April 5, 2024

Mastering the Art of Production Management with Tony Low

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Welcome to On Production brought to you by rap book. Today I'm honored to have Tony Low with us. He's a seasoned professional whose career spans across various facets of the entertainment industry. As the president of CMS productions, Tony has been at the forefront of providing specialized production and union signatory services, catering to the unique needs of creative based companies. His journey though includes pivotal roles from being a CFO and CEO for Herzog Cowen Entertainment, managing financials for control rooms global events, like Live Earth concerts, to leading operational and financial management at prestigious firms such as AKQA in Saatchi and Saatchi North America. With a deep understanding of both the creative and operational sides of the industry. Tony's insights are invaluable for anyone navigating the complex landscape of entertainment production. Hey, Tony, welcome to the show. And thanks for joining us.


Well, thank you for having me, Cameron.


All right. So I want to know, could you share with us the journey that led you to found CMS productions and how your background kind of influenced its inception.


I'm a former CPA and a former entertainment business manager. Have my own had a prominent firm, we actually to serve as some of our television production clients. We were we started the payroll company media services, many, many years ago, at some point in my journey, I decided that I wanted something different, I didn't want to be a high priced servant for for entertainers and, and sold my practice to my partners and embarked on a journey that you know, as was twists and turns that led me here I was I took a job at Saatchi and Saatchi to help them guide them through some entertainment projects that they had. From that I was went to New York, I call it manage the children in the beginning of the their internet days when they had a fledgling internet department. And I got to live in New York and fabulous townhouse walking distance from my office, which was great and met some fabulous people and got exposed to unlearn the advertising business from then I went to San Francisco did the same thing for a AKQA I mean for Saatchi and Saatchi in their San Francisco office, and then took a position with AKQA in its formative years. It was a combination of an advertising agency and some digital shops around the world. And that was great and interesting and fun. But at some point in time, I made my way back to Venice, California, where I own the whole month and sort of my my spiritual place. I had a practice where I was the I held myself out as a CFO COO for smaller entertainment shops. Thus the Live Earth gig the, the Herzog gig, and, and various others, I was even functioning the CFO for A Band Apart, which was Quentin Tarantino, his commercial production company. And through that process, you know, I learned a tremendous amount about production, I learned a tremendous amount about the advertising world. And its intersection with the entertainment. We, at some point in the process, one of our clients wanted to sign produce commercials, the required union signatory, and they didn't want to sign the papers. So my little company, joined the ICP and signed the union agreements, and over time started to get referrals until it got to the point where, okay, I'm gonna make this company and hired a couple of employees that are now my partners, that


super in shape. We're gonna dig in on that in just a moment, because you said something critical here, which is like, union signatory services. I'm sure people are gonna be very curious about that. But before we get there, I'm just curious. You know, Tony, when you reflect on your extensive experience, how have you seen the production and financial management needs of creative companies just evolve over the years, as


the commercial production industry in the motion and the low budget feature industry have matured over the years, and similar and I'm sure the recording industry and other entertainment industries, everything has gotten, as they've grown, everything has gotten sort of tighter and more money conscious, you know, gone are the days when the artists, you know, trusted their manager to handle everything and then woke up broke. You know, Gone are the days of the big budget, you know, commercials and giant commercials and giant music videos where, you know, everybody was having a good time and, you know, at the expense of the client where they had the, you know, the madmen client had the open checkbook, all those. And at the same time, the rise in stage strengthening of the entertainment tap, come very strong and powerful and in the entertainment industry wield a lot of influence. So all those factors combined met the need for sort of greater controls and greater financial controls and greater financial attention and greater attention to budgets and


costs and just general tightening. And certainly in the last few years, we've seen further tight


requests from advertisers to produce content cheaply. Interesting, you know, CMS, according to you, he now focuses on servicing creative base companies with their own unique production. Can you elaborate for us on some of the common challenges, these companies that work with CMS face and how you help address them? Okay,


