Most people know what a filmmaker does – they make movies, right? Do filmmakers know about screenwriting?
A film producer has the most thankless job of all: he or she builds the movies from the ground up. The film producer’s job goes like this:
– get a screenplay
– get a director and cast
– get the money
– make the movie
– market and sell it
– move on to the next project
If the process is clear, and the workflow so obvious, why is it that 90% of filmmakers and film producers go so terribly wrong at the very first step: getting a screenplay?
I could introduce you to dozens of film producers who would each proclaim what a wonderful eye for material they have. When cornered and asked what they base this on, usually they get lame and respond with something like: “I just ‘know’ when it’s good”‘ or “kids in America are eating this stuff up right now.” They really don’t know about screenwriting.
The whole secret to a great screenplay is to have a successful story. Most filmmakers and film producers have practically no training in what makes a good story, and fewer yet understand the importance and fragile quality of the relationship between writer and producer. Even more basic is the plain and simple fact that most filmmakers and producers have not a single clue as to how to work with a screenwriter to develop the story or screenplay they have just purchased.
I could fill this with story after story of my own experiences in ‘development hell’ listening to the critiques and story advice from under-qualified story analysts and development executives who pass off superficial advice as if it were gospel, and then demand a co-writing credit. I once looked across the desk of a senior British script development executive and saw a 42-page critique on a project I was producing that started off with the words: “Reading this screenplay was most instructive.” Imagine the pearls that followed that line!
Here’s a dirty little secret: writers love feedback – if it is useful. Writers need constructive feedback. If you tell a writer that their “second act story curtain is a little weak” they will have no idea what you mean, or have a clue how to fix or alter their story. Try and be specific with your criticisms.
Another common and lame response from a producer will be along the lines of this flaky cop-out: “I don’t want to tell you what to write since you are the writer, but…”
Successful producers know and understand story and the principles of genre. Most other producers don’t. Successful filmmakers make the study and understanding of story and screenplay their primary focus. Most wannabe filmmakers won’t at their peril.
10 Things Producers Must Know About Screenwriting
1. Verbal Pitches
The art of pitching is essentially a producer skill that should be honed and sharpened. Verbal pitches are a great way to browse ideas. Learn to identify potential story problems at pitch stage and see whether or not they can be solved. Often story problems can be resolved simply by re-pitching the story using the ‘what if?’ approach.
2. Predictable and generic story ideas
According to western thought, there are only 7 basic storylines:
[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. [wo]man
[wo]man vs. the environment
[wo]man vs. machines/technology
[wo]man vs. the supernatural
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion
All stories have elements of predictable and generic ideas. Your job as a producer is to identify these elements, and then be able to demonstrate or inspire your screenwriter to surmount these ideas and take these generic ideas to a place that hasn’t been seen before.
3. High concept vs. low concept
Low concept films deal primarily with relationships. High concept films do as well, except most film producers get so swept off their feet by the logline of the high concept that they forget that the high concept can deliver just a handful of scenes. It is the producer’s job to work with the writer and extend the story beyond the promise delivered by the high concept, and turn it from a set-piece into a story. A good tool to use for this is to focus on the main opponent and the moral tale within the story.
4. Understanding the rewriting process
It is completely understandable that the second draft of a script is worse than the first for the simple reason that the writer’s awareness of the story are ahead of the actual words he or she is able to put onto paper. A skilful producer will learn to nurture a writer through this painful step and also be able to offer sound advice.
5. Being seduced by dialogue
No one can fix a script by rewriting dialogue. Dialogue is the glitter on the surface of a story. Delve deep into the story and assess the storyline weaknesses and focus on reforming these essential elements before moving on to a dialogue rewrite.
6. Understanding character
The common flaw of unsuccessful scripts is that the main character does not have a clearly defined goal – a goal that can be measured. There must be a point in time when we, the audience, can see if the main character has achieved or failed to achieve their goal. Well drawn characters also need to have morals – and these need not be the morals accepted by western civilisation.
7. Understanding genre
Most, if not all, films sold in America and Britain are combinations of two or more of the basic genres. Romantic/comedy and action/adventure are two of the most popular genre blends. Edgar Wright, my first intern, made Shaun of the Dead work by combining Horror and Comedy with a sprinkling of Love.
Writers have it easy – they need to specialise in two or three genres. But producers need to specialise in all eleven of the basic genre forms because their next project could come in any of the genre combinations.
8. Understanding universal appeal
A comedy with local humour will never travel. But a comedy based on institutions or cultural systems can become huge international hits.
9. Surmounting genre and genre blends
Learning the different genres and genre blends doesn’t make you a good film producer (or a good screenwriter). It simply means that you have joined a cast of hundreds of thousands of sophisticated storytellers with clichéd patterns. The writer’s and producer’s job is to take these generic story forms and twist and bend them into a shape that no one has seen before.
10. Understanding story structure
Story structure is the most unhelpful phrase created in the lingo of screenwriters and film producers. It implies some sort of measure or slide rule that will make your story work.
I prefer to talk about the patterns of your story. Producers and filmmakers should study the story patterns readily seen in commercially successful films and learn how these patterns can be replicated. A producer and writer working together on this can be an awesome and inspiring team to see. Remember that a producer doesn’t write. Writing is the writer’s job. But seeing the bigger picture, and understanding how genre ‘rules’ can be broken is the producer’s job.
There is no denying that mastering these ten steps is a demanding process that requires intense concentration and hard work. There are no short cuts either: you either master these points or you don’t. The upside is that, if you do master these ten points you will be an unstoppable force in the film industry at a time when everyone is crying how difficult it is.