The viability of starting a production business - should a new guy head toward or or away?
Hey all! I've got a question for all you established business gurus. I'm wondering what the current climate of the production world is, and if it's foolish to head into it if I'm already established in another job.
Brief summary: I manage an in-house production facility for an educational institution and their affiliated organizations. We do everything from promotional videos, to personality interviews, to lifestyle-type commercials, to basketball arena full-court projection floor shows. Things are good as far as the job is concerned, and I'm pretty secure in the position. However, I really feel like this may be the time to leave. I miss the PROJECTS! I miss editing and crafting and shaping the message of a video. Sure, I'm in charge, and I get to make all the final decisions and oversee all creative direction, but 95% of my time is spent running around putting out fires, looking at deadlines and assignments, trying to drum up resources, etc.
(There are also a lot of other reasons why it's time to move on, but they aren't super-relevant to the conversation.)
So... I've had the thought of launching out and starting my own local production business. The real challenge here is I've spent the last 5 years managing, not doing. I know enough to ask my crew for softer light here or a tighter pace in the edit there, but rolling up my sleeves and executing all the things I would normally just ask for is an entirely different matter and almost more of a skills-stretcher than I have time for. I'm willing to do it and put in the hustle though, if there's a chance of it being successful.
The real question here is: what do you think about the business climate for starting a production company? I could go small and do a bunch of one-man band stuff, I could go big and direct a crew (which is a lot closer to my current skills set), but is this feasible or viable at this economic time? This really came into focus when I reached out to a DP/Producer friend I know in Birmingham for advice on this very topic, and he told me that he and everyone he knows has seen a 60% reduction in work in the last 2 years and he's not sure what's around the corner. He wanted to be positive for me, but he's also in the process of reinventing himself in order to try and stay afloat.
I love the idea of putting in the hustle and starting up my own little creative agency, but I also have to feed the family (there's 5 of us and 1 on the way), so half of me is saying just forget the artistic ambition and stick with what I've got. It's not the perfect job situation, but we manage to get by and at least I'm still working in a field I really enjoy. I could be bagging groceries after all.
I'm not asking, of course, if I should or shouldn't make the move, but I am curious what you think the viability of starting a production company in this current economic climate is. I should mention I'm along the gulf coast in the Florida panhandle, so it's not an enormous market, but I've got a couple of big cities within a few hours drive.
All thoughts appreciated!
My take on things is, the traditional, more monolithic market space I grew up and made a career in is all shattered, fractured into narrow niches. Get into the right niche, with the right ideas, and the right timing, and yes, you can do well. The "generalist" market that used to be served by editing boutiques and collectives - it's being commoditized away to a shell of it's former self, and the margins are low.
I'm not you, and I don't have the complete picture of your situation. I'm very conservative when it comes to career choices that affect my family, so I'm not a gambler. But if this was me, I'd keep the Good Thing I have going, and concentrate on building a side business in my free time, that gives the creative kick and personal "hands-on" work you are very obviously missing from the Monday to Friday. I think it's less about finding something lucrative and more about finding something that satisfies your personal passion, and hopefully, brings in enough money to at least self-support the work, if not turn a profit.
For you, that may be working on your own indie movie, or a specialized YouTube channel, something like that, which you base your vacations and weekends around. There are an ever-growing number of non-broadcast movies and show pilot projects going on, most of which will still die, as they always have... but the demand for more and more content - that's a huge magnet for new productions. In that regard, we're really in a new Golden Age for production.
All that said, there are only so many hours in a day, and pursuing the two distinct jobs, week-day and free-time, inevitably means missing out on home life and relationships. Search yourself to consider; are you really able to make the needed level of commitment for success between the divided activities, and still have time for the most important people in your life? It's good to have a plan in advance for knowing when to cut back on one of those commitments, and which it should be.
And this may seem out of left field, but if what you feel you're "missing" is more hands-on creativity, it may be that you can scratch that itch in ways other than what you do now, Monday thru Friday. The satisfaction and personal growth could come out of something totally unrelated to the "day job". For me, those outlets currently are boat-building/restoration, creative script-writing, and playing in a local uke band. None of those activities brings in money, (well, the scripting does, sometimes) but they pay off big in satisfaction and peace of mind, and in new friends.
I'm a little surprised you haven't received about 15 replies that basically said "Man, are you nuts?"...but this forum has been a little slow for a while.
Read what Mark said, twice... good advice there.
From what I've read you have a fairly long and very significant list of reasons to keep your existing job... and only one reason to chunk it and start a production company. And not to diminish it (because I'm ALL for doing what makes you happy and thrilled to get up to go in to work in the morning) if that one reason is basically "Ehh, I'm kinda bored," well I don't think that gives the argument a lot of weight. If any.
Obviously the deck is stacked against you in lots of ways, but you know that and have been forthcoming enough to spell them out... the production business climate is REALLY tough, you are starting from scratch, not in a big market, have hands-on skills that aren't quite up to speed, apparently already have a house full of young'uns and more on the way.... all that jazz, and you know that.
But, I don't want to COMPLETELY rain on the parade, so I will offer one alternative... which is to do what I did. I've been in biz for quite a while now (April marked 20 years since I founded this company), but I wouldn't have lasted 20 days if I hadn't started it the way that I did, which was start it with already having business to support it. I'm super fiscally conservative, so normally I wouldn't have dreamed of chunking an existing job in broadcast television (very well paying, although very boring) and spending boatloads of money (and going into a little bit of debt) to start a new company EXCEPT that I had the opportunity to start it with an already-in-place multi-year contract with a very established advertising agency to do all their production... one that guaranteed enough work that I could completely fund the business and pay myself a better salary than I was already making. I wouldn't have done so otherwise, not in a zillion years.... it would have been a recipe for disaster (and the number of small production companies here that came along after me but have since gone bankrupt or out of business has borne out my initial thoughts as correct).
