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How to Become a High-End Wedding Producer
Posted Dec 31, 2008 - January 2009 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

The story you’re about to read is a case study about being a producer. The challenges we faced as a studio to pull off this wedding shoot proved a great learning experience for us; it’s one that I hope can encourage you to think big.

Fade In
It was a warm Wednesday evening in July when I felt the buzz in my left pocket that told me I was getting a text message on my iPhone. I was in the parking lot of our Lucky supermarket, having just put my little boy in the car. The message was from my director of weddings and personal events, Hilarie. Hilarie is a former bridal client who loved her video so much, she asked if she could work for us. Right around the time we made the switch to focus on corporate work, we brought her on to handle all of our wedding correspondence (sales calls, emails, contracts, meetings, etc.). As a former client, she can speak directly to what it’s like to work with us. And as a recent bride herself, she  connects with our wedding clients. She even gets invited by some clients to be a guest at their weddings.

Hilarie got a last-minute request for us to do a wedding in Cancún, Mexico. The wedding was scheduled for a week from that Saturday—in 10 days. There was one problem. I was already booked.
Now, pretend you hear the deep, whooshing sound of an airplane rumble. As the sound crescendos, you’re taken back in time to spring 2004 (Lost fans will get my allusion to the whooshing airplane rumble). In the spring of ’04, I had been in business for less than 2 years. I knew that I wanted to structure my business so I did not have to turn away jobs if I was already personally booked. Whereas most small video companies in my area will refer business on a day they’re booked (particularly high-end videographers), I wanted to have a studio that could do multiple weddings on the same day, high-end weddings included. So early on I started building up my team of “usual suspects.” These were hand-picked shooters and editors whose experience and style met the standards I’d want to put my company’s name on.

The wedding that started me building this list of “usual suspects” was my first “double-booked” wedding. It was to be held at a private estate in Atheron, Calif. (an exclusive, überupper-class community in Northern California, home to the likes of Oracle CEO and billionaire Larry Ellison). Unfortunately, I was already booked for a wedding in San Francisco. I knew this Atherton wedding would be a great addition to my portfolio. Do I pass on it or do I try to find another pair of shooters to shoot it? I chose the latter option.

That Saturday in May 2004, I was a little freaked. It was a scary feeling sending two people off to shoot a wedding without being there to give direction or to make sure every-
thing was just right. I had to let go and trust my team. And it paid off. The video I edited from that Atherton wedding was one of my best at the time. It won my local video association exhibition competition, and it was a mainstay of my demo for a few years.  Later that summer I had another double-booked day; then another. In a number of months, I was at a point of trust and comfort where I could charge premium rates for the work we delivered, entrust talented shooters, and feel comfortable I’d have something worthy on which to put the Cinematic Studios name.

The Recruits

So let’s get back to the present day. Hilarie got the call for the Mexico wedding. It was a referral from a high-end, nationally renowned photography studio based in Atlanta. I had become a good friend and colleague of the owners of this studio through the work our company does in the pro photography industry. The client was out of Austin, Texas. Knowing how much this particular photography studio charges and seeing the location of the event, I knew price wasn’t going to be an issue (as it usually is on such short notice). The sane thing would probably have been to pass on the gig and refer it. And if it weren’t Cancún, I just might have done that. But I hadn’t yet shot a wedding in Mexico, and I wanted this one for our portfolio.

I was already personally booked that day for a Ritz-Carlton wedding in Half Moon Bay, Calif. To make matters worse, my “usual suspects” were also already booked. No surprise there—this was, after all, the peak wedding season. But I didn’t want to give up. So I turned to our CSI Network. This is a network of hand-picked videographers we started building because of a deal we signed with the website and marketing company liveBooks to shoot promo videos for its pro photographer clients around the country. The network has also been helpful in servicing our commercial clients that have offices outside our local region. Little did I know it would also come in handy to shoot weddings.

The night we got the call, I started putting out feelers. Trying to find a super-talented videographer in the middle of July for a wedding scheduled in just over a week is no easy task. On top of the recruiting, I was corresponding with Hilarie as she kept sending me revised versions of the contract. To make matters worse, most of the shooters on my short list didn’t have passports, and  there was no guarantee that one could be secured in time. (Ultimately, the videographer that was hired got his passport with literally 1 day to spare).

The next few days were filled with a lot of back-and-forth negotiations with shooters,  contract negotiations with the clients, and phone calls and emails with the clients to discuss their wedding day. The Tuesday before the wedding, with just 4 days left, I was able to secure two great shooters: Joth Riggs of Whitestone Productions in Los Angeles (he’d done work with us before) and Josh Smith of Cinematic Bride out of Monroe, La.

