Sound post: 'freebies' hurt the industry

Audioloc's mixing theatreA ‘freebie’ culture has emerged in Australian filmmaking circles in recent years, but it is local post-production infrastructure that’s paying the price. Laine Lister writes.

The term ‘discount’ once implied a deduction fromthe usual cost of something. But for post-production houses – in particular sound specialists – reduced rates for creative work are setting new low benchmarks.
In just 12 months budgets in the sound sector have been slashed by as much as 60 percent, according to an Encore poll of sound post heads. That figure is down 40 percent on 2008 budgets.
And while it has been a tough movie-making market for all, the most damaging shift has been in filmmaker’s expectations.
“There seems to be a culture developing, one of expectation of sponsorships, freebies and greatly discounted services driven by a phrase ‘that’s all we’ve got in the budget’,” says John Dennison,
director of sound house Audioloc.
Traditionally, a filmmaker would consult a sound specialist to determine an appropriate rate to produce sound. Today, the conversation has changed and many filmmakers are quoting an affordable figure to suit their budget, then shopping the market until someone agrees to the price.
Roger Savage, chief executive at Soundfirm says sound post quotes are bottoming out at low as $50,000, while others cite $20,000 sound requests.
“A film [with such a limited sound budget] should not have been green-lit because it is relying on charity and on people doing it for below cost,” Savage says.
Consequently, tighter budgets are pushing sound specialists into tighter timeframes. In some cases the amount of time allocated to sound post has been reduced by 75 percent in recent years.
Rival sound house Trackdown’s director Elaine Beckett says: “We’re doing twice as much work to cover the ground that we used to”.
An average 100-page script would traditionally require four weeks allocated sound mixing time. Today, that time has shrunk to just one week, she explains.
By comparison, sound mixers in Los Angeles are dedicating 20 weeks to similar projects, Beckett says.
“We’re not making shorter films in Australia, they are still 100 minutes. But there is just this perception of how quick you’ve got to work to get the job done here,” she says.
As budgets and schedules grow increasingly lean, core sound crews are being scaled back to economise. Multi-skilled staffers are growing in demand too, as are talented freelance sound specialists.
It’s an industry-wide struggle, Savage explains:
“We’ve dropped staff and are using more freelancers where we’ve got the work”.
Even Deluxe – owners of SoundStage One, which was built to house major projects such as Australia – has not been immune to the difficult climate. In the first quarter of the year, the group were forced to economise by letting go almost 30 percent of its sound staff.
“I want to remain optimistic but the reality is we are in danger of losing serious infrastructure and talent and I can’t see it coming back,” says Anthos Simon, general manager of creative services at Deluxe.
“I’ve been in the industry for 24 years and in that time I’ve never seen the industry this bad,” says Simon.
The odds are stacked against the Australian sound post industry, dampening any hopes that the market will recoup this year. Evidently, the Australian dollar has remained strong against US currency, and as a result local studios are less attractive to US producers.
Investors have lost confidence due to the bare market, and new business is largely dependent on the country’s ability to attract projects.
Not only is there less money and less work, but there are now more sound post houses operating in Australia than ever before.
“The whole industry is in danger of oversupply and that’s when rates drop and people pack up and move on. We need content,” insists Simon.
Increased competition has sparked bidding wars among operators, which is rapidly devaluing the market.
Some firms are offering package deals on both sound and picture post-production services and winning business over sound-specific rivals.
The move has sparked debate between the rival houses, with one studio head claiming its competitors are not playing fairly or sensibly for the sustainable future of the industry.
“Deluxe is pricing those rooms at an unsustainably low level by doing package deals, which is a hard thing to compete against because we are primarily a sound house,” says Savage.
Simon refuted the claims, adding that Deluxe quotes had been refused in the past by producers claiming that the studios were too expensive to mix some Australian features.

“We are one of the few that are protecting the higher end [of the market],” he says

Kate Butler, head of post-production at Adelaide-based Oasis Post – which offers both audio and visual post production services – admits that by offering discounted package deals competitors are suffering.
“We’ve all had to think a little smarter to deal with the budgets that are shrinking. But I do understand that the guys who are just sound houses could suffer from that,” she says.
Business aside, sound post is a highly creative vocation and many fear that by streamlining operations to stay afloat, quality of sound is being compromised.
“The concept of efficiency in creative areas is a bit of a furphy, because creativity comes out of time: time to think, discuss, experiment,” says Dennison.
Beckett agrees: “When you’re paying less money and therefore people have to work faster, there is always an element where you turn it into a machine and take away the creative side”.
To overcome the time issue, many sound technicians are devoting personal time to work on projects. According to some sound house heads much of the additional work is unpaid, which further perpetuates the ‘freebies’ culture.
“There are freelancers out there not getting paid overtime and working longer than they should just so they get some satisfaction,” says Savage.
Others are leaving Australia for the wealthier markets of Europe and LA, while some are walking away from sound post altogether.


