Sunday, May 27, 2018

11 Rules to be a Fantastic Production Assistant on Set

Production Assistants hold a very interesting position in the film industry.  They’re the lubrication that keeps the gears of the set running, they facilitate communication of all the key members of the set, they set up the craft service area, and perhaps most importantly, they’re the runners that keep the set in coffee.  While nobody wants to be a PA for long, most people get their start there.   To celebrate the launch of the “Assistant” on ProductionNext, here are some rules to be a great PA on set. 
1. There’s no shame in being a PA.  
Everybody starts here, don’t be ashamed.  Nobody wants to stay here for long, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  Think of it as a stepping stone in your career.  You’ll learn a lot from viewing the way a set works at the bottom, and you’ll be better at your job as you rise the ranks.

If you can prove you’re an awesome PA, you’ll be more likely to get a job in another department and begin rising up through the hierarchy.  You’ll meet people who can help you advance your career, but make sure to save the networking for after the martini shot.  If you don’t, it might not only be the last shot of the day but the last shot you’ll see for quite a while.

2. Think ahead
To be a good PA, you must anticipate is needed, and have it ready when asked.  To do that, you’ve got to think ahead.

The day before the shoot, use your google-fu to scope out the area of the shoot, have an idea of what’s nearby. You’re going to have to grab something from somewhere at some point.  When you do something It’s much better to go to the supermarket 5 minutes away than the big box store that’s 15 minutes away. 

Know the call sheet schedule.  You’re going to have to set up meals, so if you know when that’s coming and can head over to make sure it’s ready then you’re going to be in a better position to impress your superiors. 

3. Be prepared.
You MUST have reliable transportation.  As mentioned above, you’re going to be running and grabbing stuff while you're on set. Make sure you have reliable transportation.  You don't want to delay the shoot because your battery died.

When you’re on set, periodically Walk around with water bottles, hot bricks (Batteries) Sharpies, pens, pencils, and other things.  keep a pad on you to take notes if you need to, but if you can keep it mentally for it may be better for the sake of speed.  Appearing prepared is going to get you noticed more than anything else. 

Have a portable battery for your cell phone, you’ll need it.  You need to be in contact constantly, and a dead phone is going to get you in trouble fast.

In writing this blog, I made up an amazon store with most stuff you’ll probably need to be a good PA in it.  Check it out here.

4. Have a great attitude.  
When the vibe on a set works as it should, it can be amazing.  Everyone starts functioning like a well-oiled machine, and it impacts the quality of the movie in a tangible way.   One person with a bad attitude can kill that vibe very quickly, and have a severe negative impact on the end product.

Nobody likes working with a grouch.  Be happy be friendly, it will help you get a job on the next set.  PAs with a bad attitude are likely to be replaced very quickly.

5. Know the Chain of Command
A set has a very rigid hierarchy.  If you’re a PA, the AD is your boss.   Their boss is the director, and while the director may not always admit it, their boss is generally the producer.  (Although the director may also be a producer.)  You need to learn the names and faces of as many people in the chain of command as you can, they will take notice.

6. Be Observant
The AD cannot be everywhere at once but they do need to know everything that’s going on. Thus, they need eyes and ears elsewhere.   Those are the PAs.   You are the eyes of the set, and if something’s needs to be found you’ll probably be the one to find it.

7. Be Engaged
If you’re not doing anything, find something to do. Walk the set and stay busy.  Unless you’re shooting, in which case freeze. 

This is another good time to mention that you should learn faces and names.  It shows you’re engaged, and people like it when you mention them by name.

8. Be Communicative
If you’re on a set with walkies, you always need to respond, even if it’s with something as simple as a “Copy”.  There is one time you don’t, and that’s if you’re in the bathroom.  In that case, just say 10-1 before you go.

If you don’t know something, ask.  There’s a lot of jargon in Film, and you may not know the difference between a C-47, CTB, and CBB.   People will generally understand that you’re a PA because you’re unskilled but want to learn, so they’ll clarify it \\you.  It’s much better that they clarify so you know you’re looking for some clothespins and a Color Temperature Blue gel than they think you couldn’t be bothered and the shoot gets held up. 

Last but not least in regards to communication, If you see something unsafe on set, SAY IT.  It’s not your job to fix it, but somebody might need to.  It might be something someone needs to do immediately or it may be no big deal.

9. Be Tactful.
Know when’s a good time to ask questions and when isn’t.  Know when you should observe and when you should ask questions.  I worry about sounding too Elizabethan when I say this say this, but some advice on the matter is to be seen and not heard, or only speak when spoken to.

Personally, I think that’s taking the principle a bit far.  I think you should try to have as little impact as possible, but be there when you’re needed.

10. Track your receipts!
ALWAYS Track your receipts.  You may consider buying a receipt file.  They’re not expensive, and being able to track the receipts when you run somewhere will land you in good stead with the AD.  The AD will definitely have one.  If you lose a receipt, you probably lose your chance at another job.  There’s one of the ones I use in the PA Kit. 

11. Fill in the gaps
The weird thing about being a PA is that you are both important and expendable.  PAs make sure everything runs smoothly, but the work is largely unskilled so you’re easy to replace.   You will be doing a lot of different jobs, be ready for them. You’ll be doing a lot of different things while you do.  A good word to keep in mind is facilitate.

Get things done.  If something needs doing and there’s no one to do it, that’s probably going to be your job.  Take direction and do things the best you can.

Don’t get in the way, sit back and learn. If you find yourself gravitating towards one department, help where you can there so you can work your way up the chain.   Just make sure that nothing gets dropped elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Credit Risk: Student Debt’s Impact on Post-University Film Careers

Film Careers

I've been writing for sometime about the high cost of film programs and the problems created with students coming out with massive debt. The challenge is that the entry level jobs for the most part pay low wages (if the student is not being ripped off and being asked to work for "free" despite that "free" is illegal.) 

