John Stodel
John Stodel

Andy Stead

The job of a movie or TV producer has so many responsibilities, juggling so many balls, that the work is often divided among a number of different people, each with a unique role: executive producer, line producer, coproducer, associate producer and, of course, the actual producer.

The primary producer’s responsibility is to oversee and deliver a film project while preserving the integrity, voice and vision of the film. They have the talent to recognise written material and ideas that ignite their imagination and offer them a creative and business opportunity to turn the work – a book, screenplay, treatment, outline or self-generated idea – into a film.

This begins the development of the project. The producer’s first step is to secure all rights in and to the written work. Armed with these rights, the producer creates a business relationship with writers to create, adapt or rewrite the project’s original screenplay.

The producer then works out a shooting schedule and budget for the film or TV project, at the same time working to appoint the director and cast. Once these are in place the producer will secure a local and international distributor.

The producer will now be in a position to solicit funding for the film from any and every source possible. Assuming that’s successful, he will remain in control of the actual filming and postproduction, and the delivery process.

The producer’s responsibilities don’t end when the movie is finished. He then takes on the supervision of the completed film’s life at film festivals, overseeing the distribution and sales and, most importantly, regularly accounting and reporting back to funders and investors.

Helping share the producers’ responsibilities are coproducers and associate producers, who make an ongoing creative, administrative or financial contribution at any stage of development and production, and are given this title and screen credit as part of their consideration.

During the filmmaking process, other types of producer take on more specialist jobs. The executive producer has the skill and business background to bring the finance to the project. They usually have a solid, legal and financial background as well as access to individual and institutional financial networks. It is not unusual for a producer to engage more than one executive producer.

Often producers, coproducers, associate producers and executive producers are so hectically busy they will employ line producers to execute and supervise the actual operations of executing the production and post-production of the film. In the main these hardcore guys were previously highly experienced production supervisors, production managers and assistant directors.

John Stodel, a well-known Johannesburg-based producer, shares his experiences. “I come from a family who were intimately involved in theatre, impresario activities, cinema exhibition, amusement parks, circus and film production,” he says. “So I guess it came to me though genetics and osmosis. Also at a very young age I become addicted to cinema and, like kids of my era, didn’t miss a Saturday morning flick at the Lake Bioscope in Parkview. As I grew up I graduated to haunting the Plaza Cinema in Rissik Street, joining the hardcore aficionados of action-adventure movies.”

Stodel realised that through the seemingly magical and effortless chemistry of combining great art and great technical craft were able to trigger the audiences’ emotions of fear, tension, laughter, love, romance and happiness with immense power and dexterity. This made a deep impression on him, and from an early age he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.

“In a time when apprenticeships were the crucible of knowledge, I started out in a motion picture film-processing laboratory.” he says. “I learned about gamma scales, grey scales internegatives, colour grading, cyan, magenta, yellow and optical sound tracks.

“I moved into editing and learned about the dynamics, rhythm, pace, master shot, long shot, mid shot and close up, and how to manipulate the images by working alongside master craftsmen with celluloid in their veins. I moved to the camera department where I lugged gear from assignment to assignment, learning about lenses, slow motion, stop frame, dollies, cranes and travelling shots. Armed with this knowledge I needed to move on to feature film production.

“I worked as production assistant on two South Africa feature films in Namibia and spread my wings into South African feature films. The production of TV commercials exploded and I produced directors such as Lesley Dektor, Ashley Lazarus, Lynton Stephenson, and Nicholas Rogue, whose talent was to set the bar at the highest international standard for many years.

“However, the opportunities in feature film were beginning to diminish in South Africa, particularly in regard to tight censorship across the board and the manipulation of the filmmaking community.”

Stodel made a clean break and travelled overseas. There he was incredibly fortunate to work with both creative and technical giants of international stature who were incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge with a somewhat overambitious and cheeky young man overloaded with chutzpah.

“In the early 90s a ripple of hope was energising South Africa and I decided to come home,” he says. “I was welcomed back into the South African community of filmmakers who had struggled to remain independent and who were determined to reshape the industry.”

Huge reforms have happened with initiatives such as Sithengi, the National Film and Video Foundation, the proactive engagement of the Department of Arts and Culture and Department of Trade and Industry, and the establishment of provincial and city film commissions.

“Throughout my career I have produced films at various levels. For South African filmmakers of the future I sense a need to demystify the role of the many guises, responsibilities and roles that producers fulfil both on South African and international feature films.

“So – firstly – there are no rules. And secondly, being a producer is about the business of film. Experience in the film and television industry is certainly a plus coupled with a burning ambition to become the master of one’s own destiny.

