Producers get movies made. For student producers — and many independents as well — that sometimes means buying the bagels and making the coffee for the crew. But being a producer can also mean being a dealmaker, negotiator, visionary, investor, money manager, screenwriter, cheerleader and mediator. While all producers’ intentions differ — some want to make money, others want to make art, some want to work with a certain director while others may wish they were directing — what they actually do to get movies made is what makes them producers.
What do producers who have made a living by their craft know that those of us just starting out wish we knew? Based on conversations with some successful and skilled producers, as well as an entertainment lawyer or two, I have come up with an opinionated top-10 list of producers’ secrets. This list is not all-inclusive, of course, but whether you are exiting film school or a film festival, these are some strategies you might want to adopt.
1. MAKE AND DEVELOP CONTACTS
Nadia Leonelli, producer of Perfume, Desert Blue and Hurricane Streets, considers making and developing contacts the most important activity for a producer. When she was starting out, she says she neglected to focus on it. Now, she states, “Contacts are even more important than money itself. With the right contacts you can put unlikely projects together; without contacts, it’s almost an impossible fight.”
When young producers try to sell a project to someone they do not know, they usually get turned down. The film business is a risky one. If you have no track record, who is going to want to invest in your project? However, through networking, people’s attitudes toward you will become more supportive. “With contacts,” adds Leonelli, “you can get million-dollar actors to work for almost nothing, you can get agents to represent you and the project, and you can put money together in different ways.” Leonelli reminds new producers that “the more contacts you have, the more you get. When it rains, it pours.”
If you don’t have any contacts, it can be hard to get started in this business. So, start amassing contacts now. Join one of the Independent Feature Project (IFP) chapters. Their Web site (www.ifp.org) has a networking center. Attend their programs and events. Attend film festivals. Talk to filmmakers. If you are in film school, work on the films of your peers, especially those filmmakers whose stories and direction you admire. Make a business card, keep it on you and exchange numbers and e-mails. Make informational appointments with bigwigs — ask them for 15 minutes to answer your questions. Ask around to family members and friends — see if they know anyone in the film business. You will be surprised — I was introduced to Michael Eisner at a Fourth of July celebration!
2. OPTION MATERIAL
An option is a deal by which, for a defined period of time, you control the right to make a movie based on a particular piece of material.
Richard Brick, co-producer of Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity and Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream, says, “By controlling material, a producer can catapult his or her career.” Brick advises young producers “to keep an eye out for good material to option: short stories, plays, novels — anything that can be produced efficiently with a compelling narrative and strong characters.” Many producers seek to jump-start their career by aligning themselves with one director. But marketable writer-directors are a rare commodity these days. Virtually every director out there is looking for good material. Controlling a good script or hot book will make you as a producer attractive to both financiers and directors.
Remember, though, that it is difficult if not impossible to set up a film in 12 months. In an option you will always want the right to renew it for another year for a set price. Brick always “aims for options running up to five years because the development process is glacially slow. The last thing you want is to get close to a green light and have your option expire.”
3. CREATE LEVERAGE
Creating leverage is being able to ally yourself and your film with the right elements to increase its value in the marketplace, secure financing and ultimately get it made and seen.
“If you are a free ion begging for people to finance your movie based on the richness of the material, you will usually fail,” says Kathleen Haase, producer of Detroit Rock City, Forever Mine and the upcoming Love Object. That isn’t the greatest news, but according to many indie producers, you must separate yourself from all the other producers scrambling for the same distribution spot. Haase suggests “aligning yourself with talent — a well-known director or star — and peddle under their umbrella.” Phillip L. Rosen, attorney and partner at Rosen & Anderson, advises indie producers not to go through actors’ agents who can get millions for their clients in studio films, but to try less obvious ways, such as “crashing parties.” He adds, “Buttonhole Harvey Keitel and convince him to be in your movie.” Seriously, films do get made that way!
4. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Whenever there is a crisis during production, the producer is the one everyone looks to for a cool head and decisive direction. Alvaro Donado, the award-winning short-film producer of Zen and the Art of Landscaping and founder of WorkShop Productions, recommends relying on one’s first impressions. He says, “Ultimately, whether it is a right or wrong decision — and usually you’ll only find out later — it is important that a course of action be drawn from the best possible information gathered, and there must be 100-percent commitment to it.” Maureen A. Ryan, producer of Wisconsin Death Trip and Matchbox Circus Train, agrees with Donado. She says: “It is very important to go with your instincts. It can’t be taught. It’s experiential but it gets honed the more you have to do it.” When Ryan hires crew, she not only looks at a person’s résumé but also his or her personal characteristics. Sometimes character outweighs experience.
Part of a producer’s process is to learn how to listen to one’s gut. Unfortunately, I could have used this advice on some shorts I worked on. Whenever I have ignored my negative first impressions and worked with someone because, for example, I liked another short film they did, the decision has always come back to haunt me. People are who they are. If they seem like freaks when you meet them, they will be freaks when you start working with them. Don’t confuse artistic people with true nutcases.
5. COMFORT THE DIRECTOR
Having confidence in your director is critical to getting a movie made. And while you may not have the budget to have a Winnebago, a private chef or a jet on standby for your helmer, you can demonstrate your confidence in him or her in other ways.
Killer Films in New York is known for being a writer-director–driven production company. Partner Katie Roumel, producer of Series 7, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the upcoming musical Camp, offers personal, creative and budget-conscious tips for creating a comfortable atmosphere for the director:
• Always have an assistant for the director.
• Put your arm around the director. Be a safe place for him or her to freak out.
• Address for the director all of the problems that can be addressed. Roumel says, “Sometimes you just have to be the receptacle of general director panic and deal with their general nervousness about how a movie is going to get made.”
