Who you gonna call? Mänya Whitney-Miller. That’s how the jingle goes around here anyway. Booking travel, hiring crew, handling crises – she pretty much does it all. Mänya is our production manager and the go-to person for what it takes to get a shoot together. She took time out from her latest project to chat with us about her job, her exciting stint in the music industry, and what it takes to be a production manager.
For those who aren’t familiar with the TV world, what do you do as Production Manager?
The simplest explanation is making the trains run on time and ensuring all the “i”s are dotted and “t”s are crossed for every field production. Administration and logistics in a nut shell. Also, fire-fighter and cat herding expert.
Long answer, I am the primary point of contact for crew and purveyors. I am ultimately responsible for much of the behind the scenes organizational aspects of scheduling and hiring crew within a budget. I negotiate rates and manage the administration of their employment contracts, essential paperwork and ensure they get paid according to IRS guidelines and labor laws within the various markets we film. I facilitate all gear rentals by working with the crew and producers to find out what equipment we need for each particular project and how that works within that project’s budget. I manage all travel logistics- schedules, lodging, ground transportation and flights. I create detailed reference documents for our producers and clients to utilize as well as create and disperse call sheets with daily schedules and contact information.
I am also ultimately the fixer and problem solver when things go awry and Murphy’s Law inevitably happens in the field. Crew members sometimes get sick or back out of a gig at the last minute. Or sometimes more crew is required than previously planned, and I will quickly research and find replacements – sometimes in less than 24 hrs. Last minute schedule changes need to be communicated and I will update everyone in real time. Flights get cancelled, rental cars break down, accidents happen, snowstorms and torrential downpours can throw a wrench in all of our best laid plans. I will address and solve these problems so that the producers can focus on their primary roles of creating great content.
What do you think it takes to be a good Production Manager, and how did you develop these skills?
I had a wide variety of jobs before starting at Red Arrow. Some people know what they want to be when they “grow up” and have a clear path on how to get there and some people have to try on many hats before they find their place. I am more of the latter and have used every opportunity I have been given throughout my career as a learning experience to build on to get to where I am now.
I worked in professional kitchens as a line cook and pastry chef in fine dining restaurants for almost 10 years. After that, I worked in a small physical therapy office doing scheduling and billing. At 26 years old I landed a job doing production stage management and talent buying for a large concert and festival promoter. I also worked freelance doing a variety of things but primarily event management. As different as all these jobs are they all built the skills that are essential to being a successful television Production Manager.
Working in professional kitchens requires endurance, impeccable organization, efficient multitasking and precision timing in a very fast paced and stressful environment.
My short stint in the physical therapy office taught me a lot about professional communication, patience in difficult situations, and gave me a solid foundation of computer skills and administrative abilities.
Production management and talent buying in the music industry is very similar to what I do now at Red Arrow. The lingo, timelines and gear requirements are a little different, but it’s still essentially the same. Both require being detail oriented while multitasking at a very high level with lots of other people’s money at stake. I learned a lot working as a promoter and talent buyer about how to negotiate rates for bands, venues, lighting and sound purveyors. I got really good at reading legalese and reviewing and executing contracts and leases. I learned how to create and manage budgets of over a million dollars and offer clear and concise reports to my bosses, talent agents, artist managers and venues I worked with.
So without any one of these former jobs and the skills I developed there, I would be less equipped to handle my current role. I think the key to success in Production Management is having highly developed communication and problem-solving skills, being able to work efficiently and calmly under pressure and within tight deadlines. Being able to conceptualize and anticipate needs and plan accordingly but also being able to be flexible and turn on a dime if needed. It is also certainly a bonus if you have a knack for research and strong analytical skills. Work ethic and personal integrity are paramount. Also, financial responsibility. You don’t have to necessarily be great at math as long as you are good at Excel!
Dealing with crew, gear rentals, travel arrangements, etc. sounds a bit like herding cats. How do you stay organized?
Taking thorough notes, having a detailed to do list, setting reminders on my calendar, color coding everything, following up and following through – I feel like it is important to over communicate and never assume someone knows something or doesn’t need to know a certain detail. It’s amazing how things can fall through the cracks when this happens so I try to avoid it by going above and beyond.
Part of your job is responding to emergencies or urgent situations that occur while our team is in the field. What’s the craziest situation you’ve had to navigate?
Oh wow, there have been so many it’s hard to pick the craziest. Murphy’s law is real! Once while filming a pilot episode for network presentation our crew got caught in a tornado and flash flood while on the road in very rural Kansas. Literally the road they were on at the time of the flood did not have a name. They got stuck in mud when the road completely washed out under them. The mud slide reached up to the door of their rental vehicle that they ultimately had to abandon by climbing out the window and leaving it on the side of the road. Thankfully, no one was hurt and they all got back to the location safely and finished filming. Trying to figure out how to get that car out of the mud from Knoxville when literally all I had was GPS latitude and longitude coordinates in Kansas was difficult to say the least. Especially since it was so stuck that a regular tow truck wrecker couldn’t get it out. Working with the rental agency and insurance company day in and day out for a week was a real exercise in patience!
You started out in the music business before making your way to TV and had the chance to work with some pretty cool celebrity musicians. Who was your favorite to meet in person and why?
Hm. That is a really tough choice. So many were so great and memorable it is hard to narrow it down to just one. One of the best experiences was working with The Flaming Lips at the City Stages festival in Birmingham, Alabama back in 2008. I had the pleasure of assistant stage-managing and handling artist relations for the 2nd stage that hosted Buddy Guy, The Roots, Ben Harper, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Jurassic 5 and Citizen Cope just to name a few. But I was the biggest fan of the Flaming Lips at that time and the most looking forward to meeting and working with them.
Their stage production was super elaborate. Complete with multiple confetti cannons, over-sized balloons that were the size of small cars, moving laser lights, a giant light up rainbow arch and LED screen, and a life size hamster ball that the lead singer Wayne Coyne rolled out into the crowd in. It was fun and fascinating to watch it be built and surprisingly, even though the band had the help of stage hands and rigging gaffers, they did much of the work themselves. This was super abnormal for a band of their size and popularity. I was impressed at how hands on they were in the trenches with the stage crew. I drove the band in a golf cart to their hotel the afternoon of the show. It was thrilling driving a vehicle that wasn’t street legal in the streets of downtown Birmingham during rush hour traffic. It took a while to navigate there but we ended up having a great time just talking about travel, food, books and movies, like we were old friends. I even got to dance on stage in a crazy costume for one of their songs later in the night because they needed someone! It helped that I was a big fan and their production was so lavish and stimulating and fun, but ultimately their kindness and warmth towards both me, our entire crew and their generosity towards their fans is what made it my favorite memory.
Wildcard question. What did we not get to talk about that would be interesting to know about you?
I am very passionate about volunteering and fundraising for community organizations I believe in. I have served on several local non-profit boards and development committees with my primary role as community outreach and fundraiser event planning. I like to help organizations reach their financial goals by getting the public interested, engaged and inspired about their various missions. I’ll truly know I am successful when I can donate money to every cause I believe in, but until then I will give my time and other resources whenever I am called. I like being a good steward of our community and working with the people and organizations who try to enrich our culture and make Knoxville a better place.