Lessons from The Wiz – PT4

You know you’ve captured the eye of culture when Saturday Night Live does a parody sketch of you. This past weekend SNL did a “The Wiz, Live!” parody, so the world is still talking about the production.

Tom and I are talking about the production as well – from a tech perspective. If you are just joining us, be sure and jump back to Part 1 for some background.

Let’s jump back into the conversation…

[Mark]: In our last post, you told us about the amazing equipment that was used for this production. My one-word summary is: “wow – that’s really cool”. (OK, so I can’t count words very well.) You also told us in Part 1 that you are involved in the budgeting for such productions. So, I’d like to explore the topic of budgeting a bit. How do productions like this break their overall budget into tangibles? For example, what is a typical ratio between video, audio and lighting in terms of budget?

[Tom]: Hmmm. Well, there are actually a number of different budgets used which all filter down into separate lines on a master budget. Sometimes the company I work for is asked to turn-key an entire event, and in that case I am in control of the master budget. But more typically I would be responsible for the lines on the master budget related to the video production facilities (TV truck, cameras, lenses, etc.), editorial, transmission (streaming, fiber optics, or satellite transmission to/from the network); support labor associated with those services, and then finally all the “below-the-line” operator labor, like Technical Directors, Video Operators, EVS and Tape Operators, Camera Operators, Audio engineers, etc. Each show is a little bit different in terms of what is actually under my direct control.

I am not aware of a mathematical ratio between video production, versus projection, PA audio versus lighting, etc., although I would think if someone analyzed it such trends exist. But then budgets are not always transferable from one show to another.

For example, on Peter Pan, Live we created a virtual cast member, Tinkerbell. That required some very powerful computer/video processing and keying horsepower similar to that which might be used on a NFL Super Bowl game to electronically put yard and down markers on the field. But Tinkerbell is not static, she is an “actress” that needed to interact with other cast on screen; so there were actually multiple human operators guiding where Tinkerbell appeared on screen, including her size, her color and saturation. To allow Tinkerbell to speak, there was also a musician backstage giving Tinkerbell her voice.

So the challenge becomes, although Tinkerbell is in the cast her cost would likely wind up on a Special Effects line in a budget and the next show may not have any Special Effects but may have a larger cast. So where does the money go?

I think the important take-aways are that budgets are always relative to the size, scope and potential pay-off on a given production. One of the key responsibilities I have is to manage expectations. First, to make sure that I can deliver what they want within the given budget. And two, that I don’t promise the impossible delaying the inevitable realization that the producer is not going to get what he/she wanted. I know that church TDs go through the same thing. The problems are the same, the scale is different.

Managing my time is my responsibility, not others. So if a producer starts off with a shopping list of wishes that I know he has had on previous shows, I’ll begin my work with the assumption they have a good idea of what that may cost based on their prior experience, until such time as they receive my budget which should be a confirmation of what they assumed. If however their shopping list includes many items that may not be typical for them, then it is often helpful to have a ballpark-cost conversation early on as to what those items may cost. That saves everyone time and wasted effort.

What I see happen in the church sometimes, which is unfortunate, is a church Technical Director is called into a meeting where leadership says something along the lines of: “We’d like to do a Christmas Pageant this year and stream it to so-and-so. We have a budget of $5,000 all-in. Can that be done?” Unless that church Technical Director has done other Pageants at that church in the past (so there is a common point and frame of reference in the discussion), how can he say “yes” based on such little information? We don’t know how many performances are occurring, over how many weeks, how many talent are singing, how many are speaking cast, non-speaking cast, how many scenes are in the show and the set needs for each, what the lighting requirement will be, how might we need to augment video or audio, etc.

If the person who gave you the budget is a professional producer who has communicated their expectations as to what they think they are getting for that money, then you might possibly be able to run with an arbitrary budget amount. But in the average church, budgets are made by people that do not have prior experience in stage-craft, live performances or video production. So in those cases I think we do a disservice to the ministries we serve by not doing a financial reality check sooner as opposed to later.

I often hear church techs complain about the budgets they are given. However what I think is often over-looked is, “you agreed to that budget!” If we have insufficient budgets to do what leadership wants to accomplish, we need to take some of the responsibility, maybe a lot of responsibility.

The better course of action might be (unless you already know exactly what things cost and are used to budgeting projects), tell leadership that you will keep their target in mind and will do further research to see if we can keep on budget. The church tech then needs to be prepared to offer alternative solutions if “plan-A” winds up being too expensive.

