There’s no one way that business is done on the studio level in Hollywood and movies come together in any number of ways. But, generally speaking, a producer finds a piece of material (a script, a book, a magazine article, a pitch) and sells it to a studio. Theoretically, the studio is supposed to be a sort of bank. They provide the money and the distribution while the producer is in charge of managing things on a day to day level. That said, it’s a fluid process that depends a lot upon the personalities that are involved. There are studio executives who are hands off and leave most decisions to the creative powers of producers they trust and only get involved if something’s going terribly wrong, like a movie going way over budget. There are also studio executives who are very involved creatively. It just depends who you’re working with.
In my experiences as a writer I’ve mostly dealt with producers. A production company or producer has gotten in touch with me through my agent and asked for a meeting. At this meeting they’ve presented me with an idea, a book or a magazine article that they’ve thought I might find interesting. There have been times when I’ve worked up a pitch that we’ve then taken to a studio, who has paid me to write it. In these cases the producer is still attached and while the studio is the one paying me they’ve basically entrusted the development of the script to the producer with a deal in place that if the movie gets made the producer will be paid very well. There have been other times when the producer has paid me themselves to write a script, always for far less money, because it was a more challenging piece of material that they felt didn’t have much chance of selling as a pitch. In these cases it was thought that having a completed script would give the project a better chance of selling.
For my purposes in this essay it doesn’t really matter which is the case. In both situations I’m writing a script for a producer. They’re the boss. I’m working for them and trying to please them. The reality is that there are producers who are a pleasure to work with and others for whom it’s a complete nightmare.
My first experience spoiled me. I wrote a script that was sent to Richard Gladstein. He’s a highly esteemed producer who has made a lot of movies, most of them quite good. Richard took the script to Fox, who bought it. The script was bought because Fox liked it but included in the deal was the stipulation that Richard develop the script. All this meant was that Richard was supposed to guide me through the process of rewriting the script to make it better.
I was nervous about this. I’d heard terrible stories about producers taking good scripts and fiddling with them until they sucked. When I met with Richard to begin working on the script I was pleasantly surprised. He liked the script very much and had clearly given the project a lot of thought. He had 10 or 15 very specific ideas and questions. Almost all of these struck me as intelligent and insightful. If I disagreed with anything he said I was made to feel welcome to explain why. By the end of two hours we agreed what needed to change. I spent about 3 weeks making the changes. I then sent the script to Richard who read it quickly and had 2 or 3 further ideas. I executed these and told me he was pleased and we were done. The script never got made but I was soon to learn that this is about as good as it gets when it comes to working with a producer.
What it all boiled down to is this. Richard liked the script and was respectful of the work that I’d done. That’s why he got involved. And he actually took the time to read it carefully and give some intelligent thought to the material before meeting with me to give me his ideas. Also, he didn’t just want to change things for the sake of changing them or to put his stamp on the material. He just wanted to make a good movie and he knew what a good movie was because he was smart and he had taste.
The same was true with Gary Goetzman when I worked with him on my movie, “The Great Buck Howard”. In that case we already had a studio on board who wanted to finance the film. One of the things that happen as you move towards production on a film is that everyone starts to get nervous. It was decided that the script needed one final pass before we moved forward. There were a lot of executives from the studio who had a lot of ideas. Gary kind of took charge and said he would handle it. We sat down and, just like Richard Gladstein, Gary gave me 10 or 15 very specific thoughts. They were intelligent. They made sense. They weren’t designed to knock down the script and then rebuild it. They were just things that would make the script a little bit better or more clear and they were respectful of what we had; a pretty good script that had gotten us this far.
When I’ve written for television I’ve had some good experiences with producers. I developed an idea with David Zucker, who runs the television side of Ridley Scott’s company. It was my first foray into writing for television and David taught me a lot. We met over the course of a month or so developing the idea together. It didn’t sell but then years later I wrote it as a spec and we sold it and developed it further. The show didn’t make it to air but David was a pleasure to be around. I also worked with Tommy Schlamme on a TV idea, which was great. It should have been horrible. We spent months trying to crack an idea and I was never able to figure it out. But I just loved being around the guy. He was funny, intelligent and engaged. When he heard my ideas and told me they weren’t working I knew it was because they really weren’t and I respected him for being honest with me.
Those are some good producers. I’ve also worked with some bad ones, whose names I won’t mention. Perhaps my experiences with these guys were bad because I’m not a genius and didn’t do great work on these jobs. Or maybe I just didn’t catch them at a good time. Regardless, I think there are traits that bad producers have that can contribute to creating situations that make it much more difficult to be successful.
The first mistake that bad producers make is to get involved with a project that they really don’t like or aren’t engaged in. These producers aren’t really passionate about the script but feel confident that their own creative powers can get it into shape. What follows are long sessions where they question just about everything. “What if we changed this to that? What if we made the bad guy the good guy? How about putting this scene from the third act into the first act?” It soon becomes clear that we’re just entertaining ideas for the sake of entertaining them and the producer has no idea what he or she wants. This is very frustrating.
