The Truth About Producers
By Brent Sterling Nemetz
The truth is: all producers think writing the script is the easiest part of film production.
The truth is: all producers think they can write a screenplay.
And sadly, (for the writers) the truth is: the producers are the ones with the money.
But how many times can you recall when you saw a film with a writer/producer credit? Somewhere along the line, producers are looking to writers to bring their dreams to life.
Knowing these truths is the first step to becoming a successful writer. As an admitted producer myself, I've had my share of ideas that bordered on "genius" and were just the thing that would turn Hollywood upside down, but for one reason or another have yet to be developed. I've written a few screenplays in my time, a few of which have actually been made into films. But unlike most producers, I am not ashamed to admit I cannot be an expert in everything, and therefore wanted to contribute this article on the truth about producers.
The relationship between the writer and producer can be viewed as similar to a marriage. It takes work and keeping in mind that you're both working for the same goals to make the team succeed.
GOOD COMMUNICATION is probably the most vital element to any relationship to avoid divorce and the writer and producer relationship is no exception. By entering into a creative marriage, we all accept the terms of loving, honoring and cherishing the time we have together, especially in sickness and in health. We realize that this time is sacred and that not everyone has the pleasure of this special relationship. That's why it still surprises me that the vows are continually broken in so many relationships I've come across.
WHEN WORKING WITH ANY PRODUCER, BE OPEN MINDED. Yes, I know, of course you have a dream of writing your opus about how you grew up on a junk boat in rural China and became a professional didgeridoo-ist in the Australian outback after overcoming the oppression of a patriarchal society culminating in an Oscar Award and tear jerking acceptance speech [added: Note from InkTip: always be working on your dream piece!], but as a writer, you have to be willing to adapt your skills and create others' opuses in the interim. Doing so will not only network you with more people, but it will allow you to hone in on your craft as well and make your writing richer over your career.
DON'T BE AS WORRIED ABOUT THE MONEY EARLY ON. As with most young marriages, money isn't always flowing in. That doesn't mean it can't be a very satisfying relationship. We all, at every level, do work that doesn't necessarily pay as much as we would like, but to get started in the business, take jobs that give you other valuable rewards, such as face time with industry people to learn, network, and pitch. I was once invited by an acquaintance to a dinner party and met a producer who brought me in on a film being shot in Bulgaria. Although I had no interest in opera or Bulgaria, I did the project to the tune of a network deal and got paid for it as well.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF. People tend to find a niche. Generally speaking, you will be asked to write a script based on your previous scripts. A producer will always want something "just like" another script you've written, but totally different. No one will admit to wanting the same movie made again, but yet they want the formula, the magic, that roller coaster ride they've felt before and will suggest a few films you should watch to get a similar feel. Watch those and make sure you are on the same page. I would suggest you share each critical stage with the producer along the way to ensure a consistent flow, such as the treatment, outline, Act 1, first draft, etc.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE AND YOUR POINT OF VIEW. Knowing the expectations of your audience, whether it is millions of teens or the sense of humor of one producer, is essential. Give them what they expect, while not being predictable. A writer friend of mine swears by the old saying, "Give them a little of what they know and a little of what they don't in every script." Is the producer commissioning this script as an art house sleeper catering to octogenarian midgets with a penchant for road movies? If not, find out whom it is that this film is speaking to. Most likely if it is a Hollywood movie, it will be that golden road of teens with wide audience appeal. So dialogue, pacing, plot lines, action will all be relevant to your work. In any pitch or any casual conversation, it is important to know how to speak to your audience. And that includes producers.
DO YOUR RESEARCH. If you tend to write in the racy style of Quentin Tarantino versus a classic Norah Ephron romantic comedy and you get commissioned to write a Sci-Fi period epic, the dialogue and diction will be radically different. Most likely, the mise-en-scene will be a world you don't know, so hit the cyberspace road and learn everything you can about that world. Even if you hate that world, try to find the universal themes that anyone can relate to and begin to shape your script. For example, a period western wouldn't use urban slang. Today's audiences are sophisticated movie watchers. They'll spot a fraud immediately.
MAKE THE SCRIPT YOUR OWN. Despite what I've already said, as a writer, it is always vital to make the script your own. If you don't stuff it chock full of what makes you a unique, living/breathing animal on this planet experiencing love, hate, hunger, lust, greed, angst and the whole range of emotions, it won't have heart. But it is still important to never forget to give the producer what he wants. The reality of the business is, no matter what, everyone has a boss. The producer may monkey with your script, but the producer is being told what to do and even the studio executive has to listen to the stockholders or the advertisers or the public. The producer's career is on the line every time he/she presents a script around and he/she needs to be sure it's as good as it can get.
Hopefully, if the producer has a clue (and I can't guarantee that he/she has) try never to forget the reason this story excited him to begin with. What was it about this story that makes it a must to be told? If you don't have a reason, neither will the people watching on 6,000 screens nationwide. A well-known beginning screenwriting book tells of always having a physical reminder of what excited you about your idea in the first place…something which will always immediately illicit the same excitement so if you get off track you won't forget why this story is so special. Find out what that thing is for your producer and have it close by.
DON'T TAKE FEEDBACK AND CHANGES PERSONALLY. I can't tell you how much of a romance killer it is for a producer to give a writer ill-received feedback. Your job is not to determine if the producer is ruining this story. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter if you're commissioned to write "ET meets Kramer versus Kramer" - just listen attentively to the criticism, accept it and enthusiastically go back to writing. It's hard enough for a producer to read a script that "just isn't what he had in mind," but to hear complaints from a writer on the defense of why it "has to be that way" or "but if we do that, my twist at the end of Act 1 will be ruined" makes their job all the more difficult. My advice for writers is to let it go. You'll have plenty of time to torture the writer working for you when you develop your Ishtar.
BE ABLE TO LET YOUR IDEA GO and change direction in order to be able to go to a better place. Just because you didn't think of it, doesn't mean it won't work or that it's not a better idea. Many times a producer can stand back and separate himself from the details of the scene to see what isn't working (for him or the financiers). If you're not able to adapt, there are always other writers out there who would be happy to have your commission.
WRITING FOR THE BUDGET is an obvious but many times overlooked issue. The producer is directly responsible for this and therefore is the best judge of whether that scene should take place in the frozen tundra of the Nepalese Himalayas with cable cams and helicopters or with voice over in a motel room. Respect this and don't fight it, and you'll have an easier time working with the producer.
DON'T CALL ABOUT EVERY DETAIL. Make each conversation with the producer worthy of several questions and issues about the script [added: Note from InkTip: it might be a good idea to keep a running list of questions to go over all at once.]. Try to have only as many meetings as necessary for you or as many as the producer requests to discuss the project. If a writer calls me too often, I feel like he's off track and in need of help, but if a producer calls the writer six times with no response, he can feel like he's being shut out of his own movie. Give your producer the comfort level of trust and communication you would like in return. You'll be thankful in the end.
I always like to remind writers, directors, producers as well as any position in the entertainment industry, that we CHOSE this profession because it is our calling, our destiny and our passion, and if it isn't enjoyable, then we should probably go and do something else because most of the time we can make more money ditch digging. The greatest truth about producers is that at the end of the day, we all just want everything to work out in the end, to tell a great story, make people happy and get paid enough to pay everyone else. Behind our stiff, intimidating, uncompromising and often times despicable façade, producers are people too. Good luck!
For those interested, you can read about my work and e-mail me at: www.sterlingfilms.com. I'm always looking for good writers to collaborate with, as I log on regularly to InkTip.com.
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