well, there's two, I'll get into this, we'll get into the signatory part of the business and then the production support business, there's two aspects to CMS, one is signatory, where we were signatory to all of the crew Union's contracts, and from commercials through low budget features through you know, SVOD, through, you know, filmed live events, any anything that requires union crews, were a signatory. What people were faced challenges is that commonly will try and shoot without union crew or non union shoots and the union, that they're using union members and the unions call the job in, and then they come, the unions come set or contact them, and they're forced to make a switch. So that's a big challenge, because then it costs them money that they weren't anticipating, you know, through our SAG commercial business, I mean, there's a lot of foreign companies, a lot of entities and a lot of ad agencies that don't want to sign the SAG commercial agreement. And they, for a variety of reasons come big companies don't have the infrastructure to handle it. And a lot of ad agencies don't want to be tied to producing content requires the payment of residuals under the SAG commercial agreement. So therefore, there's a need for third party signatory to allow them to allow non signatory companies to hire SAG talent to endorse their product or pure in their pure in their commercials. So we solve that problem or that challenge is overcome. By the other side of our business, which is we call production support, we function as the back office of a commercial production. And we all the POS or owner name, the vendor accounts or payroll accounts, insurance, credit cards, petty cash, all of these services or functions that are necessary for a commercial or a low budget project to be produced. We take that on and what problem that solves is four ad agencies and brands which are now trying to produce content some successfully some not but they're all trying to do it because it needs to make more money and pressure from shareholders lottery.we navigate the corporate bureaucracy for them, they are just paying us for the you know, a lump sum and we're dispersing the money which their their infrastructures are not set up to do. Getting, you know, IPG holding company to issue a 5000 word petty cash check for the Art Department on a commercial is, is next to impossible. And getting payroll paid on time is very difficult. And we all know that. Especially in California, payroll, there are very strict rules about paying crew employees on teller. So we sort of stepped in and solve that problem. Also for production companies. They don't have to have the overhead and accounting staff for a business affairs staff. We take that responsibility on they can grow and expand and contract as their productions level levels grow and expand the contract. So we Those are problems that we solve for them. We want foreign producers when they come here to shoot. commercials have generally up celebrities in them, that's where they come here. But they come here to shoot commercials, they can hire us and a local line producer and pay us our fee, which is, you know, a fraction of what they would pay for a production service company. So we're able to make people's lives easier and save them money.


So, Tony, it sounds like, you know, we have a number of different production companies first and foremost, where it either just doesn't make sense for their business to jump into the deep end of a union relationship. And yet, they have a project that requires union labor. And so CMS can help navigate that, and provide contract services. And then if I heard you correctly, it sounds like there's also this other component of just, you know, great sound, operational management, related to the finance of a production company. I'm curious, like, even outside of your experience of providing these services through CMS, I'm curious just from your experience of running these businesses at scale, and seeing businesses really of all shapes and sizes, what are, in your view, some key financial strategies, creative companies should implement just ensure growth and sustainability.


Good bookkeeping. To which generates reliable financial reports, that enables management to make decisions. Keeping track of everything, and regularly paying attention to whether it be weekly or monthly, however, but just numbers tell stories. And they don't lie. They can't lie unless they're manipulated, but so they tell stories. So you need to make sure I mean, it's garbage in garbage garbage, it didn't mean to make sure that the information going in into your accounting is accurate and handled by a competent professional. So that the information that comes out in the form of financial reports is accurate and helps you make decisions. I'm a big believer of running businesses by doing cash flow projections, which can be different from the financial statements. But where you know, your ears, your cash, here's all the stuff that's going to come in, and here's all the stuff that's going to go out and what's left over. Because ultimately, I'm going to, I'm going to have prophets that I'm going to distribute to my shareholders, or I'm going to have a problem that I need to solve. But the numbers will tell me


both in your career as a CFO and operator, but then also in terms of the work that you do at CMS really helping to create an efficient financial management, like solution for your clients. Can you share a case study or examples of where your intervention significantly impacted a project's outcome or a company's outcome just from them working with you and your organization.


And I'll give you examples that we enable producers creative people to do things on their own, that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do. And it gives an example on on a more of a creative scenario, and then a more of a bigger companies scenario. But overall, the Center for Disease Control has an anti-smoking campaign that goes you know, you see the smoke coming out of the guy's throat, and they interview people who are suffering from cancer and smoker related diseases. And they do one campaign per year. And the director of that campaign is creative, and he's signed to a production company, but he has that particular relationship excluded. So he and his producer, come to us and they don't need, you know, a company or offices or accounting people that come to us, and we act as the production company. We contract with the agency, we pay all the bills we deal with the DGA, we deal with the unions if necessary, and he's able to capture significant, you know, all all markup and the profits related to that job. And that's significant because these jobs have, you know, a million and a half dollars budget. And so he and his producer, they come to us, they give us a budget, we manage the budget, and you know, they're, they'll come in under whatever whatever they do, but they get to keep all that money as opposed to hiring a production company, or running it through his existing production company. which would pay him I don't know. Yeah, but he might have a profit sharing deal on his projects and pay him his directorial fee, when he's going to make far more money by running that independently through us, so and not have to deal with any nonsense and you know, all the bills are paid the POS are properly administrated, the payroll is properly processed, everything is handled correctly, he doesn't have to worry and at the end of the project, he gets a lot more money that he would normally receive. So that's, that's gives you a sort of an individual creative guide needing a solution for problem. On a larger level, Deutsche LA big ad agency here and here in Los Angeles, they years ago started in a primarily through post started a production entity called Steelhead. And they've they've gone from just but they moved up into actual production. And they've produced several commercials a year, five, six or whatever commercials. Now they're also their clients are going to your typical for creative reasons and larger budget reasons or whatever they're going to your your typical caviars in other production, large production companies. But for the stuff they produce in house, we step in, and we act as their back office, and whether that enables them to not have to do with IPG, the holding company for payment. And so we can get things done very quickly. And we can help them shoot union stuff, we can help them ship non union stuff, and we're going to help them you know, navigate all the and get credit cards, get them petty cash, everything that they need to produce a commercial without having to deal with their corporate rock or the corporate bureaucracy of a public company. And then a public company can't issue a credit card to a crew member, you can't get petty cash to, you know, somewhere on Ohio within a day, they're just things that can't be done. You can't set up vendor accounts, you can't get your camera guy paid within 30 days, or whatever the rules are. So we take care of all that flip. So that's a bigger agency model. And then you've got the individual, small guy, we're not small guy, but I mean, individual creative guy who happens to have a project that he can through us, it