One of my former students referred to her monthly loan payment as her "Mercedes" it was almost $1,000.00.  A lot to pay after tax.  This article by really documents the problem of borrowing for film training.  Thank you for allowing me to reprint it.

Mitchell Block

Everybody's Nuts (Photo courtesy of Fabian Euresti)
in Columns, Issues
on Jun 16, 2017

“My credit isn’t what it used to be,” admits Fabian Euresti, who graduated from the film directing program at California Institute of the Arts in 2010. A child of farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, Euresti made shorts, including 2010’s Everybody’s Nuts, that have played at prestigious film festivals in Europe (Vienna, Oberhausen, Tampere) and the U.S. (Los Angeles, Full Frame), but he’s currently got more than $100,000 in student debt and remains without a steady job to pay it down.

“Knowing what I know now,” says Euresti, “I would have been more diligent in procuring grants and scholarships so the overall amount could be lower.” He also would have sought out internships during his studies as a means of finding work after school. But the reality is that internships “need a modicum of resources and the luxury of time,” as Euresti says, neither of which many students, particularly those of limited means, can afford.

Euresti’s case embodies the negative cycle for many film students. During school, they need to work part or full time to help pay down their costs, thereby losing out on job-training and internship opportunities; after school, their debt creates the same conditions whereby they’re forced to find jobs that pay the rent — not propel their career ambitions. As Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker (Examined Life), author (The People’s Platform) and debt activist (she co-founded the Debt Collective), says, “Who can afford to intern for free with $100,000 in loans?”

Euresti’s story is a familiar and increasingly common one for film and media students. Despite the existence of financial aid, film students, particularly poorer ones, are graduating with a crippling amount of debt, which isn’t just bad for their credit; it’s damaging their ability to work in the very fields they’ve chosen to pursue. The potential result is that the entertainment industry remains an occupation only for the privileged.

Michael Fink, chair of University of Southern California’s Film and Television Production, acknowledges that the highly competitive spirit at film schools emboldens wealthier students and pushes others to take financial risks in order to stand out from the crowd. “Students get excited and ambitious, and they want to have a calling card when they leave as a way to get noticed,” he says. A few years ago, there were some graduate students who were leaving USC with some $300,000 in debt because of the high budgets of their thesis films, according to Fink. “And we don’t like that for a number of reasons,” he says. “It burdens the students, and it’s not a level playing field.”

Today, costs at the top film schools are higher than they’ve ever been. Film undergrads at places like CalArts, New York University, USC and Columbia University can expect to pay nearly a quarter of a million dollars for four years of education because of additional laboratory, equipment and insurance costs on top of higher tuition fees. For graduate programs at Columbia University and the American Film Institute, total fees run over $150,000, while cheaper options such as the New York Film Academy and the Los Angeles Film School charge approximately $40,000 for a one-year program. And then you have to eat and pay rent.

College debt is up across the board in the U.S. (last year’s record-breaking average hit $37,000 per student, according to The Wall Street Journal), but film and media graduates were high on the list of degrees that suffered the most as a result of their loans: According to a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, film and media alumni must pay over 20 percent of their income to cover their annual debt in their first year out of college. Post-graduation, they also appear to be uniquely unprepared for the financial liability: For example, three-year student loan default rates for film and media schools such as Florida’s Full Sail University (21.1 percent), Nashville’s Watkins College of Art Design & Film (15.8 percent) and Columbia College Chicago (10.3 percent) are well above the national average of 7.4 percent, according to, which compiles data from Department of Education resources.

Not surprisingly, arts-related degrees don’t generate huge amounts of income, particularly not in the immediate years after college. As one AFI alumnus told me, “It’s not like you’re spending $100,000 to go to medical school, and then you get a doctor’s degree.”

Many film school graduates speak about the struggle to balance their debt with their career paths.

Independent producer Diane Becker (We Are X), who graduated from AFI in 2006 with $141,000 in debt, doesn’t regret the choices she’s made because through her connections at AFI she’s found a career making feature documentaries with acclaimed companies such as Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures. But she’s had to make some tough tradeoffs: abandoning work in indie fiction, not having a second child and forgoing retirement savings or a house to live in. “What I’ve done is highly risky,” she says. “I’ve chosen a path where I can’t fail because of the responsibility that I have to pay back these loans.”

Like Becker, many film school grads say their debts have dictated their professions. One 2006 graduate from Columbia University’s MFA film program said he had to find more stable work in reality TV to subsidize his over $100,000 in loans. “While it’s in my field, it’s not exactly the most creative work,” he admits. “That’s the compromise needed to keep paying off the debt. I joke that as soon as the debt is gone, I will be a full-time filmmaker again.”

Another film grad, Christopher Jason Bell, who left Long Island University CW Post in 2008 with over $70,000 in loans, says he chose to work as a security guard immediately after graduation rather than get paid $100 a day working as a production assistant on a film set. Though he’s made micro-budget features and finally got a job working at a studio’s film archives, he admits, “I do tend to feel like I’m a bit closed off from the film community because of my debt.”

Filmmaker Spencer Parsons (I’ll Come Running), who now teaches production at Northwestern University and graduated from University of Texas at Austin’s film program in 2000 with $60,000 in student loans, took a different strategy. He intentionally ignored his loans, letting the total debt compound to about $80,000 to focus on filmmaking instead. “My attitude was that I had to give this career a chance,” he says. “Otherwise, what would be the point of the loans?”

Parsons acknowledges that his path was a “calculated risk.” As full-time faculty at Northwestern, he’s been able to pay the debt down to the original $60,000 in the years since. And he’s continued to work in the world of film production, unlike many of his friends. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I went to film school with who had to go into real estate at some point.”

