Interview: Colin Vaines, Producer – Part III

colin vaines media c-suite

“A Producer’s job is to project manage a story idea into a product.  The planning of that, getting the elements right, is as important as the quality of the performance captured by the camera.  I would say that the one leads into the other.  Development is the crafting of that plan and buying the time to get all the elements as right as possible for it to be a compelling bet that audiences will want to pay money to see that film or television show.”

Colin Vaines is the quintessential insider within the film and television industry with a career that has spanned four decades. He has bore witness to some of the industry’s most significant transitions, including the rise of international co-productions, the digital transformation and the eruption of today’s “streaming wars”. 

In Part I of our in depth interview, we explored Colin’s motivation, the essential nature of collaboration he cultivates as a Producer and a few of his memorable experiences with deal making while being in the room with some of the industry’s most notable characters, including David Puttnam, Harvey Weinstein and Dino De Laurentiis.

In Part II, Colin discusses the role of Producer, his own career path and where the centre of the industry is today.

Join us now for Part III, with a focus on investment in film, what Producers get out of it and the trends being pursued by large Private Equity investors.

Enjoy!

The Media C-Suite:

Colin, there are many film-projects out there making the rounds with investors.  As a Producer, you must receive quite a few unsolicited scripts or pitches to help a young writer or director get their vision onto the screen.

Colin Vaines:

Oh I do.  And everyone in the business does.  But I spend a lot of time reading scripts that ultimately will never be produced. 

Some of the business proposals I see for film projects are just wishful thinking really.

The project with the lone writer/director/producer may be enticing, but it will always need a management team, like any other business proposal.

I would say that is the overarching goal for any Producer who wants to make more than one film.  To build a collaborative team of professional film-makers that can deliver on the story’s promise.  That is often missing in the proposals I see and the one that is a requirement for any serious film or television project.

Is there a name actually attached to the project that has done this before, knows the industry and what it takes to protect the investment in time and money that a film or television show requires?  That is one of the first things I ask myself.

colin vaines gerard butler ralph fiennes in 2012 media c-suite
Colin Vaines (left), Gerard Butler (centre) and Ralph Fiennes (right) in 2012. Courtesy: Colin Vaines.

Sometimes it’s really bad, and I know that these really bad ones are getting into the hands of sincere investors.  These proposals have lots of enthusiastic comparisons to successful films and will even give the impression that they have ‘A’ list actors on board, by showing photos of stars as the ideal casting for roles.  They don’t have them, of course.  Maybe that’s the actor they want in the picture, but they don’t have a signed commitment. 

It’s wishful thinking that they hope to project onto investors who might get wrapped up in the glamour of it all.

There are a lot people trying to broker a lot of these into deals with investors.

It’s always been that way in this business.

The Media C-Suite:

The competition between streamers today, and a re-emergence of the Box Office, has increased demand for films and television shows dramatically.  How has this impacted the production side of the industry?

Colin Vaines:

Well, from my perspective, the burden is firmly on the independent film-maker.  This has always been true of course. 

If you don’t have the backing of a large streamer or distributor, you will have difficulties in finding appropriate production facilities and the best crew when it comes time to shoot.  That can increase your costs or delay your project.  Without these, a director will not get the best out of their cinematography and acting talent.  This goes for post-production as well.  In many ways, an independent production must be more creative with money and available resources than ever. 

It’s a challenge for everyone really.

Today, with streamers and theatrical, the demand for content is so high that independent film-makers also have more opportunity to get that backing.   

There is a multitude of low-budget knock-offs of genre and action films that always follow hits like Top Gun or even Squid Game.  And there are many Producers that can put out ten of these for every one higher-quality production.  These are the “Quickies” as I call them.

The streamers buy the least bad of these Quickies, as they constantly need new material.

The Media C-Suite:

Are you seeing an increase in pressure for quality, or is quantity the name of the game today?

Colin Vaines:

That’s not an easy answer. 

There are a lot of pictures these days on the streamers that I personally just find dreadful.  But they are buying them up and that is the business we are in.  The Producers that focus on Quickies, or on what my generation called the ‘B’ Movie, can make a lot of money.  Especially today when demand for nearly any content is so high. 

But any Producer that can make money making film and television is doing something right, I guess! And there are some gems that get made as Quickies. 

But the streamers also need higher quality productions.  And cinema distribution certainly demands a higher degree of quality than we sometimes see on the streamers. 

Deeper stories, particularly original stories, take a bit more effort and will likely perform well if one is focused on telling the story well.

The Media C-Suite:

Is that what development is?

Colin Vaines:

Well, I believe so.  But development is kind of my thing, really.

I think you can always see, hear and feel a film or television show that been developed into more than just actors in front of a camera. 

There are many great stories out there.  It just takes time and purposeful effort to convert them into business plans worthy of the money audiences want to pay.

colin vaines with barbara broccoli and paul mcguigan media c-suite
Director Paul McGuigan (left) with Producers Barbara Broccoli (centre) and Colin Vaines (right) in 2017.
Courtesy: Colin Vaines.

The Media C-Suite:

Is the size of the budget not an indication of quality?

Colin Vaines:

Good God, no!

We’ve all seen obscenely expensive pictures that were truly awful films that failed spectacularly. 

And the opposite is certainly true.  There have always been lower budget films and television that just hit the right moment with the right qualities and are breakout hits.

The Media C-Suite:

Investors might be paying attention here.  Obviously big name actors and directors cost a lot of money.  Film sets and wardrobes cost a lot of money.  What does money buy, if not quality assurance?

Colin Vaines:

That’s a great question. 

The short answer, I think, is that money buys time. 

A Producer’s job is to project manage a story idea into a product.  The planning of that, getting the elements right, is as important as the quality of the performance captured by the camera.  I would say that the one leads into the other.  Development is the crafting of that plan and buying the time to get all the elements as right as possible for it to be a compelling bet that audiences will want to pay money to see that film or television show.

Yes, ‘A’ list movie stars demand large fees to act in a film.  So do notable directors, and all of the talent needed for a film to be produced.  And there is a lot of work out there right now, so talent can demand a lot; and they do.

Most experienced actors and directors know a well-developed project when they see it.  And most will charge much less to perform in a well-developed film or television show than they would for one that is not.  That is the trade-off that a Producer is tasked with pursuing.  Value for money.  Not just money.

So, actually, I would say that time is everything. 

Money buys time and that allows a Production to reach accommodation rather than compromise.  Money buys that time for development to get it right and, sometimes, to wait for the right elements to converge.  That combination of money and time results in critical and commercial quality more often than not.

Film Poster:  The Unforgivable with Sandra Bullock
The Unforgivable, film poster. Developed from the 2009 British mini-series, Unforgivable, as a 2021 Netflix Original film. Credit: Netflix.

The Media C-Suite:

After time, what’s more important, the story or the story-teller?

Colin Vaines:

For me its all about the story, that is what compels me to be involved in developing it into a picture. 

David Puttnam once told that me that if I ever had more than a 1% degree of doubt about the strength of a story, I should not loose time trying to develop it.  I believe that to be true all these years later.

My job is to ensure that the story is told as well as it can be to as large an audience as possible.

The Media C-Suite:

Streaming platforms such as Netflix and HBOMax have encouraged a convergence between feature films and television series.  Is this a complication for film-makers used to telling stories in a two hour film?

Colin Vaines:

I don’t see it as a complication really.  It’s just another format.

What we have with the 2 hour feature film format is conformity to cinema operators’ need to maximise the showings they can manage in a day at the theatre.  But it has created a recipe that works well for story-telling.  Some of the disciplines needed to tell a complete story in 90 to 120 minutes are really important for production as much as for an audience of people sitting in a crowded theatre. 

Television has its own story-telling strategies that also work well for repeated, serial viewing.

What the TV series has turned into can be wonderful.  The streamers are paying for their subscribers to commit hours of their time on well-developed story-telling produced as a television series with feature film production quality, at least for a season or two, which is not typical television. 

This is being demonstrated by genuine movie stars that are lending their talent to television today based on the production values and development being pursued by streamers. 

I don’t think Harrison Ford or Helen Mirren would be involved with the Yellowstone franchise if that were not true.  There is also now Sylvester Stallone in Tulsa King and Jeff Bridges in The Old Man.  Talent like Kevin Costner and these other ‘A’ list film stars don’t need the money. 

Experienced talent such as this are also involved as Producers, and they have legacies to protect.

So at least they see this as a mature opportunity, not a complication.

The Media C-Suite:

As the distribution side of the industry has evolved, has the role of the Producer changed?

Colin Vaines:

Oh, okay.  This can be a sore subject.  The title of Producer is a bit of a muddled mess I would think. 

What’s changed is that everyone is a Producer these days.  It’s almost a bit of a giveaway in negotiations really.  Most actors want Producer credits.  Most everyone wants Producer credits.  There are Executive Producers, which are quite different in film than in television.  Associate Producers that no one really understands and of course proper Line Producers, who are so essential and deserve every credit you can give them.

The only people who don’t seem to care about the title of Producer are the actual Producers.

There is, always, someone who simply does the work of cultivating a business proposal to raise the money, shoot the scenes and deliver a well-edited picture to audiences.  That hasn’t changed.  In the industry, Producers know who they are. 

The Media C-Suite

There seems to be a lot of variation in how the career of any Producer progresses.  Where do Producers come from?

Colin Vaines:

I think Producers emerge through some kind of determination. I loved movies, managed to get into executive roles at companies where I supervised production, and took that out into the world as a freelance producer. Some producers are people who fell in love with a piece of material and found a way to get the basic elements around it, whether financial or creative, which set it off on its journey to production.   Some start off as writers, directors or actors who take a lead in developing a project.  Others are simply great managers of talent or are great salesmen.  

What happens a lot is that the passion of a writer for their script or an actor for a character will drive film projects and pull in both other talent and some investors by pure enthusiasm and the romance of what could be.  They know that it’s the Producer who ultimately decides if a film ever gets made, so they assume the role.  

At some point, a Producer has to stand between the talent and the money and the distribution to align all of those interests.  They either can or they can’t.

Film Poster:  Gangs of New York
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York film poster, 2002. In development for decades waiting for the right elements to converge. Credit: Miramax.

The Media C-Suite:

Let’s talk about money.  Everyone needs it, and there is a lot of capital looking for investment opportunity.  Why are so many independent film-makers struggling to get their projects funded at a time when consumption of content is outpacing production of content?

Colin Vaines:

This is such a good question. 

I think there is still a big gap between the ambition of some filmmakers and what the market will actually finance. It’s the job of the Producer to align the two things. I came on board a film some years ago which was budgeted at a truly unrealistic amount for the subject matter, even with a major star attached. The first thing I did was to bring on a line producer I trusted and slash the budget in half. The film went on to get made and be a success for the people involved.

Despite the horror stories, with careful advice, investors can make money investing in film.  It can be a lucrative industry, but you have to know what you’re doing.  There is some luck involved, of course, but there will always be bad investments. 

The simple answer is that films are like startups in any industry; they fail for many reasons. 

In this industry, investors can be persuaded by the passion and vision of a film-maker, or the glamour of involvement in the movies.  That happens; too often perhaps.  And each time there is another cautionary tale that accountants and lawyers tell their clients who might be thinking about it. 

It makes our job as Producers very difficult when we need to go out and start raising the equity portion for a film budget.

The Media C-Suite:

Tell us more about equity in a film. 

Colin Vaines:

I wish I had understood this earlier in my career.  Developing a film or television show is time-consuming.  No different than building out a management team and business plan for a tech startup, or any business.  That time is costing the founders money as they give up paid work to put it all together.  That is equity, of course. 

At some point, we form a company and have the copyrights to the story and the script registered in the name of that company.   As Producer, I would be a shareholder of that company.  That is my equity now formalised.

So many film-makers don’t understand the importance of those shares, and many will often be happy enough with a contract and fees out of the budget.  When we need cash to take the project further and to build out the package, we look for investors.  The smart investors take shares, and can end up controlling the company that owns the rights.

That’s the equity portion of the project.  That equity is what the distributors want and what the streamers demand from most Producers.  That is the long-term value in the project.  Holding onto a percentage of that equity can be very difficult.                                                                                              

Once we fully-develop the project and sign contracts for distribution and production rebates, then the company can borrow the rest of the budget requirement against those contracts and we shoot the picture. 

Some Producers are lucky, or crafty, enough to hold onto a percentage of the equity in the rights company.  Most have no choice to but trade that equity for distribution.  That leaves the price you negotiate for the equity and some fees out of the budget.  

But if you can keep some of that equity in several projects then you have a film library, and that can generate quite a lot of money over the long-term.  That’s money that you can re-invest back into development of new projects.

The Media C-Suite:

We see a trend in this today with private equity funds buying into Production companies with film libraries.  Is this what you mean?

Colin Vaines:

I think so.  It’s not new. 

Dino de Laurentiis set this in motion fifty years ago, alongside visionaries like the agent and Producer John Heyman, whose World Film Sales was the first company to pre-sell and license films territory by territory around the world.  Dino had quite a large film library by the time he passed, and it was all sold to private equity for tens of millions if I recall.  It was very large sum of money at the time.

But what’s happening today is more than this.  Today’s generation of Producers use their company to acquire more and more rights to new, unproduced content.  They are building development catalogues.  And its those catalogues of rights to develop more content, once they have a proven track record as Producers, that Private Equity is investing into. 

The streamers, in particular, simply cannot keep up with demand for more content, and those proven Producers who own the rights to ready pools of quality content are worth hundreds of millions a year to those streamers.

The Media C-Suite:

As an experienced Producer who focuses on development of film projects, what would you tell an eager investor to look for in a film project?

Colin Vaines:

Today, I would like tell investors to stop looking at single film projects and instead look at investing in production companies with multiple projects in development.  That equity capital can help build a catalogue of film projects. 

And if that Producer can achieve even one modestly profitable film, then that catalogue becomes a gold mine.

The Media C-Suite:

Your career has taken you around the world, with some of the biggest names in the business and brought you full-circle back to Soho.  What’s next for Colin Vaines?

Colin Vaines:

The next story.  That’s everything.  I will always be a Producer. 

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