Creative Lives — Producer and executive producer Peter Maynard on working your way up from the bottom
Working across short films, documentaries and commercials, producer Peter Maynard is the man responsible for making a film happen. With the production company he founded, Betsy Works, he’ll drum up support from investors, assemble a top-spec cast and crew and put all the processes in place to get a project rolling. Now producing independently for the likes of The Discovery Network, Nike, Age UK and The Times, Peter started out at Channel 4 but his first job was as a runner on iconic ’90s kids TV show GamesMaster. His run of work experience was so good in fact, that he decided to skip university altogether.
Producer and Executive Producer, Betsy Works (2011–present)
Channel 4, Nike, Age UK, The Times, The Discovery Network
Senior Producer, Kream London (2009–2011)
Creative Producer, Fallon (2008–2009)
Freelance Producer (2007–2008)
Producer, Channel 4 Creative Services / 4Creative (2002–2007)
Production Manager, 4Creative (2001–2002)
Production Assistant, 4Creative (2000–2001)
Assistant Programme Manager, Channel 4 and Film4 (1999)
Trainee Assistant Programme Manager, Channel 4 and Film4 (1998–1999)
Runner, Hewland International (1996, 1997–1998)
How would you describe what you do?
I try to bring the best possible combination of people together to help bring a project to life. My job is very varied; I work on everything from short films and documentaries to branded content and commercials. As an independent producer my role can involve initiating a project, so coming up with the concept, writing an outline and going to a director who would be perfect to bring that vision to life or taking a project to a potential investor to get them excited about becoming involved. Sometimes I'll get approached by a director or a production company with a project, who ask me to come onboard as they have seen that I've done some like-minded work.
What does a typical working day look like?
I have my base in Brixton, where I have a few desks in a shared creative space. Then I'll work for other production companies out of their space or if we're shooting or in post-production I'll work wherever I need to be.
I don't really have a typical working day but there is a rough arc to a project. For example, I did a series called the Unquiet Film Series in 2014 to 2015 where The Times and The Sunday Times wanted to bring some of their amazing stories to life in moving image. I was asked to oversee the project with director and creative director, Phil Lind. They gave us 14 stories, everything from one about the Times New Roman font to a legendary war correspondent at The Times. We could do anything – short films, documentaries, animations. We talked to around 30 directors and worked with a number of them to put together a short outline on how they’d envisage bringing each story to life. From each of those starting points we shortlisted two or three ideas for each of the stories.
Then The Times commissioner looked at them with the agency creative director from Grey London and together over a couple of months we shortlisted down to a handful of directors. Then we started building the teams: directors, producers, researchers and so on. I really enjoy hands-on producing as well as executive producing, so I ended up producing four of the stories.
“The best thing about being a runner is that you get to know about everyone else’s jobs.”
How do projects usually come about?
About 10% of the time it will be self-generated, I’ll come up with the concept and build the team. They’re the passion projects, usually without much initial funding. About 60% of the time, I’m asked to come on board to produce a project for a production company. For the rest, I might be approached by an agency, client or broadcaster that has worked with me before.
How collaborative is your work?
It's all about collaboration. For example, director Tomas Leach came to me with a project called Delay. It's a short film about what men think about when they're coming to climax or trying to put that moment off. We worked with brilliant casting directors and researchers that specialise in real people. Tomas spoke with potential contributors and together we shortlisted the stories, making sure they complemented each other. We shot day one and then had a couple of months down as Tomas and his editor worked with the footage and archive. We could then plan and look to fill any holes when we shot our second day.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Most enjoyable: when you're really proud of the project that goes out and it’s very close to what you intended. When you work on a commercial project, there are a lot of different voices with different priorities, and a big part of my job is to help keep the project on track. I'm always proud of the work I produce because I give it my all, but often it ends up being different to how I'd envisioned it.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve worked with a lot of different production companies this past year, as well as developing some comedy. I worked with a director called Stephen Pipe at Tantrum making some really fun adverts for LateRooms.com. It was a brand, director and production company that I'd never worked with before, plus the agency Mother. I really enjoy collaborating with new people. I’ve also been developing a comedy web series that I pitched at a comedy festival last year. It was in collaboration with an American channel PYPO; the brief was to create a web series featuring women. We pitched and won, so I'm currently developing that. We'll start shooting soon.