Representatives from university and college film school programs acknowledge that debt can be a heavy burden on their students, but they also maintain their commitment to assisting and advising them. According to Bruce Sheridan, professor and current cinema chair at Columbia College Chicago, the nation’s largest nonprofit film and media school, materials and workshops inform students on how to complete their degrees at the lowest cost possible — standard advice includes focusing first on getting subsidized federal loans (such as Federal Perkins and Stafford Loans) or federal unsubsidized loans (unsubsidized Stafford Loans) over the last resort of private student loans. At the departmental level, faculty and staff regularly counsel students on available scholarships and issues of financial responsibility. Still, Sheridan acknowledges, “Few institutions do it as well or consistently as I believe they could, Columbia College included.”

USC’s Fink is surprised by the number of students who don’t even apply for scholarships and aid. At well-endowed schools such as USC and Columbia University, there are endowments and both needs-based and needs-blind scholarships that help defray tuition expenses. At USC, for example, the George Lucas Family Foundation recently made a commitment of $20 million to help students from diverse backgrounds. But there are also over 50 scholarships and funding opportunities available for current School of Cinematic Arts students listed online, from the Gene Autry Fund for Student Support to the Frank Volpe Endowed Scholarship.

Like Fink, Maureen Ryan, chair of Columbia University’s film program, says her program has been able to increase scholarship support at the same time as setting strict caps on the amount of money that students are allowed to borrow to complete their degrees, including their thesis films. “Our faculty is aware of the tuition costs and advocate for as much financial aid as possible for our students,” she says.

At Columbia, however, a group of graduate MFA students recently organized together to protest what they felt were “semi-hidden” fees in their post-coursework thesis years, which amount to roughly $15,000 per year. “The actual details of how they were charged were extremely unclear and misleading,” says one current MFA student. Though the base tuition was $5,000, there was an additional $10,000 in fees, which the students felt blindsided by.

After the students launched a petition, created a Tumblr (CUFilmAction), and began speaking with the dean and the faculty, some of their concerns were heard: They were able to raise some emergency funds for those poorer students who were in danger of leaving the program, service jobs were increased, and Columbia website now clearly lays out the extra costs and fees for third, fourth and fifth year MFA students.

But another currently enrolled Columbia MFA student says that despite individual faculty and administrator’s best intentions, there are systematic problems that allow for the persistence of excessive costs to students. “Everyone has their hands tied somehow,” he says. “The faculty is on our side, but they’re scared of losing their job. The dean is scared of the president, and the president is scared of the board of trustees. These are political choices that someone has to advocate for, but it’s hard for them to come from students, because there are a lot of wealthy students, the turnover is quick, and it’s hard to reform something so big in just four years.”

“If they continue on this route,” adds another student, “they’ll end up with just a group of rich people.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sundance Film Festival 2017: What Are The Odds for Documentaries?

This really useful article confirms how challenging it is to have your film shown at Sundance.  
Thanks to Peter Hamilton for writing.

2017 January 6
by Peter Hamilton

The Sundance Film Festival will screen 45 feature-length documentaries.
A total of 1,701 feature documentaries were submitted.
  • 823 were from the U.S.
  • 878 were international.
The success rate for feature docs in 2017 was 2.6%!


And Then Comes Distribution…
After Sundance selection and buzz, the next needle to be threaded by documentary producers is distribution:
  • How many of the 45 Sundance documentary selections will win a respectable theatrical distribution deal?
  • Or a television or SVOD deal?
  • How many of these films will receive a proper theatrical launch?
  • How many will pay for distribution in cinemas, drawing on Outreach funding provided by their backers?
  • And how many of those lucky winners will go on to recoup their investment in production and marketing?
BBQ’ing with Robert Redford
  • I attended one of the earliest Sundance Film Festivals when I was co-authoring a Case Study analysis of independent film marketing and distribution.
  • David Rosen led our ground-breaking Study: it was funded by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project and published by Grove Press.
  • I chatted with Mr Redford at a BBQ at his home, and I can remember that I was startled by his huge forearms. He had played pro baseball. (Years later, I was honored to meet my tennis hero Rod ‘Rocket’ Laver. His forearms were even bigger.)
  • The Sundance Festival was then in its infancy. It was almost a Redford family project. There was an attractive naivete about it all. ‘Independent film’ was an emerging social movement that captured some of the creative energy left over from the anti-Vietnam War and counter-cultural tides of the Sixties and Seventies. ‘Indie’ was a quality that was waiting to be defined and branded.
  • Who then could have imagined the frantic business that Sundance has become today?
PBS: Odds for Acceptance
  • The signature PBS documentary slot POV recently accepted 16 films out of around 1,000 submissions, for an acceptance rate of 1.6%
  • Read more about POV in our detailed October 2015 coverage.
Inauguration Special
  • Regrettably, Gregory Crofton’s ‘theatrical feature’ Case Study of ‘2016 Obama’s America‘ is relevant on many fronts this Inauguration month.
  • That rightwing ‘bio-doc’ grossed $40+/- million, and its producer David Bossie is a player in Donald Trump’s inner circle.
Additional Research: Gregory Crofton

8 Mistakes Filmmakers Make That Kill Their Careers

Elliot Grove's essay on mistakes filmmakers make that kill their careers is both perceptive and on target.  I hope you'll find it helpful.

by | 14 April, 2013 |
Published Link:

As your filmmaking career starts to grow, it’s crucial that your actions don’t strangle it in its infancy.
By avoiding the mistakes that so many filmmakers make you have a far greater chance of succeeding well beyond the first 2 years of the launch date of your career.

