For writers to be more successful they need to understand the world from the producers’ pov.
In over 40 years of working on behalf of writers with producers, I have realised how incredibly hard most producers work and how little they get paid sometimes, sometimes even less than the writers! So here is some speculation about why producers have such a hard time trying to get what writers write produced.
The ten reasons are not necessarily the only reasons, and hopefully there is a positive that can be taken from each of the ten reasons suggested. Producing is – in my view – the most difficult of all the roles in making a film, and I have tons of respect for producers who are transparent and collaborative.
Can I say here that William Goldman’s famous diktat about the film industry “No one knows anything”, is both misleading and incorrect. Lots of people know lots of stuff. The problem with the Golding saying is that it validates ignorant producers who insist on doing the wrong things because, after all, since no one knows anything, they may just be right….
So let’s start with Reason No 1.
1. The film industry notoriously loves directors
And a director who has never done a feature has not yet failed. Many of the industry organisations tend to value directors more than producers; film reviewers usually refer to the film as ‘a film by X’ where X is the director, as if there was no writer whose script enabled the director to get such praise.
Producers have a harder time getting support in an industry which is also notoriously made up of cliques, so who you know may be more important than what you know.
Directors cut their teeth on shorts: usually these are badly written because too many directors write their own scripts and they can’t write well enough. But a directorial eye can be established in a short, even though there is often not enough to demonstrate their ability with actors. So directors get an easier start than producers.
It is hard for producers to get the same level of credit or kudos for bringing in that short on time and on budget. The time factor can be a problem because the director usually pulls rank on how many takes he or she needs.
2. The skills required by young producers are extremely varied
To be a good producer you need to be a polymath. It was once said (I don’t know by whom) that a good producer needs to hire people who are better than he or she at everything except hiring people. So even if you do not need to be able to do almost everything on a film, you really need to understand how everything can and should be done. Getting to know all this early in your career is difficult and most producers rely on others who let them down.
3. Producers need to have the ultimate authority
Most producers at the start of their careers simply don’t have the experience to have the authority.
If you are the person who hired everyone else, you also need to be able to fire all or any of them. This power is essential although with less experience you may need an experienced Executive Producer to help you. Your primary responsibility is to the finance: everyone knows the role of the managing director of a company, and the Board’s relationship to the shareholders: the MD and Board are working for the shareholders. On a movie the finance is the equivalent of the shareholders. Your responsibility is primarily to them. To use their money wisely and – though this might be contentious – to make a profit.
How do you get that authority? The highest level of authority comes from the finance: whoever puts in the majority of the finance usually has the final say (even if they are completely wrong in their opinions, but it is, after all, their money).
You also need the authority to ensure that everyone stays on track and does what they are supposed to do. Bringing in the film on time and just under budget is your goal; as well as making the best film that you can in the circumstances.
So how does a young producer with modest experience and very little money, gain authority? The answer is one of the fundamental truths about life: be able to say NO. We had a poster in our office once that said: “What part of No don’t you understand!”
You might be turning away money you need, but if you cannot control how it is spent, and tell people what to do, you are not in control. Saying No, even to an offer of the money to make your film, will gain you some respect, even if your strategy is to demonstrate that the terms are not acceptable for you to have the control you need to spend that money wisely.
Authority is best managed without having to impose it. That requires great people skills: how many of you have read at least one book on negotiating skills? Learn to manage people and you will begin to be a more effective producer (or writer or director or script editor).
4. Producers need to be inspirational
But there are few film or TV courses that teach how to be a leader or be inspirational. If you watch an experienced producer facing endless crises and problems (some real, some the neuroses of cast or crew), they remain ice-cool. They are never fazed or upset (even if they might be raging inside).
