and counts producers from around the world as clients.*comment*
To get a decent idea of what Philip Key’s life if like, you might want to take a lesson in currency trading. What’s that got to do with film production? Well, when your clients are scattered around the world, the answer is quite a lot.
For Key—Founder, Partner and CEO of the global production service company Moonlighting, everything from exchange rates to weather to political trends to what clients are expecting from their agencies can have an impact on his business. That's because Moonlighting's work as one of the top production service companies in South Africa for TV commercials, movies and TV programming is subject to many factors, all of which Key and his team have to keep in mind as they field bids and proposals from production companies around the world that want to shoot in SA.
The need to keep tabs on so many different aspects of the global ad business kind of makes Key and his partner Nicci Perrow — who oversees Moonlighting’s commercials business — the de facto international analyst of production trends. Want to know how the business is going in Eastern Europe, North America, South America? Call them.
And that’s what we did, ringing up the two between their busy travel and production schedules, for extended chats on the state of South African production service work and for an inside look at what’s happening at Moonlighting. And despite a poor economy in many parts of the world and currency valuations that shiver daily, the word from them is pretty good.
Moonlighting’s production service work encompasses everything from commercials and features to TV and print shoots. The company is exclusively dedicated to service work, and counts as its clients top filmmakers, commercial production companies and movie studios from over 30 countries around the world.
The company was founded by Key in 1989. In recent years it expanded to South America, opening a full production office in Santiago, Chile. It also has an association with Domino, a major production service studio in Bucharest, Romania, which enables it to access what Key describes as a broad range of locations and budgetary options.
The company’s feature film division, Moonlighting Films, has worked on a number of high profile international releases, most notably “Invictus,” the Clint Eastwood drama about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team, and “Blood Diamond,” 2007, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Key says he’s encouraged by the broadening mix of work that Moonlighting is seeing—at least in its entertainment area. He attributes this to a couple of factors—financial incentives via rebates and the like that the SA film industry has adopted, along with the enduring value producers see in shooting in SA and of course Moonlighting’s own white-glove approach to handling clients. The mix of work has expanded from Hollywood studio films to now include things like TV series, made-for-TV movies and specials, he adds.
Moonlighting’s feature and entertainment division is also starting to get involved in projects as a co-producing partner, a new development at the company.
How about the commercials side of the business? “It’s anyone’s guess where that’s going,” Key says. The unpredictability of the business has become a constant, he says, shifting almost week by week. Both he and Perrow describe the attitude they find on the part of production company execs abroad as optimistic — Perrow calls is “fragile optimism”— and they point out that it varies by region.
The list of production houses that have worked with Moonlighting is a who’s who of the best companies around the world; from Bandits in France to Believe Media in the US to Radke in Canada to Markenfilm in Germany and Outsider in the UK, it’s a list too numerous to list there.
Perrow and Key say their approach to the commercials business reflects the tenor of the times. “We’re budgeting tightly, that’s for sure,” Key observes. “There’s no room for luxuries,” by which he means things like excessive gear and lens lists, as opposed to limos and fancy meals. It helps that Moonlighting has been servicing the global production industry for over 20 years — in 2009 they serviced their 1000th TV commercial job — so they have good insights into what TVC producers need.
“We know the profiles of our production company partners, even the profiles of their directors,” says Key. Some companies typically handle bigger budget jobs, others are mid-range. and some have very economical requirements. The origin of the job also affects the bid, he says. An A-list English or American director is going to be working on a different budget plane when shooting a job for an agency and client from a smaller market.
And then, of course, there’s that currency issue to deal with. “It can be really frustrating, because there’s little we can do about it,” Key says. "We're able to offer our clients the opportunity to 'buy forward' once a shoot date is confirmed, and this will at least remove the currency risk for that project. It's also important for us to monitor the currencies of our competing countries, as they're invariably in the same boat."
Key adds that there are natural flows in terms of where Moonlighting’s SA production service work is coming from. Typically, North America and Europe make up the bulk of their work; less so from Asia. Again, lots of factors play in. Agencies go where the production service work can mimic where the spot is supposed to be taking place—that’s one reason, Perrow adds, that Moonlighting opened in Chile, which mirrors lots of North American geographical looks. The office was set up in 2006 by Perrow, who spent three years there getting it up and running; it’s run now by French Canadian Sylvie Dube, formerly a partner at Montreal's Cinelande, along with Ryan Wagner.
Another factor is distance—Europeans will fly down to SA for a one day shoot, Key and Perrow note, but for most producers in North America it’s too great a distance, both in terms of miles and time change. Again, the South American outpost was established to help smooth some of this over.
And then there’s also the production agreement with Domino in Romania, which gives Moonlighting the ability to offer top notch services in a more affordable Eastern European setting.
And while Moonlighting does not produce live action content for film or TV—Key says the shop will never be in competition with its production company clients—it does offer agencies access to tabletop food production via Grinder, its new tabletop studio. The work there is produced by its in-house director/director of photography, Rob Payton.
These days, as the US dollar starts to get equal in value to the Australian dollar, Key says they may set their sights eastward and start competing for production service work from production houses based in Australia. “If their buying power has increased courtesy of this currency shift, it might present them with an opportunity to travel to SA," he notes.
Perrow, who’s just back from a trip visiting EPs in New York, says the key to Moonlighting maintaining its position in the global production service industry is to stay flexible as they deal with everything from economic crises in countries like Poland and Spain to the transition to more web video with their accompanying lower budgets. She points out that, if anything, Moonlighting can stay on top of trends because they see so many bids—literally hundreds every year, between the work aimed at SA and Chile.
Their move into Chile, she points out, has actually strengthened their work in South Africa. “It gave us an extra option to offer producers, and in the process it turned us into a deeper resource and problem-solver for them,” she says. “It let's us win back from work for South Africa that might have gone elsewhere in South America to shoot." It's had other unforeseen advantages as well. "It was particularly useful to both ourselves and our clients that we were able to redirect production in progress from Chile to South Africa during the trying period following the recent earthquake there," she notes.
What do the Moonlighting partners see going forward? Perrow says that while predicting just where the commercials business is headed is a tricky proposition, she's confident that Moonlighting will be able to find creative solutions to offer production companies around the world. And Key is quick to add that Moonlighting's conversion rate — the percentage of bids won to bids submitted — is improving from what it was a year or so ago, during the height of the recession.
One thing they have is no lack of enthusiasm for their home country.
“After 21 years of doing this, we’ve come to realize the perception of value that producers have for working here,” says Key. “We’ve seen other production service locations come and go, and South Africa always seems to remain a constant, regardless of the difficulties here, whether political or economic. There is a fundamental value seen in our production capabilities worldwide, which makes me very bullish on our future. As long as there is a need for people to travel to shoot—regardless of the reason—we’ll play a major role in that business. We have the best-equipped, best-staffed and most versatile production service industry in the world, and that’s a great place from which to start.”