To win over new business today, production houses have no choice but to lower their quality.
Any company lives or dies on its ability to bring in new business. Even though it’s important to have loyal, long-serving clients, getting a good pipeline of new deals is the only way to grow and, eventually, stay alive; such a stake is probably the reason why pitching is a massive challenge, especially in Lebanon. Just like for an advertising, media or PR agency, for a production house, a pitch is the most stressful and crucial part of the work, closely followed by the delivery of said work up to clients’ expectations.
When all goes well, the relationship between clients and production houses is – like any other relationship – simple and easy. “Clients tend to be loyal; it’s convenient for them to have a preferred production house to rely on. Most of the new clients we have acquired have ‘broken up’ with their preferred production houses for various reasons and are looking for a new partner. Relationships last several years and are usually loyal and intense. However, if we divorce, there are no second chances; someone else wins the client over. So, as a rule, we don’t have much hope to win over, thanks to our good reel and reputation, a client who is already happy with another production house. But, when they come looking, we can win them over by being competitive, innovative and transparent,” says managing partner at production house Film Pudding, Layal Moukahal.
Indeed, what matters is what happens when the client is looking for another partner. Up until recently, there were a number of criteria that production houses’ clients – mostly advertising agencies – used to focus on while choosing a production house, as recalls managing director and film director at production house The Works, Serge Oryan: “I was a creative director working with one of the big agency networks in the region before I moved to film directing and, eventually, opened my production house. At that time, a production house was selected according to many factors. Firstly, the candidates had to have good experience in the production field; secondly, we focused on the way they interpreted the board and approached it from a technical and creative point of view and not only from a director’s point of view; thirdly, the proposed director played a big role in the selection; and, last came the cost.”
However, market rules and priorities have been undergoing massive changes, not always for the best. Over the past few years (and similar to what has been happening in many other communication industries), budget has increasingly been a key factor, rather than quality, when deciding who to work with, forcing industry players to lower their standards so that they can compete with those who are dragging the prices downward. Oryan explains: “Unfortunately, nowadays, only a few clients follow the procedures [mentioned above] and the majority selects the production house based on the cost, which turned the industry into a price competition and lowered the standard of the production a lot; the one that has the lowest cost wins, regardless of the experience, reel and technical and creative knowledge. We are struggling a lot to maintain the standards as high as possible with the lowest cost possible without going into the range of ‘cheap’ production, which decreases our profit a lot, and even nullifies it sometimes.”
CEO of production house The Talkies, Gabriel Chamoun, says: “In the Arab world, the production house’s experience and reputation has a major influence on the client’s choice of supplier. Other criteria are the directors we present on the particular job, the shoot location, etc.” However, he agrees that price is increasingly becoming the key issue. “The market is very challenging; demand has decreased while supply is rapidly increasing,” he adds.
Similarly, executive producer and partner at production house Laser Films, Tarek-Gabriel Sikias, says: “There are three main criteria for a client to choose a production house today: the interpretation we offer them, the director chosen for the job and the offered price – the latter playing the biggest role, because of the situation in the country. Clients don’t compare apples to apples anymore, but they do compare prices. We are losing quality in the industry because of that.”
RIGHT MEN TO THE JOB.
Another driver for choosing a production house is, unsurprisingly, who you know and what connections you have. “The criteria for choosing a production house over another have changed over the years. In the past, we had the big names of the industry and we didn’t have the big number of production houses we have today. These big names gathered under their roofs a lot of facilities, in-house equipment and qualified personnel, which used to attract clients. For the past two to three years, clients have been going for a given production house to work with a specific person. The criteria are becoming more personalized. Clients aren’t going for a certain production house, but for certain people working in this or that house,” says executive producer and partner at Clandestino Films, Ray Barakat.
In particular, as mentioned above, the director selected for a specific job plays a crucial role in winning a project for a production house. “We have some preferred directors, both local and international. Some films can’t be produced as they should by local directors, and others can’t be directed but by local directors – when it comes to Lebanese humor, for example. However, we always learn more with foreign directors, because they have a wider, richer experience; they travel a lot and work with different cultures. Moreover, today, local directors are as expensive as international ones, so if we previously used to go with local work because of the lower price, this isn’t the case anymore,” says Sikias.