If you read a book or do a course about negotiating skills you will learn useful things like when a row breaks out and the other party raises their voice and shouts, you speak even more softly than usual. Works wonders. Buy yourself time: say “I need ten minutes to resolve this, I will be in touch very soon” and you go get a coffee then come back and announce “I am so pleased you raised this issue. As you will know it impacts on several other people, so what I am going to do is propose a compromise that works for everyone. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention.”
Of course you have to deliver on it but you will usually get away with making a far smaller concession that the other party expected ; however, they are likely to be fine about it, after all, they helped you find the solution!
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Negotiating skills do enable you to gain an edge, perhaps not actually “fooling” people, but persuading them to see things your way.
5. Too many producers can’t read scripts
There is a presumption that writers need to study for years and write many scripts before they are any good. Do producing courses teach producers to read? Actually it requires a similar level of skill as writing does, as a result most producers are not brilliant at reading scripts. This is a massive problem: because they assume that the finance or the director who love the script must know what they are doing. Really? As if having lots of money mysteriously gives you the ability to read a script and know what works, what doesn’t and how too fix it.
Producers and directors gravitate to genres that they like watching. So do writers. But in the same way that a writer who enjoys comedy may be totally unable to WRITE comedy, so a producer who loves watching comedy movies may not be a good judge.
An old British romantic comedy that performed amazing well at the Box Office was FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL: it cost relatively little; it was intended as a TV movie and it took over $250m. Suddenly producers starting ringing agents and asking if we had anything like FOUR WEDDING AND A FUNERAL. One agent got so irritated that he told the producers that if he did have, they wouldn’t recognise it. One producer asked why not, and was told that the script went through 17 full rewrites, and if that producer had been sent the first draft he would have rejected it.
6. Too many new producers make films based on weak material.
Well, this follows on from the previous point. But what I am trying to say here is that when I see script from young producers they are not only usually badly written, but the idea isn’t a commercial idea and the writer usually has little experience too. Would a classy experience director want to board such a production? No. How do you get a script from a famous and experienced scriptwriter.
To start with you befriend them. Meet them at networking events; know their films better than they do; give them 5 star reviews on social media (obviously follow them on social media). Then, if you have access to some funding, ask if they have any scripts that were never produced? Could you read one of them?
Get someone more experienced to read it and give you notes. Offer the writer an Executive Producer credit and say that they will be consulted on casting and director. It can work. Sometimes.
William Goldman, writer of movies like BUTCH CASSIDY, MARATHON MAN and also ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, once showed a movie at a conference I was a speaker at: it was called THE YEAR OF THE COMET, and I doubt any of you have ever heard of it. It was a clever caper comedy written at a time when such movies were popular; someone bought the rights, sat on it for 15 years until it reverted to Goldman; then a rich investor snapped it up – after all it was a Bill Goldman script – made the movie and the Studio he partnered with refused to release it because caper comedies were, by the time it was shot, dead in the water.
And if you are going to make a short, find a short story by a famous novelist; flatter them; offer an Exec Producer credit, and find a good scriptwriter impressed by the novelist to adapt the short story. Your short will have a far higher profile than if you or the director had written the script.
Beware of directors writing scripts or rewriting them: unless they have a solid track record as a writer say NO. Make it clear from the outset that no rewrites are done without your say so. Always accept notes graciously even if you do not agree with them. Then use your negotiating skills to persuade them that your rewrite delivers what they wanted in a slightly different way,
6. Most producers cannot script edit
It may seem odd that the producer should be able to script edit, but if you can’t read or script edit you are very dependent on whoever you hire and if you are working on a small budget you may not be able to hire the best. The script will be your most valuable asset, but it is one that most producers do not invest enough time on or love or work on.
You need to be able to talk to writers; the script guru Linda Seger once said that you need to praise everything that is good in the script so that when you list all the things that are not so good, the writer can’t reject your criticism without also rejecting your praise. So sensible.
Ultimately it is YOUR film. It is not the writer’s film and not the director’s film. But that doesn’t mean that you will always be right, and the trick is knowing how to listen and how to negotiate. You may need to lose a battle in order to win the war.
