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Pointed View: Help!!! I’m Being Claused to Death

Can you drown in paper? A producer’s nightmare

Photo by MBPhoto, Inc.

It was bound to happen. I’ve finally hit my patience limit with the paperwork required by broadcasters and funding agencies to make a television documentary.

For over 10 years now, I’ve been filling in Related Party Transactions, Broadcaster Agreement Forms (BAF), Signed and Dated Budget Summaries, Affidavits of Canadian Identity, Cost Reports, Exploitation Reports, Long Form Agreements and Deal Memos, Producer Attestation of Investment. Hey, wake up! These are my central tasks! The just-hold-your-nose-and-do-it pose isn’t working anymore and I find myself asking way too many times: “Is this really necessary?”

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a practical person who knows that a certain amount of paperwork comes with cheques arriving in the mail. But we’ve gone way past the sensible mark now. The contractual gymnastics required by my latest doc project is a good case in point: 160 hours, three months, $200 in ink cartridges and 500 sheets of paper. I’ve used up nearly all the Production Supervisor budget and, as of the first draft of this article, no cheque has actually made it into the bank account. Believe it or not, I’m good at this stuff. If it’s 160 hours for me, it’s over 200 for someone new at the game.

Confession: I do spend a portion of this time arguing, debating and questioning what I consider “silly” clauses and forms. So any producer who approaches the paperwork with a “Yes suh” attitude can probably do it in way less time. But I digress… .

If you’re a director, writer or creative type and itching to turn the page, please humour us producers and feel our pain. We might need your help if we decide to storm the paper Bastille.

And besides, don’t you want to know why we’re so testy and never leave our desks, why the accounting budgets are higher every year and why it takes so long for money to actually arrive? Welcome to my world.

Would you please repeat that for the 23rd time?
A few years ago, you could put all the required funding documents to Telefilm into a sizeable, but mailable, manila envelope. Now you need a three-inch binder (sorry—two three-inch binders, original and copy) chock full of forms that basically repeat the same information over and over again in various formats. Some of my favourite duplications:

1) If a producer is investing any amount of money in the film, s/he must sign the Financial Structure (to confirm the investment) and then write a letter reconfirming what s/he will invest. (To date, a DNA sample is not required.)

2) Broadcaster Agreement Form (BAF)—it restates the licence amount and broadcast date already confirmed in a signed, pre-licence agreement also required with submission.

3) An affidavit signed by a Commissioner of Oath (who you have to find, meet and pay) that states names of the shareholders, directors and president of the film company-– information that has already been submitted through the required corporation papers.

4) In Quebec, if you’re getting SODEC funding, you have to completely rewrite the budget onto their Declaration of Costs Outside Quebec. Every projected cost must be rearranged into different types of columns, different sections and different totals than are found in the standard budget.

Why all the redundancy? Here’s my take: In the past, a funding agency analyst would get our smaller number of documents, study the broadcaster licence, producer investment, out-of-province costs, budget, cash flow, cross-reference the figures and make a report. When the government starting cutting back on the live humans, they needed to simplify and decrease the tasks for those left behind. So certain sections of the report were replaced by dozens of forms and ME.

Trouble is, on this end, there was no corresponding increase in Corporate Overhead, Producer Fees and/or Production Staffing. We were never getting rich making documentaries. Now we’re getting poor.

It’s standard policy, ma’am.
Over the last few years I’ve noticed that, although we producers are signing “Agreements” with broadcasters and the CMF (Canadian Media Fund), these documents have actually morphed into one-sided edicts. Whenever I want to change something, I am met with that old chestnut: “It’s standard policy and can’t be changed.” Translated, this means that the legal department has added clauses that protect them from some film disaster and we all have to sign on as the nightmare client.

My favourite example of this is a clause requiring a meeting between the producer and the broadcaster every two weeks during the entire production and post-production periods. I knew, and they knew, that this only happens when a film goes off the rails. When I was told it didn’t really apply to me, I said, “Good. Let’s take it out then.” No dice. They insisted it stay because “It’s standard policy and we can’t change it.”

Please raise your hand it you’ve ever satisfied these vitally important clauses that, while never enforced, won’t go away:

1) Producer must get written consent from the broadcaster before using any music from commercial recordings.

2) All promotion material must be sent to the broadcaster six weeks after completion of principal photography.

3) A real, working, thought-out Diversity Plan. I actually think this is an important component of our film industry, but there’s no teeth in the template we all complete and send into the bureaucratic morass. A unique case of paperwork we should keep but renovate.

A rousing round of pass the buck
This issue may not be a paperwork problem per se, but it is a bureaucratic knot that costs all of us a lot of money. To wit: some broadcasters insist on six-year licences while the rest of the world (archives, music, actors, etc.) lives on licences for five or 10 years. This extra year sometimes means double the fees (for an ACTRA narrator) or a 50% increase in your costs (for an extra archival term).

The reason given for this six-year term is that the CMF insists on it. When I went to CMF to ask why, they insisted that six years was the “maximum” term and that five would be fine. When I went back to the broadcaster with this news, I was thwarted again. “If we do it for you, we would have to do it for everyone.” Something for everyone sounded good to me…but not to them.

When I was a researcher and production manager, I dreamed of becoming a producer. Then, presumably, I could make decisions about what material would be on screen. But with every project I produce, I get further and further removed from the content. Instead of watching rushes and discussing material with the director, I’m filling out residency forms, coaxing the crew to get personnel numbers and trying to download a Rough Cut Attestation form.

We need a revolt!

We need to insist on a seven-clause limit per contract. We need to scrawl, in large, red letters, “THIS INFORMATION CAN BE FOUND IN ______________” across all duplicate forms. We need to demand five-year licences. But we also need to keep what little financing we still have for documentary projects. So…

Never mind.