The One Olive

My business is a game of minutes.

A day on a TV set is to see a constant checkerboarding of estimates and events. The goal is to always be moving. Always be shooting. To be idle, even for a moment, means you’ve failed.

For example, if the crew needs 20 minutes to light the first scene of the day and an actor needs an hour and fifteen minutes to go through “the works” (hair and makeup) then we backtrack the actor’s call time. Crew comes in at 7am. The actors comes in at 6am. Crew is ready at 7:20am. The actors at 7:15am. That builds in 5 minutes for them to walk from the trailer, get on set and “get wired”—meaning, get a hidden microphone put on them. Plus, a minute in there to pass by the snack table and grab a coffee.

Company is now shooting at 7:20.

Right on track.

In sync.

The set of a TV show involves a crew of 200 people and looks like a flock of birds seemingly reading each others’ minds and moving through space. The example above is happening between all the departments, all the time, for every scene, for 12 shooting hours a day.

The formula is a combination of calculations, experience, anticipation and common sense. Add to that the human X factor. It’s a game of minutes, but it’s a business of people. Will the crew work as fast at 11pm as they did at 9am that day? Will a 105-degree day slow them down? Will the cold tire them out? Are they more motivated on a Friday and less on a Monday? Is the scene emotional and will the actor need more time to perform? Will people show up on time? Get lost? Does the set have good access so the crew can get themselves and equipment in?

You spend your time looking at a situation and trying to solve or have a plan for all possible outcomes. If you’re wrong and lose 15 minutes, and then wrong again and lose another 15 minutes during the day, then you’ve lost a half hour of shooting. End of the world? Maybe not. But repeated mistakes will add up across a week. Across a season.

Efficiency fascinates me. As much as I wear several creative hats, I also have a deep respect for the bottom line. My business is a business as much as it is an art, and to keep making your art you must be conscious of cost. I am currently the Executive Producer of the Cinemax series Banshee. Show Runner is my title, which really means I am a team leader. I rally the troops and oversee the show globally. Striking balance between the creative and the costs, and ensure that each episode lives up to the one before it. I do what the CEO of any corporation would do. Except I didn’t apply for the CEO position. It just happened. I’m an “accidental CEO.”

We are shooting in North Carolina with a ten-episode order. Cinemax gave us a “pot of money” and told us that’s all we had for the season. That it had to last and the show still needed to be great. It was up to us to budget and plan appropriately.

Which is why they called me.

HBO owns Cinemax. Or as some put it: “Cinemax is HBO’s scrappy little brother.” Although owned by HBO, we don’t have HBO financial resources. Cinemax must be its own business model and must be able to make high-quality, lower-budget “pulp” type TV shows for its new network.

HBO has also won every Emmy® award for everything ever.

So when they called me, they were not as impressed by my credits or accolades as they were as my work as a Producer.

They had heard about the work we were doing at House.

For three years and across four seasons I was the Executive Producer of House, MD. The years I was there, it was known as the “world’s most popular TV show.” (It’s stated in the Guinness Book of World Records, so of course it is true.) Exciting title to have. To know that 90 million plus are watching your show each week. Daunting to think or even wrap your head around that many people.

When I came to House in its 5th season, it was a great show that was not run greatly (great shows are a business as I learned.) The “checkerboard” was a mess. Things were done a lot harder than they needed to be. Time and effort and money were being wasted. I had directed freelance for the show for the first four seasons and saw all this from the inside. I watched, saw and lived the problems. In fact, when I first came on as Producer of the show, I did so undercover. “Brubaker-style,” after an 80’s film I loved. I was the boss that no one knew was the boss for the early days of my tenure.

The issues I saw went beyond compliant personnel. Even after replacing about 25% of the crew, there were still physical obstacles in our way.

What did I need to make House run great? Most glaringly obvious, I needed time. Not a lot of time.

I needed minutes.

In 1985, American Airlines took one olive out of their inflight meals and saved 40k that year.

One olive.

What was my one olive?

On House, my one olive was a wall.

