Producer Kate McCallum had an epiphany when she left the studio system in 2006. With a 20-year career in the industry, she thought she had accrued a strong skill set and felt ready to take on her next project. She’d left a job as a vice president of development and begun a new challenge creating content for an emerging video-on-demand channel. But a few days into the new job, she realized there was a very steep learning curve. "I had to oversee everything, from the very beginning, from story development, to legal, to digital asset management, to delivering the content. I quickly realized there were places along that production process I didn’t know about, like encoding … things that I’m not up to speed on. I need to have some understanding of those things if I’m going to do this job well.”
That’s a common story among producers across the country. The entertainment landscape has changed so much and so rapidly that many producers are finding it tough to stay current on emerging technologies and skills. To help, PGA councils and committees have launched a number of initiatives is to educate its members and keep them up to date.
McCallum was elected to the PGA’s New Media Council two years ago with a passion to educate members about what she calls "tech literacy.” "What I came to realize after I left the studios,” she recalls, "is how important it is for producers to keep up on new media tech. I believe it’s not enough to stay entrenched in traditional platforms, but to have awareness of the new media tech coming up on the horizon.”
Along with her studio experience, she’s now well-versed in transmedia and cross-platform storytelling and feels strongly that this is an area in which all producers need to stay current. The New Media Council has launched a number of "Deep Dives" into new models of storytelling, keys to social media engagement, a workshop on virtual reality, and a transmedia workshop. Each showcases valuable new methods of creating content with cutting-edge technology. "There’s so many different ways to seed a story now, from the bottom up,” McCallum continues. "And some of the best education you can get is when you’re in the trenches doing the work," she says.
The hunger for new information and skills is so fierce that the Producers Guild offers programs through three different groups on the West Coast alone. In addition to the New Media Council’s Deep Dives, the Guild's AP Council offers a series of Master Classes, while the Guild’s own Seminar Committee presents its unique workshops and educational opportunities.
Like McCallum, producer Carrie Certa came up in the industry with the help of advice from respected peers. "I relied on kind producers picking up the phone and saying, ‘Yes I’ll meet with you for five minutes,’” she recalls. "I remember my first studio line producing job, with Disney. I had done indie features, but facing the prospect of doing it for a network within 24 hours … I didn’t think I was qualified. One of my colleagues believed in me so much that he connected me with a Disney line producer who reviewed my budgets before they went to the network for approvals. Where else would that have happened?”
That recognition of the need for formalized education for producers led her to develop the Master Class series. Currently presented by the PGA’s AP Council, the monthly classes are designed to provide a hands-on learning experience in a variety of areas of production. "I was very adamant about practical education,” says Certa. "Out of necessity, I put together the editing class under the banner of the PGA. It was a huge success and it just kind of snowballed from there. We try to cover everything that will help you, from simple shooting or editing to line producing, to how to save a life on set. Because PGA membership is so broad, from coordinators to executive producers, we strive to cover the entire range of the job requirements, to help everyone move from one to position to the next.”
Classes are held each month in the Los Angeles area, often at the hosting vendor’s facility. Recently, the Master Class series has featured offerings on such topics as shooting with drones, buying a home for freelancers, and even a workshop about encouraging and incorporating improvisation on set. "We want to know that the class is actually valuable and we want to know what classes producers want to take,” says Certa. "It always comes back to one thing: what do I need to know as a producer?”
Because the PGA enjoys brand name recognition and preferred status with vendors and facilities, the Master Class series can offer content that isn’t available to the general public. "We did a motion-capture class at DreamWorks that was amazing,” Certa reports. "People got to pick up the camera and see the animation. Where else would you get that experience? DreamWorks doesn’t open the doors to their million-dollar camera setup to students; they trust us because we’re producers.”
John Kaiser, Co-Chair of the PGA Seminar Committee, echoes many of Certa’s thoughts: "Our seminars provide the members with the latest cutting edge information, tools and techniques in film, television and the new media avenues of our industry.”
Admittance to the seminars, which tend to be panel discussions, is free for PGA members and sometimes open to the general public for a modest registration fee.
"We’re open to any topic that we think will enlighten Guild members, or teach them something new, or broaden their minds as producers,” says Kaiser.
The committee has hosted events on topics including the future of film financing, working with the FBI, and producing with the military. "We can connect producers with each branch of the military,” Kaiser proudly notes. "A lot of producers don’t even know that the FBI has a dedicated office that wants to help Hollywood, so we introduce them to those people and tell them what services they offer.”
The committee has plans to put on a seminar about the challenge and threat of content piracy in the coming months. Any member with a seminar idea is welcome to bring it to the committee, which will produce approved seminar events alongside the volunteer who originated the idea.
"We’re very dependent not only on Guild members to suggest things they want to learn about, but also to collaborate and help produce these events,” says Kaiser.
Incoming Co-Chair Richie Solomon feels the best feature of the committee can offer is "actionable intelligence” for producers working in the field. "We want producers to be inspired by the topics,” declares Solomon.
The annual Produced By Conference is one of the Guild’s most visible annual events and a great opportunity for producers to learn from fellow members, as well as some of the most eminent figures in entertainment. Marshall Herskovitz, Co-Chair of the Produced By Conference, believes that's crucial for producers’ continued development. "One of the satisfactions of the Produced By Conference has been the opportunity to share information with producers who have a real appetite for learning everything there is to know about the craft,” says Herskovitz. "Beyond that, it’s impossible to overstate the value of having so many producers in one place … The sharing of experiences and motivations, the incubation of ideas and partnerships—there’s nothing like it anywhere in the entertainment industry, and it’s the reason people keep coming back year after year.”
The PGA East’s own annual conference, Produced By: New York, now going into its second year, includes plenty of general producing information, but also offers specific focus on issues related to the New York market. For PGA East Chair Peter Saraf, the different cultures between the two coasts make the second conference invaluable. "New York filmmakers thrive outside of the studio system,” asserts Saraf. "Our TV producers excel in unscripted, non-fiction, children’s and talk show programming and our digital producers are innovating in ways that are distinct from Silicon Valley innovation.”
PGA East also offers its own master classes and seminars. AP Council member Kiran Malhotra sees a changing landscape in New York that makes education an even greater priority.
"Every digital media company in New York is building its digital video department and hiring producers,” she explains. "You need to shoot. You need to edit. You need to be familiar with After Effects. You need to know social media. I knew our members could be a really great fit for these jobs if they had the right skills.” Thanks to the efforts of PGA volunteers, our Guild members can look to stay competitive in the current cutthroat job market.
From their earliest days, trade guilds have been driven by the need for education, apprenticeship and the acquisition of specialized skills. Even in the 21st century, the Producers Guild is no different. Producing is a complicated job, and the collective knowledge of its members is, far and away, the Guild’s greatest asset. There’s no better way to make use of your membership than tapping into it.
- Illustrated by Christine Georgiades