However, choosing the right director for a specific project isn’t enough and, theoretically, the production house needs to be heavily involved every step of the way. “With the chosen director, we participate in preparing the treatment and research for all kinds of references, be it music, wardrobe, casting and more. We interfere in all of the phases; sometimes in the text, the storytelling, or the idea. It should be a joined collaboration between the production house and the director in order to always deliver personalized treatments,” says Barakat, while Oryan adds: “Our business nowadays is much more advanced and elaborate in terms of media and technology, so we need to be aware of the fast-growing change in media and we should be aware, too, of all of the creative work that is done internationally, so that we stay up to date. We also need to have good creative and technical knowledge. All this affects the way we approach the job when we submit our proposal for a pitch. Being an ex-creative director with 14 years of experience in advertising and marketing, and a film director, too, is a great asset for me when it comes to understanding a client’s business, from the marketing strategy to the creative strategy, and all the way to the execution.”
“It is true that there is no magic formula when it comes to winning a pitch, but each one of us has some technical assets that we try to implement to maximize our chances. However, there will always be some hidden factors from the agencies’ side and some reasons why we don’t get the job, which we will never know about,” adds Barakat.
Maybe it’s best to start with how a regular pitch should go for a production house in Lebanon and elsewhere. “In a classical pitch, the agency sends a storyboard to at least three production houses. They send us a brief of the concept, the mood, the duration needed, etc. At this point, we look for directors who could fit this job, knowing that there are directors specialized in specific things. The director presents his/her interpretation of the job, based on which we can set the quotation. We submit the latter to the agency that compares the interpretations and directors’ showreels, then chooses accordingly which production house to work with,” says Laser Film’s Sikias.
However, a pitch procedure, unfortunately, is not always as simple as it should be. The advertising agency is a link between the production house and the actual client, and it’s based on the agency/production house relationship that the latter wins or loses the pitch. This relation is not always as ideal as production houses would like it to be. “In the industry, we have different types of agencies. Some are just an intermediate between the client and us; they are like a postman who receives and forwards emails – it is difficult to work with these. Others are afraid of the client and whatever the client says is a word of God – those are the worst. However, some agencies defend their opinions and ideas even if the client is against them – this is when we feel the agency is our partner,” explains Sikias.
Other factors make it difficult for a production house to work with this or that agency and consequently win their pitches. “Sometimes, the agency knows ahead of time which production house they want to work with, but asks another two to pitch, just because they need a couple of more quotations to offer to their clients,” says Clandestino’s Barakat, adding that he will walk out of most pitches involving more than four bidders. “Whenever the agency approaches more than four production houses, it is a sign that it is indecisive from the start and the project is unclear in their head,” he explains. “It’s also difficult to work with agencies that ask for interpretations from several directors; the hassle is multiplied by three or four,” he adds, explaining that this indecision is widespread and mostly due to the absence of one final decision maker within the agency. “Another problem occurs when the agency sends a young art director who isn’t entitled to make decisions about the shoot,” adds Sikias.
Last but not least, it is becoming a luxury for production houses to work not only on a decent budget, but also on a proper timeline.
“When a client can’t see the difference between a project shot properly with the right team and a project shot in a rush after 48 hours of non-stop work, that’s a hard client,” says executive producer at production house Olive Tree Productions, Rolly Dib, who, most of the time, avoids participating in pitches against other production houses.
“Today, our clients usually want a Mercedes for the cost of a Hyundai… yesterday!” adds Film Pudding’s Moukahal, who, nonetheless, concludes: “We are patient, transparent and we don’t budge on quality or standards. But, I think what helps most is that, internally, we are all friends, we have each other’s backs and we try to laugh as much as we can throughout the stress and madness… and we survive!”
DOS AND DON’TS OF PRODUCTION IN LEBANON.
