SCREENWRITING: NAVIGATING PRODUCERS
- February 20, 2019
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
As a screenwriter, there are many ways you can break into the industry. Competitions, agents, and self-funding your own project are among the most common. That said, agents are simply inaccessible for many writers, competitions are repetitious and a gamble, and self-funding can be strenuous on your wallet.
There is another way! That way is through an effective producer. I use “effective” because there are many producers out there, but only a fraction are actually effective. I say this not to degrade, but to inform those who are in the search of a good producer. It’s not easy.
FINDING THE RIGHT PRODUCER
Producers come in all shapes and sizes. Finding the right producer who’s worth their salt is a monster task. In fact, it’s tougher than finding gold. But when you find a producer who has industry experience, a large, exercised network, and a talent for finding money, you’ve basically won the lottery. Even 2 out of 3 of the aforementioned qualities is very good, but don’t settle for less. If you sign with a producer who plans on financing your screenplay through crowd-sourcing or some wild scheme like tweeting at a famous filmmaker, you might have made a horrible mistake.
Better yet, if you can find an executive producer who will provide the money, you’re golden. This typically happens if you’ve built a following around yourself, achieved some accolades in competitions, or produced your own content that led to getting attention on any of the numerous platforms out there. Or nepotism. Like I said, there’s plenty of ways…
So, now you know the qualities you’re looking for in a producer, but you don’t have accolades, a following, and you certainly don’t have a wildly successful aunt or uncle in the industry. Also, your dad’s not Gene Hackman. Now, what? Well, you need to exercise your network, and if you don’t have a network, now’s the time to start building one.
BUILDING YOUR NETWORK
A good way to build your network is by attending events. We’ve done a whole lot of digging for you to save you time. So, check out the best platforms and other resources for screenwriters! Some are free, others require a paid membership. These are often good investments.
You can research events on social media or online forums. There, you can learn from industry veterans and start swapping business cards. It’s also important to have a website and start generating content in some way. You want to prove you’re a good investment of their time. As a screenwriter, try to have a handful of scripts at the ready. And know your loglines.
Naturally, it’s much easier finding a producer if you live in one of the hotspots – namely Los Angeles and New York, but there are other pockets of the industry, like Atlanta. If you work in the industry, like taking up a job as a personal assistant or working on set, you will have an opportunity to enhance your network. This is another reason why living in one of the hotspots matters. There’s more industry work meaning you have a greater chance at making contacts, thus building your network!
Get to know your potential producers, take them for lunch or coffee, follow up on emails, and stay persistent. Remember, there’s a line between being persistent and being annoying. Try to walk the line with tact. You don’t have to email every other day, but maybe every other month. You know, “checking in.” Share what you’re doing and they just might bite!
I’m not here to tell you what the contract should say or look like, but eventually you will reach this stage. It’s worth hiring an entertainment lawyer or some form of legal representation to look over any contract. I highly recommend reaching out to an entertainment lawyer rather than settling for a friend who practices Maritime Law or something. It’s just a different game. It will cost you, but it might very well save you in the long run. Legal advice that comes from outside the industry may not understand the nuances.
In my experience, there are two separate scenarios for contracts. There’s screenwriting-for-hire and pitching a finished screenplay. When I’m hired to write screenplays it’s always been for a director who will also produce their project to some extent. So, we take care of contracts up front. Always according to the WGA guidelines. If sold or finds a financier, I receive percentages as stated on the WGA website, and I also negotiate an upfront fee for writing the first draft and one rewrite. Though, I’ll admit the first few screenplays I wrote, I either requested a minimal fee or waived it entirely. For me, starting out, it was valuable enough to have a solid library of specs that were current.
Keep in mind, my turnaround time for a first draft is anywhere from two weeks to a month. Remember, dependability and meeting deadlines is key if you’re hired to write. If you drag your feet, you will earn a bad reputation.
PERFECTING YOUR SCREENPLAY
I like to look at every draft as a battle. Let’s face it, there are no one draft screenplays. A hard truth to learn is that screenwriting is a collaborative art. Whether you have a co-writer, director, producer, or dozens of other authoritative voices hanging in the interim, you will change your screenplay to fulfill the collective. Unless you’re Shane Carruth. Then, otherwise — Hi Shane!
The journey to bring your screenplay to the big screen requires lots of edits. You will be writing, and re-writing, and adding, then subtracting, and sacrificing every “baby” you’ve written until everyone is happy. And early on in your writing career, you should expect that.
If you walk into any situation with a high list of demands or an unwillingness to make edits, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Right from the start. It doesn’t matter what Sylvester Stallone was able to negotiate for Rocky, or whatever other stories you’ve heard. Those stories are atypical, meaning it’s a long shot. Play the game and you might just be rewarded.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same goes for your project. A lot goes into lifting a project off the ground, and much of that weight is getting your script to where it needs to be. As you kick your screenplay back and forth, you will wait. Then, wait some more. If you have a good producer, they will have other projects, and they’ll be busy doing what they do best. Producing.
Once the screenplay is finalized for your producer to pitch, you’ll be waiting some more. Trust me, you will be pulling your phone out during random points in the day, trying to will it to generate an email. As you wait, you might even read and re-read old emails, imagining what is going on. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s just how things work.
The best advice I can give is start on another script. Or, if you have another script ready to go, try and start the process with another producer or director. You want as many irons in the fire as possible. I try to have three projects going with different producers or directors to keep my attention occupied. That way, if one is stalled out for the time being, I’m working on something with legs.
Communication is everything. Before you enter into a partnership, you need to realize it’s like a marriage. Meaning, it’s binding. You need to talk before signing any contract about your modes of communication. Get it all out in the beginning, because once you sign and things are moving, or not moving, then setting those rules becomes much trickier.
As we previously covered, a good producer is busy. But you need to figure out early on how much your producers are willing, or able, to give you. How important is this project on their list? There will be times in the process where you may not hear from your producer for a month. You will need to accept that. On the other hand, they should be upfront and provide a reasonable excuse.
A friend of mine was recently working on getting a wine series off the ground. No easy feat. But one of her key producers realized ten months in that they didn’t have the time for the project. The demand for another project was far greater. Now, two months before the contract is up, they’re working on nullifying it. Maybe if the producer communicated their workload early on they would have saved everyone a lot of time and energy, but it’s not always cut and dry. Luckily, my friend had two other projects she’s simultaneously working on. In the end, I’m sure those projects saved her sanity.
Always keep a good attitude. Always. There’s a huge difference between being stern and flat out unreasonable. It’s important to keep your cool in any scenario that comes your way. You might become upset with how one project is going, but you want to make a career out of screenwriting. There will be other projects, so always stay professional. The last thing you want is a bad reputation.
There will be times where things aren’t going your way, or times when you feel you have been wronged. Don’t let these moments get the best of you. Remember, switch your sights to another project, or take part in a healthy hobby. Once you say the wrong thing, or make a big stink, that stench will follow you for a long time.
Your screenplay doesn’t stop when you type “The End.” Once you have an understanding for working with producers, it makes navigating the industry a little less mysterious. It’s a visual business and everyone wants to see their words brought to life on the big screen. But to make a career of it – that takes time and patience. Now, everyone’s experience is different, and I’m merely sharing my own. If you have any advice you think I missed, or flat out disagree with me, share in the comments below.