1. Doing Too Much Yourself

Business owners as well as filmmakers fall into this trap as they attempt to minimize costs. It can mean that you will get bogged down in the day-to-day nitty gritty, keeping you from stepping back and taking a good hard look at the future. Future planning, and with it, the ability to anticipate problems, are two important areas successful filmmakers have to keep control of. Doing too much can mean that the fire-fighting cycle just keeps repeating over and over again.
Coupled with that is the guilt associated with neglecting family and personal relationships. This often leads to exhaustion and collapse.

Why not call for extra help before you need it, and not after the cracks have begun to show, and usually, it is too late.

 2. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Most independent filmmakers start their career because they are really good at something. Some are really good at directing action, others have a flair for working with actors, and others are just good solid all-rounders.

What many filmmakers forget is that it is a business which involves a host of different skill sets. They forget that filmmaking requires the basic business management skills such as: sourcing new clients and work, marketing and publicity, recruiting new crew and staff, and managing the cash flow questions that any small business has. Add into this the creative mix and you have the potential for a meltdown.

Running and more importantly, developing and expanding your movie career, is like growing and developing any type of business. It is unlikely that you will have the expertise to do everything needed yourself.

Successful filmmakers learn to recognize their own skills and knowledge and take action to fill the gaps in their career plan.

3. Quitting The Day Job Too Quickly

A filmmaker or screenwriter’s passion in what they are doing is usually so high that they enjoy some initial successes and revenues. They then quit their day jobs and hire premises and staff – only to face psychological and financial ruin when their early successes have been a minor blip on the long hard haul to a successful career.

Everyone needs money in order to survive. Make sure you are able to cover your monthly expenses before you ditch your day job. Often people try to get film work, but don’t know how to get work without experience.

Done correctly, you might be able to apply for funding or enjoy certain strategic tax benefits depending on your personal profile and the geographical territory you live in.

4. You Haven’t Got Anyone To Talk To

Filmmakers have career issues which often require discussion and debate. The difficulty facing most filmmakers is that they find it very difficult to find anyone they can relate to.

Certain legal and technical challenges can be discussed with an accountant or lawyer. But issues of creativity are not the issues you want to discuss with inappropriate people.

Having no network is potentially very damaging. Discussion with a trusted advisor or friend is where one finds new ideas and perspectives. Having your project and ideas endorsed is also nourishing for one’s ego. Lukewarm receptions can indicate that your ideas are not developed enough.

A small network of trusted people able to ‘get’ you and to listen and discuss ideas with you is an essential part of a filmmaker’s success. If this is your first visit to Raindance’s website, why not subscribe to our free weekly newsletter – it’s a great way to share ideas.

5. Working With The Wrong People

Filmmaking is a passionate business. It is also almost always very last minute. Add on top of that, the chronic fatigue. Under these circumstances it is tempting to hire people for production and other jobs quickly without properly interviewing and checking references.

Remember, no matter how good someone is, if there’s a difference in values, then the only questions that matter are “When will the row happen?” and “On what subject will it be?”

Always be asking yourself: how much real experience do they have? Is it relevant to what you need? Are their skills and experience complimentary to yours? Do you have mutual respect? How important will you be to them? Do they know their own limits? What networks and contacts do they bring? Will they let you talk to their previous employers/collaborators to get a feel of how they work?

As always, don’t agree to work with anyone until you feel comfortable. Make sure you don’t fall for one of the cons filmmakers fall for. And make sure you have written contracts in place for any creative collaboration.

6. Lack of self awareness

Many filmmakers are afraid of admitting their fears and inadequacies because they don’t want to lose the mantra of praise that they want to follow them everywhere. They won’t take any criticism from anyone because they don’t trust them and because they believe they know better. When confronted they usually nitpick ridiculously fine details and refuse to entertain the creative or practical suggestions from anyone else.

This makes it very difficult to develop a team, and as the word spreads, they find fewer and fewer people willing to collaborate with them.

Successful filmmakers are brutally honest about themselves. Get some vital feedback from that special and trusted friend.

7. Staying In The Comfort Zone

Most filmmakers work with the same team members over and over again. There is nothing wrong with this – except – who is challenging and testing you and your ideas?

It’s an easy trap to surround yourself with ‘yes’ men. Working with people who challenge you may be uncomfortable, but it’s a whole lot easier then attending a disastrous screening of your movie because no one around you had the courage to say “hang on a minute – what about XYZ?”‘

Hip, innovative filmmakers pick up those cool ideas from outside their conventional thoughts. They learn to accept constructive criticism and learn how to deal with negative criticism.

Mixing with others will increase your chances of doing this. The more diverse your contacts (whether by sectors/age/ethnic group/gender), the more you’ll also be able to “narrow the angles” on potential incoming problems. Someone in your group will have had experience of issues that you haven’t – better to learn from others’ mistakes than get extra battle scars yourself!

8. Not Knowing Why You Want To Make Movies

Filmmakers make movies for many different reasons. It doesn’t really matter why you want to make a movie. Some make movies because they want to make money. Others make movies to get a message across. Others make movies because they are attracted by the allure and glamour.
Decide what your ambitions are before you head off and attempt a career in filmmaking. Realize that your real reason for making movies will predetermine much of what you try and achieve.
By avoiding, at least to some degree, these eight common mistakes your filmmaking career has a much more decent chance of success. Analyze each of these eight areas and take appropriate action.
Best wishes!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why We Are Self Publishing the Aviary Cookbook - Lessons From the Alinea Book. Real numbers from the opaque world of cookbook publishing

One of the most opaque industries around is publishing, not here online, but good old-fashioned print-books and their digital and audio spin-offs. Poke around and try to find some hard sales numbers and you’ll quickly find that it’s near impossible to do so. You can find bestseller lists from reputable sources like the NYTimes, Amazon and others but tying those rankings to an actual number of books sold at retail is simply not doable. Publishing costs, deals, and profit lines are even harder to shake loose.

About a decade ago, in 2007, book agents and publishers began approaching chef Achatz and me to gauge our interest in creating an Alinea cookbook. Ever since that process started I have wanted to write this post. Having never published a book before I was fairly mind-blown by the terms of the offering and my inability to properly and easily research the process, costs and revenue potential of a cookbook. In the intervening decade I’ve ranted privately to dozens of chefs, restaurant owners, writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, and even a few screenwriters that they should avoid traditional publishing deals if at all possible. I’ve pushed the case in private, but have always been afraid to fully burn my bridges.

Until now.

Back in March of 2007 we received this exact offer from a major cookbook publisher in the US, the first of several such offers that were remarkably similar. I’ve redacted only the publisher’s identity, the rest is verbatim:

Advance against royalties: $125,000

Royalties: hardcover: 8% of cover price on first 15,000 copies; 10% of cover price on next 15,000 copies; 12% on all copies thereafter; trade paperback: 7.5% of cover price on all copies (note that we are not envisioning this as a paperback but nevertheless want to secure the rights)
Territory: world

Subsidiary rights secured by publisher: first serial (90% author/10% publisher); second serial (50%/50%), book club (50%/50%), permissions (50%/50%), other book publication (50%/50%), British (80%/20%), translation (75%/25%), electronic (50%/50%), audio (50%/50%), paper products (50%/50%)

Subsidiary rights retained by author: video, commercial and merchandising, performance
Deliverables: 100 recipes and supporting text by 8/31/07; 150 color photographs delivered as high-resolution digital files with match prints by 8/31/07; recipes must be fully tested and photographs are subject to [redacted’s] approval.

Option: on next cookbook; proposal may be submitted 90 days after publication of the contract work

Buyback: Author will purchase 5,000 copies for resale within 12 months of publication subject to the following terms: non-returnable; orders of a minimum of 500 copies; in carton quantities only; subject to [redacted’s] inventory requirements; at a discount of 50% off the retail price; royalties payable; delivered to a single US destination; to be sold through the author’s own restaurants, businesses, and website only.

For a first book this is considered a great offer. It’s super rare for any chef or restaurant to receive a solid book deal, let alone a restaurant that was less than 2 years old. $125,000 and the guarantee of editing support, printing supervision, and distribution would have ensured that the book would reach a wide audience and be of relatively high quality.

But then I started doing the math. And negotiating. The offer was soon doubled to $250,000 (perhaps too quickly). But it still didn’t add up to me. At a $60 cover price we would net $4.80 per book sold of the first 15,000 units and have recouped only a $72,000 credit of the advance. On the next 15,000 copies, $90,000. For every book sold after 30,000 — and let’s be clear *very* few cookbooks sell more than 30,000 copies — we would recoup at a rate of $7.20 per book and need to sell another 12,222 books before we saw another dime. The advance is just that — an advance against royalties — and just like a record deal the publisher keeps all of the revenue until the advance is fully recouped, if ever.

Out of that $250,000 we would be required to spend the money on all photography, graphic design, pre-press, editing, recipe testing, writing and proofs. With a team of 4–6 professionals contracted for the book this would typically use 70% to 85% of the advance. It could easily end up being more than that for us as we intended to shoot every recipe, its steps and the final dish… something that the vast majority of cookbooks do not do for several reasons.

The photography, color correction, layout and proofs are exacting and time consuming. As important, pages that are full-bleed, 6-color printed drive up the printing costs. That is why most cookbooks — even the best — do not include photographs of every recipe. The pages that are only text, be they recipes or essays, are far cheaper to print and work to save money on the overall production costs. If you unbind a typical cookbook (we dissected a dozen or so with an X-acto knife), you’ll find that pages 20 / 200 (for example) are printed on the same sheet… and don’t include pictures. Multiply that by 40% or more of the book and you’ve saved a great deal of money. Next time you pick up a cookbook try to estimate how many pages are all or mostly words, then page through the book. You’ll be surprised. And now you’ll know why there isn’t a picture of every recipe and dish, even though the ones with pictures tend to be the only recipes readers actually cook.

There is, baked into the structure of the publishing agreement, a mutual incentive to reduce costs. For the authors it is to cut corners on photography and design production to retain more of the advance money. This helps the publisher to keep the printing cost as low as possible. But what were those costs exactly?

I still had no idea what it actually cost to print a major cookbook. That was as hard to figure out as sales numbers. So our team started calling printers in China and Korea, print brokers in the US, and any publishing contact I could find to ask a very specific question: “How much does it cost to print 30,000 copies of a [Very Famous and Successful] Cookbook, do you think?” I was met with responses that were akin to me asking for state secrets that were highly classified. No one would talk.
Until one-day I got lucky. Just by chance I spoke to the print broker who actually worked on the exact bid for that famous book. And he told me precisely: that super amazing cookbook that I truly loved, which at the time retailed for $50 and had won every award imaginable, cost $3.83 per book to print, shrink wrap, and ship to the US. I thought he must be mistaken and I said so. “No way.” He replied, “well that was the first edition, I’m sure the cost has gone down since then.” He thought I was implying that $3.83 per book was too high!

Now everything was beginning to make sense to me. The actual print costs were lower than I ever imagined. And in our offer I realized there was a truly crazy clause that I had completely glossed over: “Buyback: Author will purchase 5,000 copies for resale within 12 months of publication subject to the following terms…”

Since I expected that we would be selling books through the restaurant I wouldn’t mind having an inventory and so I didn’t pay close attention to that section of the offer. But doing the math I realized that the publisher was essentially guaranteeing that they would recoup the entirety of the original advance offer! At $30 wholesale to us and a cost of $3.83 to them, a sale of 5,000 copies to us, the authors, would net them a $130,850 profit. It was at this point that I got actually angry. The publisher was taking no risk at all.

I decided that minute that we would take a very different course of action.

Over the the next few weeks Martin Kastner, our designer for the Alinea book who had never created a book before, and his wife Lara, a visual artist who had never photographed for a book before, began working on a detailed book proposal with Grant and me. The goal was to photograph, design, and print about 8 recipes in what looked like a final form, leaving less to the imagination of the publisher and giving them a sense of our design ambitions.

We made unusual decisions that we felt would make the book better and uniquely comprehensive: every dish would be photographed along with many of the steps and techniques, ingredients would be weighed as they were in the restaurant instead of using measures like cups or tablespoons, we’d use the metric system for accuracy, a recipe tester (who would make the recipes easier for home use) would not be employed, the photography would be done in the restaurant over the course of 6 months to a year. Martin even hand crafted a custom stainless steel pin binding system to present the pages. We then sent them to 6 publishers, five in the US and one in Europe.

At the time Taschen did not publish cookbooks and so they were a quick, “no, but it’s beautiful and about design. But we do not support that category. We just don’t sell cookbooks.” 3 others made offers similar to the one above, all within about 10% of each other, both of advance and terms. And one very famous publisher wrote back:

“The very elegant materials you’ve presented would make a phenomenal appendix… And…not to be a total pill…but in name of full disclosure, I also have problems with the design, the color palette, some of the photography, etc.”

She concluded that we would likely want to go elsewhere to publish if we did not wish to compromise. And if we did publish as presented, she predicted on a phone call that we would never sell even 5,000 books. “It’s not readable, enjoyable, and no one in this country uses grams.” I yelled some choice words at a wall after I hung up the phone on that call. Her main sales tactic, it seemed, was fear and intimidation. She pressed me that there was no way we could do this on our own and I was doing a disservice to chef Achatz for telling him we could. If I needed more motivation, that was it.

And then Aaron Wehner from 10 Speed Press asked to speak. He emailed that he had a most unusual offer. The offer was this:


No advance at all. Not a dime. We would be on the hook for all production costs and because of that could do pretty much whatever we wanted. 10 Speed would help us do the copy editing, we’d get the benefit of their relationships and sizable orders with printers, and of course they’d warehouse and distribute the book in North America. Full production and distribution transparency to us. We’d even get the list of every single independent bookseller that carried the book. This was intriguing.
In the course of two short phone calls we worked out a deal:

  • no advance but the publisher would front the printing costs.
  • roundly 74% of wholesale proceeds go to Alinea after printing costs are recouped in profit per unit terms. $25 wholesale price ($50 retail first edition) minus print cost = profit per unit.
  • Alinea pays the actual print / shipping costs for all books we sell directly at retail, not a wholesale price. No guaranteed minimum number of books to be purchased by us.
That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

It took us nearly a year to make the book, all the while learning a lot and making a ton of mistakes, and doing so while Grant went through an arduous series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Stage IVb cancer. The entire process proved incredibly stressful, but we worked with amazing food writers who were my inspiration to get into the restaurant business just a few years earlier — Jeffrey Steingarten and Michael Ruhlman among them.

We set up a website and sold nearly 5,000 books directly, with the promise of a slip-covered edition signed by all of the creators, before we even printed them. And perhaps the funniest error is that I never bothered to consider that 5,000 7.5 pound books is 18.75 tons of books! So stupid of me! When they arrived at Alinea (!) I quickly realized that: a) I needed to bribe the truck driver to hang around while I quickly found a warehouse and a fork lift to unload them; b) they were all shrink wrapped and boxed and we’d need to open 5,000 books and re-seal them; c) Grant was going to kill me because 5,000 books looked like this and signing them would take days:
Not a great picture, but every box you see is full of Alinea books. It took a huge team just to unwrap them!
On Day Two of Signing no one was happy with me, including Martin.
These were merely the leftovers for the restaurant after we shipped 5,000 books from a warehouse. “More?!”
Despite the difficulties we had successfully created the book we wanted. It was truly unique, over 3 times the production and printing cost of a typical cookbook at that price point, with a small font, black pages, and metric measures. Martin even went to China for 3 weeks to oversee the printing, ensuring the proper color saturation, printing throughput and standards — and driving the print broker and the factory completely nuts with his attention to detail. All told, the cost per unit was around $10.80 laden for the first edition run of 30,000 books.

The end results proved that customers could tell the difference. Alinea is in its 6th printing edition with over 100,000 copies sold. It won a James Beard Award for Best Cookbook from a Professional Point of View. And it was featured in the Communications Arts 50th Anniversary Annual for its innovative design, a true honor for any graphic designer let alone for Martin and Lara working on their first book ever.

And I’d be happy to work under those terms again. But then 10 Speed Press, a great independent publisher that could adroitly make an unusual deal for a cool book, got sold to Crown Publishing in 2009. And in the meantime Amazon ate the world of independent booksellers.

I really doubt any publisher will make a deal like that again anytime soon.
And I really doubt any well known restaurant, chef, or writer needs to do so.

There is an even better way now.

68% and 40%.
Amazon sells ~68% of all books sold online and ~40% of all books sold, period. Couple that with a book website tied to the social media reach of a popular restaurant or chef, Google Ads, and Facebook Advertising and any cookbook can reach a substantial worldwide audience. Simply put, reaching an audience directly for a book, without a publisher, has never been easier.

But making a great book remains difficult and takes a lot of time and money. Here’s how we are planning to make the Aviary book.

In order to make a great book you need talented artists and writers — great content. Typically that would mean hiring an artistic photographer, a writer, a recipe editor, and a graphic designer on contract. Because we controlled the details of the Alinea book so tightly, I wanted to make sure we could be even more ambitious for any new books we will make in the future. I wanted to create our own mini-production-house for all media for our restaurant group. The process of putting the team together took a little over 3 years.

