Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fan-ning The Flames?

Guest post written by Neil Gardner

I work in media in the UK, I produce a lot of radio programming, and also work on various other productions, including some TV and film stuff. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in studios, recording and editing and mixing and mastering. But I have also spent much time outside of the studio, in the real-world, trying to make stuff on a tight budget, to a tight timetable, while all around the day to day world continues. Getting out of the studio is a great experience, and over the past few years in my own production company we have established a rule that wherever possible our programmes will be entirely recorded on location and as we call it, ‘exterior’.

But working outside the studio brings with it many uncontrollable unknowns. Studios make life easy, you control the environment, the sound, the access, the whole shebang. Once you step outside you suddenly have to deal with all sorts of annoyances and difficulties. In the UK, one of the biggest things to deal with is the noise of cars, people, planes and so on. It is notoriously tough to find a quiet exterior environment. The sound of air passing across the microphone can destroy an otherwise perfect take! Add in weather, light levels, permission to record, legal and health & safety requirements, you can understand why the studio is so appealing to so many producers and directors.

Strangely, in radio production, recording outside the studio is generally cheaper than recording in a studio...studios cost per hour, whereas heading on to the streets is generally free. In a media with ridiculously low budgets, any cost saving you can find is a good one. But for TV and film, leaving the studio invariably ends up costing much more. Now, TV and film require many more people to make a production happen (radio needs 2 or 3!) and all these people need to be housed, fed, transported, kept warm and sheltered...plus all the equipment needed of course! If you’ve ever seen a location crew you will have seen endless lorries, buses, catering coaches, makeup vans, etc...

But more and more there is an additional expense that producers have to front up. That of security. Depending on what you are producing, but it is invariably the rule that any location recording will attract attention. Nothing new there. In the past it was mostly photographers and the occasional group of vaguely interested locals who thought they might get in the background of a shot and see themselves on TV. But over the last decade or so, since the ridiculous cult of personality took over as our state religion and lobotomised at least 50% of the population, productions have been plagued by fans. Now, let me get this straight, fans are wonderful people (mostly) who care deeply about their favourite actors, characters and productions. Without passionate fans many TV shows (especially in the fickle world of US network TV) would have disappeared into cancellation hell. Fans keep you on your toes, ask the important questions, remind the rest of the media world that your production is important and relevant and worthy of attention. Without fans we would be nowhere, after all, we are in entertainment! But...and this is where I suddenly lose several good friends...there are degrees of fandom and of late there has been a big growth in the number of ‘lurker’ fans. These aren’t dangerous people, aren’t disturbed or mentally ill, they aren’t offensive or anything like that, but they are still a nuisance for production teams.

These ‘teams’ of stalwart fans follow production teams up and down the country, appearing as if by magic at every location. They report on the minutiae of production recording, hoping to learn or reveal some invaluable secret to their non-travelling cohorts. They stand alongside the ‘paps’ and hope to get yet another photo of THAT actor or actress. As someone who works on these productions I have to say that it is a real nuisance sometimes. We are trying to do a job, trying to make a production as fast as possible. At the same time, we have to worry not just about ourselves, our talent and our co-workers, but also the press and paps. And now we have to consider the safety and security of these fans. A lot of time and money is spent on ensuring the health and safety of crews and cast while on location, but when fans turn up on set, we suddenly have to consider their well-being as well. We have to hire security to keep an eye on them and make sure no-one gets too close to the set. It all becomes additional stress and cost at a time when we need to focus on our work.

What confuses me is WHY these people spend so much of their time and money following production crews around. Once you’ve seen one wet and windy external shoot you’ve seen them all. I understand the allure of media and the entertainment world...from the outside it all looks very sexy and special, and at times it can be. But I can promise you, few if any of those working in a quarry in Wales, or a beach in mid-winter, or a council estate in the height of summer want to be there. For them it is a job, one they want to get on with as few hassles as possible. And when, as a production team, you have gone to extreme lengths to keep your recording under wraps, to maintain the element of surprise in advance of transmission of the programme, it is incredibly aggravating to have some OTT fans turn up, snap pics and try to scuttle your plans.