7. The film and television industries are also in love with actors
This is a serious problem because, as a new producer, you will have trouble getting star names. The one thing that might swing it in your favour is a wonderful script. So how do you find a wonderful script? Not easily. You might find a script that has great potential, and if you can read and script edit you may be able to raise the script from ‘has potential’ to being bankable: that is, it will attract actors and money.
I wish it was as simple as that: but there will be conditions. The money and the actors will join if there is a director they approve of; so you get a short list from them and approach the directors’ agents, and they will regard you with deep suspicion. You don’t really have a track record.
This is where you need to find a very experienced, possibly partly retired, producer and you persuade her or him to be your executive producer. That name will help with the agents; perhaps they could actually approach the agents in the first place.
I am sure you get the point.
8. Too many producers don’t understand genre or that art-house should be commercial
Art house movies feature heavily amongst the kinds of movies new and young producers make. Even when they try to make an obviously commercial genre, few manage to do it successfully. In Europe’s film schools genre studies is an academic classification. But for the audience that watches movies it is far simpler, and there are many books listing the conventions of each genre or sub-genre.
The audience probably couldn’t list a quarter of the conventions, but you should be able to list every single one (or know where to look them up). Most producers don’t start out by trying to make movies that make money. Nor do they focus on the importance of the emotional reaction in the audience at the end. Which is shame since that will determine whether the movie does make money.
Audiences want their emotions churned up. They don’t want to be preached at, with long speeches. Most producers don’t understand that dialogue gets in the way and should be minimised. That less dialogue leaves more room for music, which is a far more powerful trigger of emotion than dialogue.
Most producers don’t understand that any film can be commercially successful if the story is told properly. Most producers pay lip service to Aristotle, who has given you the key’s to castle: PITY, FEAR, CATHARSIS: make your audience feel pity or empathy for a character; make that character suffer and because the audience has now invested their emotions in that character’s situation, the audience feels fear; relieve the character of the jeopardy they are in and the audience experiences a “feel-good” catharsis.
In other words they FEEL GOOD. That is the essential purpose of your movie, and unless you select a script or writer capable of generating that emotional payoff, you will fail at the first hurdle.
The story is not as important as the way you choose to tell it. An idea, in the movie business, is worthless, unless it can be executed properly. The more brilliant an idea seems, the more in love with it you are, the more likely you are to forget about the contract with your audience. You will believe that they too will see what a brilliant idea it is so the way the script plays out is not that important.
Which brings me back to the question of making money. I once ran a small publishing company, publishing important books (so I thought) exposing things that were wrong with society. I was introduced to a banker, who was looking to invest. He asked me what sort of publisher I wanted to be, so I said I wanted to expose the things that were wrong in society. He said that when a potential investor like him asks a publisher (or producer) what sort of publisher or producer you want to be, the answer is one word: RICH. That would have perhaps got me an investment.
9. Too many producers have no idea what is really involved in producing a movie
The film industry is not glamorous; the hardest job on a film is that done by the producer. Most relatively new producers love the idea of ‘being’ a producer, without realising how much hard work is involved. Producers often make less money than the writers of movies, and writers complain that they are badly paid. So, are you better at hiring people who can do everything better than you, except hiring people? Are you good at maths, at literature, at technology. Do you understand cameras, and lighting, and hair dressing and catering; can you manage egotistical actors and even more egotistical directors?
10. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
That is the opening line of a famous poem by the English writer Rudyard Kipling. It is called IF. And I think it is appropriate as the essence of being a producer:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim…..
That’s enough of Kipling. I am sure you get the point And if you can do all these things then, as Kipling concludes, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
That is one of the best descriptions of being a producer I have ever found. Apart from the one which says the definition of a producer is someone who produces money! But then that is also a description of a magician, pulling money out of a hat. So hats off and respect to all producers.