2013, Gavin filmed the sports series Nock Out for NBC, and his history with network and studio production includes work on The OC, Mad Men, and The Middle. Gavin also worked in development for Paramount Studios while receiving his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California. Today, he consults, directs, and produces for clients around the world, including Ford Motors, Costco Wholesale, and Michelin. Gavin is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison.