The 10 Most Costly Production Mistakes

Whilst I realise we all learn from our own mistakes I’d like to think that we can learn more comfortably from OTHER people’s mistakes!  I find that the more experienced producers have been through a lot of near misses and learned from our own and other’s mistakes and that helps us be better at what we do.  Here are a few of the doozies that I have learned from. 

1. The wrong producer is put on the job

Well, I’ve nominated this as the number one biggest and most expensive mistake as I’ve seen some very big mistakes and also seen an accumulation of a lot of little mistakes over time that add up. This can be by either an inexperienced producer, or a producer that has a lot of experience but who are in the wrong field of production (you know there are agency, film company, post production, line, corporate film, visual effects, motion design, event producers and they all have different specialities and ways of working don’t you?).

A recent mistake had someone working in one field of expertise without the relevant knowledge and they allowed their job to go over by 90 days additional (non-chargeable) days of time on a project with a cost of over $160,000AUS unnecessarily to a job. That’s the kind of overspend that sinks a business.

Another project that is coming to mind had a production assistant calling themselves a producer, in this case without the boss knowing, and they started to talk to clients about productions, all without adequate supervision. They got involved in budgeting and planning a shoot before anyone stopped them. Essentially the outcome was that the business was committed to a budget that was way too low for what was promised and the cost to the business in this case was over $40,000AUS. This doesn’t just happen with someone elevating their title, it happens when businesses think producing is easy and have the account manager or a creative take over.

There are not just costly mistakes but those that affect the creative outcome – like the producer recently that arranged a shoot and didn’t involve the director in all decisions with the set being built the wrong size and sending them to the wrong location. Both problems may have been overcome without cost to the client at the end of the day but the energy and time spent fixing these problems could have been spent making it a great piece of communication. In the end the job was lucky to survive so forget about making it look good.

2. The wrong supplier is chosen

A creative team were insistent that a certain film director was to be appointed an upcoming project for an important brand launch. It was clear to the producer on the job that this director didn’t have the relevant experience and raised it strongly with the creative director. The creative team fought hard and the creative director’s loyalty and trust of his own people won the day and the director was appointed. Little by little the small decisions that the team made during the pre-production phase culminated into a shoot day that had the most off-brand, crazy, and bizarre performances from the talent and later edited together into one mighty embarrassing set of TVC’s for that brand. The agency ended up fighting with the director on every step to keep it at a professional level and even culminated with the director locking himself in the bathroom in a tantrum. Whilst the cost of the shoot day and editing was one big waste of money, and the pain involved for everyone was massive, the most costly part of that production was no doubt the lost revenue for the brand at launch. Now this business is no longer in business in Australia… wow, hope it is not related.

Another project had a film company outright lying to the producer that a location survey was underway. That survey was in the tens of thousands of dollars and formed part of a campaign that was many hundreds of thousands of dollars. The launch was pending with millions of dollars in media booked (and for those of us that know what that means, it means a very expensive problem if an airdate is missed!) After several weeks into the job, the producer finally smelled a rat when no survey photographs were coming through. The project was saved by the producer firing the film company and assigning a new one that could make up for the lost time, but the hassles to get the refund were painful and risked not being recovered.

In my experience over the last few years as a consultant I would say that the most expensive problems are actually often unrecognised and are unknowingly swept under the carpet. With clients working directly with production services that haven’t been properly reviewed and budgets sold through without an experienced producer working on behalf of the client, excessive production budgets have been approved and the fat kept by the suppliers or in a lot of cases simply have been spent when they needn’t. Even the most well meaning suppliers often make recommendations to the client that they don’t need.

3. Not enough budget for the execution

This mistake is more often resultant in two very different outcomes – the first is the production supplier is simply burned up by the cost overruns on the job because they have commit to something far greater than the client can pay for. The second instance is where the execution just looks bad because there isn’t enough money to do it well. Sadly the cost to a brand can be massive, even if unquantifiable at times. I also believe that a lot of clients simply don’t see the connection and think that the job is just average but can’t quite figure out why. It can be confused by a number of other issues listed here.  The solution is to ensure that the execution works in with the available budget by involving the right producer and creatives up front. There is a good production solution for every budget. For example the execution could be some live action to tell the story but with the budget limited it ends up looking like an old corporate film. Shifting this to a simple graphics based edit may have been a way to make a slick looking production instead.

4.The concept doesn’t match the budget

This sounds the same as number 3, but it isn’t quite. The concept is one thing and how it is executed is another. I remember a job many years ago that had a car driving over a giant structure that was made up of the brand name of the car. To do this in live action was impossible for the budget and the cheapest solution that could be produced within the tight deadline ended up being 3D, but it still wasn’t enough to do it well. This was one of those jobs that should never have gone past concept stage because it was just too elaborate for the budget and in this case the time frame. The trick is to proof the concept with the agency producer before going to the client.

5. No (good) plan for weather

One of the biggest issues around weather that I see is everyone putting their head in the sand and still going ahead with an outdoors shoot when the weather is vulnerable. Just by ignoring it or hoping it will go away simply makes it unclear who is going to take responsibility for a problem should it come up.

A post production house started doing in-house productions but hadn’t done that many jobs involving live action before. It looked easy enough and they had been on a few productions before in the past. They organised the job and discussed their concerns about weather with the client. The client simply said they didn’t have any more money, and there was no such thing as a weather contingency fee. They insisted that the filming go ahead anyway. The post house agreed but at the end of the day they encountered rain. The safety officer instructed the crew to stop filming when it became dangerous and the shoot was cancelled for the day. The producer and the client both argued madly about the fact that the weather costs were each other’s problem – the client insisting that they never approved for a weather cost and the post house refusing to pay for a new day of filming. In the end the client had to pay a full day’s shoot costs again of over $50,000 and had a bad taste in their mouth. The shoot footage didn’t match and the finished TVC looked inconsistent and was even confusing. With planning there were other options available and this expense may have been avoided.

Weather costs can be at least the same costs again for each shoot day lost so it does get expensive! Regardless, there are laws involved around shooting in unsafe weather conditions and ultimately the client will bear the brunt of the costs or wont get the content they need. Often an inexperienced producer wont discuss this with a client up front, wont plan for it, and wont have back up options (and there are many – see an earlier blog on weather issues). Not only that the tension caused by heat of the moment arguments about expensive problems is horrible.

6. No approval plan

In my experience having no plan at the start of a job or a plan that doesn’t fully accommodate the client’s approval process is a costly process and depending on where it happens in the project and how well the paperwork has been done it can cost both the client and the suppliers.

The worst situation I can remember was where a client worked with the agency and suppliers to get a $200,000 project completed to a finished master. They were all happy with it and even discussed having a celebratory lunch. They’d used up all the budget throughout the project at each key milestone making it the best it could be. The finished TVC was then presented to the head honcho who loved it, but suggested that the lawyers take a look at it since they hadn’t seen anything yet. A fundamental, and illegal, claim was being made in the TVC that affected the foundation concept and it never went to air. None of the TVC could be resurrected in order to get something on air for the impending deadline. What was a several hundred thousand dollar problem may well have turned into millions that afternoon.

7. The wrong process

Sometimes there are problems to the untrained eye that are invisible or are disguised as other issues. The wrong process can affect the approval chain, missing deadlines, being expensive to fix problems, a waste of money where it can be better spent, something lacking in the creative, a poor choice of technology, the wrong ‘look’, an out of control experience for everyone involved, the wrong output that affects where the media can be played, a limit to future versions.

A project that is coming to mind is an animation project where the artist ran the project in a fluid and erratic manner doing whatever he felt like in the moment as it occurred to him. There was no discussion with a producer or client about how the project would be managed at each stage, what they would see or wouldn’t see, how many days there would be between approval stages and what could be done in those breaks that didn’t affect the whole job if they were rejected. The end result, to cut a long and crazy story short, was that the client had a massive amount of fair changes but because they were all taking place at the final render stage the time it took for the computers to process the information made the time on the job excessive by over a week and sadly the deadline was missed.

On another project the producer didn’t discuss the shoot format with the right people and a feature film sized mass of data come in the post production house’s facility taking over a day to load into the computers let alone to handle during the job. The data slowed up the project so much that the job ran over by days and each deadline was either stretched or missed. In this case the cost was absorbed by the post house but in other cases it can be the film company, the agency or the client purely based on who’s paperwork is the most stitched up. Worst of all a problem like this can ultimately affect the client by missing a deadline or being more expensive for future projects and revisions.

8. Lack of clarity in responsibilities

The worst situation I can recall is a producer believing that the production assistant is responsible for despatching the station dubs on a job. Without the producer checking that the dubs went out the launch TVC simply just didn’t arrive at the stations. Need I say more about the implications of that. Even to consider the last minute despatch of the TVC on a Saturday wasn’t possible with approval bodies closed preventing the ad to run even if it got there. If the producer took responsibility for the project from start to finish then this wouldn’t have happened.

I’ve also seen the incorrect master sent out and the wrong version going to air. So, in this case there was retail offer that was not actually available, perhaps not even complying with the Trade Practices Act and the client having to make good on that offer at a great expense. A simple way around this is to ensure that everyone knows whose responsibility it is to check the final master before it goes out (amongst other processes).

9. Product not camera ready

This comes in all shapes and sizes – either the product just looks bad, doesn’t turn up on set or turns up the wrong colour. I have to admit that many years ago this was my worst mistake of my career! The client told me that the car we were planning to film didn’t come in the colour we wanted, only a dark green. I checked with all the internal team about the colour and everyone was fine with it. We couldn’t do much about it other than consider changing the concept or execution but it seemed that everyone was fine so we continued with the shoot. As it turned out I should have checked with the film company because a dark green car being filmed at night was a massive lighting challenge! Gulp. Thanks to their clever thinking and bringing some massive lights out the issue was solved and I’m forever indebted to them saving the day.

I remember hearing about another car shoot where the hero car was damaged and there wasn’t a back up car. Once there were two cars – a hero and a back up and oddly enough both were damaged in different places making one only good for driving camera left to right and another could only do interiors. So, since one of the cars couldn’t be used for driving shots the decision was made to cut a hole in the roof so the interior shots could be all the better and the other car could be used if the film was flipped in post production. This all made perfect sense and seemed a good plan. Guess what? The producer didn’t go and supervise the hole being cut and the wrong car got the hole in it, making both cars un-shootable. The cars were early release prototypes so it wasn’t an easy solution to just go get another. The whole job was delayed while the cars were repaired and in one case rebuilt by hand.

10. Freebies come back to bite you

I see this a lot and mostly people are well meaning in their intention, but the consequences are quite expensive and can be painful for a client and agency. Often creative people are over-zealous in wanting to do the best job they can, which is good in the main. Sometimes they choose a more complex execution to get a project on their showreel that suits where their business is going or they may want to enter it into an award. Even the client can be excited in the moment when they get a better job than they expected, until such time as they need another version or need to make a revision. With the execution they approved initially the revisions would be very simple and inexpensive, not to mention quick to turn around. With the new, more complex execution the expense can escalate from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. I’ve even seen times when a revision of the kind the client has requested just isn’t possible with a new execution. This is often the silent expense to a job.

I’d love to start sharing the industry disasters so we all start to learn from each other. I’ve exposed my own worst mistake here, so feel free to share too.

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