Top ten Reasons Why Film Makers Screw Up In High Level Negotiations

At some point in your career, or in the life of your film, you will find yourself cutting a deal where the outcome could be life changing… or career killing!

The reason these negotiations usually end up screwing the filmmaker is quite simple. Filmmakers may be great at blagging stuff for free, or convincing mates to work through the night, but that is NOT high level negotiation. As such, we often blunder into these meetings and get screwed because we are playing a completely different game with different rules.

So here are my top ten reasons why I have screwed up in the past, and if I have done it before, I am pretty sure there is a good chance you might too…

1. Because I was unprepared.
I simply didn’t do my research, didn’t think up any tough questions to ask (or prep for ones I might be asked). Research tells us that if a negotiation is to last one hour, we should spend at least three hours prepping for that it. How often do you do that? Or do you just wander in and they then run circles around you?
Solution – prepare, research and rehearse.

2. Because I was untrained.
I am a great believer in the school of ‘hard won knocks in life’, but like law and accountancy, professional negotiation is an art and craft that can be taught by experts (and not always best learned the hard way). It’s also a skill so many of us are not naturally adept at, and gaining experience at high levels is rarely available to us.
Solution – get some training!

3. Because I allowed them to lead the negotiations.
If you allow them to set the time, date and location for negotiations, you have already allowed them to win the first round. You may choose to do this as a tactic, but don’t let it happen by default. If you do allow this, when you enter the room, you will most likely find that they have set the agenda and they will run the negotiations completely. It’s your career, you movie, YOU should control negotiations.
Solution – at every opportunity, lead the arrangements and negotiations (but always be professional, accommodating and respectful).

4. Because I allowed them to open negotiations BEFORE negotiations began!
So you get the phone call, ‘hey so before we meet, I thought we should just discuss some outcomes, maybe manage your expectations, tell you want is and what is not possible…’ This is a negotiation. They have begun and YOU think you are having a nice chat. Decline the conversation, there will be time in the meeting to discuss this stuff. They will be left thinking you are a tougher cookie than they thought.
Solution – keep the negotiations in the negotiations, decline to engage BEFOREHAND.

5. Because I knew what I wanted but not what THEY wanted
I usually know what I want, but often, I would not know what THEY want. Researching and rehearsing a negotiation often reveals what they might want, and as such, you can seek to fulfil their needs without giving up your position. In essence, work toward a win / win solution where you may tactically give up things if needed in return for them making concessions too.
Solution – research and rehearse and understand WHY they want to do the deal.

6. Because I wanted them to like me and my film
Expert negotiators see this a mile away and it speaks to our most basic needs. Avoid drinks and lunch unless you have a pre-existing relationship – if suggest lunch, that’s a negotiation tactic. It’s not because they like you. If they tell you the LOVE your movie, that’s a tactic too, even if they do love your movie.
Solution – keep negotiations professional and understand you are playing a game with experienced people.

7. Because I chose to believe when I should have really walked away
I have fallen foul of this more times than I care to admit. The deal seems so good, the people so nice and enthusiastic. But at the heart, something is rotten and I should really walk away. No deal is better than a bad deal.
Solution – Understand, you can ALWAYS walk away, and do it if you must.

8. Because I didn’t follow up
… nor did I read the fine print! After any negotiation, YOU should do the follow up email that outlines what was agreed. If you don’t, they will spin the wording in their favour when they write it. And this wording can go back and forth, so beware of negotiation creep, where things are subtly changed over time. This is a tactic to wear you down too.
Solution – take charge and write clear notes immediately, sharing them with all parties.

9. Because I fell for all the old tricks
These guys have been doing this forever and they have a million and one cunning strategies and tactics up their sleeves. If you can, take an expert to the negotiations with you, they can add clout to your side of table and squash any rookie tactics. But the old adage still stands, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you are getting all your own way, there may be something you don’t know too. Perhaps you should walk away.
Solution – get experience or bring experience into the room with you.

10. Because I didn’t really want to do it
This is the killer. I am a filmmaker. I don’t enjoy cutting high level deals. I look forward to it all being over. But they don’t. They enjoy this. They lie in bed grinning from ear to ear, thinking up clever ways to get what they want. The only answer is to either bequeath negotiations to a third party (this is where agents and lawyers come in) or just take it on the chin, fake your confidence and go in all guns blazing.
Solution – get a representative or grow a pair! (but again, be professional and respectful)

Above all, I try and present an air of ‘effortless grace’, an inner confidence that usually cuts through the bullshit. And remember, you can always walk away. That option is ALWAYS available before you conclude the deal.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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