We were super fortunate that a truly crazy-mad-genius-autodidact, Allen Hemberger, spent nearly 5 years documenting his experience of cooking his way through the Alinea book. You can watch this documentary about his obsession. We kept in touch with Allen over the years as his progress culminated in the creation of his own book, The Alinea Project, which he successfully Kickstarted and printed. And when I got a copy in the mail, well I was fairly mind blown. It was, in many ways, even better than the Alinea book itself.

While I had known that Allen was a talented animator and programmer for Weta Studios in New Zealand and then at Pixar working on Finding Dory, I had no idea that his wife Sarah was a talented graphic designer working at Industrial Light and Magic. She was responsible for laying out the entirety of the Alinea Project book, along with all of the graphic design, solo. As soon as I paged through the Alinea Project, literally that second, I knew someday we’d work with Allen and Sarah to make our books. I just had no idea *how* we would make that happen.

So I gave him a call.

It is an understatement to say that it is hard to compete with Pixar in terms of quality of life, compensation, benefits, and, well, pretty much everything else. I had, really, only one thing to offer: an independent adventure.

The core value of The Alinea Group is that we *attempt* to innovate on whatever projects we tackle. Of course, we don’t always succeed. But the pitch to Allen and Sarah was that we would invest in the production process for a series of books, that we could leverage our marketing and social media to give us a reasonable chance for success, and that they would transparently share in that success both financially and by receiving proper credit for their work. But more than anything, it’s that we really weren’t exactly sure how to best produce the book and that they would figure that out with us. That’s the adventure.

And then, just as we were about to get started and they were about to move here I got a phone call. I could tell they were hesitant to talk to me and tell me some news and I figured they got cold feet. Instead, they let me know that they were expecting their first child.

We put the project on hold for over a year. Miramar, their beautiful daughter, was 8 months old when they finally arrived in Chicago. Yes, they left the beautiful Bay Area of Northern California and two amazing companies with a small child in tow to come make a few cookbooks.

Here’s what we’ve invested in and used so far to build our studio:
  • Two iMac workstations
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Houdini Indie
  • Scrivener for text / recipe organization
  • Google Docs for team collaboration
  • Canon Pixma Pro large format color printer for stage 1 proof tests
  • ColorMunki spectrophotometer for screen-to-print color calibration
  • Canon 5dmkiii
  • Canon 50mm macro
  • Canon 100mm macro
  • Canon 24–105mm F4L
  • Sony A7Sii
  • Sony FE 55mm
  • Sony FE 28mm
  • Rode videomic pro
  • Mamiya 7 medium format film camera
  • Zoom H6 recorder
  • 2x Sennheiser G3 Wireless Microphone system with lavalier mic
  • Edelkrone SliderPLUS motion control system
  • 4x Yongnuo Speedlites
  • Yongnuo Flash controller
  • Several softboxes, snoots, umbrellas, misc light modifiers
  • Light shed
  • Manfrotto plexiglass panel shooting table
  • Perception Neuron motion capture rig
  • Misc boom arms, light stands, umbrella mounts, etc.
  • Ricoh Theta S for 360 video/ lightprobe collection
Nothing fancy, but super convenient right above the Aviary.
We rented a space above our restaurants in the West Loop of Chicago. It’s nothing sexy. But a small set up like this, close to the kitchen and our team…

…can in the right hands yield results that look like this:

We’ve documented about 160 drink recipes over the past several years anticipating the need to have everything organized. Nonetheless, we are not certain about the final content of the book. Nor can we really be certain what the demand truly looks like for a $60 coffee-table worthy cocktail tome. I’ve been told personally by several publishers that there is no such market (not quite as bad as the ‘appendix’ assessment for the Alinea proposal, but not far off).

Publishers mitigate their risks by ensuring sales to several channels early on — the author (as we saw above), book clubs, independent bookseller aggregators, etc — and cutting deals up front. And, of course, by making sure the book is as cheaply produced as possible. We do not have those same options available to us and our goals for the final product are very different.

So we took to Kickstarter to crowdsource some of the initial funds we need to put the project together. We had a lot of success with Martin for his Porthole, raising $736,000 in just 4 weeks. That was way ahead of what we had imagined. “Gadgets” and tech do really well on Kickstarter, but campaigns for books have been far more modest.

We’ve gotten some questions as to why we ‘need’ the funds via a Kickstarter since we have successful restaurants. And while it’s true that we could invest everything up front and hope to have a successful book in the long run, the costs are not insubstantial:
  • 2 full time employees plus extra time for our kitchen team
  • photography and print equipment
  • studio space
  • marketing budget
  • printing proofs
  • printing plates
  • And the printing itself of course…
On the Kickstarter video for The Aviary Book you can see mock ups of the size / shape of a potential final form factor. The reason we did this was to get printing estimates and lead times in various quantity runs. Making a number of assumptions on content and length and having the numbers from Alinea and The Alinea Project both helped. But we’re trying to do even more with this book.
Initial estimates for a print run of 15,000 and 30,000 are about $13.80 to $15.20 per unit for the basic book without any ‘extras’. This time we do not have the advantage piggy backing on a big publisher’s orders, so we don’t get the giant volume discounts. An initial print run, after all production expenses, will cost about $450,000.

I expect our total out of pocket for all production and printing of the first edition to be $750,000 to $830,000 over the course of about 14 months. Of course, we could do a much smaller run of 10,000 books if we think demand will be lower and that will drive the per unit costs up around 15%.
Finally, we need to warehouse and ship thousands of books. For that we reached out to Max Temkin’s (of Cards Against Humanity fame) new shipping company to get everything in place so that we can inventory the books properly, then charge appropriately for shipping and handling as we pre-sell the books. That makes life so much easier on the logistics side this time around.