The Producer’s Assistant
Batman had Robin. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Laverne had Shirley (or did Shirley have Laverne?). I can’t stress enough how important it is for a good producer to have a great assistant—someone to focus on the details of a shoot while you work on the bigger picture. He or she needs to be meticulous and industrious and able to think outside the box, with the autonomy and the capability to call shots when necessary. It’s vital to establish monetary guidelines and/or time guidelines to help your assistants stay reined in but then trust them to do their job.

I depend a lot on two assistants in my business. One is a virtual assistant who lives more than 3,000 miles away. The other assistant is our director of weddings and personal events. I think a key to a producer’s success is a team that can do its job well, with little to no hand-holding. Hilarie was the MVP of this shoot. She ended up doing a lot of the work that traditionally would have gone to the coordinator. The most time-consuming job was researching airfare from two different cities on five different airlines in order to find the best rates. On top of that, she worked closely with the client’s coordinator to plan travel arrangements in Mexico.

Logistically, there were other arrangements that had to be made regarding key footage the client wanted. Having Hilarie organize the planning and arrangements was like having my own private wedding coordinator. Her help was particularly important this week because we were also prepping for a big wedding at the Ritz. Due to the scope of each of these weddings, they required more attention and preproduction planning than usual.

If you’re thinking that you can’t afford an assistant, I would argue that you can’t afford not to have one. I’m a big believer in focusing on what you do best and, whenever possible, hiring (or outsourcing to) others to do the rest. As CEO of my company, I’m not using my time efficiently if I’m spending hours online researching flights or planning any of the other minute details that go into prepping for a wedding shoot. I need to be drumming up more business, managing the team of contractors and employees under me, and providing vision and direction for the company.

It’s worth it to pay someone else to do those administrative tasks that would undermine my primary mission if I were doing them myself. But hiring an assistant doesn’t have to be an expensive option. Virtual Assistants (VAs) can be engaged for as little as $10–$20 an hour. VAs are located anywhere in the world; they work from their homes or offices and can do anything that doesn’t require a physical presence in your studio. This includes doing online research, managing your email inbox, making phone calls, etc. We’ve been using a VA for more than 2 years. As for our director of weddings and personal events, we pay her a commission on all jobs she manages. Thus, she’s incentivized to generate more business in an area we were no longer planning to focus on. It works out great for everyone.

Hello Mr. Murphy
After 4 years of trusting our contracted shooters to do jobs for us, I no longer stress out on days when I know a team is out shooting for us. In fact, oftentimes, I even forget I have a team on a job. However, I do get nervous when I get cryptic emails from one of the shooters the day after. My good buddy Josh Smith sent me such an email after this wedding. The subject: “Mexico shoot.” The message body: “Hey Ron, do you have time to talk on the phone today?”

I started to worry. What did he want to talk about? What happened? Was my very first Cancún wedding a total disaster? I called him up and he proceeded to tell me how for the first time ever, his camera literally froze the morning of the wedding. After trying everything under the sun, he and Joth took evasive action. They took a cab into town and bought a new HD camera from a local Sam’s Club (who knew they had a Sam’s Club in Cancún?) That, my friends, is dedication.

I share this story to illustrate the importance of hiring talent that has the ability to make executive decisions on your behalf that will allow them to get the job done. I call it the “Kirk” factor. You know how Captain Kirk was always able to come up with a way to cheat death? (Watch The Wrath of Khan sometime if you have no idea what I’m talking about. But something tells me about 90% of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.)

That’s what I look for in a shooter, employee, etc. Whenever I’ve rushed to hire someone without going through my whole vetting process, it’s usually ended up biting me in the butt. If you’re going to hire someone to shoot for you on a job where you won’t be present, I strongly suggest you look for someone who has that Kirk factor. In the long run, Josh’s camera ended up working again, but he used footage from the Sam’s Club camera anyway as a third angle.

The Moral
In order to grow a service-based business that will allow you to take vacations and give you the lifestyle you deserve, I think it’s important to create a system whereby you can hire talent who can work on jobs when you can’t. I encourage you to think up ways in which you can expand your business beyond just you. Remember, in the end, your goal should be to have a business that you run, not a business that runs you.

Ron Dawson (info at cinematicstudios.com) is an accomplished writer, director, award-winning producer, speaker, and instructor. He was recently named to the EventDV 25. He is the founder and creative director for Cinematic Studios, a leader in providing video production and new media marketing services. Ron also produces and hosts the popular photography industry podcast, "F-Stop Beyond." He resides with his beautiful wife and kids in a suburb of Atlanta.

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