Producer's Path to Greatness

Over the past year, I've come to learn more and more the true role of the producer and what it takes to go from an idea's inception to walking on stage and accepting an award or learning that your film has just beaten a new box office record.  

When I learned that the "Best Picture" Oscar goes only to the top three producers and is essentially a "Best Producer" award, it seemed odd that it didn't go to the director as well... selfish me.

As the role has been more clearly defined, it is no doubt they are the most important aspect of the successful life of a film and there is no question their deserving of winning the most coveted of Oscars.  

Here's my understanding of the process in producing a great film:

STEP ONE: THE PRODUCER'S VISION

When a director has a voice and a vision for a film, he can tell the difference between two outfits for a particular character and can choose succinctly, knowing how the film should look and act and feel.  The Producer must also have their own vision, but not just the film, but of its entire life.

An idea may spur from an article, a novel, a short story or some idiot kid almost getting hit by a runaway pack of wolves... normal day things.  This idea for a film and, most importantly, where it will fit among the other millions of ideas and hundreds of movies just like it, is very important.  You'll see in step eight...

You can envision a great drama, but who is going to watch it?  Who is going to buy a ticket to it?  Buy the Blu-Ray?  Or download it on iTunes?  What sort of person are you selling this movie too?  Studios want a film that appeals to the four quadrants: parents and kids, guys and gals.  A film that hits all four is the most guaranteed to make the most money.

But not every film is the next Spiderman or Marvel comic hero.  And not every success story is a four quadrant film.

If you have an idea for a heart wrenching drama, where is that market?  How do you see it getting there?  You don't have think about money in this stage, just where is this movie?  Who will watch it?  Why is it going to stick out?  Once you understand that, you can begin to make decisions about the movie without going off the rails.

Having the right TOTAL vision for a film will be enormously beneficial in the coming months... and years.

STEP TWO: DEVELOPING THE SCRIPT

Sometimes, the script comes into your hands already written and sometimes, most times, that script will have problems.   Not as a script mind you, but in fitting what you see as the vision for the film.  Here you have to make difficult decisions.  That scene of an epic space battle, in an otherwise low-budget tearjerker, is probably out of sync with the vision that you have for the film.  Sure, it may be incredibly important to your story, but your audience may not buy it.  Nor your ability to raise the right amount to make that.

Looking through a script and deciding what is and isn't important and how certain character's decisions, plot turns and set pieces create a film that fits your vision is an critical step in development.  This process is killer on a writer.  I've been writing one film since Summer of 2007... almost 4 years.  I've been doing this because the film I wrote didn't fit the producer's vision and what later became my vision.

My first draft of the script was essentially a coming out story.  Something no one wants to see anymore and has been done, many many many times before but, I had other elements in the script that were unique and made for a great drama, but pulling those out and losing other elements is a tough process for a intricately plotted film.

Sometimes, the market isn't ready for a perfect film.  Sometimes, a film that has a space battle in a low budget indie - is important.  But, you know as a producer that paying for that or raising enough money to make it right... to fit your vision... is going to be near impossible.

Getting the story right, making the characters say all the right things (good or bad), making the right decisions to set the film in all the right places, and creating all the right turns and interesting plot devices - and all of that fitting into the sort of film that is what you consider your vision - is fucking TOUGH.

But, when you get there, years... years later... Reservoir Dogs & Pulp Fiction both took 10 years, for example, you're ready for the next step.

STEP THREE: DEVELOPING THE BUDGET

The next step is finding the right price.  If you set it too high, you'll never raise the money and never recoup your losses.  If you set it too low, you won't attract the right cast and you won't have the right resources to make the right film.

You also need to be aware of what is selling and at what price... who is buying and how much?  How much are movies like yours being made for?  If you're making a slasher movie for $10 million dollars but most are being made for $100,000, you're probably not going to get very far and raising the money is probably like asking for a third kidney.

You have to do your research.  And that research has to be current, like - Sundance 2011 current.  Not Sundance 2010 because, in this day and age, things change ever so.  And in a time that is recovering from a devastating recession, where digital distribution is constantly on the move, you have to understand where your film is going to land... or at least have some inkling... which will inform your budget.

You, of course, will break the mold.  You will find your own path, but you have to know who is doing what and for how much, in order to be competitive.  Can you make it for less?  Can you make it for more?  Are films being purchased for more than they were last year... when your film is released, how much will it go for then?  Remember you are budgeting for a film that may not get made for a year and may not get released for two...

Deciding on this amount is the right step.

This is when you hire (pay them) a Line Producer.  You give them the script.  You give them the price and they work their magic.  They'll bring you a budget that gives you your vision at the right price.  You'll also see that your space battle can't be made in a film costing $150,000.  Or, maybe you do... it might take a revision or two, developing the budget just as you develop your script, eventually you'll find the right price that works with your vision.

And you may just have to go back to step two, to make step three work.

STEP FOUR: DEVELOPING THE DIRECTOR'S VISION

Now you got a script.  Now you got a budget.  Now you need... a director.  This is the person who can take your idea, your vision, and bring it to life.  They care about the movie.  They won't care about press circuits or marketing, they just want the audience's approval.  They should be passionate about your script and you should begin to talk to them about your vision.

