Interview with Tim Willis, Executive Producer of LockBox Productions
September 27, 2017
When it comes to getting the dirty job done, there’s nothing better than bringing on a producer. In my opinion, there’s a certain personality type that comes with the job description: part file-cabinet memory, part mind-reader, part soothsayer and, in some cases, part therapist. For any of us who have been a part (or should I say victim) of bad production, you know there’s a tremendous benefit to working with a professional—particularly when he or she has the experience to manage all the variables at hand, from dealing with clients to managing production under unideal weather conditions to simply acting the part of bridge to any gap.
One such veteran of the trenches is Lockbox Productions partner and Executive Producer, Tim Willis. Here, Willis tells us about his experience—everything from building the business to working with clients to advice for emerging producers.
Ian Spanier: Who are you and what do you do?
Tim Willis: I’m an Executive Producer/Partner at Lockbox Productions (www.lockboxproductions.com and on Instagram and Facebook as @lockboxproductions). Lockbox is based in New York City and Los Angeles. We work globally on large-production advertising photo shoots and broadcast commercials for many Fortune 500 brands. Personally, I love to keep on the move: surfing, biking, swimming and trail running in and around my Santa Monica playground!
IS: Bring us through a typical assignment in your world. What happens when a client presents you with a project, but the slate is fairly blank? What questions do you ask? What pieces do you seek to fill in the blanks?
TW: I’ve had the privilege, throughout my career, to work directly with the best of the best in our business: With Corporate Internal Teams, award-winning creatives at dozens of ad agencies, and with photographers/directors and their agency reps. In my experience these professionals have generally supplied me with enough information (through creative briefs and conference calls) to do my job–which, at the very beginning of the process involves formulating a plan that anticipates the need to create an efficient budget (with options) and ultimately convince the decision makers that your creative production team is the perfect fit in order to award your photographer or director the project.
That said, not everyone from the top down thinks like a producer. Many of the initial considerations for an ad campaign come from an agency’s creative pitch to an end client, and then those creative goals work their way into a creative brief and an RFP (request for proposal) that are sent to the producer (frequently there will be up to three producers/photographers/reps that will be sent the same info and, in return, the client will have a triple bid with which to assess who they feel best fits their creative needs).
Fortunately, I have worked with many clients more than once and, because of familiarity, my questions are simple and basic:
• What are the dates of the shoot and the deadlines for edited image delivery?
• What is the budget? (Often this is not shared).
• Where would you like to shoot this project? (If there’s a location in mind).
• What term(s) and territory(s) is the client requesting? (This helps to determine talent fees). If I am the art buyer on behalf of the client, I will pass along this detail to the rep and get estimates for their photographer/director fees and expenses.
If I am unfamiliar with a new client, I will have a few more questions added to those above. These typically are ice-breaker types of questions and are asked to gauge who they are, where they are coming from, what their preferences are on various aspects of the brief and what their most important goals are. I prefer to talk with the principle(s) via phone to get a better sense of the landscape (instead of sending and receiving email chains) and to let them hear my voice, too. Sometimes either through nuance or more directly with straight answers, we learn about each other and hopefully become completely comfortable going on to the next steps. There is a lot riding on a potential collaboration, looking at this from a client’s perspective, so building confidence and trust goes a long way toward making the process start off well.
IS: You’ve been in the business for quite some time, how did you get started?
TW: In college, I became obsessed with film while working on my business degree. I took as many elective film theory classes as were available. After finishing my studies in Louisiana, I moved to Florida and took some graduate level courses. I moved to New York City after a few years and went to NYU for its film program. After that, I attended, what was then called The Maine Photographic Workshops. While there, I met some New York City-based photographers, and after moving back to New York City started assisting them and eventually started producing for them. In 2005, I partnered with Toni Bashinelli, who is still my partner today at Lockbox Productions. Randy Meister, who left the firm in 2013, introduced us back then, and we were off and running!
IS: How many projects has Lockbox Productions completed? In that time, what’s the job you’re most proud of? Any least favorites??