I think part of what leads to this problem is that many producers with studio deals have 20 or 30 projects in various stages of development. They’re juggling too many things and don’t have the time to give serious, intelligent thought to all of them. They’re simply not engaged but, of course, won’t admit this.
The second mistake that bad producers make is to constantly change their mind about what the script should be based on whatever movie happened to be number one at the box office the previous weekend. This happens all the time. You sell a producer a certain tone and then they call you on Monday after “Superbad” opens to huge numbers saying they want the script to be more raunchy. And, of course, this changes the following week when a different movie does well.
The third mistake that bad producers make is to micromanage everything. These producers want you to do a detailed outline of every single scene in the script before they’ll let you start writing. For me, that’s not how I write or how I’ve ever written. But these guys don’t want you to write a word unless they’ve approved it and discussed it with you at length. What often happens here is that once they finally let you write the script, when you turn it in they say something like, “I don’t know. It just felt kind of stiff. There weren’t enough surprises.”
The worst of all is producers who combine mistake number one with mistake number three. I once worked with a producer who became convinced that the script we were developing was all about getting the first act PERFECT. We worked on it for two months. We talked on the phone. We went to lunches. He had me into his office. He said again and again that once we cracked the first act that he’d leave me alone and let me go write the script. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every beat was worked over then reworked until I wasn’t sure what the hell we had. I just wanted to get to a point where this guy told me he was happy so I could be done. Finally, we got there. He was convinced the first act was perfect. I was then sent off to write the rest of the script.
Six weeks later I resurfaced with the completed script. I sent it in to him. Nothing. Suddenly, this guy who wouldn’t leave me alone couldn’t be found. I didn’t hear from him for weeks. Apparently, he’d gotten very busy with something else. Finally, he got around to reading the script and called me into his office and said, “Sean, I’ve read the script and it’s better but the first act just doesn’t work.” He was so disengaged that he’d forgotten that he himself had proclaimed it perfect just a couple months earlier. When I reminded him that the first act had been written to his exact specifications over the course of two, long torturous months he just looked at me and shrugged, no memory of this whatsoever.
In general, it’s just very hard to get bad producers to admit they’re wrong. Any producer with a deal at a studio has had some measure of success. They have a nice, big suite of offices. They have a staff that’s dependent on them for their jobs so they sit around agreeing with everything they say. They’re charming and witty and used to winning arguments. Guys like this cling to all of their ideas, even the very bad ones. You get to the point where you know this so you just nod when they present a bad idea, hoping they’ll forget about it by the time the script is finished. It seems they never do. Invariably, once they’ve read the script that’s the first thing they bring up, “Hey, what about that idea I had? I thought we all agreed it was exactly what the script needed.”
Another thing bad producers do is that they don’t value your time. They’ll give you a long set of notes. You’ll execute those notes. Then they’ll give you another long set of notes, many of which are the opposite of the first set of notes. Clearly, they’re just throwing ideas out there without much thought. As a writer, you’re expected to submit to this. Usually, I’ve been paid for a draft and one rewrite but the way it works is that the producer expects you to do as many rewrites as he feels are necessary. A few times, after five or six drafts I’ve told a producer I wasn’t doing any more work. Every time this was reacted to with outrage, as if I wasn’t being a team player.
This is very difficult. You want to maintain a good relationship with the producers you work with because they’ve employed you and you want them to do so again in the future. At the same time, there comes a moment where you begin to lose faith in the process. The script isn’t getting any better. Often, it’s getting worse and you start to feel like there’s no end in sight. As I said, many producers have 30 projects in development. They’ve been working on some of them for years. But as a writer you can’t afford to get bogged down on one script for that long, especially one that’s a disaster.
You usually know where you stand as soon as you turn in the first draft and get your first set of notes. Sometimes, the notes are specific and intelligent. Other times, the notes are rambling and general and contradict themselves. My friend, Pat, is also a writer and we have often commiserated with each other about this stuff. One time, I read him a particularly bad set of notes I’d been given by a producer. He sat silent for a beat when I was done and then said, “You’re a dead man.” I denied it and tried my best to execute the notes. After the second draft I received an equally bad second set of notes. I spent the next few months going back and forth with this producer, the script slowly devolving into an unfocused mess. Finally, I had to accept that Pat had been right from the beginning. I’d been a dead man all along.
From what I've observed it doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or a gardener or an architect. Once you take a check from someone you’re subject to that person’s desires, needs and personalities. You have to try to give them what they want even if it’s clear they don’t know what they want. A wise person once told me that the trick to dealing with producers and studio executives is to make them feel like your ideas are theirs. This sounds great but I’ve never been able to figure out how to do this. The bad producers I’ve dealt with are forceful people. They have strong personalities and lots of ideas. They’re not writers and they often don’t understand story or what a good movie is but, in their own way, they’re intelligent and not easily bullshitted. It’d be great if every producer was Richard Gladstein but they’re not. There are good and bad producers just like there are good and bad everything else. And that's just life.