In the past two years the situation has begun to spiral out of control, and at their wit’s end, the collective sound post industry decided to take their concerns higher.
“We tried to rally the government and we’ve taken our concerns to the Minister,” says Simon.
Australia’s key sound firms wrote to government demanding answers about the state of the market, and asking why sound quotes are so low.
“[We wanted] to warn them that they aren’t going to have this industry shortly if things don’t improve,” says Simon.
The response from government was “unsatisfactory”, according to Savage.
“The reply was ‘we don’t think post budgets are particularly low’.
“It wasn’t a particularly satisfactory answer, so I can only go by what we hear on the street and from producers,” Savage says.
Simon adds: “Recently I heard that they were giving the three non-subscribed television stations $250m to support local content and cross over to digital. Well, where is that for the film industry?”
Until some real changes are made to the broader industry, sound houses are employing as many economising techniques as they can dream up.
Trackdown’s Sydney studio is in the process of finalising a pre-mix room, which will mean less time is spent recording in pricey final theatre stage.
“The pre-mix stage is always there, but it means adding an extra facility which is more cost-effective,” says Beckett.
Asked how the organisation can justify building extensions given the quiet market, Beckett explains that the facility is a joint venture between Sum Sound and Trackdown.
“That’s the other thing [necessary for survival], forging strategic relationships with people in the industry,” she says.
The facility is also implementing a new program that combines picture with sound and allows technicians to more efficiently process material.
“Anything to speed up the job time is very precious,” she adds.
Conversely, Soundfirm is saving money by reducing pre-mix time.
“If you’ve got good editors you can cut back on pre-mix time, which is one way to save a bit of money. And the technology is also changing so you can prepare the material for mixing in a much more
complete form,” says Savage.
Many of Soundfirm’s editors also work as mixers; a typically Australian method of multi-skilling in sound stages.
The firm is saving further money with a new Pyxis multi-track system, which can be recorded onto to improve efficiency in areas such as deliveries.
“A lot of improvements are to do with moving files around the place, instead of putting them on hard disc and sending them by courier, you can send them via a network, so the IT department is certainly becoming more important in the sound world,” says Savage.
Much like the employee model some sound houses – including Oasis Post – are cutting costs by hiring the necessary equipment per project, rather than investing for the long term. Not only is this a cost
effective model, it ensures a facility is at the cutting edge of technology.
“We will pad out for the job and we will let go of that equipment once we’ve finished with it so we’re not holding on to expensive equipment for a long period of time,” says Oasis’s Butler.

A significant part of streamlining operations is clear communication with producers and directors, so their expectations can be met. In return, sound teams ask that clients consult them for advice on budgeting sound projects.
Deluxe’s Simon says: “It tends to be the cart before the horse and that’s disappointing for us because it’s hard to remain creatively in control when you are told ‘this is how much money you have and that’s it’”.
Other sound specialists encourage clients to approve elements, such as ADR selection and music, prior to mixing to ensure their overall sound experience is a smooth one.
“Really think about the efficiencies of the sound schedule and people you want on board as early as possible,” says Butler.
As for deliveries, they are becoming quite complicated and may be better dealt with in a separate budget, suggests Savage.
Another contentious issue is contingency for sound.

Being at the end of the line, sound is often eaten into during principal photography. Audioloc director Tony Vaccher says: “A proper production management
doesn’t allow for taking money [or time] out of other departments”.
To avoid whittling away at contingency Vaccher, and fellow director Dennison, suggest thoroughly researching the needs of a film and consulting a sound post team before the initial budget, and even prior to applying for funding.
Finally, Dennison and Vaccher advise producers to be wary of relying on the tax rebate to finance production.
“We’ve had many productions unable to pay their bills and they seem to be relying the rebate to do it,” says Dennison, adding that this style of production is typical among inexperienced producers.
He says he is often giving a quick production course over the phone to some producers.
“We like to help emerging filmmakers and when we have the resources available we are able to help.
“But maybe it’s been a bit of a mistake to do that because people seem to be budgeting on the basis that they are going to get some sort of special deal or deferment deal,” he says.
What’s the solution for filmmakers facing their own financial woes?
Dennison encourages new practitioners to seek professional advice and insists that the script is a good place to start.
“Script is everything; if you have a good script people will want to invest money in your film, so you will have a better budget and can hire better crew and it cascades all the way down,” he says.
Hopefully then, discounts will be a thing of the past and industry will bump up the benchmark.


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