And they need to be the same.

When X director is in talks to do the next comic book movie, this is what's happening.  They are pitching their vision for the film... does it share yours?  Can they do it for the budget you've created?  Do they appreciate and celebrate the script the same way you do?   When Gore Verbinski was in talks to do the BioShock video game movie adaptation, his vision was too expensive for the producer's vision and budget... the movie hasn't gotten made.  And it won't until his director's vision meets the producer's vision and budget.

In some cases, the director is the one who brought you to script in the first place.  You have taken their script and developed it with them as a writer, you have now taken their script and gave it a price tag.  Now, they are a director.  What sort of cast do they want?  What sort of look are they going for?  How will they shoot it?  Is there a ton of rehearsal?  Is it all improv?  Is it a long shoot?  Short?

The budget informs the shooting days, but you may have to adjust it based on the director's vision.  Does this work?

As you'll begin to see, each step of the way, makes you go back and revise the previous step.  Which makes you go back and revise the previous step... just like writing.  But, you  have to remember that your vision is always set in stone... you got to stick to your guns here.

Eventually, the director's got his vision.  Got his mind wrapped around how to make the film and together you are ready to make the same movie... if you're not, it's going to be great hell.  Make sure the director shares your vision because, it's not THEIR film, it's yours.  You PRODUCE, they DIRECT.  The roles are very clear.

STEP FIVE: DEVELOPING THE CAST

The next person you hire (pay them) is a casting director.  They will read your script and sit down with you and the director and talk about the film.  You will share your vision.  The director theirs and together the three of you will begin to reach out to actors who will become attached.

Actors will begin to read your script and pass or get REALLY GODDAMN EXCITED.  When they come in, you watch them read and see how they perform.  You discuss with them the project... it's size, it's budget, how you plan to make it.  Are they going to be working for two weeks for $100 a day?  Are they going to get SAG scale rates?  More?  What conditions will they have to work in and is this the sort of film they believe in?

Finding the right cast, isn't just finding the right actor, but someone willing to take the journey with you.  If they aren't doing a studio film, they are probably going to have to work in some unusual and less than awesome situations.  Are they ready for that?  If they want their own trailer and can only work five day weeks when you're budgeted for six, it's probably not going to work.

But if they're perfect for the film, if they can potentially bring in real money - then, like all the other steps you go back and revise.  Revise the budget, revise the script, possibly revise the director's vision.

These first five steps is all about finding the right combination, each holding each other hands, each holding each other up and without one, the others fall.

At the end of it, you'll have: a script, a budget, a director and a cast.  These four form your vision... if not, you need to continue to work.

This is when you're ready to raise the money.

STEP SIX: DEVELOPING THE RESOURCES

You now need to get the word out.  Talk to anyone and everyone who is or can be attached to money.  Do you know a friend who has a producing friend who is looking for the next film to invest in?  This is when the producers role becomes diluted because anyone with a dollar in their pocket will begin to ask for credit.  And they begin to ask for yours.  They want producing credit.

And this is where you find your executive producers.  The important people who finance and make your film happen.  The cast may bring in money, they may become EPs.  Where this money comes from is a great mystery and how the producer's roles get redefined is always different for every film... there is never a clear answer to this... but it's always... connections and networking.

If you've budgeted your film just right, this process won't have to be impossible.  If you budgeted it too high, it'll probably never happen.  Too low, and people won't take you seriously.

New producers to your film, ones with real money, will probably bring in a business plan.  They may have their own path that they have usually taken, usual investors, usual buyers, which is why they probably have money to make movies in the first place.

Always know: never get in bed with a new producer until you know their history.  Know they are legitimate, know they share your vision.  It may be tempting if they are about to front the cash for you film.  Your director will want it.  Your cast may be ready, but this is your baby.  Don't lose it because someone else has the money.

Eventually, when you've exhausted the universe and everyone in the world knows you're making a movie and you got X attached and it's going to cost X amount... the money will come.

STEP SEVEN: MAKE THE MOVIE

And then, you make it.

STEP EIGHT: DEVELOPING THE MARKET

And now, it's the most important part.  Getting people to watch it.  And this mystery is just as great as finding the money, if not greater.  You've got a great cast, a great script, a great film - but now you need to convince others that it's important.

Here's where your vision gets tested.  Were you right?  Were the ideas you had for what makes this film good and what makes the film unique... what makes this film stand out - right?  Will it get shuffled into the ground among a sea of other superior ideas?  Because, not all films are judged on their greatness... but on their sheer uniqueness and time and place.  A film may not pop to the surface in a year when comedies rule.  Or vice versa.  Finding a film's place in the market, through film festivals, online marketing, or some other crazy unique and weird way - is its own journey.  And today's world makes it all the more difficult to understand where and how...

If you've pictured it just right, understood that by the time it hits the market, people will be ready to see your film - you can be successful.  If not, you may have to wait 20 years for people to realize the masterpiece you've made.  It's happened to everyone.  And any great producer.

At the end of the day, hopefully, you've made enough contacts now, that you can start it all over again.