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Friday, 05 February 2010 17:17

Crewing Calls

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It’s been said directing films, commercials, TV shows and industrials is like commanding a small army.

Maslow Media Group crew films US Customs and Border Protection Training Scenario in El Paso Texas Photo credit to Mark O'Brien/ Maslow Media GroupIt’s been said that directing films, commercials, music videos, TV shows and industrials is like commanding a small army. And the more comprehensive the shoot, the more people are needed for that army. When it comes to securing crews for productions, the task can become daunting, because a core staff can be employed year-round but once the project is green-lit, oftentimes a whole new company - with the operational infrastructure to handle the myriad project-specific elements - has to be created.

All of a sudden, you’re dealing with things like payroll, insurance and benefits, all while putting together a crew that will deal with the production end of your business. Now, if you’re blessed with a studio-based operation, you’ll have many - if not all - of those production and human resource (HR) services available in-house. For example, a colleague of mine is in the early stages of producing a TV series. Right now his company is relatively small with only a handful of people serving as its in-house staff. But once he goes into production, he has to hire a crew, accountants and other support personnel that he can’t justify putting on his permanent payroll. 
My colleague is far from alone. Fortunately, a whole industry has been developed over the years to service these production needs for companies of just about every size. While most of the companies I contacted tend to specialize in certain types of production, they all took great pride in having the resources to handle just about anything a producer would be likely to throw at them.

Some of the companies I checked out serve as agencies that represent and book from national (often international) pools of freelance crews, while others are full-service production companies for hire, maintaining their own personnel and equipment in-house.

Owned by seasoned DP Gary Marsh, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Production Outfitters is a good example of the growing number of regional companies specializing in farming out a fairly comprehensive array of production and postproduction services. Production Outfitters has provided services to production companies that have shot for CNN, NBC News, ESPN, Discovery Channel and American Movie Classics

Atlanta-based 1-800-TV-CREWS operates with its own crewmembers and equipment. The company provides one- and two-person crews for standard and high-def shoots using a producer’s choice of workhorse camera packages from Panasonic and Sony. “Our multimillion dollar investment in state-of-the-art equipment and exacting technical standards allows 1-800-TV-CREWS to guarantee a customer in Los Angeles or New York or Memphis that they will receive an exact matching camera, lens and audio package wherever they shoot,” says President James Jernigan. The company also offers studio and editing facilities at their Atlanta headquarters.

In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Paradise Video & Film has been filming productions for the corporate and television markets since 1982. Like Production Outfitters and 1-800-TV-CREWS, they keep their personnel and equipment in-house to better maintain consistent quality control, including full studio capabilities complete with green screen.  Based in South Florida, it’s not surprising that the company boasts aerial, marine and underwater production capabilities. Their list of clients includes National Geographic, A&E, Discovery Channel, BBC and Kodak.

My production orientation is admittedly Hollywood-centric, but when I spoke with Linda Maslow, founder and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Maslow Media Group (MMG), I was reminded that the world of production extends way beyond what I always perceived as the traditional production centers of Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver.

Maslow began her career in television production with extensive work on both coasts. She told me that, like so many people in the business, she had gotten most of her jobs via word of mouth for many years. “I was in the television business for 25 years as an editor, production manager and producer, and discovered there was no single resource for producers to find high-quality crews and freelancers on a quick, as-needed basis,” says Maslow. “I was also a single mom who was tired of freelancing yet knew the business, so I started my own agency.”

Maslow has worked extensively in New York and Los Angeles, and Maslow Media actively staffs productions nationwide, yet she’s still based in the Washington, D.C. area. “I moved from California to Washington for love, and got stuck here forever,” she explains. “I started my business here, and it took root and grew.”

While Maslow Media specializes in crewing the industrial films so often commissioned by the plethora of government agencies in D.C., they regularly crew television and commercial shoots all over the world through their network of extensively pre-screened professionals. They often offer producers a turnkey package that includes a seasoned crew, production manager and payroll services.

Mary Jane Boyle, one of Maslow Media’s production managers, is representative of the caliber of experienced pros the company has on tap as part of its talent pool. A veteran of ABC News, Boyle spent many years as the assistant director of ENG, where her responsibilities included hiring field crews and coordinating coverage for the Washington News Bureau. “We have a really extensive network of people we know very well,” says Boyle. 

Maslow Media’s whole operating philosophy is to have the best possible crews on their roster –– people they work with on a regular basis and whose work is consistently excellent –– and the company takes exceptional care of those crews. “When it comes to servicing clients, we know our crews and production managers will get it right the first time,” Maslow says. Part of taking good care of their crews means paying them their full rate instead of insisting on a discount from local crews, as some agencies do. And prospective crewmembers really have to prove that they can get on the Maslow Media roster. “[We prefer] production managers who are very, very savvy and hand-hold clients through every step of the process, and have the resources to staff a crew on short notice, sometimes in less than a day,” says Maslow.

Maslow also owns, a membership-based, moderated list-serve where freelancers can register for work for $35 a year (three- and six-month memberships are also available). Producers can also post paid gigs at no cost.

Burbank-based Entertainment Partners began over 30 years ago as Independent Information Services Corporation, one of the first companies to specialize in production accounting and payroll services. They’ve since gone through two corporate name changes and several acquisitions, making them a one-stop shop for many types of productions.

Although Entertainment Partners doesn’t currently offer direct crew booking as one of its services, they do offer critical human resource services for producers who already have a pool of freelancers they like to work with. For those producers, Entertainment Partners offers a wide array of services to take care of the business aspects of production, including payroll services, production incentives, and residual and talent payments. Casting is also offered through one of its subsidiaries, the iconic Central Casting

It’s valuable to know that Entertainment Partners’ impressive spectrum of products and services are designed to easily interact with each other.  For example, their Vista production accounting software was designed to easily interface with the company’s payroll services, which in turn automatically handles things like fringe reporting, 24-hour turnaround, remote-location check printing and independent quarterly audits.  For commercial production companies, Entertainment Partners also handles things like verifying union affiliations and paying non-union payroll in accordance with federal, state and local laws.

My producer friend told me that he sometimes gets night sweats trying to figure out how to deal with “the nightmare of accounting,” which involves taking care of not only residuals when union talent is a part of the show, but also things like insurance, workers’ comp, handling lost or stolen checks, providing employee-history information, and investigating union dues and guild contribution issues. These are tasks he can simply hand off to companies like Entertainment Partners.

What all of these companies share is the high standard of quality they insist on when booking talent and crews, as well as their in-house personnel –– a high percentage of each company’s workforce was obtained through referrals. 

If you’re a crewmember and looking for work, these crewing companies are in a position to keep you busy, as long as you can meet their requirements that consist of extensive credits, stellar referrals and impressive reels, preferably available online so both the agencies and their clients can see the work firsthand. And if you’re a producer, these companies are part of a select group that offer the most helpful crew-related services –– which in the long run can turn out to be one of the best bargains in your budget –– thanks to the kind of talent and professionalism that, as Linda Maslow would say, gets it right the first time.

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