What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to see the potential in a project and to know how to bring it to life.
What tools do you use most for your work?
The key thing is my MacBook and phone, they go everywhere with me. Nowadays I use budgeting software but If you've got Excel and Word (basically the ability to run a simple budget and make notes) then anything's possible.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
My passions were feature films and telly.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I had a place to go and study politics and film and then I got this great run of work experience so I never went to university. I come from an academic family and both my parents are teachers, but when I asked for advice at the time people said, “Everyone starts as a runner”. It's pretty different now – it feels like everyone has to get a degree.
What were your first jobs?
When I was at school I wrote off to lots of production companies and got some work experience at a company called Hewland International on a TV show GamesMaster. It was my first experience as a runner. They used to have this giant digital fish tank behind the presenter and my job was to cue it up so the sharks were always swimming at the right point for continuity. That was my job for weeks! I loved it. The best thing about being a runner is that you get to know about everyone else's jobs.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I registered at an employment agency and a job came up at Channel 4 to be a trainee assistant programme manager. It was a year-long placement and the job was to take delivery of master reels from production companies. It was basically babysitting. I had to make sure the masters were technically up to spec, get certification and make sure they were age and schedule appropriate. Film4 launched when I was there so I was asked to move over there. Its remit was to show films as the director had intended – The Wicker Man, for example, had never been seen at its full length. My job there was to track down original masters for the films from all over the world. I made friends with people that worked in Channel 4 Creative Services, which became 4Creative, and then a production assistant role came up there. I worked my way up to production manager, then ultimately producer.
“Make stuff. If the idea’s good, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look amazing, it’s about showing you've got the get up and go to be proactive.”
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
I had an idea for a short film but didn’t know how to make it happen. I pitched it to friends and family and some of them said they'd give me some money to make it. I spoke to my friend at Channel 4 for advice and he told me about a mate of his that had an idea for another film but needed some help getting the money together. He suggested that as I was obviously very good at pitching a project to ‘investors’, I should meet him. I loved the project – it was set in the 1800s and starred Cold Feet star John Thomson. I went back to all my backers and asked them whether they were happy with me using the money for this film instead. They were and it became my first credit as a producer without really knowing what a producer was.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Genuine positivity spreads and keeps a team motivated. I've always had that naturally but as a team grows and there's more pressure, it’s extra-challenging.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
There's not one thing. It's often nuts and bolts things like talent not waking up. I've had to send a local taxi company round to talent's house before and instructed them to keep knocking until someone opens the door. You just need think ahead, plan, then adjust when things go wrong.
Is the job what you thought it would be?
I didn't have any expectations because I learnt it as I went along. I love how varied it is, job by job, director by director.
Could you do this job forever?
I think I will do it forever. I love the exec and management side, so I could imagine going in-house and getting a fixed position somewhere at some point in my career.
What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
Up to now I’ve never made anything that more than 25 minutes long. A lot of the projects I work on have the scalability to extend out into long-form – it’s something I'd like to pursue. I don't have that many contacts in that world so the next challenge is figuring out how to get people to believe.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a producer?
Have a look at stuff you’re interested in from a genre perspective. If you love comedy shorts or online content or feature docs, figure out who makes those and try to get some work experience. Be pleasant. It's a difficult tipping point between being OTT and being persistent. Making contacts is vital while you’re on work experience. Also, make stuff, especially stuff you’d like to watch. If the idea’s good, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look amazing – it’s about showing you've got the get-up-and-go to be proactive.