makes a lot of sense for things that maybe don't, you know, for businesses or projects that just don't fit the shape of kind of a classic entity, CMS really, seemingly be there for either like, you know, running the the operational side of a production company, all the way to just dealing with complex, you know, contracts with unions. And what we've


seen is there's a trend and advertising agencies producing their own content. And that's happening more and more that they're trying to there's obstacles as creative obstacles, and there's systematic industry perception off obstacles, etc. But they're trying to produce their own content, some successfully not some not so successfully. And but that's happening more and more, there's more and more of a trend towards brands, large brands to bring functions of their advertising in house. We recently, Chase Bank is leaving, I think they're a Drogo, five something and they're taking as much functions as they can in house. It they're having difficulties because of bank producing commercials is it it's, it's very difficult. I mean, they're just two completely different cultures and ways of doing things. But there's more and more of those types of situations in the marketplace. So we're there to help help facilitate that transition.


You know, pivoting just a little bit, Tony, I'm just really curious. I mean, you've seen a lot over the years and you help a lot of different companies. You know, what advice would you give to aspiring professionals looking to enter the entertainment industry, particularly in production in five nancial management roles? That's


a tough one. And ask yourself why? Before you start down the journey, um, you know, it's great because, for instance, at CMS, everybody we hire as a college degree, but they don't necessarily have to have a degree in business or accounting. They have to have a degree degree because afternoon problems solve a lot of things, how to organize themselves, how to communicate via email. And with organization most people aren't you I can use Excel and etc. And they can learn all the rest later. So that will be go to school. And at some point in time, take some accounting classes so that you know the debits and credits you know how to read of a financial statement if you want to move up in the, in the ladder and be a manager, and make sure that you're passionate about it CMS, we all love movies, I mean, low budget movies, and we have watches every week. And we we talk about the movies and the TV shows when we get into them and the plots in law that's so we love the entertainment industry, we love you know, we're all since we're signatory for to a lot of commercials and marketing campaigns, we all love, we all love TMZ. Everywhere, we're we're kind of passionate about what you do. So if you're kind of like iffy in, you know, yeah, you can try it out, but should be passionate about it and have a desire, because we are, although we're a small cog, we're a cog in getting these things produced. We have a staff all hands on deck meeting every Wednesday, it's done via via zoom, and or teams. And at the end, we show Katie, my partner shows a celebrity or an aspect of a celebrity campaign that we're working. And it's a lot of fun. And we learn a lot and you know, asking questions and stuff like that, and they're all different and quirky, and other. So be passionate about the the industry.


Speaking of passion for the industry, as you look to the future, what new projects or initiatives are you excited about at CMS productions?


Well, what we're seeing is in the commercial space, is a more and more agencies and brands getting into producing content, we're seeing shrinking budgets, because the distribution platforms are immense. And they're spending the money on influencers, and, and celebrities. So we're there to take advantage of it. So that's definitely a trend. And I also think that there's a lot sort of more even though the budgets aren't as high, there's a lot more content being produced. And so we can help producers and agencies produce that content. So we're excited about that. I mean, it's like a new kind of market for us. And in terms of the film, entertainment, you know, we're signatory to low budget, geochemical agreement and other IAEA agreements. And we're glad that the strike is over. And we're seeing a really serious increase in production in that particular area. And we're just, you know, help helping our clients if they've got, you know, we worked on the film Ferrari and the, they took a number of US people over to Italy to work on the film. We were signatory for those us people, and then they came back and did post here. So we were the signatory. So we helped that, you know, helped the producers, you know, shoot in various locations, by virtue of the cover there. They're very talented crews, members function in various different parts of the world. So are you seeing more and more global production or things brothers split up between countries and stuff like that


That is awesome. Well, Tony, thank you for being On Production. Thank you for the amazing work you do at CMS, you guys provide tremendous amount of support to filmmakers all over the world. And yeah, thank you so much for sharing your experience with me today. Well,


thank you, Cameron. And I just want to congratulate you on what you guys have accomplished at Wrapbook. You got sir. First Class organization, and we enjoy dealing with you. Thanks Tony..

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