The Producers: Adventures in Filmmaking

By Shea Lord | Tags: ,
November 7th, 2011

The Producers: Adventures in Filmmaking

By Shea Lord | Tags: ,
November 7th, 2011

The producer’s panel is tied with the transmedia group for my favorite panel of the Savannah Film Festival. The insight these three women gave came straight out of their own personal experiences, from getting a greenlight to making sure a film opens. It need also be addressed that the entire panel was not only female, but also mothers— who said you can’t have both success and family? Hell yeah! Allow me to humbly introduce these amazing women:

The Producers: Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn, Nina JacobsonSavannah native Carla Hacken, New Regency’s president of production, and Executive VP of Fox 2000, moderated the panel based on questions that students like myself often ask her- which prompted some fantastic discussion. In the center, Julie Yorn, producer of such films as Unstoppable and principal at LBI Entertainment. And finally, someone whose name I was particularly thrilled to see on the ticket, Nina Jacobson, currently producing The Hunger Games movies. More on that coming up that fans like myself will be happy to read.

Now, the difference between a studio executive, such as Mrs. Hacken, and a producer, as would be credited in a title sequence or on IMDB, is twofold. First, a studio executive has the power (and responsibility!) to say “yes” or “no” to a film. Once the greenlight is given, producers go into what Hacken referred to as “Development Hell,” during which they work their tails off to get the movie into production; but even with a green light, there is always a chance the movie will never reach the production phase and then they’ll have nothing to show for all their work. It is the producer’s job to get the movie made.

Second, a studio executive essentially is a corporate office job (though probably as awesome as an office job could ever be, and certainly with a ton of travel) which means one thing: a paycheck. Producers are not on salary, nor do they get an hourly wage. They are often actually on the set, but both titles represent the backing studio (with the exclusion of indies). Producers rely on the success of their films for an income— which is both thrilling and terrifying. Hacken told us, “Being a studio executive is an awesome job, but a terrible lifestyle; while being a producer makes for an awful job, but a great lifestyle.” The others laughed and agreed completely, making it all the more impressive that any of them can keep up with a family (especially when I’ve heard so many guest speakers in “the industry” tell us that a career in filmmaking destroys any chance at having a healthy relationship/family life). What about Lucas and Coppola? But I digress. The panelists contended that it suits the role of producer to be “nurturing.”

Producers could further be categorized by those who work with big studios, and those who make indie films.  Both are certainly creative positions; however, on a big budget piece, most of the creative portion of filmmaking is left up to the director. The producer will normally focus on legalities, marketing, scheduling, and the budget. He who has the money runs the set, and so the producer actually has the final say on every aspect of a film. (More on that in another post). On an indie production, the producer would probably have a more hands-on creative role, and possibly/probably multiple roles. In the end, the goal is always to get the movie made. Even if the final product isn’t quite what anyone thought it would be. Another Hacken aphorism, “There are three versions of every movie. There’s the movie you set out to make, the movie that is shot, and the movie that comes out in post. If you’re really lucky, they will resemble each other.”

Both the producer and the studio executives are concerned with creating a total package for their films. You could say the the producer is the seller, while the studio is the buyer (and subsequent distributor). A package usually begins with a script. Each of these women have learned how to recognize good material when they see it— and they rarely see anything that doesn’t have representation (so keep that note in your back pocket, writers). Knowing what is “good” and what isn’t is very tricky business. Yorn suggested, “You know it’s a good story if you’re rooting for the hero.” Let’s say you write a script, and it manages to get into the hands of a producer. They could throw it away if they don’t like it— and the story could very likely end here. Or, maybe they do like it, but it needs a little “re-engineering” for commercial value. Hello, Development Hell.

Alright, first off, don’t let the words “commercial value” terrify you. Is it [C.V.] necessary for a studio to buy it, a successful open, and thus profit? (Forget about sales) The answer is a resounding yes. Okay, maybe you should be scared now, but take solace in the unanimous opinion of the panelists who said that the film industry has definitely become less commercial. Huzzah! Independent and “experimental” films are not only becoming more and more popular as the world as an audience becomes more sophisticated cinematically, but, according to the panelists, “even the non-commercial scripts, if well-written, get noticed.”

The fact is, producers have to see that a film will have an audience. In my last post, Charles Adler spoke thoroughly on the concept of building an audience— the best way to solve the above mentioned problem. So back to the idea of the so-called total package. You have a great script, an audience big enough to generate some profit… what else? There is so much else. So many films have failed to reach phase two because the producer couldn’t get a director (Neuromancer) or a star-actor to sign on to a project. Perhaps the most frustrating yet incredibly crucial ingredient? The release date.

Even with the perfect package, you could run into the problem of nowhere to reasonably release the film. Why? Competition. Know what you’re up against. Any film released on the same weekend as the next Twilight is screwed. The vast majority of movie goers who might have gone to see your film are either going to choose the franchise, or be put off by the horde of franchise-lovers. It requires an objective, pragmatic analysis of your film’s “commercial value” to assess what weekend is optimal for release. If you’re on the West coast, you’ll know by about 10:00 Friday night, as soon as your film premieres on the East coast, “if you’re dead or not.” So marketing becomes a key ingredient in the package. Know the competition, know your audience, and build your audience. (It was at this point that I felt the urge to stand and rant about the potential of transmedia in marketing films, but abstained.) An interesting point that was brought up, however, was the promotion of communal viewing (i.e. in theaters). Film’s that have theatrical runs make the majority of their money at the box office; DVD sales are abysmal today, so make sure it opens!

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