Once the Kickstarter is over we’ll migrate sales and inquiries to and all fulfillment will push directly to Blackbox, with the exception of the slipcovered edition which we will sign and handle personally at our offices. We’ll also of course utilize Amazon for sales and distribution through a traditional and massive channel. Eventually, we may reach out to independent booksellers that we have a relationship with to carry the book.

It’s a big project to be sure, but no bigger than it would be for any restaurant to produce a book of this type. And we get to control the voice, content, and quality of the final product completely. If it’s successful, we’ll also all share in the rewards together.

We’re also going to document the process, costs, unexpected hiccups, massive screw ups, and failed material along the way to the final goal. We’re hoping that this helps other cookbook authors, restaurants, and even independent authors to understand a bit of the process. Even if they decide to stay with a traditional book deal they’ll be armed with more information. And we’ll be happy to answer any questions along the way, from photography techniques and post production to printing bids and shipping dates. We want to open-source our process so that the digital tools available for book production are not gummed up by the system known as publishing.

We’ll need to sell about 17,400 books to break even. So there is a risk. But we’re excited to create a unique book, part art / part science / part delicious, that will inspire cocktail lovers around the world.
Keep an eye on our progress at and send us any questions or comments you may have. We look forward to hearing from you and raising a glass.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Michael Moore presents 13-point doc manifesto at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014


Note:  While Michael Moore's films remain problematic for me, his work has been successful.
With the change in the rules for the documentary Oscar far too many films are pushed into a theatrical release which on one hand has created a golden age of theatrical docs and on the other a glut. Filmmakers and distributors are releasing more docs theatrically than ever before. As Moore suggests too many are television-like shows.  In any case, these tips are helpful and too often forgotten. 2014 is one of the great years of the documentary feature. Amazing work. 

Mitchell Block

Michael Moore (pictured) may be a lot of things, but one thing he – quite adamantly – is not, is a documentarian, he told delegates during his keynote at the Toronto International Film Festival’s sixth annual Doc Conference.

“We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers,” said the Roger & Me director, dressed casually in a black T-shirt and shorts and sporting his signature baseball cap. “This word, ‘documentarian’? I am here today to declare that word dead. That word is never to be used again.

“People love going to the movies. The audience doesn’t want to be lectured, they want to be entertained. And that’s the big dirty word of documentary filmmaking,” he said.

In the hour-long keynote, Moore said that more documentaries need to be made for theaters, rather than television, and that these films need to do more to entertain audiences rather than lecture them.
Moore, citing a conversation with Sony Pictures Classics head Michael Barker, says documentary makers are having more difficulty securing theatrical distribution for films nowadays because audiences have stopped going to theaters to see documentaries they believe they can just as easily watch at home.

The director said he considered himself part of the problem, since the commercial success of his documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 convinced distributors to put more documentaries in theaters, and ultimately opened the floodgates for a number of television-oriented docs being shown on the big screen.

“The audience that got used to seeing the theatrical documentaries from [Morgan] Spurlock and even Al Gore, they came out of the theater going, ‘Well that was a good documentary, but I could have seen that at home on television. Why did I pay $12 for that?’” explained Moore.

“The public is not going to go a theater to see a documentary that you can see on television for free. So basically a glut was created and turned these audiences off and people stopped going to see these films in theaters.”

Moore said that in order to get people to revisit theaters for docs, filmmakers need to make more theater-oriented, accessible work.

The director spent the latter half of his keynote outlining a 13-point manifesto for filmmakers:

1) Don’t make a doc, make a movie.
“The art is more important than the politics,” said Moore. “Because if I make a [crappy] movie, my politics won’t get through to anybody. The art has to come first.”

2) Don’t tell me anything I already know. 
“Give people something new they haven’t seen before,” said Moore. “With Roger & Me  I said there shouldn’t be one shot of an unemployment line. People are numb to those images.”

3) Don’t let your documentary resemble a college lecture. 
“We have to invent a different kind of model than the college lecture model,” said Moore.

4) Too many of your documentaries feel like medicine.
“Don’t show a doc that’s going to kill [an audience's] evening,” said Moore.

5) The Left is boring.
“It’s why we have a hard time convincing people to think about some of the things we’re concerned about,” said Moore. “The Left has lost its sense of humor and we need to be less worried.”

6) Why don’t we name names?
“Why don’t we go after the corporations and name them by name?” asked Moore. “You will be sued. People will be mad at you. But so what?”

7) Make your films personal.
“People want to hear your voice,” said Moore. “It’s what most docs stay away from, and most don’t like narration. But who’s saying this film?”

8) Point your camera at the cameras.
Moore advised doc makers to challenge the mainstream media and film its coverage of various events.

9) Follow the examples of non-fiction books and television.
“People love to watch [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert,” he said. “Why don’t you try to make films that come from the same spirit? People just want the truth and they want to be entertained.”

10) Film only the people who disagree with you. 
The director said that while filming Roger & Me he tried to stay away from interviewing union workers to tell the story, since they were basically friends. Interviews with those who held contradictory opinions are harder to secure, but more interesting to audiences, said Moore.

11) Make sure you’re getting emotional when filming. 
“Are you getting mad when filming a scene? Are you crying?” asked Moore. “That’s evidence that the audience will respond that way, too… [You] are a stand-in for the audience.”

12) Less is more. 
“Edit, and make it shorter,” Moore advised, saying it’s okay to let audiences fill in the gaps. “People love that you trust they have a brain.”

13) Sound is more important than picture.
“Sound carries the story,” said Moore. “Don’t cheat on the sound, and don’t be cheap with the sound.”

Moore closed his session by saying he wanted more non-fiction films to be seen by millions of people and that “it’s a crime that they are aren’t.”

“For a long time I blamed the distributors, the studios and the financiers, and really, we should just take a few moments to blame ourselves as filmmakers,” he said.