So... see if the work is out there. If before you walk out on your job you can land enough business that's enough to completely cover all biz expenses and pay you a salary equal-to-or-better than you are presently making, and that there is a reasonable guarantee that it will continue (at least a 2-3 year contract would be comfortable)... then maybe you should take the plunge. Even then I'm not saying you should, but if you get to that point it would at least level out that big stack of negatives that warn against it, and you could then make a decision starting from a more-even playing field.
And there's less chance that all those babies will go shoeless and you can continue to enjoy the luxury of living indoors.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
Thanks, Todd. I'll amplify one more point, and it's not really video-related; The most critical time to be a father is RIGHT DARN NOW, before the kids get into high school, and it's also important to be there and be accessible and available during the high school years, though the dynamic there is different. You're forming their character, the core of who they are and what they believe and what they value. Consciously or not, just being present and living a good life, being a model husband and being interested in and involved in what they do, to the extent you can.
You're your daughter's primary model of what a woman should expect from a man and a Gentleman, and what's not to be tolerated, the model to your son for how a man treats a woman and a life partner, as well as his fellow man. No amount of cash can replace those lost opportunities, or the potential bad times that might ensue, if you don't keep your hand in, today.
I'm not disparaging single-parent families or blended families or anything like that; I'm saying that the parenting role, whoever is doing it, is a partnership and is most critical in the pre-teen years. After they hit their twenties, they are more self-guided, based on the fundamentals you ingrained. BE THERE to instill those values and culture. Or someone else will do it for you. Their way. It's your first duty after feeding and sheltering them. The career can wait for when they begin to assert their independence and autonomy.
Here's my corny analogy: I'm fixing up an old boat and getting it ready for painting. The painting will take maybe an hour. The PREP - that is, all the sanding, filling, more sanding, priming, yet more sanding and more priming - has taken me many weeks... but the PREP is what makes 90 percent of the final finish quality. Skimp on the prep, and every bump, flaw, and speck will forever remain visible in the final product, a testimony to how much or little time you put in at the stage where it mattered.
This is as true in life and in a video production and edit as it is in making love. As it is in raising human beings.
Make the business decisions accordingly.
Well said Mark. I consciously avoided broadcast work in the mid-part of my career so I could spend more time with my wife and daughter. I missed greater travel and adventure and the creative satisfaction of working on something 'big', but my daughter has grown into a bright, happy young lady who captured one of the 50 spots out of 800 applicants at the National Theatre School of Canada in a program. She's passionate about it. Also, I'm still happily married to the love of my life. I've so much to be grateful for!
To the Original Poster:
It does make sense to keep the training wheels on for a while (a day job) until you've got you've go direction and balance. Its good to establish a few anchor clients who you can rely on for at least a few years. I still have one client who has kept returning to me for seventeen years! I have also worked with other producers who have needed extra help. Down the road I was able to passe work and referrals to them so it became symbiotic. I also came into the business with expertise on certain topics that interested me. This helped me to define a niche and demonstrate a subject expertise. This helps you to differentiate a little at the beginning and separates you from crowd.
[Todd Terry] "start it with already having business to support it."
Truer words have rarely been said. I also fully agree with Mark (as usual). We are so far down the road from the days of the traditional "production house" that it's lost in the horizon behind us. As I have written before here, in the old days a bare bones on-line editing suite costs $ 300,000 to $400,000. That was until the competitor down the street added the latest $100,000 ADO. That business model became a race to the bottom for production houses as evidenced by how few of them are left today. (They're sharing office space with the typesetting company and the film processing lab.)
On the flip side, there's never been more demand for content so doing production has a lot of potential. But not necessarily as a traditional company with fixed overhead. Hire individuals for individual projects with particular skills as needed. Rent equipment as needed until such point that there's enough weekly/monthly demand that owning it makes sense.
As to leaving an existing job... the best rule of thumb for starting a business is, as Todd put it, having the clients already in hand. Oh, and then there's the part about having at least enough savings in the bank to support yourself and your family for six months so you can survive the ups and downs of operating a business. Then there's still no guarantee that you won't fail and end up with little to show for your efforts.
Sorry to be such a downer, but maybe the safest course is as Mark suggested to develop more creative outlets AND keep the steady paychecks rolling in.
Thank you all so much! I really appreciate each of your insights into the situation. I am definitely thinking carefully about being wise in making decisions. Mark, you're SO right! These times with the kids are so crucial - it was really refreshing to hear that.
There are more external factors to the decision than can be easily explained, so it may come down to having to transition out of my current job from necessity. But your insights have helped me greatly as I consider various options to move forward.
Interesting. I own a production company and the job security of a steady gig with an educational employer is pretty attractive in many ways right now. The agencies that used to pay rate card are looking for the next shiny object for 1/2 the rate. Getting crew to agree to half day shoot rates on a 4 hour shoot is harder than ever. But clients don't understand that crew want full day rates. My editing rates are getting lower and lower each year just to keep up with the competition who are all working out of basement offices. It's a tough deal right now. Two of my kids want to go into communications in TV and Film and I am not encouraging them at all. Go into biotech or programming for goodness sake! There is a future in that!
Go produce a creative story for a non-profit in your area who is doing good work and maybe that's all it will take to bring satisfaction to what you do.
Tilt Media Inc.
Video Production, Post, Studio Sound Stage
Rich, steer the kids into careers in copyright law and IP litigation, and they will be able to pay for a very nice retirement for you later :-)