But before all else, the church tech needs to understand exactly what needs to be accomplished, in what time frame, with what resources, before any financial discussions are had.

[Mark]: So when you have extra money (as if that ever happens) or when have to make cuts (which is probably more likely) where do you start?

[Tom]: There are two answers: The first would be, “I never make cuts, the producer does.” It is not my job to make decisions at the 40,000 ft level. It is my job to know what I am talking about and to offer alternatives that may fit within a budget, AND communicate exactly what the producer is giving up by going with the less expensive solution. My job is to give information.

The second answer is, if a budget is well prepared there should be some contingency funds available within it so if an unforeseen expense comes up, it can be dealt with without having to go back to the finance committee to get additional money for miscellaneous things.

I’ve seen church tech budgets where there was an actual contingency line-item, so everything was very clear and disclosed. I’ve seen other church tech budgets that just relied on fat in one area to address an over-budget line someplace else.

[Mark]: Is there a way to put a dollar value on the impact of individual item? For example, how do you evaluate adding a camera versus adding more lighting fixtures?

[Tom]: That’s an interesting question. I guess the first thing I do is address each item on its own merits without comparing it right away to another item. For example, if I am asked about adding a camera the first thing I do is ask myself, “what is it that they are really trying to accomplish?” Is there another way? For example, maybe the producer doesn’t realize we can use one of the cameras already budgeted in two different locations just be adding more cable drops? Then I look at the direct and indirect costs:

Camera purchase vs camera rental cost?
Whatever lens would be needed?
Whatever tripod or support system would be needed?
Will it require an operator? Cost?
What will be the cost to install it including potential down-time?
What will be the cost to maintain it including potential down-time?
What will be the cost to dispose/replace it including potential down-time?

[Mark]: Can you translate this to the church technical leader’s role? Let’s say there is a bit of a tech budget each year for maintenance and incremental improvements. Based on The Wiz, Live and your other budgeting experience, what principles would you recommend in terms of church tech budgeting?

[Tom]: I think it’s difficult to draw comparisons between The Wiz, Live! and a church’s yearly budget. That is because some aspects of The Wiz, Live! were intended to live on after the live telecast where other aspects only needed to work for a month or so. In that sense, The Wiz, Live! may be more like budgeting a church Christmas or Easter celebration.

The church yearly budget might be more similar to me budgeting a new TV studio, carry-pack or truck, that have some longevity to them.

My advice in that scenario is to look at the same criteria I mentioned above in my previous answer, with an emphasis on budgetary planning regarding end-of-life replacement. Most Senior Pastors I know understand that a church-van has a limited life span, but they also tend to assume a audio console will last forever.

When new purchases are discussed, I think it’s also important to discuss installation cost, training cost, how it impacts volunteer labor including the size of the team needed to run the system, and the life expectancy of that new equipment item. Sometimes church techs shy away from discussing or documenting these other costs because they think leadership will not approve the purchase if they understand the total cost of ownership. In that case, shame on us.

[Mark]: What about those rare times when there is a larger sum of money available to a church tech leader for something bigger? In those (rare) cases, how would you determine the spending priorities?

[Tom]: Whether we are talking about TV trucks, studios, theaters or church auditoriums, there are TWO types of facilities. (A) facilities that are intended to address the needs of various clients, including outside clients, and (B) facilities that are designed specifically to address the needs of one client.

Unless the church is renting out their facility as a performance space, churches almost always fall into the “B” class. That’s good news, because you can predict accurately who you will be servicing, what their needs are and the caliber of the tech teams that will be operating the gear. Savings can be achieved when you are building a tech facility to do a limited number of things versus a greater number of things. Of course, this conversation goes back to managing expectations. If the church just spent $75,000 on an A/V install, and they think it will allow them to do anything, when in fact it was designed to only address one or two problems, then that’s where we get into trouble.

In terms of prioritization, what I do in the marketplace but I don’t always see happen in church is I invest money as capital purchases into items that I need to use every week and that have a three to seven year life-cycle. If it is not something I need every week, or if the technology is changing so quickly in that item category that the life-cycle is under three years, then that item becomes a candidate for doing a rental or lease as opposed to a purchase.

[Mark]: Thanks again Tom for some really great insight. How about we talk about people and staff tomorrow?

[Tom]: Perfect!