If you’ve seen House you know that a healthy chunk of each episode is spent in House’s outer office going over the clues with his team. On a cop show, this set would be “headquarters.” On a law show it would be the “courtroom.” When you have locations you use over and over and over again across a series, you build them as a set on a sound stage. I work in a craft of illusion. Where House worked in Princeton, New Jersey, was actually the back lot of FOX in Culver City, CA. You do this so you have a home base to work from. A space you control. Shooting in a real hospital would be impractical for the nine months it takes to shoot a series. Also, real life is small. A real hospital isn’t built to hold a crew and two large movie cameras in a patient room. You need a set. Something you build that you can move around and take apart as you need to. Make room to work.

The north-facing wall of House’s office was my archenemy. It was built in such a way that it took eight men with screw guns twenty minutes to take apart. It was a marvel of manpower to move it.

I knew if I had an enemy, so did everyone else. As a team building exercise, I had the crew tell me the thing that made them crazy about our sets.

I took their list, had it budgeted, and the cost was a million dollars to do everything.

I approached the studio betting that if we could remove our “walls of shame” for a million dollars, we could return that million ten fold.

The million dollars I asked for went into a motorized pulley. What once took the strength of eight men now took one man pushing one button. Seemed like an easy fix? It was. Just no one had thought about it or cared to explore it. Sometimes you need fresh eyes. It was an obvious solution to a five-year problem.

Together we picked up minutes. 18-22 minutes a day.

Minutes became days and became weeks. In the end, we made season six of House 18 days faster than any year before. 18 days. To put that into perspective, that’s the time it takes to shoot two episodes of House, fiscally known as 11 million dollars.

One million to save eleven.

On my new series, Banshee, I am taking another page from the American Airlines playbook. In 1986, the year after the olive, they took away pretzels and saved another two million dollars. As I near the midway point of the season, we have empowered our departments to be their own producers. To take the initiative to find their olives. To make the moves that will help us as company. We have great scripts and great actors but I am always searching for olives that will keep us financially relevant and ultimately a factor in keeping us on the air.

The way to step up our game after House was to build olives into the DNA of how we work. On Banshee we have fully embraced technology to increase efficiency and lower costs. One example is we use the iPad app “scenechronize” to digitally distribute our scripts and use the PDF reader “iAnnotate” to open them. Seems like not a big deal until you do the numbers.

A ream of 3-hole punch copy paper yields 8 scripts and cost 12 bucks per ream with tax. (The higher cost is due to hole punching and the colored paper we use for the different drafts so we don’t get confused.)

We have 200 people that need scripts. Each script is 60 pages. We go through about five drafts per episode. So 1,000 scripts per episode of Banshee. The cost of just paper is 1,500 dollars per episode. 15k over the season. And don’t even get me started on trees.

Toner cost 500 a cartridge. Each draft needs one cartridge. So 2,500 dollars an episode. Another 25k over a season.

Costs I am not even factoring: guy (or girl) to fix the fancy copier when it breaks down every few weeks, and the cost of the machine itself, which runs 20-40k.

That is 75k of savings. That’s two days of shooting on Banshee with a reduced crew. Money back on screen.

Another example is in post-production where we eliminated the need for DVDs to view our footage and cut episodes by using an iPad app called “PIX.” We distribute our material anywhere in the world digitally. The savings ripple out. The volume of DVDs themselves, which is in the tens of thousands by the end of a season, is the least of the costs. You eliminate the full-time person that needs to make the DVDs five days a week for six months. You’ve eliminated having to hire people to drive those DVDs for delivery. You are able to see footage sooner, which shortens the schedule and picks up savings. You stop overnight shipping costs.

You’re leaner.

How does this effect the viewer? It allows us to spend from our pot of money for things on screen. Viewers don’t see dollars in our offices. They see dollars on screen. As quality. More entertainment. Literally, more bang for your buck. The more days we have to shoot, the better the quality of what we can deliver.

And it ripples from there.


What’s your wall?

What’s your one olive?