· Have creative and technical knowledge · Be proactive and punctual
· Stay up to date with the creative work that is done worldwide
· Respect the location you shoot at; this will affect the reputation of the whole industry
· Train your crew to become the best
· Believe in teamwork and give credit to people who deserve it
· Think macro, not micro
· Try out new talents, Lebanon is full of potential artists
· Use real actors versus empty, beautiful faces; the difference is huge
· Do everything in writing; some people have massive pretend Alzheimer’s
· Show off generosity; this is who we are
· Trust in a good result; most of the crew is excellent and care a lot about reputation
· Expect clients to give you a go-ahead and then change their minds
· Make sure you show your clients a good time; it’s the place for it
· Question and challenge yourself continuously
· Take risks (calculated ones)
· Control your overheads
· Market your services properly
· Hire quality people and remunerate them accordingly
· Establish a long-term strategy
· Identify upcoming trends; innovate
· Diversify your client portfolio
· Set objectives other than profit making; profits are the result of success
· Don’t lower your standards if you have any
· Don’t think solo
· Don’t run after credit; credit will come to you if you deserve it
· Don’t gossip and don’t listen to gossip
· Don’t abuse the crew
· Don’t take things for granted; work hard
· Don’t be a follower; be a leader
· Don’t expect people not to be racist when you get foreigners from certain ethnicities
· Don’t have a Lebanese actor do Saudi dialect; it sounds fake
· Don’t go ahead with a job based on a gentleman’s agreement; you might regret it
· Don’t expect anyone to be punctual with delivery
· Don’t even try to upload a high-res file, assuming, like the rest of the world, that it’s quick and easy
· Don’t work without insurance
· Don’t lie, because as we say in Arabic, ‘the rope of lying is short’
· Don’t overpromise
· Don’t underpromise
· Don’t be too optimistic, especially in the Middle East
· Don’t be pessimistic
· Don’t make enemies because you may run into them more often than you think
NO RULES LAND.
Founded in 2010, the Association of Lebanese Commercial Producers (ALCP) aimed to set rules and regulations in the production industry. However, it isn’t quite there yet.
“Even though we have conducted a number of meetings within the association, we haven’t reached the required goals yet. Until today, the ALCP couldn’t regulate the issues related to prices set by emerging production houses and freelancers. In fact, Lebanon was always known as the cheapest country in the region when it comes to production services. With the high prices that production houses are setting today, we are losing this privilege and the ALCP is doing nothing about it. Even the director’s fee isn’t set as per any rule. In theory, the director’s cost should be equal to ten percent of the total price, which is not the case in reality, since each director is setting the price they want,” says executive producer at production house Cherry Films, Lamys Haddad. On the same note, Sikias adds that: “Since the foundation of the ALCP, many assistant directors gathered and created a sort of syndicate to impose their prices and conditions.”
As per Clandestino’s Barakat, the industry’s environment is not healthy. “The initial goal of the ALCP was to set some rules with freelancers and agencies, which is not happening. For example, we never sign a contract with agencies; it’s like a gentleman’s agreement, unlike anywhere in the world. It is true that we don’t have issues with agencies, but there are no rules to govern how things between us are done. Moreover, this association aimed to improve the relation between us and freelancers, and give its members a kind of privilege with the freelancers and the suppliers we work with. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened either. Freelancers took this association negatively, thinking it’s creating a war between them and production houses. It is a shame that we haven’t yet reached a point where we become one team with the freelancers,” he explains. Sikias adds that every decision in the ALCP is slow, “not because of the association itself, but because of the people in the industry. No major decisions are being made and this is because, in Lebanon, everything is slow; people barely answer emails, members are never all present at the set meetings.”
But, that’s not to say that the ALCP is pointless. As Haddad explains: “One of the positive steps that the ALCP has taken was reducing the working hours from 24 to 14; so, today, one working day equals 14 hours and everything beyond that is considered overtime. Another positive regulation was that every member of the ALCP requires getting paid 50 percent of the project’s price prior starting with the work.” Moreover, “the ALCP created a first opportunity for production houses to actually sit together and talk. For me, it was an amazing breakthrough, because, prior to that, there was a sort of virtual obstacle between us. We were competitors who never spoke to each other. Because of the ALCP, we now have this open channel to be able to talk with each other and discuss matters such as ‘illegal’ competition, or even ask for a piece of advice,” says Barakat.
However, various woes plaguing the industry and its representative body are the main reason why some production houses don’t even see a point in being part of the ALCP. “I believe it’s doing its best to make this syndicate work, which is desperately needed, but I think it’s missing the point. The objective of such a syndicate is to have a ruling power that protects the rights of production houses and maintains good standards. Unfortunately, many factors jeopardizing this industry are still unsolved, such as the price competition, for example. I understand it is a competition after all, but there should be rules and regulations for it; a big production house with fully equipped departments and professionally trained crew cannot compete with an individual producer working from a small office or at home who doesn’t have any overheads. After all, outcomes of both cannot be compared, then why should costs be? This is one of the issues and there are many more, so until we feel this syndicate is working to save and maintain the high standards of the industry, I don’t believe I will join,” says The Works’ Oryan.