Where does this incessant need for spoilers, advance information and revelations come from? Producers have to take much of the blame, for releasing WAY TOO MUCH information about their productions in advance of transmission or release. Movie and TV trailers focus too much on showing the ‘best bits’ almost making watching the final production pointless. And in the never-ending fight for publicity, we all try to get something sexy and exciting out to magazines, newspapers and online outlets so we get written and read about. But by indulging in such practices we have built up the expectations of many fans, who now demand to know everything in advance of transmission, and who will go to extreme lengths to learn anything, no matter how minute, before anyone else.

Another side to this ‘lurking’ fan syndrome we come across is when the same fans turn up at every event a certain actor or personality attached to a production is at. They will travel from all over the country to see this ‘celebrity’ walk in to a building to be interviewed, and then wait hours for them to come out again. They will hang around outside studios for days just to glimpse the actor as they are arriving and leaving from work. If the actor is starring in a play or other live show, these fans don’t just go once, but countless times. On the one hand it is sweet, endearing and shows loyalty. But on the other it is a little worrying. These fans are placing far too much importance on their object of affection. Is it a harmless way of escaping their own lives to vicariously live a little bit of the celebrity’s life? Or is it something more worrying...an inability to differentiate between a fictional character and a jobbing actor? What it means for us in the production teams is yet more work trying to get actors in and out of studios, events and publicity. We have to keep venues a secret, hire yet more security and try to allow the fans access to their favourite people without compromising security, schedules or the actor’s natural desire to share some time and laughs with their fans.

So what’s the point of this guest blog, then? It’s not to dismiss the honest affection and love these fans have for our productions and talent, we all appreciate that. And it’s not to embarrass them or suggest they are less than anyone else. I suppose it is to shed a little light on what it looks like from our side of the fence, and to ask that these fans back off just a little, maybe only come to one or two shoots per year instead of all of them, to understand that their attendance causes us more work and costs us money and maybe there is a better way for them to show their appreciation of what we are doing.

But it is also to say ‘calm down’ to the general world of fandom and of media production. We reveal too much too soon and thereby have lost much of the joy of surprise. Producers like JJ Abrahms and Joss Whedon understand the art of the reveal, and correctly hold back many of their big secrets, requiring us to go see the film, tune in to the TV show or radio series. We have to remember that the audience needs to attend the movie and make an appointment to see the TV show or hear the radio programme...if the audience doesn’t turn up, we stop being hired to make the productions! Broadcasters and movie companies have but one God...ratings (and return on investment of course!). I genuinely believe that more people went to see Cloverfield because they had no clue what it was really going to be than would have gone if JJ had revealed the monster and main plot points in advance. James Cameron seems to have dealt himself a bad hand by suddenly changing tack and revealing way too much about Avatar...the fans and commentators are now turning from excited anticipation to apathetic disinterest and scorn.

As a producer I want you to hear my programmes and I want you to choose to do so because you are interested by the pre-release information I have shared with you. But I don’t want to share so much that you feel you can make a decision about whether to tune in or not because you feel like you can already ‘hear’ the programme in advance. The ‘dedicated’ fans who dog every step of a production end up risking destroying the very shows they love so much. So please, consider backing off a little bit, give us room to make our productions in peace and secrecy...and in return I promise you’ll get kick ass TV shows, movies and radio series, and lots of chances to meet the stars and talk with the crews.

Neil Gardner has worked in professional radio for 22 years, starting in local BBC and commercial radio as a technician and working his way up to programme controller. He has worked in local, regional, national and international radio stations, has engineered, presented, produced and programmed at all levels. He is an internationally recognised award-winning radio writer & director, with a love of sci-fi and comedy. He joined Ladbroke Productions in 1999 and bought the company in 2008. Between 2005 and 2009 he was also the Secretary, Treasurer and then Chair of the Radio Independents Group. He has also acted as a Trustee of the Radio Academy and the Gateway School of Recording. Most recently he has been helping to produce Doctor Who Hornets' Nest, featuring the long-awaited return of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. He is the co-writer, producer, editor and director of Robert Rankin's "The Brightonomicon Audio Series" and has also produced Sarah Jane Adventures for BBC Audiobooks, and directed scifi radio plays starring Sir Derek Jacobi, Jason Isaacs, Andy Serkis and Catherine McCormack.

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