• Even when the director starts questioning his or her vision, which often happens, the producer must “stand firm in not wavering from the vision, the tone, the character of the film.”
• Weekly massages: Ask the studio to pay for them. Roumel says, “It is hard to do, but it is worth it because directors get really tired when they are filming, and you have got to help them get through it.”
• Give the director a place to crash — like on the office couch — when they are up all night doing rewrites.
• Send the director care packages. Remember how much fun those were to get at camp?
How far out on a limb should you go for your director? Well, one time there was a rat in a director’s toilet, and Killer Films sent an intern over to get it out. Roumel says, “You are the producer. You have to ask yourself how can you make the director’s life more livable so they can work.”
Message: If it means getting a rat out of a toilet, then just do it.
6. REMEMBER WHERE THE FUNDING IS COMING
FROM AND THE AGENDAS FOR THE FILM
On any given production there are multiple agendas — the money people’s, the director’s, the audience’s and the distributor’s. Figuring out one’s priorities as a producer early on is critical. And, you must learn to understand and acknowledge everyone’s agenda.
Maureen A. Ryan, producer of many commercials and music videos, says “One of the differences in producing projects in film school versus the real world regards the film’s funding source. In film school, you can concentrate only on the creative vision for the project, because as students, you are self-funded. But once you graduate and your funding comes from other sources (e.g. a cable network, film studio, advertising agency or just a group of investors), you need to factor that into how you produce the project. If you don’t, you are not doing what is best for the project, and you can’t protect the film from these other agendas. To just dismiss them is to put your film at a disadvantage.” Producers are often the middlemen between the creatives and the executives. Accordingly, you have to speak the language and be sensitive to the needs of both.
Ryan urges producers to define for themselves at the outset the essence of a film’s story and to fall back on that knowledge when things get confusing. Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS, concurs, “Know the story you want to tell; be able to condense it to one or two sentences and then be thoroughly prepared to make that the narrative driver, the touchstone, the central spine of everything going forward, from research to postproduction."
7. TAKE YOUR TIME IN POST
Many producers strapped for cash will rationalize that they will just shoot the film and worry about post later. But postproduction is usually where your film is truly defined. A director I have worked with, Amalia Zarranz, once said to me, “There are three different movies — the one you write, the one you direct and the one you edit.” In post, a story has to come to life in new ways — through cutting the film, adding music, editing sound and creating opticals and titles. If you can’t make the images all interconnect and fall into one another in a meaningful way, your film will get lost. The standard Directors Guild of America (DGA) time to spend cutting a film is 10 weeks, so even if your director isn’t DGA, use that at least as a benchmark.
Be sure to “plan way in advance what you will do in postproduction,” advises Jason Stoff, visual effects supervisor on The Kid Stays in the Picture and finishing supervisor on Bowling for Columbine. “A lot of films today use digital media and capturing technologies that allow the filmmakers more freedom to go out and shoot whatever they want. But, the finishing medium is still 35mm, and it can become a problem to get all the components together in the end stages. Make sure you think ahead of time how it will all end up on film.”
Most importantly, adds Ira Deutchman, producer of such films as The Center of the World and Lulu on the Bridge, as well as founder of Emerging Pictures, “Never rush postproduction to finish in time for a film festival.” Many filmmakers do this because they want their film to make Sundance or Toronto’s deadline, but as Deutchman puts it, “Why have your first test screening in front of the world’s press and all the potential buyers? You don’t get a second chance.” There should be many screenings and many notes before your first festival.
Stoff agrees: “More festivals are waiting longer and longer to tell filmmakers whether they are in or not, leaving less and less time to get the film done. But plan ahead — work under the assumption that you are getting in and plan everything way in advance.”
8. BUDGET A REALISTIC CONTINGENCY
Have you ever heard the phrase “Don’t spend it all in one place”? This is good advice for producers, as well. According to Jonathan Gray, an attorney and partner at Spinak & Gray and a producer of numerous award-winning short films: “Have a contingency fund in the production budget. There are always exigent circumstances that result in cost overruns.”
When budgeting, it is tempting to reduce or eliminate the contingency — customarily, 10 percent of the film’s below-the-line costs — in order to bring the budget in at a lower number. But unexpected events always occur. The director shoots way more than planned; the location runs over a few days and the fees go up; you need to get second meals for your crew because the days are longer than you thought. Haase says that having reserve money is good “just to know that you are not desperate.”
9. HIRE YOURSELF
Director and producer Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers) says: “Nobody hires producers. When an independent film is a hit, the writer is in demand, the director is in demand but nobody comes to the producer for a job.” Since producers hire directors, writers and crew, they are the ones who have to keep creating the work. Liman says that while having produced a hit film will make it a little easier when you are seeking financing for the next project, “you still have to do all the work.” The director and founder of Web site and talent-incubator Hypnotic says he sees it over and over again: “Producers think that like directors they can make one hit and that will be enough to keep getting them work. It isn’t. You can’t wait around for your turn to come; you have to keep making it happen.” So, hire yourself. Create your next job while producing the current one. “Make it happen, because nobody else is going to do it for you.”
10. BE PATIENT
Patience pays off when you’re a film producer. It may take years before you raise the money to make your film. Nothing happens overnight.
Michael Hausman, producer of the upcoming film Gangs of New York, as well as such films as Amadeus, Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Silkwood, says, “Patience is what I had and kept during my career. If I could implant this ingredient into young producers they would not only be better producers, but better people.” To be able “to suffer with fortitude,” as the dictionary defines “patience,” is how producers endure a lifetime of producing. Yes, it is hard, and yes, there is pain. It is not easy, but being patient with yourself and others will ease the constant worry and anxiety. Try to see the bigger picture. Remember that you are doing something you love and that it takes time to do it right and well.