TW: Wow… A LOT! It’s close to 600 projects that Lockbox Productions has successfully completed so far. I am very proud of our body of work and all the relationships that have been built during the time it took to do all those jobs. There have been many amazing clients (some of them I can’t divulge due to confidentiality agreements) and I can’t pick just one that I’m most proud of. What I can say is that I’m very proud to have clients that are still with us from our first year in the business. That in itself is a great feeling. I also have been more fortunate than most to have had the unique opportunity to lead teams around the world on global productions spanning nearly 20 countries.
That said, not every shoot is going to take you to an exotic location like Istanbul, Morocco or The Great Wall of China. On more typical productions, there are wonderful opportunities to meet great people and to learn a great deal from them.
IS: What is some helpful advice you can give to someone looking to get started in production as a career?
TW: The most important t, in my opinion, is experience and what you do with it. In the beginning, work alongside the best people that will hire you. If you can, offer to intern with a top production company or producer. Sometimes they can’t afford to take you on permanently, so offering to intern might give you an avenue in. You will learn everything from how to research locations, manage castings for talent, how to permit correctly for locations, how to communicate with vendors and how to make mistakes, own up to them and fix them.
Bank this knowledge and when you want to set out on your own, you will be better prepared. When researching production companies, ask around to see who, historically, provides a work environment where you will be set up to succeed. The last place that you want to be is at some firm that throws you into the deep end without a life jacket. The pace may be fast and furious and you might never encounter more pressure to get things done, but it still has to be fun at the end of the day. Try to learn as much as you can by observing those who are good at what they do. The traits necessary for success: communication skills, the ability to foresee all possible obstacles to a successful completion of a project. Be poised, professional, confident and humble. And again, own what you do. The more highway that you get under your tires, the more you will learn how to be successful and, hopefully, happy.
My advice for someone already experienced, has worked a few years for a busy production house or producer, and is considering going out on their own? Before making the plunge, spend the time setting up your future company foundationally. Get your business ducks in a row. Make sure you have all the legal stuff in place: your insurance, finances and lines of credit. You will be asked to carry a good portion of the costs of each project upfront, so be prepared. It is advisable to have some way to promote yourself digitally (website, social media, etc.) Then go out and meet people1 Keep your name out there, in the community, and be prepared for when that call comes. When it does, surround yourself with really good people to assist you as coordinators and production assistants. You will learn more about yourself in the process by leading great people who work for you.
IS: Talk to us a little bit about the scope of your responsibilities for your various clients, are you “just” a producer or do you find yourself in multiple roles?
TW: Great question and the short answer is: it depends. I’ve had several projects where the client called to gauge my availability and did not yet have a photographer or director on board. Many broadcast commercials will approach the producer first, and part of that role is to present directorial options, at the outset, for them to pick from.
Being “just” a producer is an extremely important privilege to be given, and that responsibility can be truly fulfilling. A producer is entrusted with so many responsibilities (e.g., managing a tremendous amount of client money). In the end, when the plan is executed to perfection, the project comes in under budget, and the client loves the deliverables… that is where the payoff is.
A producer wears many hats and at times I have had to assume a role that would normally be considered “in-house.” One of my best clients asked me to produce a series of national and international broadcast ads over the course of three months. They wanted to run the entire project through me instead of their previous ad agency. I basically had to learn, on the fly, how to do all the things that an internal broadcast producer would normally do. Negotiating everything to do with music licensing, unions (SAG, DAG, voice over usage) and participate in internal conference calls with the clients’ marketing team. Only my years of experience (and many hours on the phone) got me through that one and, by the way, the spots were a tremendous success in the end!
IS: Finally, what is your biggest takeaway? What does it mean to be a successful producer?
TW: In my opinion, once you are an experienced and successful producer, the most important quality to hone and maintain is your ability to be able to effectively communicate with everyone that needs to hear from you. If you plan on running your own company, then open yourself up to learning how to be a good manager. Surround yourself with good people and let them do their job. Let them know that you will always be there to reinforce and advise them. Set everyone up to succeed, and they will.
With due diligence during the pre-production days, when it comes time to go to set and shoot, have a great run of day, make sure everyone knows what is expected of them, and get out of the photographer’s and director’s way!
Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City and a PhotoServe member and contributor. As comfortable as he is in the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major book stores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro Team, Photoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list. He has been the recipient of numerous awards from such major photo competitions as American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as for The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. Questions or comments, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Big Leo.