“The ability to be consistent and strong in the face of uninformed rejection and to have a resilient and uncompromising belief in the ethics of business, total respect for the ownership of intellectual property and the ability recognise creative material that will draw in global audiences. You must be able to nurture and respect creative and your fellow workers at all levels.

“If you have time on your side, love cinema, have a burning desire to become a producer, go and study a BCom and a degree in law. If possible, combine both. This education will give you a strategic edge streets ahead of the competition. By checking out the educational qualifications of the current crop of South African producers, you will be able to decide for yourself who have maintained consistency in their field.”

Stodel should know. He has been around. His first international feature film was Ride the High Wind followed by 100 Rifles where he learned how Westerns are made from director Tommy Greis (and learned what impossible love meant – he fell for Raquel Welch). In Jesus Christ Superstar as an assistant director, he stood as near to the camera as he could, soaking up every instruction director Norman Jewison gave his actors and crew. In Zulu Dawn he migrated from transport captain to executive in charge of production, while David Tomblin and Richard Macdonald taught him how to make an epic film.

Masada the Fortress was a massive, epic US TV series of 13 one-hour episodes and a feature film starring Peter O’Toole with whom I had worked with on Zulu Dawn,” Stodel says. “Dick Irving, the Universal Studios producer, taught me how to say no in the best possible manner. King Solomon's Mines, immediately followed by Alan Quartermain, was the start of the Canon era in sub-Saharan Africa, which resulted in over 26 feature films being produced in South Africa and Zimbabwe and each and every one of them being distributed theatrically and on television internationally. This was the ‘hardcore’ university that laid the foundations of the modern South African film industry.

“American Ninja was the first time that the opportunity was created to engage a South African director Cedric Sundstrom. He did a great job and the film went on to make a bundle for the producers.”

Following these mega motion pictures Stodel became involved in a series of smaller but equally financially profitable classic genre-driven action-adventure, horror and fantasy films with the legendary international producer Harry Alan Towers. A man of prodigious intellect and shrewd business acumen, Towers had at that time an existing track record of having produced over 150 international films.

“I was then head hunted by MNet,” Stodel continues, “where during my tenure I created the groundbreaking TV Series New Directions, a series of standalone 30-minute dramas which created a platform for writers and directors who had never had access to electronic media. It was an exhilarating time. Among the alumni of this long-running series were Khalo Matabane and others who have established themselves as writer directors both in South Africa and internationally.

“As the focus shifted to the production of more South African films, I joined the staff of producer Jeremy Nathan, who continues to maintain prolific output of thought-provoking content for the South African and international market. During this time I was privileged to work on some award-winning short films, including Lucky Day, one of my favourite films directed by Brian Tilley, Husk directed by Jeremy Handler and Portrait Of A Young Man Drowning directed by Toboho Mahalatsi – for me the quintessential story of the aftermath of the struggle in the townships of South Africa and winner of first Prize/Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.”

After this Stodel reverted to feature films and travelled. He was involved with Jump the Gun directed by Les Blair, Fools directed by Ramadan Suliman and Boesman & Lena starring Danny Glover and Angela Basset. “Veteran US-French director John Berry regaled me with True Lies about the golden age of Hollywood,” he says. “Meeting and working with Pierre Rissient was amazing. Francois Ivernell of Pathé went on to produce the award winners Queen and the outstanding Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire.

Producing is not for sissies. It is a business that harnesses as its raw materials the resources of the creative arts of many disciplines. Stodel’s tips for any aspirant producer are clearly defined, and include:

  • Study, study and get a university degree, preferably a BCom and law.
  • Go to the cinema. Make notes. Keep lists.
  • Read, read, and do more reading of fiction, screenplays and treatments. Don’t forget the classics.
  • Watch DVDs from all periods of cinema. Make notes and keep a list.
  • Attend film festivals.
  • Watch more movies. Make notes. Keep the list going.
  • Go to art galleries and enhance your visual senses.
  • Watch foreign movies and make notes. Keep the list going.
  • If you lay down with dogs you get fleas; reputation is everything. Do your diligence before making commitments. Know who you are going into business with and who you are going to hire.
  • Master the art of the business plan.
  • Get to know the players, writer and directors. Make notes.
  • Be fearless and go where angels fear to read. You have nothing to lose.
  • Never, never use your own money.
  • Hire the best and most experienced attorney you can find before signing anything.
  • Learn to love your accountant and auditor. I didn’t say trust them!
  • And lastly but by no means least - never start filming until all – and this must be emphasised - all the money is in the production’s bank account.